When should scientists “go public” with their results?

CHRISTOPHER JUDD

In recent years there have been a number of cases in which a dramatic scientific result has been picked up by the media and the results have gone viral. Unfortunately it was later found that these results were incorrect. The most famous of these cases are the faster than light neutrinos supposedly found by CERN in 2011 and more recently the results from BICEP about gravitational waves in the CMB.  Events such as these naturally begin the debate over when should scientists go public.

Let’s start by taking the faster than light neutrino measurements as an example. In 2011, the OPERA experiment at CERN observed neutrinos exceeding the speed of light. The results of this experiment were published and the story was picked up by the media. After external experiments failed to replicate the results, it was later found that there were errors in the measurements made and the velocities were in fact consistent with the speed of light.

Initially you may think that the team at CERN should have waited to publish their results to ensure they hadn’t made any mistakes. And they did. Before publishing, the team spent months analysing the data and repeating measurements, eventually achieving a 6 sigma [1] level of uncertainty on their results, well above the expected 5 sigma required for a formal discovery in particle physics. Moreover, the team published with the intent to prompt further inquiry and debate, stating “We want to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result” [2].  All of this together should suggest that they had enough evidence to publish and ask the rest of the scientific community to verify their results. So what was the problem?

The real issues comes to light if you consider what if the errors were never found or found much later than they were. Countless hours and resources would then be devoted to finding and building upon results that are not real. As a best case scenario this is just a massive waste of time, but at its worst leads to wrong or misguided ideas being built upon and becoming common knowledge.

All of this stems from the idea of ‘publish or perish’ where, due to the competitiveness of modern academia, scientists are encouraged to publishing their work early by cutting corners. This can lead to errors in their work and the problems mentioned previously. This is in general a problem with science as a whole at the moment, however, overall a little more caution may be necessary to avoid these problems in the future.

References

  1. OPERA Collaboration, Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam, arXiv:1109.4897.
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15017484, Accessed 12/10/15.
When should scientists “go public” with their results?

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