Leader: Science journals get caught in the rush to publish

July 12, 2002

The ingredients of the timebomb threatening Bell Labs and the journals that published its disputed findings on novel materials include scientists under pressure for results, published preferably in a prestigious journal, and publishers in head-to-head competition. Add a company with an eye on big potential profits, and all involved have a motive to cut corners.

In this case, careers and reputations have been harmed, not enhanced. And the materials that Bell Labs' owner, Lucent, must have hoped for may well never arrive.

The credibility of the now-questioned papers was boosted by their appearance in some of the world's top journals, especially Nature and Science . Such journals take pride in their standards and their ability to publish key papers fast. In this case, the referees used to check the quality of papers did not note that data were apparently being relabelled misleadingly.

This case also points up the fact that much science now has immediate commercial implications. Medical journal editors have acted to cut fraud and to make it clear when researchers have a financial as well as a scholarly interest in their published papers. Other subjects, including materials science, have lagged in this respect, despite the potential for new industries to arise from the discoveries being claimed by Bell Labs in Jan Hendrik Schon's papers.

Established print journals have gained speed via machinery for online publication and pre-publication. But they cannot compete with online article archives where scientists can deposit papers, in unrefereed form, any time they like. This case should remind journals that their reputation is built on the quality and originality of research they publish - speed of publication is less important. In this case, they seem not to have noticed that Dr Schön was publishing about one paper a fortnight for two and a half years, a productivity level that might in itself have suggested the need for scrupulous quality control. Especially vivid claims deserve especially rigorous validation. Despite this case, household-name journals will continue to be the favoured publications for the world's most ambitious scientists.

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