Sweet nothings: Buggy data force retraction of sugarcane pest paper

eecoverThe journal Environmental Entomology (that’s insects, not words) is retracting a 2010 paper on a sugarcane-loving borer insect by a group from south Florida.

The article, “Life Table Studies of Elasmopalpus lignosellus (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) on Sugarcane,” came from the Everglades Research & Education Center, an arm of the University of Florida.

According to the notice:

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the authors due to numerous errors that cannot readily be corrected by publishing an erratum. The lesser cornstalk borer, Elasmopalpus lignosellus (Zeller) (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) is an important pest of sugarcane (a complex hybrid of Saccharum spp.) in southern Florida. Reproductive and life table parameters for E. lignosellus were examined at nine constant temperatures from 13 to 36°C with sugarcane as the larval food source. The pre- and postoviposition periods decreased with increasing temperatures and reached their minimums at 33 and 36°C, respectively. The oviposition period was longest at 27°C. The mean fecundity, stage-specific survival, stage-specific fecundity, intrinsic rate of increase, and finite rate of increase were greatest at 30°C and decreased with increasing or decreasing temperature. The net reproductive rate was greatest at 27°C. The Logan-6 model best described the relationship between temperature and intrinsic rate of increase. The generation and population doubling times were longest at 13 and shortest at 33 and 30°C, respectively. The most favorable temperatures for E. lignosellus population growth were between 27 and 33°C. Life table parameters for E. lignosellus reared on sugarcane were greater than for the Mexican rice borer [Eoreuma loftini (Dyar) (Lepidoptera: Crambidae)] reared on an artificial diet at 30°C. The intrinsic rates of increase for the sugarcane borer [Diatraea saccharalis (F.) (Lepidoptera: Crambidae)] reared on sugarcane or corn were the same as for E. lignosellus reared on sugarcane at 27°C, but the net reproductive rate was four times higher for the former than the latter borer species. This article has been withdrawn.

There’s another notice, which says the same and a bit more:

The paper, ‘Life Table Studies of Elasmopalpus lignosellus (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) on Sugarcane,’ by Hardev S. Sandhu, Gregg S. Nuessly, Susan E. Webb, Ronald H. Cherry, and Robert A. Gilbert, Environmental Entomology (2010) 39(6): 2025–2032, is withdrawn at the request of the authors due to numerous errors that cannot readily be corrected by publishing an erratum. I acknowledge the valuable input of Prof. Hsin Chi, Department of Entomology, National Chung Hsing University, Taichung, Taiwan, in raising significant questions about the published paper. — E. Alan Cameron, Editor-in-Chief

The article was cited four times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

We attempted to reach the first author, Hardev Sandhu — listed as a postdoc on the center’s website — but the email bounced back as undeliverable. No one answered the phone at the center, not a surprise given the holidays, but we did speak with Alan Cameron, editor of the journal, who told us:

 There’s no question at all about falsification of data or purloined data. It’s not question of dishonesty, it’s just that the data were not properly analyzed.

The kind of error cascaded through a number of other things in the paper. I fully expect to see it back in again,

said Cameron, who reiterated that “there’s nothing dirty about this one.”

He blew it, and that does happen on occasion. It’s an embarrassment for me. The subject editors and reviewers missed picking it up in the review process.

The error involved Sandhu’s use of “life tables,” which are tools entomologists use to assess mortality rates and events — parasitism of larvae, for example — across the life cycle of a species. The Taiwanese researcher who caught the error has particular expertise in the life table in question, Cameron said.

Bonus: Chi’s website has some nice photos.

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