If you’ve been anywhere near Twitter this week, you have probably seen a paper from Scientific Reports that appears to contain a likeness of a certain U.S. president in a cartoon of baboon feces.
It was “one of the greatest scientific Easter eggs in a long time,” according to Jonathan Eisen of the University of California, Davis.
The paper, “Methylation-based enrichment facilitates low-cost, noninvasive genomic scale sequencing of populations from feces,” appeared in Scientific Reports in January of this year. But it went viral this week. At the time of this writing, some 2,700 people had tweeted about it.
On Thursday, we contacted the authors — Kenneth Chiou, of the University of Washington, and Christina Bergey, of Penn State — as well as Springer Nature, which publishes the journal. None has responded.
Yesterday (Friday) however, the paper earned an “Editor’s Note:”
The editors have become aware of unusual aspects to the ‘Extract fecal DNA’ illustration in figure 1. We are investigating, and appropriate editorial action will be taken once the matter is resolved.
We asked Swapnil Hiremath, one of the people who drew our attention to this paper, for his comments:
Like everyone else, I had a chuckle at seeing the zoomed in figure. But as the resident cynical pessimist (or party pooper) the possible unintended consequences quickly became clear. (What were even these authors’ intended consequences, beyond a juvenile prank?) Will journals now need to add a layer of extra diligence to all other papers and figures? A substantial proportion of the general public distrusts scientists, eg on vaccines, climate change and the recent NRA “stay in your lane” issue. Should we as doctors and scientists aim to bridge across the differences with persuasion, or smirk from the sidelines, as this prank does?
So how would anyone have seen this before publication? We’ll leave that to Swapnil Bhatia:
Oh come on! That's why we have three reviewers. That's the job of the Turd Reviewer!
— ꜱᴡᴀᴘɴɪʟ ಠ_ಠ ʙʜᴀᴛɪᴀ (@synbiocs) December 14, 2018
Update, 1700 UTC, 12/18/18: A Scientific Reports spokesperson referred us to the editor’s note, and said:
The Scientific Reports editorial team have been made aware of the image in a section of one panel of figure 1 of this paper and are looking into the issue.
Please see an update on this story.
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