Slow is no way to go, argues researcher

Nanoscientist waits three years to see critique of controversial ‘discovery’ printed. Paul Jump writes

January 10, 2013

A paper that was critical of another lab’s body of work and took more than three years to be published raises questions about the effectiveness of peer review and about the way such papers should be handled, a physicist has claimed.

Raphael Levy, a researcher in the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, finally saw the paper “Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited”, on which he was senior author, published in the journal Small at the end of November, almost exactly three years after it was submitted.

It criticises a 2004 paper by Francesco Stellacci, currently a full professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, which purports to establish the existence of “stripy nanoparticles”: tiny particles of gold covered with stripes of other hair-like molecules called ligands.

According to Dr Levy, the paper has been followed up in more than 20 subsequent publications by Professor Stellacci, mostly published in high-impact journals. Dr Levy, however, believes the stripes do not exist, and “Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited” argues that Professor Stellacci’s conclusions are based on erroneous interpretation of microscopy data.

After rejection by several journals - including Nature Materials, where Professor Stellacci’s 2004 paper was published - Dr Levy submitted his paper to the nanoscience journal Small in December 2009. But he said it was not until February 2011, after review by seven referees, that it was unofficially accepted.

Small then invited Professor Stellacci to respond in a paper of his own, to be published back to back. Both manuscripts were finally officially accepted in August.

While he emphasised that he made no claim of scientific misconduct and that Professor Stellacci had a right of reply given the potential consequences of the criticism on his career, Dr Levy said that a gap of six months between submission and publication was already quite long in his field. In his view, the three-year delay - during which Professor Stellacci published nearly a dozen related articles - constituted a “failure of the peer review system”.

Professor Stellacci countered that Dr Levy had made several postings to his blog during that period “with the clear aim to keep attention high”, and that none of the posts had put Professor Stellacci’s case.

He accepted that “science is a process that sometimes is built on disagreement”, but warned that a “slow and careful process” was needed “to distinguish personal attacks from scientific debates”. He also cautioned against drawing conclusions about the whole peer review system based on one instance.

He added that his original conclusions had been confirmed in various ways in subsequent papers.

But Philip Moriarty, a University of Nottingham professor of physics who contributed a guest posting on Dr Levy’s blog describing Professor Stellacci’s conclusions as “fundamentally compromised”, said even if the stripes were found via another technique, it would not excuse what he considered to be Professor Stellacci’s original error - which he could not believe had not been picked up in peer review.

He said editors had a “duty of care” towards those attempting to build on papers they had published, and he urged them to reconsider how they handle criticism of published work. He suggested that a rapid blog-like forum might work better than more peer-reviewed papers.

Jose Oliveira, editor of Small, said he had followed standard practice in inviting Professor Stellacci to respond to Dr Levy’s paper in one of his own. “We see it as our duty to support the self-regulation mechanism, so we now look forward to feedback from the scientific community,” he said.

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