Today’s attention economy does a bad turn on real science

Until recently, physicist Ranga Dias enjoyed a burgeoning fame as a scientist. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Next Innovators, and The New York Times called the room-temperature superconducting material he allegedly discovered a “magical” substance that would “transform civilization.”

But even then, other physicists pointed to evidence of data manipulation and plagiarism. The first paper that catapulted his career was retracted by Nature last September. Earlier this year, another paper was withdrawn from Physical Review Letters (PRL). Now eight of Diaz’s collaborators have asked Nature to retract a third paper published in March. This is just one of several scandals about dubious results hitting the leading journals. High-impact journals have a bias toward newsworthy articles, so inflating the significance or originality of one’s work in any field can help a scholar get in.

If you’re trying to get into Nature, “humility is penalized or strongly discouraged,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the Retraction Watch blog. This may help explain why Nature will pick up a second paper from the Dias group despite questions about the integrity of the research. His findings are impressive, if true.

And even if there was data manipulation, the materials could be superconducting as claimed. History points to cases where scientists manipulated data but were right. Russell Hemley, a physicist at the University of Illinois, has done experiments on similar materials and recently replicated one of Diaz’s findings. Hemley told me he stands by all of his work, although other physicists worry that this second result is a mistake.

Superconductors were a surprising discovery in the early 20th century. When cooled with liquid helium, the electrons pair up, although they normally repel each other strongly. The pairs flow in an electric current with zero resistance and create a powerful magnetic field in the process. Scientists have long worked to make the phenomenon work at more easily achievable temperatures. A room temperature superconductor is a holy grail. So Diaz’s findings are the kind of extraordinary claims that Carl Sagan has said require extraordinary evidence but, even if true, are not necessarily civilization-transforming.

“When we discover things in physics in general, but condensed matter physics in particular, we never know where it’s going to take us,” said Peter Armitage, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University. A room-temperature superconductor may still need to cool to get enough current to be useful. How it will be used depends largely on the creativity of scientists and engineers. Diaz’s first paper claimed the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor that operates at extremely high pressures. The second paper claims that another material made of lutetium combined with hydrogen and nitrogen works at room temperature and less extreme pressure.

Several physicists reviewed the first Nature paper published in 2020 (now retracted) and found that some graphics were copied from other papers about earlier experiments. More problems appeared in the PRL document. Physicist James Hamlin told me that he noticed some passages that looked familiar and turned out to be copied from his thesis. He later discovered that much of Diaz’s thesis had been plagiarized from his own. Then there was the second nature paper.

Withdrawal is not as rare as one might think. Oransky of Retraction Watch said they see about 5,500 retractions in a typical year. A few are due to some innocent but gross mistake, but most occur due to alleged manipulation or falsification of data or other forms of misconduct. Oransky said journals are rarely transparent about the reasons for retracting an article.

Celebrity culture can lead to an escalation of exaggeration as journals, universities and funding agents heavily publicize high-profile discoveries. David Sanders, a virologist at Purdue University, became involved in the investigation of scientific integrity after 2009, when another scientist claimed to have discovered arsenic-based life. It made the Time 100 list and many front-page headlines for the discovery of a possible second origin of life or perhaps even aliens. None of these major implications were supported by the data presented. Sanders told me that this is not a story about the fall of a 15-minute celebrity scientist, but a failure of integrity and critical thinking in academia, at NASA, Science magazine and the media.

Although a small number of impostors exist in any human endeavor, most scientists make a sincere effort to advance our [knowledge]. But celebrity culture and the attention economy can wreak havoc on the public face of science. The only star should be nature itself. ©bloomberg

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