The following is a letter to the magazine Nature, submitted in April 2009 as a response to some previous slightly unpleasant controversy (summarized in the text).
Nature Correspondence Office took 6 weeks to reply that the letter
could not be published. I insisted, invoking the right to rebuttal, but
after an additional 2 weeks they informed me that that's not enough for
April 7, 2009
the analysis of the preliminary data extracted from a presentation by the PAMELA collaboration at the "Identification of Dark Matter"
(IDM) Conference in Stockholm last August aroused some interest and
attracted some gossip. It has been the subject of a Nature News article
(G.Brumfiel, "Physicists aflutter about data photographed at
conference", Nature, Vol 455, 4 September 2008).
Later it has been commented in a letter by Dr. Daniel N. Frank ("Don't
release other people's data without their consent", Nature, Vol 455, 2 October 2008).
The latter seems however flawed by a misunderstanding of the facts (as
they were reported also in the News article), and we do not see how any
violation of any implicit or explicit ethical rule could arise.
Brumfiel opened his article
speaking of "paparazzi physicists, who photographed conference slides
and then used the data in their own publications", which seems a
strikingly ill-conceived metaphor. 'Paparazzi' are not known for using
public events to shoot photos and usually publish them without asking
for any permission. Moreover, while I understand the needs of
journalism, I am appalled by a terminology and a tone that would seem
more appropriate for a non-scientific newspaper. Furthermore, no scoop
was looked after, here: if the PAMELA results will turn out to be
evidence for Dark Matter, the full credit will obviously be of PAMELA.
We only wanted to discuss if and how these interesting results could
fit into a Dark Matter paradigm.
A few months have now passed
and this might be a good time to look back at the relevant aspects of
this story, as opposed to the first superficial reactions. I believe
the underlying key question to be: when and how should data be
considered public? In the case at hand, the PAMELA collaboration had
presented at public conferences results obtained thanks to public
funding, that seemed relevant for the Identification of Dark Matter.
The next day, at the IDM conference (which was an ordinary open
conference, not carrying any rule of privacy that may exist in other
kind of meetings), I could have discussed the prediction of our Dark
Matter theory without saying whether it was compatible with the new
PAMELA data, pretending that they did not exist until they had been
published under the copyright of a private journal. Instead, we chose
to openly discuss these results at the conference and in its proceedings.
At the same time other theorists started posting papers based on the
preliminary PAMELA data on the arXiv, the repository of preprints run
by physicists that allows to make research promptly and freely
available. Earlier this month the PAMELA data have finally appeared on
your journal (O.Adriani et al., "An anomalous positron abundance in
cosmic rays with energies 1.5–100 GeV", Nature, Vol 458, 2 April 2009). But about one hundred and fifty publications have already discussed and interpreted its results.
In a similar way, prompted
by the PAMELA findings, we had studied the preliminary data showing a
related anomaly published by the ATIC collaboration in the proceedings
of past conferences. These data started to receive significant
attention after our combined analysis (arXiv:0809.2409). When the results later became definitive (Nature, Vol 456, 20 November 2008)
the analyses have been refined and updated. In turn, soon these results
will be confirmed or disproved by the FERMI experiment, that will
publish data on its website. And the dialectic among experiments and
with theory will continue again.
This is how research proceeds in many fields nowadays.
I suspect that habits that
were appropriate in the pre-internet age no longer correspond to the
public good of our research community. Results obtained thanks to
public funds can now be made publicly available, and this is cheaper,
faster and more effective than publishing on copyrighted journals.
So, instead of addressing
the issues raised by these practices with gossip stories or
out-of-context metaphors, I believe that a constructive confrontation
on these pages could have been more interesting.
Marco Cirelli, Institut de
Physique Theorique - CNRS & CEA/Saclay, F-91191 Gif-sur-Yvette
Cedex, France - firstname.lastname@example.org