Update on a Best Of retraction: Elsevier edits notice suggesting renaming Israel “historical Palestine” was political

About two months ago, we posted an item on a curious retraction as the first installment in our Best of Retractions series. In the notice of the retraction in Agricultural Water Management, the editor wrote:

Reason: During the second revision of the manuscript, the authors modified Figure 1 (changing the label from “Israel” to  “Historical Palestine”), apparently with the goal of inserting a political statement into a scientific journal article. The authors did not inform the editors or the publisher of this change in their manuscript. As such, the authors have not lived up to the standards of trust and integrity that form the foundation of the peer-review process. The Editors-in-Chief take a very strong view on this matter and, hence, the retraction of the article from publication in Agricultural Water Management.

As Pieter van der Zaag, one of the paper’s authors informed us over the weekend in a comment on that post, however, the phrase “apparently with the goal of inserting a political statement into a scientific journal article” has now been removed from the notice. We asked van der Zaag, of the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, for some more information. Here are his comments:

We (the authors) have had a long correspondence with Elsevier, in which we explained that we had made an unintentional error, which nobody noted before the article went to press. We suggested that an erratum would be appropriate. Elsevier however decided to retract the paper and formulated the retraction note without involving us. We took issue with the contentious and unproven allegation that we had had political intentions, and wrote a letter to the publisher.

It took a while before the publisher replied, but eventually Elsevier gracefully agreed to remove the contentious allegation (“apparently with the goal of inserting a political statement into a scientific journal article”) from the retraction note.

Now that the air has been cleared, we face an interesting situation: the retracted article had gone through a thorough peer-review process and was accepted by a respected journal. The article contained original data, of which other scholars could potentially benefit. The only (but significant and highly unfortunate) flaw of the article was one faulty label in one figure. This, however, did not affect in any way the quality of the data presented in the article, nor the analysis.

With the retraction, valuable (and peer-reviewed) scientific data and analysis have been removed from the academic and public domains, and have in fact been extinguished, making it impossible for other academics and interested persons to benefit from and build on them.

We are therefore now exploring ways to (re-)publish the data and analysis.

We appreciate the update, and will keep an eye on the data to see what van der Zaag is able to do with it. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from any Retraction Watch readers who have stories of republishing data that was the basis of retracted papers.

5 thoughts on “Update on a Best Of retraction: Elsevier edits notice suggesting renaming Israel “historical Palestine” was political”

  1. I don’t entirely see his explanation of WHY exactly his er… ‘unfortunate mistake’ happened, i.e. who did it? Pro-Palestine-orientated graphics designer working on the figure? I don’t think so.
    I check the labeling of all my figures 3x and I know exactly and why each labels appears and I would think twice before labeling anything ‘historical Palestine’ instead of the name of the current state, knowing what the consequences may be. I think that a retraction is appropriate, since I am sure the authors knew exactly what they were doing (and why). So no, I’m not buying this ‘unfortunate mistake’ story, and I doubt the integrity of data generated by people who are willing to play such games in scientific research.

  2. I view it the other way. The caption of one figure has never been a reason for retracting a paper. It deserves a note to the author at most. This incident shows instead that pro-Israel people are involved in reviewing anything before it goes to the public.

  3. I take it that by “pro-Izrael” people you mean people respecting current geopolitical situation?
    Or do you also call Australia “historical Aboriginal land”

  4. Although af meant well, comparing the situation in Israel to that in Australia is very wrong. Years before the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was named Palestine, it was called Israel and Judah and was inhabited by Israelis and Jews respectively (who, by the way, remained continuously through all these years). Biblical Palestine (Pleshet) was a very small piece of land between Gaza and Tel Aviv and was inhabited by people originated in Greece area that did not have any common origin with today’s Palestinians.

    1. The entity called “Israel” from the 13th century BCE was not inhabited by the same people who call themselves “israelis” today. Get your facts straight. The now “israeli” Jews descended from immigrants from the European Jewish diaspora. Approximately the same number are descended from immigrants from Arab countries, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia. Over 200,000 are of Ethiopian and Indian-Jewish descent. And even. And even any of them descended from the original inhabitants of the area they can’t just to come in and uproot and annihilate an entire population of people who have lived there for generations. That is inhumane. The Palestinians have been lived there (Jews, Muslims, and Christians all together) for many generations. Someone from Poland can’t just come in and take the home of someone who has lived there since birth, and their parents, grandparents and great great grandparents have lived there.

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