Only one subject has been hotly debated in the science press over the past few days: the revelation that the work of Bell Labs researcher Jan Hendrik Schön and colleagues is to be investigated because of irregularities in the data presented. [Science (31 May 2002) 296, 1584; Nature (23 May 2002), 417, 367 and (30 May 2002), 417, 473 ].

Suspicions began when Charles Lieber of Harvard University, Lydia Sohn of Princeton, Paul McEuen of Cornell, and others noticed that two papers published late last year in Nature [(18 October 2001) 413, 713] and Science [(7 December 2001) 294, 2138] contained a graph that looked very similar. Schön admitted the mistake and submitted a correct graph to Science. The story didn't end there, however, when it became apparent that the graph in question looked surprisingly similar to data previously published by Schön and co-workers in Science and other journals including Applied Physics Letters. Bell Labs, the research arm of Lucent Technologies, has launched an enquiry, but with many papers being added to the investigation, the five-member panel led by Malcolm Beasley of Stanford University isn't expected to report until the fall.

The revelations raise concerns about the peer review process, both at the internal level within Bell Labs, and at the journals in question. The anonymity of the process means that reviewers may not be aware of other’s concerns, previously published papers, or papers submitted elsewhere. In Schön's case, his publication record stretches to nearly one hundred papers, which would be difficult for any reviewer to take into full consideration. It is also true that once work has been published, particularly in journals such as Science andNature, it becomes harder for reviewers to question the 'accepted wisdom', as some academic commentators have pointed out. The flip side to this is that it can be extremely difficult for researchers to publish work, no matter how rigorous, that contradicts this dogma.

The Bell Labs controversy also places a question mark over the future of nanoelectronics and is grist to the mill of those who never believed it would work. Schön's findings were initially reported as a breakthrough in the field, including here [Materials Today (Nov/Dec 2001), 4 (6), 12]. These questions about the integrity of the data are already leading researchers to take a cautionary approach to reproducing Schön's work and following similar avenues. It is too early to tell if this scandal will impact on federal and international funding in this area — and the number of related start-ups that have blossomed in recent years. It will be a great pity if the progress of what could potentially be one of the most exciting crossover fields was curtailed by these events.

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)00801-5