While publicizing exciting discoveries is normal, early publicity, combined with curtailed peer review, caused some problems in this case. The scientific community was in an uproar after the press conference. Pons and Fleischmann had made extraordinary claims, but because the paper was not yet available, the scientific community had no way to evaluate the work presented in the paper — let alone try to replicate it.
While the process of science doesn’t require that every experiment be replicated, with results as surprising as Pons and Fleischmann’s — results that contradict a well-supported theory — it is mandatory. After all, science aims to uncover the unchanging rules by which the universe operates. This means that a phenomenon should operate the same way regardless of who’s testing it where. Nuclear theory had passed this test, but it still remained to be seen if cold fusion could.
Pons and Fleischmann’s paper was still several weeks away from publication, but scientists didn’t let that stop them. Unauthorized copies of the article began to circulate within the scientific community by fax — but when other scientists tried to set up the same experiment, they found that the paper did not describe all the relevant details. This is not that unusual in science today. Many procedures are complex, and fully describing them would take too many pages. In these cases, the authors are expected to furnish the relevant details upon request. However, Pons and Fleischmann refused to provide these details when asked. University of Utah officials later revealed that they had instructed Pons and Fleischmann not to give away too many details before a patent was filed. Withholding information like this obstructs the scientific process by shielding ideas from testing. But the scientific community wouldn’t let this roadblock stop them either …
To learn more about how replication factors into science visit Copycats in science: The role of replication.
Diagram of cold fusion cell adapted from Figure 1 in Fleischmann, M., S. Pons, et al. 1990. Calorimetry of the palladium-deuterium-heavy water system. Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry 287:293-348.