Superconductors and Research Integrity

Last week, a team of researchers from South Korea announced in papers posted on preprint server arXiv that they had discovered a “room temperature” superconductor, representing possibly one of the largest breakthroughs in physics in many decades.

Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance. In general, superconductors have to be kept very cold to function, often just a few degrees above absolute zero, making them impractical for most applications. 

A room temperature and low-pressure superconductor could revolutionize many fields, from power generation/delivery to computing.

However, scientists were quick to urge caution. They noted that the paper had not gone through peer review yet, and several scientists have already called the findings into question.

To make matters worse, one of the team’s leaders said that the papers were published online without permission, and that the papers have “many flaws”.

Still, scientists are rushing to replicate the papers’ findings and authors have already submitted the work to a journal for peer review.

Strangely, this wasn’t the first time this year that a blockbuster announcement of a room-temperature superconductor was called into question.

Back in March 2023, Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester made a similar claim of having discovered a room-temperature superconductor. However, that announcement was overshadowed by allegations of scientific misconduct. 

According to an article by the publication Physics, Dias’ history of research integrity was already being called into question. In September 2022, the journal Nature retracted a 2020 nature paper by Dias over data issues that were highlighted by other scientists over the prior two years. The study was also plagued by failed attempts to replicate the results. 

Similarly, in July, the journal Physical Review Letters has told Dias and his co-authors that their 2021 study published there required a retraction following an investigation into data fabrication.

Dias, for his part, says that he has done nothing wrong, and he is backed by the University of Rochester, who says that two separate inquiries “determined that there was no evidence that supported the concerns.”

In addition to the two retractions, addition allegations against Dias have come to light, including accusations of plagiarism in portions of his 2013 Ph.D. thesis at Washington State University. This plagiarism includes multiple paragraphs of verbatim or near-verbatim copying from an earlier work.

To that end, Dias once again denies any wrongdoing though the University of Rochester said that Dias, “has taken responsibility for these errors and is working with his thesis advisor at Washington State University to amend the thesis.”

This raises the question: What is going on in this space? And should the public start getting excited about either of these findings?

A Competitive Space with a Major Prize

Note: I am not an expert in this field and make no claims to know the veracity of the papers involved. Furthermore, treat my (very basic) explanation of the topic with a grain of salt. If this is a topic you are interested in, please seek out better sources.

The quest to find a room-temperature and low-pressure superconductor is broadly seen as a “holy grail” of modern physics. That’s for a good reason.

Most materials provide varying degrees of resistance to carrying electricity. This means that they generate waste heat, which must be compensated for with additional power and, in many situations, removing that waste heat is both crucial and a difficult challenge.

Superconductors can carry electricity with no resistance, meaning that no heat is generated. This improves efficiency and can have major impacts in a variety of fields. However, all currently known superconductors require extremely cold temperatures, making them impractical.

Whoever discovers a room temperature superconductor will almost certainly become one of the best known physicists alive. Literal fame and fortune awaits whoever makes this breakthrough.

As such, dubious reports of “high-temperature” superconductors have been a part of this field for some time. According to Scientific American, researchers in 1987 claimed to have discovered such a superconductor in a study released to much public fanfare. However, that excitement soured as difficulties replicating the findings set in, and it proved not to be the advance that many had hoped for.

That is why scientists are skeptical of both of these findings, even without examining any potential research integrity issues. Even if the findings are genuine and the studies were performed properly, if they can’t be replicated, ultimately, nothing has changed and it wouldn’t be the first time this happened.

However, the concerns over research integrity do add another layer to that concern. A scientist with two previous retracted studies in this space brings with them an additional layer of skepticism in what is already an extraordinary claim. Likewise, the authors in the South Korean paper raising concerns over errors does something similar to those papers.

In that regard, this case is more of a reminder to the public, the news media and universities about the importance of thoroughness and patience when approaching scientific research.

A Tough Lesson

The media has done an excellent job hyping up these papers, and there is some reason for that. If the discovery turns out to be true (in either or both cases) it will genuinely be a revolution in physics.

However, such excitement is premature. The South Korean paper, for example, hasn’t even gone through peer review and none of the papers have been widely replicated. 

In general, it’s best to not get too excited about any potential findings until at least after peer review. However, as we’ve seen time and again, that process is imperfect and, in cases where exceptional claims are made, it’s best to wait for the results to be replicated.

Though telling journalists and the public to not get excited about exciting things is akin to stabbing the ocean, these cases illustrate why that is good advice.

As for schools, Dias’ case illustrates why enforcing academic integrity, including fighting plagiarism, is so important. Even if Dias’ recent claims pass muster and turn out to be a real breakthrough, he was not served by the discovery of clear plagiarism in his thesis.

The goal of a university at that level is to teach students how to be good members of the academic community, including performing quality research. They’re also meant to give those students a launching pad for their research career by having them perform (and often publish) supervised research.

Washington State University failed Dias in this case. Though it’s impossible to know if his other retractions could have been avoided with better education or closer observation, it’s still clear that his research career did not set off on the right foot.

That’s a tragedy not just for Dias, but the semiconductor space as a whole.

Bottom Line

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and both of these are extraordinary claims.

To repeat, I am not an expert in this field and can offer no comment on the veracity of the papers. But I also know that there is good reason to withhold excitement until the work is widely replicated.

Whether it was error, a statistical fluke or integrity issues, there are a myriad of reasons whey neither of these papers may be the breakthrough they seek to be. We have significant reasons to pause before considering potential integrity issues, but those issues do give us additional reasons to be cautious.

As I write this, scientists are undoubtedly rushing to replicate both experiments. It’s likely we’ll have an idea sooner rather than later about whether that worked out.

If it does, expect a revolution in this space over the coming years. If it doesn’t, it would just be the latest in a long line of false hopes and disappointing studies. 

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