The Polywater debacle has been called ‘one of the most famous mistaken scientific research programs of the past half-century’.
It was initially feared that the USSR’s discovery of highly viscous polywater, which froze at −40 °C and boiled at 150 °C, might spell the end for all life on Earth. If it escaped from the lab, perhaps all water on the planet might spontaneously polymerise?
It took around six years and a swathe of experiments for the global science community to able to finally confirm that (thankfully) it didn’t exist – by which time it had been mentioned in numerous research papers.
In hindsight, would scientists’ careers be damaged by having associated themselves with polywater?
Professor Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. at the Department of Economics, University of Nebraska at Omaha, US, has recently quantified the real-world cost of associating oneself with mistaken research – taking polywater as an example. “The primary result is that simply writing on polywater, either pro or con, has a negative impact on future citations, in comparison with those who never wrote on polywater. The lifetime value of the lost citations is roughly in the range of $13,000 to $19,000.” Noting though that – “… writing on polywater did not affect the probability of a scientist leaving university employment.”
See: ‘The Career Consequences of a Mistaken Research Project: The Case of Polywater‘ in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Volume 68, Number 2, April 2009 , pp. 387-411(25)