A 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 ) 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.
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 . 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  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.