Scientific controversy is healthy

Douglas Natelson (Professor of Physics at Rice University) has posted an interesting article on his blog a few days ago about the “stripy nanoparticles” controversy. He notes that the controversy raises questions about peer review because “Lévy points out that many articles seem to be published that take the assertion of stripiness practically on faith or on very scant evidence”. He also raises this difficult question: “Still, if you see (a series of) results in the literature that you really think are incorrectly interpreted, what it is the appropriate way to handle something like this?“.

The comments contributions are also highly valuable; they include discussion of the scientific evidence (SPM, EM) as well as the necessity of scientific controversy and the failures of peer review.

Natelson has now added an update at the end of his post:

Update: To clarify, I am not taking a side here scientifically – in the long run, the community will settle these questions, particularly those of reproducibility.  Further, one other question raised here is the appropriate role of blogs.  They are an alternative way of airing scientific concerns (compared to the comment/rebuttal format), and that’s probably a net good, but I don’t think a culture of internet campaigns against research with which we disagree is a healthy limiting case.

Taking side scientifically [emphasis mine], i.e. giving opinions based on  analysis of evidence is certainly part of our job as academics – that includes peer review, but also contributions in conferences, discussions with colleagues, and, more recently, for those who wish to do so, blogs. Natelson is not taking side (which is perfectly fine) but he should not have to defend himself against the impression that he may be taking side scientifically.

Natelson says that: “The community will settle these questions, particularly those of reproducibility“. Mathias Brust shared that view but reconsidered as explained in this comment. We have here a story which spans already 8 years since publication of the first articles: that’s a number of PhD students, grants, etc; this in spite of the facts that: 1) there is essentially a consensus among STM expert that the 2004 article which is the source of the stripy hypothesis is entirely based on a common STM artefact (see for example SPMer comment on Natelson blog); 2) no other groups have reproduced the STM results.

Scientific controversy is a normal part of the development of ideas. It can take place in various fora. Unfortunately, the peer review process in this particular case has not been efficient. Worse, it has also not helped the fairness or healthiness of the development of the controversy. When the article was initially submitted to Nature Materials in 2009, Nature Materials sought a response from Stellacci (which is appropriate), but then decided not to publish the correspondence. It then took three years to publish Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited in Small. During these three years, we have been in the very unhealthy situation that one side of the controversy had had access to the arguments of the other sides yet was able to submit articles which would evaluated by editors and referees who had not heard of the concerns. For example, in the 2009 response in Nature Materials (unpublished), Stellacci dismissed the utility of photothermal microscopy (that we used to image nanoparticle uptake in cells), but then went to publish this in ACS Nano during the three year period (the editor and reviewers would not have been aware of the very similar experiments contained in our ms), and then cites that article as a counter argument to our demonstration.

To conclude, we are nowhere near “a culture of internet campaigns against research with which we disagree”. My impression is that critique is in fact rather rare, both in the print literature and at conferences. The difficulty in publishing negative results is a serious issue and so is the acceptance by top journals of claims which are not backed up by any evidence at all. Blogs have an important role to play. This particular blog will continue to present and discuss scientific evidence with the aim of reaching a scientific conclusion. I welcome contributions in the comments and reiterates my invitation to Stellacci to provide a counterargument (as a guest post) to the various points raised here. The absence of a vigorous response (except for anonymous comments from Pep) to the strong arguments presented here may give the impression of “an internet campaign” instead of an internet-empowered high quality scientific debate, but we cannot be blamed for this.

Cesbron, Y., Shaw, C., Birchall, J., Free, P., & Lévy, R. (2012). Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201001465


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