Nov 21, 2014

Interview with Prof. Víctor Puntes

Prof. Víctor F. Puntes obtained his PhD in Physics from the Universitat de Barcelona (UB) in 1998, working with Prof. Xavier Batlle and Prof. Amilcar Labarta in Giant magnetoresistance in granular alloys. He had previously done his undergraduate studies in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, at the Université Louis Pasteur Strasbourg, France, and at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Spain.

After his PhD he spent more than 3 years at the University of California – Berkeley (UCB) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), USA, in the groups of Prof. Paul Alivisatos and Prof. Kannan Krishnan, working on the synthesis and control of nanostructures. In 2003 he returned to Catalonia with a Ramón y Cajal research position at the UB, and in 2005 obtained an ICREA Professorship at the then Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology (ICN – now ICN2) in Barcelona, Spain, to create the Inorganic Nanoparticles Group, which he leads today. 

To June 2013, he has 108 peer-reviewed publications (97 indexed) with more than 4,500 citations. He is also well-known for his work in science dissemination among the general public and developments towards industrial and commercial applications, as well as for his enterprises linking science and art. 

ARJ: Could you please do a brief introduction of your research? 

Oh! I would say that I study the energy and mass transfer between small aggregates of inorganic atoms, i.e., nanocrystals. This includes their synthesis and evolution during use, or full life cycle, indeed. In particular, we aim to design the chemical (catalytic, reactivity) and physical (optical, magnetic) properties by modifying the morphology of inorganic nanocrystals. Then use them to monitor and manipulate biological states.

ARJ: What do you think of publishing negative results? How can they improve our actual scientific methods? 

Recently I was looking at the statistics published in Science by A. Franco et al. ( and again is amazing how many works go unpublished. The reason for this is probably evolutionary. Regarding hypothesis, a good result verifies it and a bad one, who knows; maybe we forgot something in the experiment. Is the answer negative or is the question incorrect?

Also I suspect that the equilibrium between cooperation and competition has been shifted towards competition, therefore, not making public what does not work gives you a competitive advantage (others may be stuck in the same errors where you were). From the point of view of knowledge consolidation, this twist helps in a delayed way to sediment knowledge and sends it to the textbooks. From the point of view of efficiency (public money spending and societal needs), it is a criminal disaster.

Probably, the idea is not to have positive and negative result, but go beyond, like the All Results Journals. It is about being smarter than we are (probably a little evolutionary push is needed here), and that we decide to learn from any question we make to nature. Intrinsically, all the results are good, since there is a question addressed to a system (virtual or material) and because of this interaction an answer is generated. We have to be smart enough to learn from all answers, not only those that convey our interests or prejudices. We have to be smart enough to advance with all obtained results and not just a few of them.

ARJ: How does the publication of negative results benefit the scientific community? 

Clearly, avoiding using more resources to find the same answers. Overuse of resources today is a serious threat to mankind, and sometimes there are sentient beings involved, so unless that we do not use All the Results we obtain for progress, we are delaying it and we are morally creditable. Not making public all the results in an accessible manner is against common sense and development.

ARJ: Are researchers used to publishing negative results? What are the reasons, from your point of view, that negative results are usually not reported (or published)? 

It is more difficult. We are not that smart. Of course, it is not a question of publishing a scientific work saying that you do not know what you did and you do not understand what you got. It is a question of using all the results, all the experiments, all the questions and all the answers to build knowledge in a cooperative way to exceed our limited individual capacities.

ARJ: What is the impact of not publishing negative results in your field and clinical research? Can it be influenced by the editors of the journal? 

I have seen a few thousand scientists keeping alive a sterile field just because they were all involved and they had to make their living and publish their papers and go on with their conferences. This happens more often than one may think and it may last for 10 to 20 years before time wipes it out. This is facilitated by the fact that nobody was reporting that the involved techniques are giving much more negative than positive results, but the first were ignored. I can imagine things related to AFM or DLS also. Besides, too many times editors just run a business, and as we know, in this late capitalism, for many, profit has overtaken over prestige with all the consequences. However, as much as not everyone with a white coat working in a laboratory or in an academic department is a scientist, not all the people working on the editing, production, distribution and commercialization of scientific and technical contents is an editor. Editors are nice, editors, as the midwife, help birth (as far as we share common objectives).

ARJ: Is there a way that to overcome the tendency for negative results to be viewed as being less useful than positive results? 

Well, as I said before, this categorization in negative and positive results is naïf and comfortable. There not should be any experiment in the laboratory, which is designed in such a way that the result can be useless. Searching such a predetermined target impedes you to observe the answers of the piece of nature that you are evaluating is not science, but rather sophisticated gambling. To overcome this requires a little change in the mind of many laboratory workers. The All Results is a good initiative, and the principles of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) also supports a more responsible research were any answer or its absence should be used to built knowledge. Be smart, basically.

ARJ: How do you normally manage negative results on your lab? 

I tell the students that there is not such a thing as a failed experiment. Even if by mistake you put ten times more surfactant and precursor solubility increases and crystallization of the nanoparticle is avoided, it is a point in the curve of solubility and stability of the present chemical species. This point is very useful in the map. If you inject nanoparticles coated with proteins and the number of antibodies against it does not increase, you should check your experimental model or your concepts on immunity, since they should explain why there is no apparent response to such external invasion. And so on. The only failed experiment is when you do not know what sample you put in the microscope or which reagents did you used, and these uncertainties should of course be avoided with a little professionalism and good laboratory praxis.

ARJ: We're proud to be the first TOTAL Open Access publishers (no fee to authors or readers to publish or download). What do you think are the biggest advantages of Open Access? 

Well, first I have to think that Open Access has advantages. And yes, I think it has, enormously. I also think that the work of those who enables the journal to be out (language readers, content curators, page makers, etc.) should be paid for their job (with a salary that provides them the opportunity for a decent living in their community if a sufficient amount of work is provided). It is a great service to index and keep the papers recorded, and to distribute them. Open Access can be done altruistically also. The biggest advantage of open access is that may empower an increase in thinking capacity in a more democratic way. We can easily argue that our technology today is quite primitive and that we are still too focused on little details without fully understanding the consequences of our progress. More and different thinking may help to improve that. Increasing layer by layer the levels of complexity.

ARJ: The All Results Journals is totally open, and we try to uncover the soft spots of other journals. Normally, how other journals work is by financial and economic issues all the time… but we are a non-profit organization. We want to show results that are new, and helpful to scientists so they don’t waste their time repeating experiments that were already performed by another researcher. What is the main objection, from your point of view, preventing the researcher from submitting negative results? 

Maybe is because the researcher is conservative. I imagine that if your journal had an impact factor of at least five there will be no objections by the majority of the members of the community to get a paper in evaluable well-placed journal. Besides, your approach, full of common sense, may seem somehow a little radical, is what pushes researchers towards more established long lasting journals. Yet, well presented, a negative-result work can have many citations. I sometimes feel forced to cite a work because of their mistakes and failures, and I feel uncomfortable because by quoting it seems that I support a title that I do not. To have papers where something was shown how it does not work it may be very popular indeed. I also think that the PLoS has introduced some interesting ideas towards promoting more democratic science. However, ARJ proposes more interesting and far-reaching ideas, closer to open data in an open format.

Personally, I rarely think about results as positive and negative; the hypotheses are wider. For example, I tell my students when the synthesis goes terribly wrong to keep this point on the space of results; they will become in the future the intelligent control experiments that beautifully will frame our chosen results to explain the story of our discovery in contrast to our hypothesis of departure. In such a way, I try to systematically publish the “negative” results as “controls” of the work to consolidate the presented hypothesis (and there it goes along with supplementary information). Now is then difficult to me to split the work in the lab into negative and positive results and then build up with the negative part. Maybe we would need a few selected examples to kick people in. I confess to finding it challenging. 

ARJ: Government Agencies (GAs) normally promote positive results, Should they also promote the publication of negative results? 

They should grow up, move beyond negative and positive results and expect that any question we address to the target is a piece of information that grows together into something meaningful. In the meanwhile, they could request that positive results go to papers and negative ones are properly reported to them. Once the researcher has reported it, he will naturally think, hey! Why not to publish this?! I would. I also think that by pushing for all results, reporting would be a fair way to evaluate the efficacy and efficiency of particular laboratory work, and use this to optimize the use for GAs, foundations and other similar resources.

ARJ: Thank you so much for your valuable collaboration at The All Results Journals' Blog 

Interview made by Dr. David Alcántara for The All Results Journals.

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