The death of Nanonymous

Before you worry: nobody died.
But it is really with great regret that I relay here Nanonymous’ decision “to retire the moniker” [see below]. Nanonymous was a clever handle and his/her comments have constituted important and enjoyable contributions to the stripy nanoparticles controversy. We first encountered Nanonymous in October 2013 at ChemBark commenting on the Response to ACS Nano Editorial on Reporting Misconduct where he/she defended post-publication peer review as a legitimate form of scientific discussion and urged authors to engage, notingIf this keeps up, “nano”science will get the reputation it deserves. What a shame.
Nanonymous became interested in the controversy; he/she was at the beginning undecided and looking at the scientific issues with an open mind, asking, still in the ChemBark thread

Do you have a response to (what I understand to be) the latest Stellacci article?

I mean, as someone who knows very little about this field I have a hard time understanding how one could demonstrate “stripiness” as a a scanning artifact…unless a bunch (more) people were wrong:

Since then Nanonymous made numerous contributions here and at PubPeer, with great scientific insights, many questions to me/Julian/Philip, forcing us to clarify our thinking further, as well as outstanding dissection of “unreg”[…] arguments and argumentative strategies.
Below is the last comment of Nanonymous, left this morning on the previous post.
nanonymous |

The latest post on pubpeer:

falsely attributes authorship to my handle. It is certainly the same troll who has been spamming recently. My response isn’t showing up on pubpeer yet, I post it below. My, this is getting quite silly. I’m afraid the “encyclopedia dramatica” aspects will detract from the serious nature of the debate. I will probably sign up as registered peer to avoid this.

The above post (Unreg February 1st, 2015 6:04pm UTC ) was not written by the real nanonymous (me). The poster (who is quite clearly associated with all the gish galloping) uses a deliberately sacchrin tone, perhaps for the purposes provoking a “spot the impostor” cliche:

The persistence of anonymous handles is a measure of how untrustworthy a forum can be, the fact that the above Unreg has approriated a handle that is not his/her own (this was already done once on the fakerapha site, there is no doubt that it is the unreg above is the same identity that is responsible for that site).

This is an attack against the utility of PubPeer since we must presume that the vast majority of comments that do not mention Russian brides, Nigerean banks or viagara are written in good faith and that no one would appropriate an established handle in good faith. This clearly demonstrates that we need to figure out ways around these attacks, we all knew this was inevitable. While the PubPeer admins certainly don’t have time, one could envision some sort of digital signature type scheme in PubPeer 2.0. (there are probably a few good reasons we don’t want mere registered usernames).

Suppose I don’t have much choice but to retire the moniker, any further posts labelled “nanonymous” are not written by me, the identity that assumed the (relatively) novel name during the course of learning about the stripy saga. I may consider joining as a regular Peer with my academic address, but will need to consider carefully for a bit.

I always thought that no one could possibly vest so much time and effort into trying to obfuscate facts about (what are to that vast majority of people) obscure subjects like nanoparticles but fakerapha/unreg/bionanochair/ProfSTM/gustav/weichen/etc. has proven me wrong. Learning that one is wrong anout something is perhaps the part that is most fun about internet discussions.



  1. The PLOS comment troll (who keeps posting, presumably by script, and having his comments removed) seems to not be a troll at all. The behavior is much more consistent with a “crank”.

    Cranks usually attach themselves to absurd notions in deeply fundamental mathematics or physics with grandiose implications (e.g. “Fermat’s last theorem is wrong”, “perpetual motion” etc.). Our particular crank seems to have generously attached themselves to this (relatively) small (but obviously exciting) corner of the scientific world, namely “striped” nanoparticles.

    Even if PLOS cleans up the comments regularly, this is a fairly trivial circumvention of the PLOS comments section policy. Our crank has demonstrated that there are people out there clearly motivated to obfuscate clear and concise arguments.

    This has quite serious implications. Imagine analogous state/industry sponsored “denial of service” attacks on a journal’s comments section to obfuscate arguments against things like the health benefits of vaccines, reproductive health policies or food safety. You wouldn’t even need scripts with state of the artificial intelligence for language synthesis, just a decent number of people.

    Solving this problem isn’t easy, but PLOS should at least acknowledge the persistence of this particular crank and at least have a discussion on how we can try to stop this sort of thing.


  2. Hello

    I step in this discussion in order to say that accordingly to the new tests and probes published by Stellacci et al. specifically the ones showed in PLOS ONE, the images are convincing, period. I’m an specialist in AFM and STM, with more than 5000 hours of use of different brand AFMs-Bruker, Agilent, Asylum, JPK.. etc. It’s likely that more tests can be done to ensure the correct measurements carried out. However there is not a ISO rule or something to distinguish if something measured is an artifact or not. So this discussion is more of what tests have to be done in order to distinguish artifacts and non-artifacts. But now imagine that after all the tests, the information acquired by Stellacci is correct-that indeed it’s the case. The damaged to his reputation cannot be recovered.

    What is incredible IMHO is that someone or a group of people take so much time and efforts in something like this. In my opinion will be ok to discuss for instance one paper of the same topic, but if you search for Stellacci in pubpeer you will find a full page of cases where the same comment from “Levy” is used. In my opinion this clearly a case of bullying. Discussion if the images of one paper have noise, artifacts…whatever, is ok. But fill the internet with bullshit, sensationalist news in journals, interviews and media coverage, against one specific person, is something absolutely out of the peer review process. These actions always hide something else, don’t know what, but something for sure.
    It’s only my opinion. I hope that Levy et al. won’t search for my specific name and start bullying against me 😉



    1. Allow me to paraphrase your argument:
      “The new images are convincing, period”. This statement is brought forth based on your experience alone, not on any evidence: Argumentam ad verecundiam (argument from authority) fallacy. While a modicum experience may be necessary to understand the finer details, having more experience doesn’t make you automatically right. Being right or wrong comes from evidence alone.

      “There is not an ISO rule, so we can do whatever we want”: Having been in DIN and ISO meetings myself, ISO itself doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t judge or rule, it attempts to standardize some aspects or applications of a technique, and comes *after* the science, not before it.

      “The damage to his reputation cannot be recovered”. He is still head of a large group at EFPL, manages to draw in large swathes of funding. What damage are we talking about?

      This discussion has been allowed to grow to these proportions, simply because Stellacci et al. failed to address legitimate concerns from many external parties in a timely and clear manner. Other cases where researchers have been alerted to potential issues have shown that if there is a readiness and willingness to address the issues, the researcher in question is lauded for their efforts. However, by letting the concerns simmer for over a decade (hinting towards willful ignorance), the conflict has become increasingly open, drawn out, and sizable. Hence the resulting preference for indexing AIs such as Google’s to pick up on these things.

      And while it is presented here as a Levy vs. Stellacci debate, there have been a handful more scientists that I talked to who placed question marks at his results, but did not dare be so vocal. While I don’t want to descend into an argumentum ad populum, I just want to indicate it’s not just a nutcase smearing Stellacci on the web, but rather a scientist voicing the concerns of many others.


  3. “I step in this discussion…”

    And you are welcome to the discussion.

    Even anonymously.

    Even while making unsubstantiated accusations of bullying against me on my blog. You have posted the same at “Looking at Nothing”, the blog of Brian Pauw, and Philip Moriarty responded there; I don’t have much to add:

    There is no substance to the accusation of bullying. My concern is not scientific reputation but scientific evidence (you may note that when I started to challenge this body of work published in prestigious journals by a group at one of the most prestigious institutions, I was taking a certain amount of risk to my own reputation). If, as you claim, the scientific case is now settled in favour of the existence of stripes and of their various extraordinary properties, I have no doubt that a flurry of new publications and commercial applications will appear, seeking to build on their special trapping of toxic ions (Nature Materials 2012, “Ours can detect very small amounts, over million times smaller than the state-of-the-art current methods.” according to Northwestern PR), membrane-penetrating properties (Nature Materials 2008, Nano Letter 2013, Nature Comm 2014, “A special class of tiny gold particles can easily slip through cell membranes, making them good candidates to deliver drugs directly to target cells.” according to MIT PR), self-assembling properties (Science 2007), etc, etc, etc.


    1. The lack of industry uptake (and there is very substantial commercial demand) says a lot, as does the fact that the results, as described, have yet to be reproduced. Thus, in 2016 the state-of-the-art is that the wider community has yet to use these miraculous nanoparticles in an application worthy of the name. If any of the apologists would in fact like to provide concrete evidence to the contrary, I will be more than happy to review this and post something positive.


      1. Thanks Dave. I agree with your argument but, in the spirit of encouraging respectful dialog, I would prefer if we avoid “apologists” and other such loaded terms here. “aa” is entitled to their opinion which we can dispute without questionning or hinting at potential hidden motives (even if they accuse me/us, wrongly, of bullying).


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