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100) Physics Today rejected my letter

Ludwik Kowalski (August 14, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

As I wrote yesterday (see item #97), my Letter to the Editor has been published by The Physics Teacher. My attempt to publish a Letter to the Editor of Physics Today, however, was not successful. Let me document this failure. Here is what I wrote:


To the Editor

The January 2003 issue of Physics Today had an interesting item entitled “New APS Ethics Guidelines Address Research, Misconduct and Professional Responsibilities.” The author, Jim Dawson, summarized main points of the new ethics guidelines recently adopted by the American Physical Society (APS) panel on public affairs. I was particularly interested in this segment:

“You should hang on to your data, you should respond to inquiries from other scientists, and you should be responsible as a referee. . . The new guidelines, approved on 10 November, come in several parts. A policy statement on how to handle allegations of research misconduct defines misconduct as ‘fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. . . . ‘ Such behavior is termed an ‘egregious departure from the expected norms of scientific conduct that can lead other scientists along fruitless paths.’ It also ‘diminishes the vital trust that scientists have in each other’ and undermines public confidence in science. The statement goes on to say, ‘It is imperative . . . that the institutions responsible for funding and performance of scientific research, as well as the relevant professional societies, take appropriate steps to discourage such conduct’ . . .”

I welcome the new guidelines but I would like to examine them it in a slightly different context than emphasized in the article. How can a physics teacher make sense of “cold fusion?” Is there any evidence that this field, in terms of what has been done in the last ten years, is a “departure from the expected norms of scientific conduct” or that it “can lead other scientists along fruitless paths?” I think the 1989 ERAB report was correct in that no convincing evidence existed to support the premature claim of Fleischmann and Pons about a new source of useful energy.

But the situation has changed in the last ten years. Scientists conducting research in this area no longer claim that demonstrations of excess heat are easy (as initially announced) or that the underlying mechanism is simply a fusion of two nuclei, as in hot plasma. But they “hang on to data” indicating that something significant was discovered in 1989 and that it should be studied, as recommended in the ERAB report. I see no evidence that the data are “fabricated.” Is it true that editors of many peer reviewed journals automatically reject manuscripts dealing with “cold fusion?” Is it true that “institutions responsible for the funding and performance of scientific research,” such as DOE and NSF, automatically reject research proposals dealing with “cold fusion?” Is it true that young researchers avoid this field for fear of endangering their professional careers?

I have heard such allegations from several “cold fusion” scientists. They claim that the entire field has been blacklisted in the US. If this is true, then, in my opinion, the situation should be reviewed in light of new ethical guidelines. Those guilty of falsifications should be exposed as pseudo-scientists while those who made “honest errors” should be criticized, as in any other field of science. And those whose claims are accepted as valid should be rewarded (in the form of published papers and financial support for research) as in any other area of science.

As a physics teacher I am confused by the situation. What should we tell students when they ask about the discovery of Fleischmann and Pons? Most teachers have no time and no means to validate claims made in the area of “cold fusion,” and need guidance. An objective summary of what has been done in that field, in the last ten years, would help us to describe it correctly. The issue is not only scientific; it is a topic of general interest. Most educated people know about the “cold fusion episode” and opinions about it are divided. Some say it was “a fiasco” while others say it was an “important discovery.” How should teachers address this topic in the context of “public affairs between science and society,” or in the context of discussing “institutional support for new ideas and innovations?”


After waiting several months I sent an e-mail message asking about the status of my letter. On Thursday, June 12, 2003, I receive a reply from Marty Hanna, Letters Editor at Physics Today. He wrote: So far, I have a split decision on the possible publication of your letter. I expect soon to have a tie-breaking input from a third reviewer. I will let you know as soon as I have a firm decision. Thank you for your patience.”

My immediate reply was brief. “Dear Dr. Hanna: Thanks for giving my Letter to the Editor a chance. In reading it again I see a typing error which may not be noticed. Please correct it before publishing. The ERAD acronym should be replaced by ERAB; it stands for the famous 1989 Energy Research Advisory Board. By the way, I hope that a similar board of experts will be appointed to examine new cold fusion data. My "confusion about cold fusion" is probably typical; many physicists need help to interpret information widely available in that field.”

On Thursday, July 3 Dr. Hanna wrote “ We have completed our review of your letter commenting on the APS ethics guidelines story in our January 2003 issue. Our decision, after some valuable discussion, is not to publish your letter. Thank you for writing and for your interest in Physics Today.” Unhappy about this I wrote “I would very much appreciate if you could send me the reports of the referees evaluating my letter to the editor. I wish you nice holidays.” The immediate reply was “ Thank you for your inquiry. Please let me explain. I know that scientists who submit articles to peer-reviewed scientific journals expect reviewers to give them a critique of their letters. Physics Today is not, in the strictest sense, a peer-reviewed scientific journal; it is, instead, a special-interest magazine for physicists. Generally, my reviewers are staff writers and editors (all physicists) who may give me little more than ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ on a letter. As a rule, we do not give out the specific comments of the reviewers, because we consider them to be internal business. Thank you for your inquiry. I hope my explanation has helped.

The input from three qualified referees would be very useful to me. Whose “special-interest is being protected by not showing me what they had to say? I am a member of APS and I expected a better treatment from my journal. It is ironic that my letter was triggered by an article about ethical standards in science.

Let me remind you that the rejection of my cold fusion note, by TPT, has already been described in item #49. Even recognized experts encountered difficulties in trying to published cold fusion articles, as illustrated in items #33 and #9. This is not a healthy situation; here is how it was described by E. Storms: ”Serious scientists rejected ‘cold fusion’ in the past for good reason. These reasons no longer apply. If science cannot correct a past rejection, then what good is the scientific method?” Physics Today should promote exchanges of information among recognized physicists from different disciplines. It is an ideal place to ask a question formulated in my letter. Why did Dr. Hanna reject the letter after one of the referees recommended it? Which special interest is he protecting by not publishing the letter? I am probably not the only physics teacher confused by the existing situation in the area of cold fusion. What is wrong with asking for another evaluation of that field by an appointed panel?

After posting the above I realized that part of it is a repetition of what has aleady been shown in item #88. I am sorry for this.

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