Another setback for ‘Majorana’ particle as Science paper earns an expression of concern

Ettore Majorana, after whom the “Majorana” particle is named
By unknown author / Mondadori Collection, public domain

You might say that the third time is not the charm for a paper on some elusive fermions.

For the third time this year, a leading science journal has raised concerns about a paper on the “Majorana” particle, which, if it exists, would hold promise for building a quantum computer.

In March, Nature retracted a paper on the particle, and in July, Science placed an expression of concern on a different paper that purported to find “a relatively easy route to creating and controlling [Majorana zero modes] MZMs in hybrid materials.”

Today, Science is slapping an expression of concern on another Majorana paper:

On 21 July, 2017, Science published the Report “Chiral Majorana fermion modes in a quantum anomalous Hall insulator-superconductor structure” by Q. L. He et al. Since that time, raw data files were offered by the authors in response to queries from readers who had failed to reproduce the findings. Those data files did not clarify the underlying issues, and now their provenance has come into question. While the authors’ institutions investigate further, Science is alerting readers to these concerns.

The article has been cited 355 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, earning it a Highly Cited Paper designation.

None of the authors could be reached for comment, and a few of their emails bounced because they had left their employers since 2017. He Qinglin and Wang Kanglong, two of the authors, defended the findings in a 2020 blog post.

Vincent Mourik, who along with Sergey Frolov had raised concerns about the retracted Nature paper and the other Science paper subjected to an expression of concern, said he and Frolov had not spoken publicly about the newly flagged paper, nor formally reached out to Science about it. Mourik told Retraction Watch:

First, upon reading this expression of concern carefully, it appears there are significant problems with the raw data itself. To me the usage of the word ‘provenance’ suggests that it is now unclear where they came from, after repeated reader requests. 

Second, this paper has been controversial from the start. Already the paper figures raised many questions, simply put, they seem to violate some very basic rules in electrical circuits called ‘Kirchhoff rules‘. 

Third, an extensive reproduction study carried out at Penn State failed at finding the same signatures. 

He added: 

Frankly speaking, I am happy to see other researchers in our field also take on this challenging and thankless task of investigating suspicious papers – if more people would do it, one day it may be tolerable again to do science. 

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