Overly honest references: “Should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?”

ethologyWe never cease to be amazed what can make it through peer review and several levels of editing.

In this case, some fish mating researchers wrote an, um, love note to their peers that failed to be edited out by any of the many eyes who must have at least glanced over it.

Here’s our favorite passage in “Variation in Melanism and Female Preference in Proximate but Ecologically Distinct Environments” (emphasis ours), published in Ethology:

Although association preferences documented in our study theoretically could be a consequence of either mating or shoaling preferences in the different female groups investigated (should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?), shoaling preferences are unlikely drivers of the documented patterns both because of evidence from previous research and inconsistencies with a priori predictions.

If that’s not a candidate for #overlyhonestmethods, we’re not sure what is. Let’s hope they were focusing too hard on the science to notice the citations.

Or maybe they meant “crappie.”

Update, 12:50 p.m. Eastern, 11/11/14: The journal has apparently removed the paper sometime in the last 15 minutes and replaced it with

Sorry an error has occurred

We have asked the publisher for comment, and will update with anything we learn.

Update, 1:30 p.m. Eastern, 11/11/14: Corresponding author Zach Culumber tells us:

No, this was not intentional.  It was added into the paper by a co-author during revision (after peer-review).  It was unfortunately an oversight that became incorporated into the paper during the process of sending the manuscript back and forth between co-authors. The comment in question was not spotted during the proofing process with the journal.  Neither myself nor any of the co-authors have any ill-will towards any other investigators, and I would never condone this sentiment towards another person or their work.  We are working with the Journal now to correct the mistake.  As the corresponding author, I apologize for the error.

Update, 2:20 p.m. Eastern, 11/11/14: A Wiley spokesperson tells us:

We are in the process of investigating how this line made it to publication. In the meantime as you will have noticed, we have now removed the paper from our platform. The paper will be republished ASAP without the line and will acknowledge the change.

Update, 11:30 a.m. Eastern, 11/12/14: Caitlin Gabor got in touch. She told us she knows a few of the authors, and has published with author Michi Tobler in the past:

I would appreciate an apology from all of the authors.

Hat tip: Dave Harris


36 thoughts on “Overly honest references: “Should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?””

  1. Before the days of decent spell check, we would read papers backwards to look for spelling errors. That eliminates the urge to see what we ‘know’ to be there.

  2. In some ways this also sheds light on referencing – not always the most appropriate paper is selected and sometimes one that is entirely irrelevant, so the thrust of the text is rather dubious. This one is in the discussion.

  3. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/263858939_Variation_in_Melanism_and_Female_Preference_in_Proximate_but_Ecologically_Distinct_Environments

    Page 7.

    This is almost as scary as the “make up a NMR” that appeared in a JACS paper, which could be construed as “perform an NMR” or “cook an NMR that looks convincing”. However, them trying to make a decision on which paper to cite shows how vulnerable the citation system is to omission. Would a search for mating and shoaling preferences bring up the “crappy Gabor paper”?

  4. Gabor has a paper in the same issue (Kim, D., Waller, J., Aspbury, A. S., Gabor, C. R. (2014), Mating Preferences of the Gynogenetic Amazon Molly Differ Between Populations Sympatric with Different Host Species).

    At least in that Paper they don’t discuss “crappie”.

  5. It really makes me laugh when scientists try and become politically correct. I feel that Zach Culumber et al. need to offer no apologies for their frank opinion about the crappy Gabor paper. That’s what they felt, and they were clearly not happy referencing that paper, so why should they? I am glad that their “internal memo” got published. We need a WikiLeaks-style section of RW, or separate blog, e.g., ScienceLeaks, for this type of story. The true focus of this story, I believe, is the publisher, Wiley, who wiped out such information in 15 minutes. This is really dishonest. An accumulation of bruises eventually leads to a cut, and eventual bleeding, or internal hemorraging. Publishers should keep this in mind as they cover up each case, one by one.

    1. What does ‘politically correct’ have to do with it? It’s extremely rude to denote the results of years of work of another professional as ‘crappy’. I thought it was common decency not to do that. Apart from that it’s also highly damaging for the reputation of the ‘accused’ as well as all those that were involved in putting that into print.

    1. Oooh, now I need to keep checking this comment thread!

      I agree though, I think what most of us are feeling is relief that it wasn’t us (this time).

  6. I became quite interested in the crappy Gabor paper after all, unfortunately the authors ultimately decided not to cite it as it seems. Bad for me.

    1. Why don’t you ask directly to Caitlin Gabor? Was she a referee for this paper, in which case she could have recommended her own work to be cited?

    1. Probably because no-one is interested in “Variation in Melanism and Female Preference in Proximate but Ecologically Distinct Environments”. Except, perhaps, for Gabor.

  7. The comment in question was not spotted during the proofing process with the journal.

    Put another way, the journal does not use manuscript editors. I’d be fascinated to learn what “the proofing process” actually means, although I well could guess.

  8. Update: just a few hours later, the Wiley web-page has been modified from “Sorry an error has occurred” to “ARTICLE TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE.” Wiley is probably wondering how such a crappy comment could have caused such a massive stir. I’d like to see what the next update will be (in a non-ethological sense).

  9. Well maybe they didn’t mean a person named Gabor but they were just referring to a study in which fish respond to Gabor grating stimuli 😉

  10. I still find it amazing that publishers (and big ones at that!) can just ‘remove’ papers, whatever the reason. You can’t unpublish something just by removing it, this isn’t Twitter!

  11. It’s not quite the same, but I suspect this sort of thing isn’t unusual in papers on the arXiv. Many authors seem not to realize that the TeX source (including comments which aren’t compiled into the PDF) is available with the paper. I’ve seen a few cases where authors express doubts about their own proofs (in math papers), but haven’t yet found something like this. It might be fun to download the full .tex database of the arxiv (possible, for a fee) and grep for ‘crappy’ to see what’s out there…

    1. I’ve seen a few cases where authors express doubts about their own proofs (in math papers)

      Goodness. Just yesterday I was contemplating commenting (elseblog) that I am, perhaps, overly open to taking arguments (from people otherwise unknown to me) as being made in good faith because those that I encounter professionally, as a mathematician, are always in good faith—even when “the error is very obvious”, I assume it to be the result of “a psychological problem, a blindness, an excitement, an inhibition of reasoning by an underlying fear of being wrong” (quoting John Stallings, in How not to prove the Poincaré Conjecture). Now you come along to disillusion me.

      Were these papers with more than one author, with notes in the TeX source by author A. expressing doubts about co-author B.’s proof? I have been in such a situation (but took care not to publish the fact, and generally have eventually succeeded in at least temporarily understanding).

      In any case, I would be fascinated to know your examples, if you care to spill the beans either here or off-line (you shouldn’t have any trouble finding my e-mail by using the arXiv, where I can be found in math/GT).

      1. I think it is usually, as you say, authors talking to co-authors about correctness. I’m not sure I can think of another example offhand. But a surprising number of papers on the arxiv include as comments discussion among the authors — I would be very surprised if a little digging didn’t find worse examples!

    2. Related sources of amusement are the program sources sprinkled with comment lines. Sometimes, these essential lines contain jokes, wacky humor, etc. These jokes are obviously intentional, however I’ve never seen offensive comments.
      I spotted this one this morning, in a Python module of ConQuest (the search machine for the CSD database):

      # need to set up some classes to handle fragments for displaying
      # and what have you (okay I am tired after a disturbed night!).

  12. I have seen one or two cases of this, and I gather everyone here has seen similar thing. I only remember the one below, from a low-tier journal.


    In addition to several other issues, one can read the lost phrase “This paragraph should go in result and discussion section.” lost right at the end of 1st column on page 2. It is also mildly funny, though nothing compared to the present case being discussed. For those who like spotting small curiosities, one specific editor of that journal appeared more than once on Retraction Watch.

    1. CR. And from the same Shoko and Zhou paper, note that there are “Discussions”. Note also the error in the acknowledgements: “The authors would like to that the Zimbabwe Sugar Industry for funding and providing a site for this research.” That should be thank. So, basic editorial oversight exists.

  13. The paper is back, as Sylvain states, and the one sentence states: “Original version published on 12 July 2014 has been replaced due to inclusion of an author’s note not intended for publication.” I wish publishers like Wiley would clean up problems in the literature of their journals, and claims of duplication, bad science and other misconduct as quickly as they cleaned up the evidence of their editorial gaffes in this case. This is just a perfect, small, but classical example of how the publisher is very quick to clean up (not necessarily cover up in this case) its error and miss, but takes ages to clean up the literature. Something is not right with this imbalance. I am glad that the case at least got recorded officially at RW, otherwise nothing might have been done. This emphasizes also how publishers are taking notice of RW and sites like PubPeer.

  14. I’m a science editor for a big research department and this is part of my job – cleaning up what the (sometimes many) co-authors overlook. But any comments like this that get added at any stage should be highlighted in bright colours or in bold so they’re less easy to miss in the final version! Easy to do in MS Word. Sorry I don’t know about LaTex.

  15. Withdrawal is always somewhat critical. There might be some critical errors that warrant withdrawal because of legal issues. Not quite sure if the error here really falls into that category.

    However, I assume the journal is also printed (that is: not online only)? Was the issue already printed? The homepage lists the December-issue as the most recent one and this paper is in the November issue. So possibly it has not been totally wiped out and you could still find that little gem if you bother going to the library and old-fashonedly take the journal physically into your hands….. Anyone here with access to the physical print?

  16. Well, it sure makes the concept of “peer-reviewed” more interesting. IF hurt feelings are the basis for allowing non-critical writing, I suggest the scientific method is irretrievably broken.

  17. JATdS
    That’s what they felt, and they were clearly not happy referencing that paper, so why should they?

    While a grad student I saw a couple of instances where a reviewer was aghast that authors had either mis-represented what was in a reference, or left out what the reviewer considered a key paper (usually one of their own). In my experience, the former
    usually occurs when someone knows there should be a reference for point X, finds a review that cites it in reference to point Y, reads just the title or abstract, then cites it as en example of point Z. I also saw a speaker publicly pilloried at a conference for completely ignoring or missing the contributions of an audience member.

    I consequently developed an overwhelming obsession with reading all the relevant papers in the field, and read every word of every paper I was citing in a manuscript. My strategy for citing references I don’t believe is to simply leave them out. Still, I almost always get criticisms from reviewers for having too many references. I think all of them are necessary to support my assertions, or I wouldn’t have included them.

    Does anyone really believe that reference limits are at all necessary in this age of cheap cloud storage and open access?

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