Friday links: another retraction for Jonathan Pruitt, journal cover art, and more

Also this week: learning from dishonest signals (book blurb edition), what to get the paleontologist who has everything, Slate Star Codex is back (?), Anthony Fauci vs. pitching, and more.

From Jeremy:

Jonathan Pruitt has lost yet another paper to retraction. This time it’s Holbrook et al. 2014 Animal Behaviour. The retraction is for duplicated sequences of data across different spider colonies that were purportedly independent of one another. Pruitt collected the data, and agreed to the retraction. For background, see here and links therein. (ht @KateLaskowski)

A recent high-profile Nature paper on a hummingbird-sized dinosaur preserved in amber is being retracted. Paleontology isn’t my field, but from reading commentary from paleontologists and talking to a paleontologist friend, I too wonder if the main reason for the retraction is different than what’s stated in the retraction notice. Like, I really do wonder! By “wonder” I mean “I don’t know and would be curious to learn more”, not “I have a strong suspicion that I’m insinuating”. I also wonder whether it would be better for the full story to come out, or for idly curious bystanders like me to have to keep wondering. Just speaking generally, there are contexts in life in which “polite fictions” are fine, or even desirable. Is this one of those contexts? I dunno; just musing out loud. That’s the way my brain works: specific incidents often get me thinking about some broader issue, even though it’s not clear if/how that broader issue relates to the specific incident that got me thinking about it.

This is from 1996 but it’s still worth your time: mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota on “10 things I wish I had been taught.” Discuss: how much of it is still good advice, and how much of it is specific to mathematics? Re: Rota’s claim that every mathematician only has a few tricks, see this related old post on how “techniques aren’t powerful, scientists are“.  ht Hal Caswell, via the comments.

Slate Star Codex is back (?). A bit of background here.

Stephen Heard on what you can learn from book blurbs–and reference letters–even though the people who write blurbs, and reference letters, are selected to be positive and have incentives to exaggerate.

Discussion of how Anthony Fauci has balanced politics and science throughout his career, arguing that his approach won’t work with Trump. But there’s no alternative approach that would work better, is there?

Speaking of Anthony Fauci, I sure hope his first pitch isn’t an omen. 🙂

Now I know what to get my paleontologist friends for Christmas. 🙂

From Meghan:

Not from an ecology journal, but this cover art is excellent:






11 thoughts on “Friday links: another retraction for Jonathan Pruitt, journal cover art, and more

  1. A bit late, but I was really curious about Gian-Carlo’s advice “publish the same [incrementally different] things several times”. Eg writing several closely related papers versus one larger one (or a normal, concise paper with appendices). How does one balance the benefits of publishing very closely related works (ie more and ultimately better framed works) with losing excitement for the project?

    I fall towards the second end of the spectrum and assume peers (and search committees) won’t really notice how different the papers are (or perhaps take it as a sign of insufficient focus – is that a concern?)

    • Well, think about successful ecologists who write multiple perspectives-type papers on their own research program, numerous similar research papers advancing that program, review papers on the topic, and invited papers and chapters that usually just repeat things the author has already said elsewhere. I’m not criticizing the ecologists who do this, just noting that people do it.

      Philosopher and historian of science David Hull wrote a book called Science As a Process. IIRC, one point he made was the influential scientists become influential in part by repeating themselves.

    • This is an interesting story. Is it just me or is all this stuff about fenestral position and dentition covered in an undergraduate vertebrate bio class that should not have been unanswered in a nature paper.

      Nobody in the paleo community is saying this, but reading between the lines it seems people think they went ahead and published in Nature saying it was a bird because they thought that was Nature worthy while knowing already that it wasn’t a bird (or at least that much of the community had strong arguments that it wasn’t)?

      • OK, so it’s starting to get weirder. There’s another update on the story:

        The bit that struck me is the quote from the lead author that the reason for the retraction was: “research progress has been made on a new specimen with a more complete preservation of the same origin discovered by the author team.”

        Now, vertebrate inclusions in amber are astoundingly rare. Much rarer than other kinds of vertebrate fossils. All of the vertebrate amber inclusions (feathers, tails, etc. I’ve seen published have been from single specimens Yet we’re supposed to believe that two such specimens of this bird/lizard/whatever exist? And the second is even more complete than the first? That seems very unlikely to me.

  2. Here’s something that’s not directly relevant to the paleo retraction (which is why I didn’t link to it in the post), but is a striking coincidence. We’ve linked before to disputes between paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor (one of the authors of the now-retracted Nature paper) and amateur critic Mickey Mortimer, who seems to have a long history of blog posts criticizing O’Connor’s work: Apparently, a new chapter has been added to that long history: a blog post from Mickey Mortimer seems to have been the first public criticism of this now-retracted Nature paper (

      • Paleontology is like astronomy in that there’s a critical mass of amateurs and semi-professionals with considerable technical expertise. Basically because stargazing, and fossil hunting/collecting, have long been popular activities. It’s very much in contrast to, say, subatomic physics, where there’s a very clear division between the professionals who get paid to do it (and who have access to necessary equipment, etc.), and other people who can’t do it at all because they lack the equipment, technical knowledge, etc.

        One thing I’m curious about is whether the “biohacking” movement will ever get big enough to where some bits of cell biology and genomics become like paleontology and astronomy.

        Just making a general comment here, not commenting specifically on Mickey Mortimer.

      • Oh yes, of course, and the same is true in the various branches of natural history, botany, entomology, etc. Lots of very well informed non-professionals making significant contributions.

        The biohacking movement is an interesting one, but I wonder whether the costs of lab equipment and consumable will put a ceiling on what’s possible?

      • “The biohacking movement is an interesting one, but I wonder whether the costs of lab equipment and consumable will put a ceiling on what’s possible?”

        Could be. Though used equipment can be had for pretty cheap, I bet. You can also make homemade substitutes for some pieces of kit for very cheap. My grad student made a homemade incubator out of $60 worth of parts, following plans some biohacker posted on YouTube.

        Conversely, there’s a non-trivial number of amateurs who drop a fair bit of money on birdwatching or astronomy. A nice new spotting scope can cost $1000 or more, can’t it? And a new high-end amateur telescope definitely costs more than that. And think of how much some birdwatchers spend on traveling to look at birds.

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