The Scientific Peer Review System: A Cautionary Tale

One of the brilliant strong points of the scientific enterprise is its self-correcting nature. Constant testing, constant criticism, constant reflection, constant doubt … they all lead to errors being caught and corrected, and fuzzy ideas being clarified. At its best it underlies the collaborative nature of science.

The peer-review system seems to be essential; otherwise, how could one avoid a swampland of publications, with solid research mixed in with worthless dreck? Who would have the time to wade through it all and sift the reasonable from the forgettable?

However, there are problems in the peer review system, and some of them stem from human nature. There’s a competitive aspect to human nature, which some would say is healthy, but high-stakes enterprises such as science are vulnerable to subversion by such competition, particularly in subfields where there are rapid developments, and therefore races for priority in discovery.

Sabine Hossenfelder has written a series of posts on the peer review system, with suggestions for improving it; the last of the series of six posts is here.

In Superconductivity: A Very Short Introduction, author Stephen Blundell relates a story (see pages 101–105) that highlights a serious problem of the current peer review system. After discovery of superconductivity in mercury by Onnes in 1911, at a temperature of 4 K, superconductivity was observed in other substances at slightly higher temperatures, but progress in finding substances that were superconducting at higher temperatures was slow. In 1986, Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller made significant progress by observing superconductivity in a perovskite at 30 K. They published their result to little notice in April 1986. At that time, researching new superconducting materials was considered of little promise.

However, in late 1986, Paul Chu did notice the work of Bednorz and Müller, and his research group was able to reproduce their results very quickly. In reporting on this at a conference in early December, Chu learned that Koichi Kitazawa had also reproduced the results of Bednorz and Müller, and had made some further progress. As a result of the conference, others took notice, and the race became more crowded.

In January 1987, Chu’s group (together with a group led by Maw-Kuen Wu) observed superconductivity in a compound containing yttrium at 93 K, which was by far a world record at that time. It was a tremendously significant result, because 77 K is the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen at atmospheric pressure. This means that the sample could be cooled to its superconducting state relatively inexpensively, using liquid nitrogen, rather than using the much more expensive liquid helium, which opened up the possibility of practical applications.

Chu prepared to send a report for publication, but he was concerned that their work would be stolen by other research groups before publication. This would be unethical, because the peer review process is supposed to be secret, but he evidently did not trust the integrity of the process. Quoting Blundell (page 104):

Chu rang the journal editor, gave his result in outline, and requested, because of the intense competition surrounding this breakthrough, that his paper be published without review. The editor said no. Chu eventually negotiated that the paper be reviewed by referees whose names were agreed between the two of them; this was a highly unusual concession since an author normally has no say in the choice of the referees.

Chu was still not sure he could trust even his named referees and worried that the secret formula of his new compound would leak out. He therefore changed the formula of the compound in his manuscript, substituting ytterbium (chemical symbol Yb) for yttrium (chemical symbol Y), and also slightly altered the ratio of chemical constituents. He then waited until the journal said that his manuscript had been accepted, and then he waited for the manuscript proofs. At the last moment before publication occurred, he sent the journal the corrected version so that the final published version was correct.

In a delicious irony, it turned out that the fictional ytterbium compound also superconducted, though not at such a high temperature. As Chu’s work was published, a number of groups ‘discovered’ the ytterbium compound and felt aggrieved that they had been duped, though how the ‘secret’ had leaked prior to publication remained a mystery. Chu came under fire for misleading the scientific community and his basic ethical principles were questioned: he had submitted a scientific paper to a major international journal with details that he knew were incorrect. Chu maintained that the incorrect chemical formula was an innocent mistake, but few believed him. The incident received considerable attention from various scientific periodicals, with one editorial writer unable to resist headlining their article with ‘Yb or not Yb? That is the question.’ However when the opinions of scientists at the time were polled, most said that although Chu had technically been guilty of slightly underhand behaviour, the subsequent disclosure that his results had leaked from the refereeing process rather vindicated his tactics, and most said they would have done the same.

It’s a bit rich, isn’t it, that the scientists who broke the rules by obtaining the “secret formula” complained that they were misled. It’s as if a man robbed a bank, noticed that the bills were obvious counterfeits planted to foil expected robbers, and then complained that the bank broke the rules by having counterfeit bills!

“What an injustice! I have been wronged! If only the bank had played by the rules, then I would be a rich man now!”

Blundell goes on to describe the electric scene at the APS meeting in March 1987, calling it the Woodstock of physics, and comparing Alex Müller and Paul Chu to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin! The subsequent frenetic race to find compounds that became superconducting at higher and higher temperatures is described very well by Blundell, whose entire book effectively conveys the excitement of the subject, and is very well worth reading for anyone who is interested in the subject.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 22 January 2021.)