Go with the flow

Barbara Black

In 1990, engineering researcher Georgios Vatistas wrote an article for the leading publication in his field, the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. In “A Note on Liquid Vortex Sloshing and Kelvin’s Equilibria,” he disclosed three phenomena.

“The common thread for all three was that they were occurring in rotating flows of water and oil,” Vatistas explained in an email.

“The first had to do with a circular solitary wave (what is now understood popularly as tsunami). The second was the resonating vortex, while the third was on polygonal vortex formations. All three are of great importance to technology, of course, but also to scientific specializations ranging from super-fluidity to planetary atmospheric science. ”

Imagine Vatistas’s surprise when, in May 2006, Tomas Bohr and a group of his students published a paper called “Polygons on a Rotating Fluid Surface” in the Physical Review Letters. That article duplicated Vatistas’s third phenomenon.

The Bohrs are academic royalty. Tomas is the grandson of Niels Bohr, the pillar of modern physica and Nobel laureate in 1922, and the son of Aage Bohr, who won the Nobel in 1975.

Physical Review Letters is the most prestigious journal in the world for physics,” Vatistas said. “It only publishes articles that provide its diverse readership with coverage of major advances in all aspects of physics and of developments with significant consequences across subdisciplines.”

Vatistas contacted Bohr to tell him he was not in fact the first to observe polygonal vortices. The response he received from the Danish scientist Bohr was “anemic.” When he contacted the editorial board of Physical Review Letters, Bohr responded at the appropriate level with an erratum that was acceptable to Vatistas. It was published Jan. 25.

However, the triumph was bittersweet. “Science News and Scientific American and other journals carried articles about this ‘big discovery’ by Bohr and his research team,” Vatistas said. “My emails informing them about the inconsistency remain to this day unacknowledged.”

In addition, a group of Japanese researchers has duplicated Vatistas’s second 1996 finding based on their reading of Bohr’s paper, so he has had to contact them as well.

“It is indeed strange in the era of Google that several well seasoned scientists failed to spot three articles published in outstanding journals,” he said.

“The entire affair points to one of the problems associated with the present-day peer review process. The current technical and scientific literature is huge. The authors, in their struggle to publish (fast) or perish, or to become famous quickly, do not devote sufficient time to do a proper literature search.

“Very often the reviewers are not experts in the narrow field of study and rely heavily on the authors. The editors rely on both the authors and reviewers. As a consequence, wrong papers or papers duplicating the work of others could be published, especially if one of the authors is a big name.

“On one hand, I am disappointed in my colleagues. On the other hand, this situation has drawn attention to [a discovery] that I am sure will be beneficial to our research team and to the institution that I call home.”