Science has a fake paper problem

Back in March, the discovery of a new superconductor opened up a world of possibilities, from phone batteries that last days to hyper-efficient energy grids. Except it was all a lie. 

What happened: This week, Nature retracted a high-profile paper claiming the discovery of a superconductor that worked at room temperature. Superconductors — which can transmit electricity without energy loss — blow away standard metals, like copper and aluminum.

  • The retraction was no surprise for the many scientists who expressed skepticism toward the research. But ultimately, it was the study’s co-authors who spoke out. 

Why it matters: Science is already grappling with a fake paper problem, and researchers worry this controversy will further damage the field’s reputation. At least 5,500 faulty papers were retracted in 2022, compared with just 119 in 2002, according to Retraction Watch

  • Per The Wall Street Journala growing number of scientists are now moonlighting as data detectives, sifting through studies published in journals for evidence of fraud. 
  • Discoveries by researcher vigilantes lead to retractions, but also upend careers (like when Stanford’s president stepped down) and spark retaliatory lawsuits

Bottom line: Some experts worry the retraction will hurt funding and recruitment efforts, but others say it’ll only lead to more careful reviews. So the next time someone claims they’ve discovered a new supermetal, you can be a bit more certain they’re telling the truth.—SB