Another unofficial record? Authors walk back arcane blue crab paper — 15 years later

Portunus trituberculatus, courtesy NOAA

If a paper that has never been cited is retracted, will it be missed?

Japanese researchers have retracted an obscure 1996 article in an equally obscure physics journal after concluding — some 15 years later — that their fundamental assertion was mistaken.

The paper, “Uptake and excretion of cobalt in the crustacean Portunus trituberculatus,” in  Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, purported to show that a form of the element cobalt might be helpful in tracing the growth of Portunus trituberculatus, otherwise known as the blue crab.

That’s the world’s most harvested crab species and a particular favorite in Asia. But don’t confuse it with the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, of William Warner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Beautiful Swimmers.

The problem with such elemental tracers, it seems, is that crabs moult repeatedly, shedding their shells, along with the elements that build up inside them. According to researchers from the Research Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Osaka Prefectural Fisheries Experimental Station, however, a volatile form of cobalt, previously undetected, could be a suitable element for tracing the growth of both crabs and prawns — another important aquaculture species in Asia — over time.

But that turned out to be a (shell)fish tale. Per the retraction notice, which appears in the May 15, 2011 issue of the journal:

This article has been retracted at the request of the author and the Editors because it is in error.

In this paper, regarding the analytical results for the Co concentration, a subtraction procedure for the Br interference lines was not performed. For this reason, the general idea of volatile and non-volatile compounds with cobalt in ashed samples was incorrect.

The author apologizes for any inconvenience this may have caused.

A welcome apology, but after 15 years and no citations, we’re pretty sure that no one will be put out by the retraction. And it does make you wonder: Why weren’t there other papers, even from the same scientists, that saw fit to mention this work? Was it because it, um, smelled fishy to begin with?

We readily admit to being out of our depth with this one. And, despite reading the paper more than once, it’s still not clear what, exactly, we’re supposed to now no longer believe to be true. Is it that the “general idea” about volatile cobalt is wrong, or, more narrowly, that the way they’ve applied that idea was mistaken?

We’d hoped to reach the authors and the journal’s editor for clarification, but received no replies. If any Retraction Watch readers have expertise in this area, please weigh in.

In the meantime, the 15-year delay may mean we’re looking at another unofficial record. As we noted in a January post about a paper by Grant Steen about retraction trends:

The average length of time between publication and retraction is growing. In fact, it took nine years to retract one particular paper in 2009.

2 thoughts on “Another unofficial record? Authors walk back arcane blue crab paper — 15 years later”

  1. Good general points about retraction times.

    But as to “what, exactly, we’re supposed to now no longer believe”, I presume it would be everything in the original paper. If the paper itself (rather than just one sub-set of data or conclusions) is retracted, it must be viewed as unreliable. So whatever it is you believed on the basis of reading that paper should be disregarded, and you should go back to whatever your previous state of belief was before reading it. Since nobody seems to have read the paper, presumably this will require little or no adjustment of beliefs, but the general point holds.

    It is always the researcher’s burden to present reliable and defensible data. Nobody should have to pick through the rubble of retracted papers to figure out what is and is not reliable from within them, and it’s probably a mistake to try.

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