30) American Physical Society Guidelines

Ludwik Kowalski (January 5, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ

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The January 2003 issue of Physics Today has an interesting item entitled “New APS Ethics Guidelines Address Research, Misconduct and Professional Responsibilities.” The author, Jim Dawson, summarizes 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 and have policies and procedures in place to deal with allegations of misconduct.’ “

I find these remarks encouraging; they indicate that APS wants to defend fairness. But how should one interpret the above in the context of the so-called “cold fusion” issue? Considering what has been accomplished in that area (hundreds of scientific reports from recognized experts in several countries) I would like to suggest that the APS initiate the process of reevaluation of the entire field. The 1989 ERAB report was correct in stating that no convincing evidence existed to support the premature claim of Fleischmann and Pons that a new source of useful energy had been discovered.

But the situation has changed in the last ten years. Scientists conducting research in this area have accepted the criticism; they 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 new was discovered, but not understood, in 1989. I see no evidence that the data were “fabricated” or that the methodologies they now use constitute a “departure from the expected norms.” 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?”

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) 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 a “real discovery” of something very important. How should teachers address this topic in the context of “public affairs between science and society,” or in the context of “institutional support for new ideas and innovations?”

PS (April 29, 2003):
Last January, immediately after Dawson’s article was published, I sent a letter to the editor to Physics Today. It was a suggestion to reevaluate the field of cold fusion (for the benefit of teachers). The letter linked this issue with “new ethics guidelines” adopted by APS. I have not heard from the editor; will they publish my letter? Will they write to me explaining why the letter was not published or will they simply ignore me? I also wrote a note about cold fusion to The Physics Teacher. The editor did sent it to two referees and informed me about their advice for not publishing the note. I will wait another month or two. After that my letter to the editor of Physics today will be appended here.

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