“This is a case of good science:” Nature republishes retracted glacier paper

via NASA

Nature has republished a paper on glacier melt that was retracted more than a year ago after the author became aware that he had made an error that underestimated such melt.

The paper, originally titled “Asia’s glaciers are a regionally important buffer against drought,” was subjected to an expression of concern in 2017 after two researchers noticed that the author, Hamish Pritchard, of the British Antarctic Survey, had mistaken annual figures for water loss for decade-long water loss figures. It was retracted in February 2018, and is now republished as “Asia’s shrinking glaciers protect large populations from drought stress.”

Hester Jiskoot, who had reviewed the paper for us for previous posts, and is now chief editor of the International Glaciological Society’s journals, told Retraction Watch this week that the episode

is a case of good science. The overall conclusions are the same but the exact quantities are slightly different.”

Jiskoot, of the University of Lethbridge, continued:

They’ve been very careful. When it was retracted I was a little bit surprised. I thought, ‘they just need to update the analysis.’ But clearly they needed more time to do thee analysis.

The error, she said:

unfortunately hadn’t been picked up in the peer review process. Readers picked it up. The author immediately responded, and the numbers end up more robust. I think it’s very good that Nature is still the outlet for this particular paper.

Pritchard responded to a request for comment by asking what we planned to write, but did not provide any comment.

Jiskoot noted that glacier researchers may be a bit more careful nowadays because there was a typo in a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying that glaciers would disappear by 2035, instead of by 2350. As in the case of the Nature paper, the overall message was still correct.

‘Unprecedented’

Nature also published an editorial accompanying the republished paper. They write:

Such a case — in which a paper’s conclusions become even more compelling after retraction and revision — is rare. The process and outcome, however, highlight the range of reasons for retraction. At one extreme lies clear fraud. Somewhere along the continuum are honest mistakes. At the other extreme is the reality of modern research, in which a complex mix of inputs, models and analysis might yield errors for which a quick correction is not sufficient. Today’s unprecedented (for Nature) case teaches us to look beyond the ‘retraction’ label, and to keep an open mind lest we erase significant new discoveries.

We and others have of course been arguing for years that retraction notices should be clear, in part to allow readers to tell the difference between misconduct and honest error.

We asked Nature whether it had considered a retraction and replacement, which a number of other journals have used in similar situations. A spokesperson told us:

We are republishing a revised and re-reviewed version of a retracted paper. The errors in the original paper were sufficiently extensive so as not to be accommodated in a correction.  Therefore, in discussion with the author, we determined the best course of action was to rapidly correct the record through a retraction, rather than waiting for new analysis to be completed. The author revised the paper, included new data, and updated other aspects of the analysis. As part of our editorial process, the revised paper underwent peer review by referees who were familiar with the earlier issues surrounding the work. The overarching conclusions were largely unchanged and some of the analysis was expanded and strengthened by the additional work. Thus, we determined that this new version of the paper was of sufficient significance and relevance for Nature’s readership to merit publication in its own right, in line with our editorial criteria.

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