Physicist: data opacity belies journal’s transparency

Critic says Nature Materials is breaking its own rules

May 2, 2013

An academic has claimed that Nature Publishing Group’s new transparency policy is belied by its failure to enforce its existing requirement that authors make their raw data available.

Last week NPG announced the measures to ensure the reproducibility of papers in the life sciences. Authors will be required to include more technical and statistical information in their submissions, while length restrictions on papers’ method sections will be abolished.

But according to Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, the journal Nature Materials has failed to implement NPG’s extant data transparency policy in the case of two disputed papers.

As previously reported in Times Higher Education, Professor Moriarty is among several scientists critical of work by Francesco Stellacci, full professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, that purports to reveal the existence of “stripy nanoparticles”.

Professor Moriarty contacted Nature Materials in February as part of his efforts to obtain the raw data associated with papers Professor Stellacci published in the journal in 2004 and 2012. NPG’s existing policy requires authors to make raw data “promptly available to others without undue qualification”.

The journal agreed to remind Professor Stellacci of his “obligations”. However, Professor Moriarty was then told that the scientist had “decided not to engage in the public debate but to ask independent scientists to reproduce his work”. Professor Stellacci would then “put all of the analysed images online”.

Professor Moriarty feared that the released data would be “cherry-picked” and claimed that the journal’s toleration of this approach contradicted its own policies.

“Even if we were to obtain strong evidence for [stripy nanoparticles], this would not suddenly validate Stellacci’s earlier work,” he added.

But Professor Stellacci said this “shift” to attacking his “persona” showed that Professor Moriarty was afraid that the three groups he had enlisted on the basis of their “competence and independence from me” would successfully reproduce his work.

He said he had agreed to provide Professor Moriarty with his raw data, plus samples of the nanoparticles. But after the Nottingham professor’s public criticisms, Professor Stellacci had insisted on waiting until the independent groups had published their results - which they will do within a fortnight - so that Professor Moriarty’s “propensity for blogging” did not influence them.

“Isn’t this reasonable? Doesn’t this ensure a better outcome?” he asked.

A spokeswoman for NPG said that the case was “under active consideration”.

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