Superconductor Scientist Faces Investigation as a Paper Is Retracted

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A prominent physics journal on Tuesday retracted a materials science paper that has garnered scrutiny. One of its authors, Ranga P. Dias, a professor in the physics and mechanical engineering departments at the University of Rochester in New York earlier this year touted the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor.

The retracted paper did not involve superconductivity, but it added to accusations against Dr. Dias of research misconduct, including the fabrication and falsification of data. While the University of Rochester dismissed earlier allegations, a spokeswoman said this week that it had initiated a comprehensive investigation of Dr. Dias’s research by outside experts.

Nine of the 10 authors of the paper, which was published in Physical Review Letters, agreed to the retraction. Dr. Dias was the lone holdout, and he has maintained that the paper accurately portrays the research findings. However, he said on Tuesday that his collaborators, working in the laboratory of Ashkan Salamat, a professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, introduced errors when producing charts of the data using Adobe Illustrator, software not typically used to make scientific charts.

“Any differences in the figure resulting from the use of Adobe Illustrator software were unintentional and not part of any effort to mislead or obstruct the peer review process,” Dr. Dias said in response to questions about the retraction. He acknowledged that the resistance measurements in question were performed at his laboratory in Rochester.

Ranga P. Dias of the University of Rochester said his collaborators introduced errors when plotting the data in Adobe Illustrator.Credit…Lauren Petracca for The New York Times

Why It Matters: Recurring doubts about blockbuster physics claims.

A superconductor is a material that effortlessly carries electrical current. If such a substance works at everyday temperatures, it could find use in power transmission lines, magnetic resonance imaging machines and almost any device that uses electricity. Current superconductors have to be cooled to temperatures that limit their usefulness.

In the past few weeks, euphoria over LK-99, a different material that scientists in South Korea say is a room-temperature superconductor, swept over social media, although much of that excitement has since calmed after other scientists were unable to confirm the superconductivity observations and came up with plausible alternative explanations.

However, the fundamental laws of physics do not prohibit the possibility of a room-temperature superconductor, and the search for such materials will continue.

Background: Another unverified room-temperature superconductor.

In March in a paper published in the journal Nature, Dr. Dias and his collaborators said they had discovered a material that superconducted at temperatures up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although it required squeezing to a pressure of 145,000 pounds per square inch.

Many other scientists greeted the announcement with skepticism because an earlier Nature paper by Dr. Dias describing a different and less practical superconducting material had already been retracted.

Questions had also been raised about the now-retracted Physical Review Letters paper. James Hamlin, a professor of physics at the University of Florida, told the journal’s editors that the curves in one of the paper’s figures describing electrical resistance in the chemical compound manganese sulfide looked similar to ones in Dr. Dias’s doctoral thesis that described the behavior of a different material.

The journal recruited outside experts who produced three independent reports to review the figure and the underlying data. “The findings back up the allegations of data fabrication/falsification convincingly,” the journal’s editors wrote in an email to the authors of the paper on July 10.

The latest response from Dr. Dias is “both inadequate and disappointing,” said one of the reviewers, who asked to remain anonymous because the reviewers have not been publicly identified.

During the months of back and forth between the authors of the paper, Dr. Hamlin and the editors of Physical Review Letters, there was no mention of Adobe Illustrator or what Dr. Dias said was a better graph that was generated by his lab in December 2019, the reviewer said.

Both the University of Rochester and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas should conduct open, transparent investigations into “what appears to be potential malfeasance,” the reviewer said.

Dr. Salamat and Keith V. Lawler, a research professor at UNLV and another key author of the manganese sulfide paper, did not respond to requests for comment.

What’s Next: An investigation and a response.

The University of Rochester “has a comprehensive investigation underway into the questions raised about the integrity of all data at issue in this and other studies,” a university spokeswoman said in an email.

The university had previously conducted three preliminary inquiries into Dr. Dias’s research and decided the concerns did not warrant further scrutiny. This time, the university decided to start an investigation, the next step mandated by its policy on research misconduct.

The university does not plan to make public the findings of the investigation, the spokeswoman said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Hamlin said he was pleased that the journal had taken his concerns seriously. He said there were two additional instances of apparent data duplication in Dr. Dias’s work that he hoped would also be reviewed. One involves another Nature paper; the other is what Dr. Hamlin describes as a duplication of data in Dr. Dias’s thesis.

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