A wave of retractions is shaking physics

A wave of retractions is shaking physics

MIT Technology Review reports:

Recent highly publicized scandals have gotten the physics community worried about its reputation—and its future. Over the last five years, several claims of major breakthroughs in quantum computing and superconducting research, published in prestigious journals, have disintegrated as other researchers found they could not reproduce the blockbuster results.

Last week, around 50 physicists, scientific journal editors, and emissaries from the National Science Foundation gathered at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss the best way forward.“To be honest, we’ve let it go a little too long,” says physicist Sergey Frolov of the University of Pittsburgh, one of the conference organizers.

The attendees gathered in the wake of retractions from two prominent research teams. One team, led by physicist Ranga Dias of the University of Rochester, claimed that it had invented the world’s first room temperature superconductor in a 2023 paper in Nature. After independent researchers reviewed the work, a subsequent investigation from Dias’s university found that he had fabricated and falsified his data. Nature retracted the paper in November 2023. Last year, Physical Review Letters retracted a 2021 publication on unusual properties in manganese sulfide that Dias co-authored.

The other high-profile research team consisted of researchers affiliated with Microsoft working to build a quantum computer. In 2021, Nature retracted the team’s 2018 paper that claimed the creation of a pattern of electrons known as a Majorana particle, a long-sought breakthrough in quantum computing. Independent investigations of that research found that the researchers had cherry-picked their data, thus invalidating their findings. Another less-publicized research team pursuing Majorana particles fell to a similar fate, with Science retracting a 2017 article claiming indirect evidence of the particles in 2022.

In today’s scientific enterprise, scientists perform research and submit the work to editors. The editors assign anonymous referees to review the work, and if the paper passes review, the work becomes part of the accepted scientific record. When researchers do publish bad results, it’s not clear who should be held accountable—the referees who approved the work for publication, the journal editors who published it, or the researchers themselves. “Right now everyone’s kind of throwing the hot potato around,” says materials scientist Rachel Kurchin of Carnegie Mellon University, who attended the Pittsburgh meeting. [Continue reading…]

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