Chimp ‘culture’ paper retracted after authors spot errors, now has home at another journal

The authors of a 2011 paper claiming that chimp “culture” has more to do with local habitats than with where the chimps live have retracted it after finding mistakes in their work.

Here’s the notice for the paper, “Variation in chimpanzee ‘culture’ is predicted by local ecology, not geography:”

Shortly after our above paper was published in Biology Letters, we discovered several coding errors in the dataset we analysed. After re-analysing a corrected dataset, we did not find the same results as in our publication. In contrast, we found that no ecological variable was a statistically significant predictor of behavioural variation. Consequently, we do not feel that the main result of our publication is valid and have requested retraction of this manuscript.

So how did the errors come to light? Corresponding author Jason Kamilar, formerly of Yale and now at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, tells Retraction Watch:

A colleague contacted me about a week after the paper appeared on Biology Letters’ Early View to request the dataset. We originally used a couple of different methods to code the data and we  conducted the analyses  about 2 years ago. After looking at the datasets in more detail I noticed several errors that likely was likely due to coding the data from a separately coded dataset instead of the original dataset. I confirmed the problem by re-analyzing the correct dataset and I obtained different results. I contacted the editors of Biology Letters and we agreed that retracting the paper was the best course of action.

We wanted to know whether the retraction would have a significant effect on the field.

I think the impact will be quite minor. The retraction occurred less than 2 months after the paper appeared online, and it was never actually published in an issue. In addition, I submitted a new version of the manuscript that contained the correct dataset and analysis, which is now in press in Journal of Human Evolution.

Not surprisingly, the new paper found the opposite of the original results:

…geography, and longitude in particular, was the best predictor of behavioral variation.

The authors were also transparent in the new paper, which includes a line noting the retraction:

Our paper also serves as correction to our recently retracted study (Kamilar and Marshack, 2011), which contained several coding errors in the dataset.

Kamilar, we should note, is as critical of others’ work as he is of his own. Late last year, he was a co-author of a Comment in Science alleging flaws in a May 2011 report on whether dinosaurs were nocturnal. Its abstract:

Schmitz and Motani (Reports, 6 May 2011, p. 705) claimed to definitively reconstruct activity patterns of Mesozoic archosaurs using the anatomy of the orbit and scleral ring. However, we find serious flaws in the data, methods, and interpretations of this study. Accordingly, it is not yet possible to reconstruct the activity patterns of most fossil archosaurs with a high degree of confidence.

The response from the original paper’s authors wasn’t anything like a retraction; it was more like doubling down:

Hall et al. claim that it is not yet possible to infer the diel activity patterns of fossil archosaurs with high confidence. We demonstrate here that this assertion is founded on unscreened data, untenable assumptions, and inappropriate methods. Our approach follows ecomorphological and phylogenetic principles in a probabilistic framework, resulting in statistically well-supported reconstructions of diel activity patterns in Mesozoic archosaurs.

See no evil, hear no evil?

Hat tip: Michael Balter

6 thoughts on “Chimp ‘culture’ paper retracted after authors spot errors, now has home at another journal”

  1. THis is EXACTLY the problem with the Potti situation, as detailed in the Baggerly and Coombes paper (Baggerly, K. A. & Coombes, K. R. Deriving Chemosensitivity From Cell Lines: Forensic Bioinformatics And Reproducible Research In High-throughput Biology Annals Of Applied Statistics, 2009, 3, 1309-1334). In this paper, they show that Potti’s research fell apart for 3 reasons, 2 of which were labeling and data handling issues.

  2. Jason Kamilar is to be congratulated for his honest and painstaking approach to science. Would that more researchers took their data this seriously. Potti, on the other hand, is either delusional or ?. Schmitz and Motani appear to be out of touch with reality as well.

    1. True, true, true, but nonetheless the better situation would be to use methods and analysis approaches which prevented the problem from the start, such as those discussed by Baggerly and Coombes in their paper.

  3. > claiming that chimp “culture” has more to do with local habitats than with where the chimps live

    Huh? I had to click through to read the abstracts of the original and revised papers before I understood what you meant – that “local habitats” meant the local ecology and wildlife, while “where the chimps live” meant latitude/longitude coordinates. Would you consider rephrasing that statement?

    Also, it saddens me that the original paper is open-access, while the revised paper must be paid for. What progress.

    1. @Michael E. says: “Also, it saddens me that the original paper is open-access, while the revised paper must be paid for. What progress.”

      Agreed. Also, the chimp paper addressed a very important issue with implications for lots of people far outside the field of ethology: i.e., are the origins of cultural difference found in ecological adaptation? Is cultural change adaptational? The study thus cuts close to the heart of core issues in anthropology, economics, and historical analysis. The current mess is going to leave doubt and confusion, and not just about this question. It’s one more perceived strike against the relevance of science to any question with ideological implications.

      I know this must all sound like overstatement. Perhaps I’ll regret it next week. But Kamilar & Marshack (2011) was an important paper. I’m sure that the new JHE paper will also be important. But this completely avoidable screw-up will further discredit a scientific approach to hot-button issues that desperately need more dispassionate scientific study; and it really, really ticks me off.

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