If you are familiar with the controversy and wonder why a PloS One comment thread disappeared today, skip directly to recent events.
Jackson et al, Nature Materials, published 18 April 2004
In 2004, Alicia Jackson (now deputy director of the Biological Technologies office at DARPA), Jacob Myerson and Francesco Stellacci (now Constellium Professor at EPFL) mis-interpreted a common scanning probe microscopy artefact for a real structure. They submitted their results to Nature Materials, which published the work. This error was to become the starting point of a controversy which, more than 10 years later, is still unraveling.
Predrag Djuranovic was a PhD student in Stellacci’s group at MIT
In 2005, concerns were raised by Predrag Djuranovic, then a student in Francesco Stellacci’s group. According to Lauren Wolf writing for Chemical & Engineering News last year:
… he discussed his concerns with his department head at MIT […]. A few months later, an official investigation of Stellacci launched at MIT and Djuranovic left Stellacci’s research group. MIT closed its review three years later, in 2008, finding Stellacci not guilty of academic misconduct. The university did, however, suggest that Stellacci should do additional work to substantiate his 2004 findings.”
MIT’s Building 10 and Great Dome; adapted from this pic
MIT was not convinced by the published data but instead of sharing those concerns with the scientific community, they kept them secret and Stellacci was asked to “substantiate” what he had published. This –trying to substantiate a structure which had been postulated to explain an experimental artefact– is what he has now been doing for more than 10 years… with over 30 articles published.
Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited, published 23 Nov 2012
The controversy entered the public domain in 2012 with the publication of our article entitled Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited in Small: I was not aware of Predrag’s work but had come to the same conclusion. Francesco Stellacci published his response alongside our paper. He, and co-authors, also published several other articles around the same period. At the end of last year, Julian Stirling, and co-authors, published in PloS One an extensive Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Striped Nanoparticles which demonstrates that there is no evidence for the existence of the stripy nanoparticles. A response from Francesco Stellacci is still expected at PloS One.
Scientists interested in the details of the scientific arguments can refer to the articles linked to above (and references therein) as well as the blog posts and PubPeer discussions.
I wish this was all about science and differences of interpretation. I have touched previously on the re-use of figures in different articles. This eventually led to two corrections, one at Nature Materials and one at PNAS. An EPFL investigation was triggered, opened, and, eventually, following the report of an international independent panel, closed. A third article, pretty much entirely based on data re-use, has not been corrected.
I decided to start blogging about the controversy after the publication of our article in 2012. I used the blog to present our paper, discuss the response (without having to wait three years), publish an invited post from Predrad Djuranovic, other experts (Philip Moriarty, Mathias Brust, and Quanmin Guo), and many other things . Other blogs and the post-publication peer review platform PubPeer also became important fora.
Unfortunately, just as the traditional literature has its flaws and can be gamed by scientists who do not respect the rules, so do these new modes of scientific communication. I have argued earlier that the stripy controversy was a window into the scientific process revealing the serious failures of self correction mechanisms. It is also a window into the frightening flaws of online post-publication peer review – I say this as a strong and determined supporter of post-publication peer review.
Those who believe in stripes have never engaged openly in the online debate (they have even vigorously complained that it was taking place, likening it to cyberbullying). Instead, we’ve had, in chronological order:
- a troll posting over a period of two days a large number of comments on this blog… he eventually was identified as an Editor of the journal.
- A fakerapha blog (that still exists) and a fakerapha twitter (the account has been removed) who impersonated me on the Chembark blog.
- A text book case of Gish Gallop by “unreg” (a debating technique named after, and often used by, creationists) at PubPeer, It is to their immense credit that Julian Stirling, Philip Moriarty and several anonymous peers have engaged, repeatedly and honestly with “unreg”… until it became absolutely beyond doubt that this was no ordinary – if a little heated – discussion. Maybe best to let Nanonymous, an anonymous but insightful and regular commentator of the controversy describe that thread:
Wow, the same thing again and again, in spite of being addressed again and again.
[…] it is interesting to reflect on the motivations for comments like these. They seem to come from an identity that either: 1)Does not understand basic scientific reasoning.2)Is vested in obfuscating some fairly straightforward arguments against clear and obvious errors in scientific work.Perhaps both. It could be just some random troll, but clear evidence that there are people acting in very bad faith out there. Nanonymous
- Possibly that thread also includes sockpuppetry with “unreg” and “ProfSTM/BioNanoChair” being the same person.
These things happened on blogs or at PubPeer, i.e. platforms which accept anonymous writing. It is hard to think of how they could be completely avoided while retaining anonymous comments. The discussions of the costs/benefits of anonymous post-publication peer review is ongoing (I agree with Peer 1 in that thread).
In the last few weeks, the stripy nanoparticles discussion has moved to PloS One which enables comments directly on the article. Plos One has a clear policy requiring contributors to “unambiguously identify themselves with their first and last names, their geographic location, […] Any registered user who is found to have provided false name or location information will have their account suspended and any postings deleted.” In spite of this:
- A “Gustav Dhror” posted over 10 comments (Gish Gallop again) about “Problems with Fig 4”. There is simply no doubt that Gustav is not a real person but instead a sockpuppet. There is no person with that name who has ever published any article on anything, let alone STM, nanoparticles or surface science. Even first year PhD students get their names listed on some website in academic institutions but “Gustav Dhror” draws zero hits on Google, or more precisely two: the PloS One thread and a baby name website. After I posted a comment (and contacted PloS One) raising the issue of false identity, that thread stopped… but a few days later…
- A “Dr Wei Chen” started another thread entitled “Multiple flaws with this paper“. The user profile linked to a real and existing Wei Chen, Professor at Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics in China. Given the context and previous events, I eventually took the liberty of calling Wei Chen to check whether he was “Wei Chen”, commenter at PloS One. And he was not. He had no idea. He had never posted anything at PloS One. Someone had stolen his identity to post these comments. Someone who wanted to discredit our paper (with flawed pseudo-scientific arguments), was not prepared to do it under their own name, but was prepare to steal someone else’s identity to do it.
PloS One has been contacted and has now removed the “Dr Wei Chen” thread. They have been in contact with “Gustav Dhror” and should post a statement regarding that thread tomorrow. In the paragraphs above, I have used links to WebArchives where you can see how the pages looked like this morning.