The research tug of war behind exoplanet k2-18b

Water vapour has been discovered in the atmosphere of exoplanet K2-18b, and while this major discovery may seem like positive news, tensions have arisen among researchers.

This is namely because two separate studies were published, both of which relied on research to publish their findings which was supplied by the former group, headed by Professor Björn Benneke, of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal. Whilst it is not uncommon for researchers to utilise information published by other scientists, it is often seen as a common courtesy to wait until that group has published their findings before using their data to complete any other studies.

However, the study completed by University College London researchers was published only a day after the initial findings by Benneke’s team were revealed. The controversial decision to release both findings in such a short timeframe is perhaps reminiscent of the famous “Space Race” of the 1960s, highlighting the competitive element of scientific studies.

As Benneke himself noted to, “Technically it’s not illegal to take this data,” referring to the information that is made free and available to the public in any investigations undertaken with the Hubble telescope.
However, he went on to say, “I’m not very excited at the fact that they just took our data … they didn’t contact me at all about this”. It is clear this suggests, in terms of scientific etiquette, that the London based research group are not concerned about standard protocols when it comes down to exposure for new findings, and the potential coverage earned from publishing their studies as soon as was possible.

Despite the two studies being formed from the same initial data, they are not identical pieces of research and contain differences highlighting the approaches taken by each respective group. The University College London study opts to call the exoplanet a “Super-Earth” while Benneke’s team believe the more modest term “Mini-Neptune” is perhaps better fitting for the distant planet.
Benneke’s research also includes evidence to suggest there may be liquid water clouds, which in turn open the possibility for rain. However, the main point that both studies agree on is that water vapour exists in the planet K2-18b’s atmosphere.

Despite the competitive rivalry, this discovery has captured the attention of scientists all over the world as it is the first exoplanet to contain water vapour in what is known as the “habitable” area of a star.
This could be instrumental in the ongoing search for other lifeforms in the universe. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that both research teams were keen to publish their findings of the planet.

When UCL was asked to comment by, Waldmann said, “We are aware of reports of other researchers publishing a study on the pre-print platform, arXiv, on Tuesday 10th September reporting similar findings. As it is not a peer-reviewed study, we cannot comment until it has been validated. If the study passes peer-review, it would strongly confirm our results, which is fantastic”.

Although Benneke expressed his disapproval at not being credited by UCL in their findings, he also noted that the existence of another outside study only further proves the former team’s evidence as the two teams, “have looked at the data and demonstrated both independently that there is the signature of water absorption on this planet”. Therefore, despite the initial dispute, the two studies could actually be seen to complement each other. Disputes among researchers are only natural, and it is this competitive nature that often spurs scientists to pursue all possible avenues.

Upon taking a step back from the feud, this is a momentous step in the knowledge of exoplanets and of our entire universe.


Image: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser via Wikimedia

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