Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Inclusion of “personal correspondence” in evolution paper prompts retraction, new journal policy

with 4 comments

Hearsay is not admissible as evidence in court — and it doesn’t seem to go very far in science, either.

A pair of researchers in the field of human evolution have lost a paper which contained data from “personal correspondence” that the providing party apparently did not enjoy seeing in print.

The article, “Early hominin biogeography in Island Southeast Asia,” was published in the September/October 2015 issue of Evolutionary Anthropology. The authors, Roy Larick and Russell Ciochon, are paleoanthropologists and co-founders of the Iowa-Bandung Java Project — a 20-year old collaborative effort to study the origins of early humans in Indonesia.

Per the retraction notice:

The above article from Evolutionary Anthropology, published on 19 October 2015 in Wiley OnlineLibrary (, and in Volume 24, Number 5, pp. 185-213, has been retracted by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. The retraction has been made due to the inclusion without explicit permission of unpublished third-party research data disclosed to the authors in personal correspondence. The Editor notes that the journal has since clarified its policy on citing unpublished research findings, and in particular those disclosed in personal correspondence, to avoid future instances of this nature.

John Fleagle, who edits Evolutionary Anthropology, referred us to the writers’ guidelines page for the new policy:

Because Evolutionary Anthropology is primarily a review journal, we discourage the use of Personal Communications as citations. If Personal Communications, or any other unpublished materials are cited, the author(s) must include a copy of the communication stating the evidence cited and giving the author(s) permission to use the observations.

This is the journal’s first-ever retraction.

Larick provided a bit more information about the article in an email:

The issue of communicated data arose after publication. We were surprised with the issue and especially with the demand for retraction. We were yet more surprised that Wiley retracted the paper on the grounds cited. Through two lawyers, one in Iowa City and one in New York, we attempted to develop a solution not involving retraction. Our biggest surprise was that Wiley seemed determined to retract under any circumstance.

We have not yet decided on how to proceed with the paper, which is a review of literature and current ideas. Much of the ‘communicated data’ (citations of personal communication) has now been published.

The Evolutionary Anthropology paper is a synthesis of our work integrated with other current research, especially that of the Australians. So much good material was on the verge of publication as we were finishing the paper in 2015. We relied on personal communications to bring new studies to light. We had made our intentions clear to our colleagues–everyone knew about this paper. With hindsight, we pushed ‘personal communication’ a little too far. As an aside, neither the editor nor any of the five reviewers expressed concern about our citations.

It is our great disappointment that the paper could not be kept published with accommodations to the offended scientists. We feel that our case lies well outside the standard (an necessary) reasons for retracting scientific papers.

The paper has been cited once, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

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  • rfg June 30, 2017 at 8:35 am

    “With hindsight, we pushed ‘personal communication’ a little too far.”

    That’s an understatement. I agree with the journal.

    Publishing someone else’s really cool finding in a review article without their permission (even if you assign credit via a ‘personal communication’) is a very short step from plagiarism.

    I understand the concern of the person whose data was revealed without their permission. They don’t get to be first with the reveal. It might even preclude them from publishing the data in a top-flight journal (old news).

    • Lee Rudolph June 30, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Publishing someone else’s really cool finding in a review article without their permission (even if you assign credit via a ‘personal communication’) is a very short step from plagiarism.

      No. It’s two steps (without seeing the article in question, neither I nor—I think—you have any way to evaluate their length) from plagiarism. (1) It does “assign credit” (albeit “via a ‘personal communication'”) to the authors’ (2) mention (not use) of the (credited) scientist’s ideas.

      I understand the concern of the person whose data was revealed without their permission.

      Do we know (certainly I don’t, on the basis of this RW post, unless I’m misreading it) that data was revealed, or simply the (credited) scientist’s conclusions from that data? This seems (to me) to be an important distinction.

      It might even preclude them from publishing the data in a top-flight journal (old news).

      If so, that’s a indictment of what does seem to be the deplorable norm in (many? surely not all??) sciences. Certainly, in my experience (as an observer, and also as a participant—on both sides—of several such mentions-of-not-yet-published-theorems in review articles), this vile distortion of research’s publishability by publishers’ sense of its “newsworthiness” (in contrast to its importance within science) does not occur in mathematics, thank goodness!

  • TL June 30, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Factual statements to the effect of “X is working on Y and claims to have discovered Z” do not feel like plagiarism to me, even if referring to unpublished work. They may violate confidentiality between individuals of course. They probably also don’t belong in a review article that is supposed to cover peer-reviewed literature, not rumours spread around the faculty coffee room.

  • rfg June 30, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    This might be 0, 1 or 2 steps from plagiarism depending on who you talk too.

    For ORI this might actually be 0 steps.

    “As a general working definition, ORI considers plagiarism to include both the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property and the substantial unattributed textual copying of another’s work. It does not include authorship or credit disputes.

    The theft or misappropriation of intellectual property includes the unauthorized use of ideas or unique methods obtained by a privileged communication, such as a grant or manuscript review.”

    I meant “old news” to mean that the findings, perhaps erroneously, might not be considered new or novel anymore. I do agree that there is an overemphasis on the lay press newsworthiness for some glam journals usually manifest by Editors with the phrase, “more appropriate for a specialty journal,” but that not the meaning I was going for. IMO novelty is a valid criterion for a top journal in a field.

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