Sloppy Science: Still Someone Else’s Problem?

“The Somebody Else’s Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what’s more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery… An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot”.

Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001) Life, The Universe, and Everything

The very first blog post I wrote (back in March 2013), for the Institute of Physics’ now sadly defunct physicsfocus project, was titled “Are Flaws in Peer Review Someone Else’s Problem?” and cited the passage above from the incomparable, and sadly missed, Mr. Adams. The post described the trials and tribulations my colleagues and I were experiencing at the time in trying to critique some seriously sloppy science, on the subject of ostensibly “striped” nanoparticles, that had been published in very high profile journals by a very high profile group. Not that I suspected it at the time of writing the post, but that particular saga ended up dragging on and on, involving a litany of frustrations in our attempts to correct the scientific record.

I’ve been put in mind of the stripy saga, and that six-year-old post, for a number of reasons lately. First, the most recent stripe-related paper from the group whose work we critiqued makes absolutely no mention of the debate and controversy. It’s as if our criticism never existed; the issues we raised, and the surrounding controversy, are simply ignored by that group in their most recent work.

More importantly, however, I have been following Ken Rice‘s (and others’) heated exchange with the authors of a similarly fundamentally flawed paper very recently published in Scientific Reports [Oscillations of the baseline of solar magnetic field and solar irradiance on a millennial timescale, VV Zharkova, SJ Shepherd, SI Zharkov, and E Popova, Sci. Rep. 9 9197 (2019)]. Ken’s blog post on the matter is here, and the ever-expanding PubPeer thread (225 comments at the time of writing, and counting) is here. Michael Brown‘s take-no-prisoners take-down tweets on the matter are also worth reading…

The debate made it into the pages — sorry, pixels — of The Independent a few days ago: “Journal to investigate controversial study claiming global temperature rise is due to Earth moving closer to Sun.

Although the controversy in this case is related to physics happening on astronomically larger length scales than those at the heart of our stripy squabble, there are quite a number of parallels (and not just in terms of traffic to the PubPeer site and the tenor of the authors’ responses). Some of these are laid out in the following Tweet thread by Ken…

The Zharkova et al. paper makes fundamental errors that should never have passed through peer review. But then we all know that peer review is far from perfect. The question is what should happen to a paper that is not fradulent but still makes it to publication containing misleadingly sloppy and/or incorrect science? Should it remain in the scientific record? Or should it be retracted?

It turns out that this is a much more contested issue than it might appear at first blush. For what it’s worth, I am firmly of the opinion that a paper containing fundamental errors in the science and/or based on mistakes due to clearly definable f**k-ups/corner-cutting in experimental procedure should be retracted. End of story. It is unfair on other researchers — and, I would argue, blatantly unethical in many cases — to leave a paper in the literature that is fundamentally flawed. (Note that even retracted papers continue to accrue citations.) It is also a massive waste of taxpayers’ money to fund new research based on flawed work.

Here’s one example of what I mean, taken from personal, and embarrassing, experience. I screwed up the calibration of a tuning fork sensor used in a set of atomic force microscopy experiments. We discovered this screw-up after publication of the paper that was based on measurements with that particular sensor. Should that paper have remained in the literature? Absolutely not.

Some, however, including my friend and colleague Mike Merrifield, who is also Head of School here and with whom I enjoy the ever-so-occasional spat, have a slightly different take on the question of retractions:

Mike and I discussed the Zharkova et al. controversy both briefly at tea break and via an e-mail exchange last week, and it seems that there are distinct cultural differences between different sub-fields of physics when it comes to correcting the scientific record. I put the Gedankenexperiment described below to Mike and asked him whether we should retract the Gedankenpaper. The particular scenario outlined in the following stems from an exchange I had with Alessandro Strumia a few months back, and subsequently with a number of my particle physicist colleagues (both at Nottingham and elsewhere), re. the so-called 750 GeV anomaly at CERN…

“Mike, let’s say that some of us from the Nanoscience Group go to the Diamond Light Source to do a series of experiments. We acquire a set of X-ray absorption spectra that are rather noisy because, as ever, the experiment didn’t bloody well work until the last day of beamtime and we had to pack our measurements into the final few hours. Our signal-to-noise ratio is poor but we decide to not only interpret a bump in a spectrum as a true peak, but to develop a sophisticated (and perhaps even compelling) theory to explain that “peak”. We publish the paper in a prestigious journal, because the theory supporting our “peak” suggests the existence of an exciting new type of quasiparticle. 

We return to the synchrotron six months or a year later, repeat the experiment over and over but find no hint of the “peak” on which we based our (now reasonably well-cited) analysis. We realise that we had over-interpreted a statistical noise blip.

Should we retract the paper?”

I am firmly of the opinion that the paper should be retracted. After all, we could not reproduce our results when we did the experiment correctly. We didn’t bend over backwards in the initial experiment to convince ourselves that our data were robust and reliable and instead rushed to publish (because we were so eager to get a paper out of the beamtime.) So now we should eat humble pie for jumping the gun — the paper should be retracted and the scientific record should be corrected accordingly.

Mike, and others, were of a different opinion, however. They argued that the flawed paper should remain in the scientific literature, sometimes for the reasons to which Mike alludes in his tweet above [1].  In my conversations with particle physicists re. the 750 GeV anomaly, which arose from a similarly over-enthusiastically interpreted bump in a spectrum that turned out to be noise, there was a similarly strong inertia to correct the scientific record. There appeared to be a feeling that only if the data were fabricated or fraudulent should the paper be retracted.

During the e-mail exchanges with my particle physics colleagues, I was struck on more than one occasion by a disturbing disconnect between theory and experiment. (This is hardly the most original take on the particle physics field, I know. I’ll take a moment to plug Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost In Math once again.) There was an unsettling (for me) feeling among some that it didn’t matter if experimental noise had been misinterpreted, as long as the paper led to some new theoretical insights. This, I’ll stress, was not an opinion universally held — some of my colleagues said they didn’t go anywhere near the 750 GeV excess because of the lack of strong experimental evidence. Others, however, were more than willing to enthusiastically over-interpret the 750 GeV “bump” and, unsurprisingly, baulked at the suggestion that their papers should be retracted or censured in any way. If their sloppy, credulous approach to accepting noise in lieu of experimental data had advanced the field, then what’s wrong with that? After all, we need intrepid pioneers who will cross the Pillars of Hercules

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool experimentalist; science should be driven by a strong and consistent feedback loop between experiment and theory. If a scientist mistakes experimental noise (or well-understood experimental artefacts) for valid data, or if they get fundamental physics wrong a la Zherkova et al, then there should be — must be — some censure for this. After all, we’d censure our undergrad students under similar circumstances, wouldn’t we? One student carries out an experiment for her final year project carefully and systematically, repeating measurements, bringing her signal-to-noise ratio down, putting in the hours to carefully refine and redefine the experimental protocols and procedures, refusing to make claims that are not entirely supported by the data. Another student instead gets over-excited when he sees a “signal” that chimes with his expectations, and instead of doing his utmost to make sure he’s not fooling himself, leaps to a new and exciting interpretation of the noisy data. Which student should receive the higher grade? Which student is the better scientist?

As that grand empiricist Francis Bacon put it centuries ago,

The understanding must not therefore be supplied with wings, but rather hung with weights, to keep it from leaping and flying.

It’s up to not just individual scientists but the scientific community as a whole to hang our collective understanding with weights. Sloppy science is not just someone else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.

[1] Mike’s suggestion in his tweet that the journal would like to retract the paper to spare their blushes doesn’t chime with our experience of journals’ reactions during the stripy saga. Retraction is the last thing they want because it impacts their brand.


Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

4 thoughts on “Sloppy Science: Still Someone Else’s Problem?”

  1. One issue with Zharkova et al. that differs from some of the illustrations provided is the relevant calculations to support the conclusions were never undertaken (rather than being done incorrectly).

    Zharkova et al. never calculated Sun-Earth distances as a function of time, yet makes claims that Sun-Earth distance variations were “likely” before the Maunder Minimum. Similarly, Zharkova states datasets plotted in the top panel of Figure 1 show “remarkable resemblance” but no attempted was made to statistically confirm this (and I personally cannot see it). Usoskin has scrapped data from Figure 1 and finds no statistically meaningful correlation (see PubPeer).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If I find some time, I may expand some of my thoughts in a post. A brief comment, though. I have some sympathy with Mike Merrifield’s views about retractions. I also tend to think that papers should be retracted by journals if there is clear evidence of fraud, or plagiarism. If it’s an error, then my normal preference is for this to either be up to the authors (who should, ideally, withdraw a paper with a fundamental flaw) or should be dealt with in the literature. The reason I say this is that I’m partly not sure how we would decide if an error was so fundamental that a paper should be withdrawn and we also want to avoid journals being pressurised into retracting papers that have results that are inconvenient.

    However, in this case the error is so fundamental that it’s hard to see any value in the paper remaining in the literature. Why would the community waste their time writing responses that basically point out Kepler’s laws? This is first-year physics/astrophysics. The ideal would be the authors acknowledging the error and withdrawing the paper. That seems unlikely.

    So, I find myself slightly conflicted. I would normally argue against retracting a paper simply because it has an error, but when the error is so fundamental that there seems little value in debating it in the literature, retraction seems the right option. I’m just not sure how one decides when the latter is the appropriate response, or who gets to make the decision.

    Liked by 1 person

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