Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Lost citation snuffs out Aussie fire paper

with 3 comments

A journal has retracted a 2016 paper on wildfires in Australia because the authors neglected to cite earlier work — an unintentional lapse, they said.

The article, “Projected changes in Australian fire regimes during the 21st century and consequences for Ecosystems,” appeared in the International Journal of Wildland Fire. The authors are Sandy Harrison and Douglas Kelley,  of the University of Reading, in the UK. Kelley appears to have done his share of the work as a PhD student at Macquarie University in Australia.

According to the notice:

After due consideration, the editors of the journal agree that the paper be retracted from International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Reason: While this paper adds valuable new data and analysis to a previously published paper (Kelley DI, Harrison SP (2014) Enhanced Australian carbon sink despite increased wildfire during the 21st century. Environmental Research Letters 9104015.doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/10/104015), the 2014 paper was not cited. As a result, the objectives, results and conclusions of this research were not differentiated from those in the 2014 publication.

We did a quick comparison of the abstracts for the two articles. You can see for yourself how similar they are in spots — close enough, certainly, to trigger alarms from plagiarism detection software had the journal been using it.

From the 2014 article:

Climate projections show Australia becoming significantly warmer during the 21st century, and precipitation decreasing over much of the continent. Such changes are conventionally considered to increase wildfire risk. Nevertheless, we show that burnt area increases in southern Australia, but decreases in northern Australia. Overall the projected increase in fire is small (0.72–1.31% of land area, depending on the climate scenario used), and does not cause a decrease in carbon storage. In fact, carbon storage increases by 3.7–5.6 Pg C (depending on the climate scenario used). Using a process-based model of vegetation dynamics, vegetation–fire interactions and carbon cycling, we show increased fire promotes a shift to more fire-adapted trees in wooded areas and their encroachment into grasslands, with an overall increase in forested area of 3.9–11.9%. Both changes increase carbon uptake and storage. The increase in woody vegetation increases the amount of coarse litter, which decays more slowly than fine litter hence leading to a relative reduction in overall heterotrophic respiration, further reducing carbon losses. Direct CO2 effects increase woody cover, water-use efficiency and productivity, such that carbon storage is increased by 8.5–14.8 Pg C compared to simulations in which CO2 is held constant at modern values. CO2 effects tend to increase burnt area, fire fluxes and therefore carbon losses in arid areas, but increase vegetation density and reduce burnt area in wooded areas.

From the more recent paper:

Climate projections show Australia becoming significantly warmer during the 21st century, while precipitation decreases over much of the continent. Such changes are generally considered to increase wildfire risk. Nevertheless, using a process-based model of vegetation dynamics and vegetation–fire interactions, we show that while burnt area increases in southern and central Australia, it decreases in northern Australia. Overall the projected increase in fire by the end of the 21st century is small (0.7–1.3% of land area equivalent to 12–24% of current burnt area, depending on the climate scenario). The direct effects of increasing CO2 on vegetation productivity and water-use efficiency influence simulated fire regimes: CO2 effects tend to increase burnt area in arid regions, but increase vegetation density and reduce burnt area in forested regions. Increases in fire promotes a shift to more fire-adapted trees in wooded areas and their encroachment into grasslands, with an overall increase in forested area of 3.9–11.9% of land area by the end of the century. The decrease in fire in northern Australia leads to an increase in tree cover (ca 20%) and an expansion of tropical forest. Thus, although the overall change in burnt area is small it has noticeable consequences for vegetation patterns across the continent.

Harrison told us that the two articles had similar foundations but looked at different questions:

Our 2014 paper used the same model simulations, but addressed an entirely different issue – specifically the carbon cycle implications of future climate change. The retracted paper deals with implications of changes in fire for vegetation patterns and biodiversity. The 2014 paper was cited in an early draft of the retracted paper, which was written shortly after the 2014 paper was published, but this citation did not make it into the submitted manuscript. This omission was overlooked during the very long reviewing process, where the journal asked for extensive changes to the structure and contents of the paper. The omission was not intentional and has no impact on the scientific content of the retracted paper.

The journal decided to retract the paper, rather than publish an erratum citing the previous manuscript as we suggested. We have accepted this decision.

The retracted article is not indexed. The 2014 paper has been cited seven times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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Comments
  • Anand August 18, 2017 at 3:57 am

    Why do someone write like this, especially a native speaker?. Although the studies ask different questions, the abstracts read like a template of other.

  • JCalvertN(UK) August 19, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    I find some of these retractions somewhat petty. As a reader of technical and scientific papers, all I want is for them to be useful and correct (oh! and comprehensible). So long as the writers are competent, I’m not at all interested in who gets the credit the papers, or whether they are winning or losing in the race competition to produce papers.

    • Paris August 29, 2017 at 10:11 am

      These are not petty for those who spent their volunteer time to review the duplicate publications. The arguments in favor of self-plagiarism are moot.

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