Recently, German scientist Gangolf Jobb declared that starting on October 1st scientists working in countries that are, in his opinion, too welcoming to immigrants — including Great Britain, France and Germany — could no longer use his Treefinder software, which creates trees showing potential evolutionary relationships between species. He’d already banned its use by U.S. scientists in February, citing the country’s “imperialism.” Last week, BMC Evolutionary Biology pulled the paper describing the software, noting it now “breaches the journal’s editorial policy on software availability.”
Many scientists have used Jobb’s software: The BMC paper that describes it, “TREEFINDER: a powerful graphical analysis environment for molecular phylogenetics,” has been cited 745 times since it was published in 2004, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
Jobb told Retraction Watch that the software is still available to any scientist willing to travel to non-banned countries, and that he does not care about the retraction:
BMC believes that I breached their journal policies by disallowing the use of my software in certain countries. I don’t think so, because still every scientist can use Treefinder, as long as he or she does it in one of the allowed countries and is personally present there. However, having to travel to a neighbouring country is inconvenient, I admit. I don’t care. Retraction of one of their most popular articles is the journals problem, not mine. I am not getting paid for that article, anyway.
Here’s the retraction note:
The editors of BMC Evolutionary Biology retract this article due to the decision by the corresponding author, Gangolf Jobb, to change the license to the software described in the article. The software is no longer available to all scientists wishing to use it in certain territories. This breaches the journal’s editorial policy on software availability which has been in effect since the time of publication. The other authors of the article, Arndt von Haeseler and Korbinian Strimmer, have no control over the licensing of the software and support the retraction of this article.
A spokesperson for BMC declined to comment on how the issues with software availability came to light, and if the journal made any effort to persuade Jobb against his decision. Here’s what the journal’s policy says about availability:
If published, software applications/tools must be freely available to any researcher wishing to use them for non-commercial purposes, without restrictions such as the need for a material transfer agreement.
In February when Jobb banned the use of Treefinder by scientists in the U.S. he noted the reasons on his blog:
(1) I want to protest against American imperialism, which I regard as the cause of most of all evil in the world: wars, tyranny, poverty, migration.
(2) I want to protest against EU tyranny, which is mostly the result of US imperialism.
(3) I want to demonstrate my sovereignty, something I would welcome to see much more often in science and politics.
In particular, I dislike that the USA and the EU aggressively promote a way of life that conflicts with my own way of life. I dislike the flood of immigrants they caused to come here – come here to replace unprofitable Europeans like me.
After so many years of hard work on TREEFINDER, I have still not been paid any reward.
The latest ban in October focused on European countries with immigrant-friendly policies, including Germany, Austria, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Sweden, and Denmark.
Co-author Korbinian Strimmer, a computational biologist at Imperial College London, told Retraction Watch that he has “supported the retraction of the paper” and does not agree with Jobb:
I for one have strongly distanced myself from these views…In addition, in all my own programming since my own Ph.D. project I have always been as strong advocate free and open source software – see http://strimmerlab.org/software.html.
He also told us that he’s going to take steps in the future to prevent co-authors from putting similar restrictions on software:
The present relicensing would not been possible if the software were released under GNU GPL license or similar, in the first place. Thus, in the future I will be ever more strict in enforcing free software licenses when working with collaborators.
In the meantime, scientists in affected countries who are unwilling to buy a plane ticket have the option of similar software, noted Strimmer:
There are many excellent software packages for reconstructing gene trees, so there is no shortage of alternatives. For example, in the R platform I would recommend using the package “ape”: https://cran.r-project.org/
When Jobb changed the software license in September ScienceInsider talked to scientists about the effect it might have on their work. The answer? Not much:
“I’d say not being able to use Treefinder would be no great loss to anyone,” says Sandra Baldauf, a biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. A paper co-authored by Baldauf last year in Current Biology used Treefinder primarily because a colleague had long worked with it, she says; now that that researcher has left, Baldauf uses different software, she wrote in an email. And after reading Jobb’s statement, “I would stop using [Treefinder] just on general principle, even if we had to resort to using pencil and paper.”
The ScienceInsider article includes an update, published a day after the article appeared, which notes that a comment was removed:
Comments from Jobb were added to this story after its first publication. Also, a comment about the Treefinder software was removed and the name of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre was corrected.
We asked Jobb where he works, and he told us he’s working on repairing
a his house.
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