Friday links: Rawls vs. mongoose, and more


Also this week: a puzzling correction of a retraction in EEB, new music from an old band, and more.

From Jeremy:

This is puzzling. Sánchez-Guillén et al. 2018 J. Evol. Biol. was retracted last month for “significant issues with the methods and analyses of the manuscript that were originally not uncovered during peer-review, but which were subsequently brought to the Journal’s attention following publication of the Article on Early View.” Except that now that’s not the official reason for the retraction, because the retraction statement has been corrected to remove the quoted sentence. Here’s the corrected retraction statement. I have no idea what to make of this. Is the deleted statement false? Or is it true, but someone (who?) didn’t want it to be part of the official retraction statement? And what exactly does this correction accomplish, given that the original uncorrected retraction is still available on the journal website?

Also this week in unusual EEB retractions: a 2014 Nature paper on epistasis in humans has been retracted at the request of all authors but one. There’s no disagreement that the paper is flawed, and no suggestion of misconduct by anyone. Rather, all the authors agree that the original findings were based on a flawed statistical analysis, but they disagree on whether retraction is appropriate. Retraction Watch has the details. The dissenting author cites various reasons why retraction isn’t called for in this case, some of which puzzle me. If your own co-authors all want the paper retracted, then concerns about the stigma of retraction, and about disincentivizing self-correction, don’t really cut much ice, do they?

Back in college I took an entire class on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. There was a mongoose in the class, which I found puzzling at the time but now I understand. 🙂 Ok, in seriousness, think this is a good and interesting paper. Even though I think the Rawlsian framing is just salesmanship (meaning, I don’t think the paper has any implications for political philosophy, or vice versa.) Note that I’m not bothered by the salesmanship. We’ll never get rid of salesmanship in science, and we wouldn’t want to even if we could. This is a pretty unusual sort of salesmanship for a scientific paper, though, which makes me curious what others thought of it. Did you like it? Dislike it? Why?

And finally: Here’s a new upbeat pop tune with downbeat lyrics. Keep an eye on this band, they have a lot of promise. 😉

Have a good weekend. 🙂

6 thoughts on “Friday links: Rawls vs. mongoose, and more

  1. I don’t follow the retraction dramas very closely, but in the Nature epistasis case, I agree with the dissenting author. As I read it, they published a paper, using established analyses, after typical peer review. Then questions about the analyses led to another study, that itself was peer reviewed and destined to be published as a kind of commentary, and that concluded that the analytical method could have problems in this kind of situation. Had that strategy been followed, the scientific literature would have functioned exactly as it is supposed to: publish something, identify a problem with it, do research and publish about the problem (and then find problems with the solution to the problem…. lather, rinse, repeat). It’s a little embarrassing to correct yourself in public like that, but that’s what we want to incentivize. Retraction, in contrast, is a blunt instrument. Isn’t it so that retraction applies to the whole paper? It’s gone. Supposed to be treated like it never existed. The publish-critique-publish-critique …. cycle is cut off at the root. Can you write a paper that critiques a retracted paper, and uses the critique as motivation to develop a new analytical method?

    Just because a paper is incorrect is no reason to retract it. And a paper is more than its conclusions.

    • I haven’t looked closely enough at the details of this particular case to have a view as to whether retraction is appropriate. But just speaking generally, I agree with you. I don’t think we should be systematically retracting all papers that have been refuted or superseded since being published. I say that recognizing that there will always be some borderline cases.

      But I dunno. Maybe times, and attitudes, are changing. I mean, I can certainly imagine an alternative universe in which the professional norm is to correct or retract any paper of yours that’s subsequently shown to be incorrect. I’m not sure if that hypothetical alternative universe would be better or worse than our current practices. Probably, it would be better in some ways but worse in others. Maybe it would be better at preventing “zombie ideas” from developing, by forcing more researchers to take notice when a paper was overturned by subsequent work? Maybe it would incentivize more careful, rigorous, cautious work? I dunno.

      Maybe I should do a poll on this.

      • Interesting question. I think you would probably need to split the retracted category in your alternative world to distinguish between “faulty work” and “now disproven despite using best practices in place at the time” since so much of reputation is based on publication and so much judgment is by outsiders who don’t (I didn’t say shouldn’t) spend time evaluating quality of work. At that point it does become a slippery slope putting a binary categorization on what is really a continuum (and makes self retraction in the faulty work category much less likely). As Hal says there is much to be said for letting it all hang out there and trusting the scientific to debate and come to a conclusion (or often in ecology debate in perpetuity but I don’t think this is the mechanism to fix that latter problem). But yes, I would be curious to see a poll.

      • Hi all, yes, definitely an interesting question! My question is how do we define a paper as “now disproven” or “overturned” because in so many cases, there is a wide range of opinions within the scientific community for a particular claim. Some evidence for this comes from this blog itself, with the polls on laws of ecology etc!

  2. Pingback: Should old or superseded papers ever be retracted? | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Jus to make it clear, and because I am one of the senior authors of the paper, the statement in the retraction note that was first published by JEB was absolutely false. It was published by the editor and publishers without any of the authors being contacted. We discovered it too late, and found it offensive and defamatory. The real reason to remove the paper from JEB was that the authors decided not to accept more modifications on the paper due to concerns by an “anonymous challenger”. The editor acted in a way absolutely unpolite, and more importantly, following a back-door to try us to modify our paper following comments by someone that never wanted to be identified. That is scientific misconduct by the editor and the challenger… Yes, these things happen when the ego of someone is too big.

    So we (the authors) rejected JEB as a journal and decided to publish the paper elsewhere, even if this meant a new review process. It was not easy to get the retraction of the retraction note published. But this is how it went.

    The paper is available here:
    Sánchez-Guillén, R.A.; Fadia-Ceccarelli, S.; Villalobos, F.; Neupane, S.; Rivas-Torres, A.; Sanmartín-Villar, I.; Wellenreuther, M.; Bybee, S.M.; Velásquez-Vélez, M.I.; Realpe, E.; Chávez-Ríos, J.R.; Dumont, H.J. & Cordero-Rivera, A. 2020. The evolutionary history of colour polymorphism in Ischnura damselflies (Odonata: Coenagrionidae). Odonatologica, 49 (3/4): 333-370. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4268559

    Adolfo Cordero-Rivera

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