At a snail’s pace: Species rediscovered, but paper on its disappearance remains

biology lettersA few weeks ago, in Weekend Reads, we highlighted the story of a snail species, thought to have gone extinct thanks to global warming, that had been rediscovered.

Now, as first reported by The Scientist, the journal in question has addressed the issue.

Here’s the story: In 2007, Biology Letters published a paper by Justin Gerlach describing the extinction of the Aldabra banded snail. But as journal editor Richard Battarbee notes:

Shortly after the publication of the Gerlach paper, we received a comment article from Clive Hambler and co-authors (as reported in The Times on Saturday 20 September 2014 [2]) that contested Gerlach’s findings. After independent peer review, the paper was rejected. However, among the concerns expressed in the comment article submitted by Hambler et al. was doubt that the snail was extinct. The authors predicted that the snail would re-appear in due course.

Then, in August of this year, it did. In the meantime, the paper had been cited seven times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Battarbee again:

In the light of this news, we were contacted by Clive Hambler in early September 2014 who requested that Gerlach’s original article be retracted and the comment article he had submitted in 2007 be published. While in full agreement of the need for an update to the scientific record, we declined to retract Gerlach’s paper and invited Hambler instead to resubmit his 2007 comment article updated with evidence of the snail’s rediscovery, an invitation he has until now declined.

So what did the journal decide to do? Here’s what Battarbee wrote:

Does the rediscovery of R. aldabrae justify retraction? It is a normal part of the scientific method that findings published in good faith, based on the evidence available at the time, may later prove to be incorrect. In such a situation, journals have a range of options for alerting the scientific community. Some of the options are outlined on our website [4]. According to the Committee on Publication Ethics, journal editors should consider retracting a publication if “they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)” [5; p. 1]. Our considered view is that, while the report of extinction in the Gerlach paper has lately been revealed to be incorrect, neither misconduct nor honest error have been the cause. In this case, we believe the most appropriate action is for this new evidence to be published, thus updating the scientific record.

The principal purpose of this Editorial therefore is to make this update to the scientific record clear, prior to the possible publication of such evidence, by publicizing the rediscovery and acknowledging that the claim by Gerlach in Biology Letters [1] that R. aldabrae was extinct was incorrect.

We asked Battarbee what the journal attributed the incorrect findings to if “neither misconduct nor honest error have been the cause:”

The independent referees who peer-reviewed the paper considered that the conclusion that the snail had become extinct was a reasonable inference from the available data at the time of  publication.  Since publication in 2007 new evidence has come to light which has shown that this conclusion appears to be incorrect.

We also noted that the original abstract page does not contain any mention of the findings being incorrect. If readers scroll past the abstract to the “Articles citing this article,” there is a link to the editorial, but shouldn’t a clear message be more prominent? Apparently, that will take more developments. Battarbee tells Retraction Watch:

In order to update the scientific record new evidence needs to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.  Once this new evidence is formally available we will evaluate the need for further updates to this paper and take appropriate action if necessary.  In the meantime the Editorial serves to inform and update the scientific community on this matter.

11 thoughts on “At a snail’s pace: Species rediscovered, but paper on its disappearance remains”

  1. mmm… along the same lines, could we ask to retract a management article claiming that a certain company has ‘sustainable’ competitive advantage if, after a certain period of time, the company(ies) involved in the study fails? I think that the inference argument is a reasonable one, otherwise any study which is later falsified could be retracted.

  2. How does one definitively prove something does not exist or does not exist anymore? We can be quite sure T. rex and wooly mammoth are extinct, but with something so small as a snail, which only recently was there and alive?

  3. So editor Battarbee of Biology Letters wrote ” [we] invited Hambler instead to resubmit his 2007 comment article updated with evidence of the snail’s rediscovery, an invitation he has until now declined.” I have the opinion that this was a very good step of the editor of Biology Letters.

  4. We also noted that the original abstract page does not contain any mention of the findings being incorrect. If readers scroll past the abstract to the “Articles citing this article,” there is a link to the editorial, but shouldn’t a clear message be more prominent?

    This strikes me as an extraordinary suggestion with next to no possibility of being applied evenly across the board. I could see an argument for some sort of mention that “a subsequent editorial has been published” as is often done for a retraction (and perhaps expressions of concern), but explicitly noting that the finding didn’t pan out?

  5. Whether the snail is extinct or not is immaterial to the retraction question. Without having seen the initially rejected Hambler document, I gather from the context that he had concerns about the validity of the process to declare extinction. If the logical process, or data supporting that process, is faulty then the comment article should have been published or if sufficiently bad as to suggest fraud or similar wrong doing, the original paper retracted. Simply choosing the wrong path out of two, or more, equally valid (at the time) deductions is surely not grounds for retraction, but definitely needs rebuttal which Hambler provided and the journal editor failed to find convincing (in spite of the sometimes god-like status of reviewers, ultimately it is the editor’s decision).

  6. Discovering an Undiscovery.
    The issue – if there is an issue – is that what was no more than conjecture was published as evidenced fact.
    In “We find no evidence of X therefore X does not exist” the conclusion is invalid. To publish such an invalid conclusion as fact, rather than just as the hypothesis it was, is just sloppy on the part of the reviewers and the journal. But if they had said that “We find no evidence of X therefore X probably does not exist”, they would have been more accurate but they would not have attracted Press Releases or headlines.
    A simple case of a falsified hypothesis becomes a case of a “lie exposed” because the hypothesis was presented as a fact to support a political agenda..

    1. Actually, extinction is by necessity a “no evidence of X, therefore X no longer exists”. There are many species considered extinct because we have not seen any individuals since x years.

      I don’t know what “press releases” or “headlines” you are referring to with respect to this paper. I have searched in old databases and can’t find any press releases or headlines about this snail and/or the link to climate change, but for a single mention on one wildlife blog.

      I also fail to see what “political agenda” this paper is supposed to support.

      It thus appears to me that there are others who have a political agenda in making the re-discovery such a big issue.

      1. I would not claim to be unbiased or to be completely objective.
        Perhaps I see alarmist ghosts everywhere.
        But some headlines generated from the press release at the time (2007) were.
        1. Nature Climate Change – “Snail Sayonara”
        “R. aldabrae now has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few species whose extinction can be attributed directly to climate change, rather than indirect effects such as habitat change ”
        http://www.nature.com/climate/2007/0709/full/climate.2007.43.html

        2.MongaBay – “Climate change claims a snail”
        http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0813-snail.html

        I note also that the recent Biology Letters editorial justifying why they declined to publish Clive Hambler’s “contestation” admits that the conclusions were hyped “…. Gerlach’s proposed extinction of R. aldabrae was cited by Cahill et al. [6] which was referenced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report [7] as one of the few convincing examples of species extinctions as a result of climate change.” http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/10/10/20140771

        Dr. Hambler has posted his original objections which were not accepted for publication by Biology Letters.
        https://ktwop.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/hambler-et-al-2007-unpublished-1.pdf
        “… We suggest short-term climate change is unlikely to be a threat to an endemic species of a raised tropical island, particularly if it has a long sub-fossil record. R. aldabrae has apparently existed in the region for over 125,000 years, despite substantial changes in Aldabra’s habitat and land area ……. Rainfall data for Aldabra are fragmented and will require expert analysis. Gerlach’s data and analyses require correction…….. We predict “rediscovery” when resources permit.”

        Biology Letters did not need prescience back in 2007 – just common sense.

  7. Ktwop, thanks alot for contacting Clive Hambler and thanks alot for his willingness to post these objections on your website. I fully agree with the objections of Clive Hambler & co. I fail to understand why Biology Letters has not published these objections.

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