Copyright As Censorship In Science: Striped Nanoparticle Edition

Maneesh Yadav | | September 19, 2014

A band of researchers has been tirelessly trying to demonstrate that a body of scientific work which rests on a paper from over 10 years ago is completely wrong. The only problem is, their argument isn't being allowed to stand or fall on its merits — instead, copyright restrictions are interfering with their ability to make their case at all.  The "stripy nanoparticle" saga begins with a 2004 publication in the journal Nature Materials (DOI: 10.1038/nmat1116) from Francesco Stellacci's lab, describing a method for synthesizing small gold nanoparticles — particles on the order of 10 nanometers in size — that are coated with alternating "striped" domains of two different chain-like molecules attached to their surface.

While it wasn't surprising that those specific types of chain-like molecules attach to the surface of the small gold nanoparticles, it was surprising (to some scientists) that the chains would order themselves into such organized striped patterns. So surprising that Raphael Levy, a researcher from the University of Liverpool, took a critical look at the data behind the conclusions in the 2004 paper. He believes that the evidence for the existence of these striped nanoparticles is the result of spurious observations that likely originate from poor experimental technique and cherry-picking of statistical data.

After extensive delays in the peer reviewed publication process, Levy's first response was eventually published in the journal Small (DOI: 10.1002/smll.201001465), three years after the response had been first submitted to Nature Materials for publication. It was around then that Levy began blogging to focus attention on the topic as well as on more generalized shortcomings of scientific publishing process. The blog attracted discussion from a number of other researchers and spurred writeups in the scientific press...