Data “mismatch” and author’s illness pluck bird sex-ratio study from literature

coverInaccessible data and an author’s illness are to blame for the retraction of a paper on sex ratios of baby finches, according to the authors.

The paper, “Experimental evidence that maternal corticosterone controls adaptive offspring sex ratios,” published in Functional Ecology, outlined how a hormone in mother finches can “skew” the number of males vs females that hatch from the eggs in her nest.

But after questions about the data were raised, the authors were unable to address the “mismatch” between the experimental data and those that were published. Compounding the situation is the fact that, while working on the paper, first author Sarah Pryke at the Australian National University “was suffering from a medical condition that likely impaired her cognitive abilities,” according to a statement from Pryke’s co-authors.

An email to Pryke was met with an out-of-office reply:

I’m on extended leave and unfortunately won’t be able to check emails.

The retraction note offers a quick summary of what happened:

Following concerns raised by the authors of the above article, published online in Wiley Online Library on 21 January 2014, a review carried out by Macquarie University revealed that there were inconsistencies between the available dataset and the results reported in the article. It has not been possible to review original data files. Hence, the validity of the results could not be verified. The article has therefore been retracted by agreement between the authors, the Executive Editor (Professor C. W. Fox), Macquarie University, Australian National University, Deakin University and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Pryke’s co-authors were available to explain more about what happened. Simon Griffith, a biologist at Macquarie University, sent us this statement:

I am responding on behalf of Lee Ann Rollins and Bill Buttemer (who are both currently overseas) and the three of us have arrived at this consensual response to you (we have been in email contact). We all respect the privacy of the lead author, who remains ill. She was a close colleague to all of us.

1) The experimental design required that all but the lead author be blind to the identification of the samples they were analysing.

2) Most unfortunately, the lead author was suffering from a medical condition that likely impaired her cognitive abilities when she submitted the Dryad dataset and a mismatch between these data and those in the publication were subsequently noted.

3) While this would normally be readily rectified, our colleague’s medical condition worsened and she was unable to correct the discrepancies, and none of us have since been able to access the primary data that would enable us to reconstruct the whole dataset.

4) We therefore very reluctantly retracted the publication.

Functional Ecology editor Charles Fox said more or less the same thing:

The senior authors of the paper, Bill Buttemer and Simon Griffith, contacted Functional Ecology about the paper. They indicated that a colleague had contacted them noting inconsistencies between the data deposited in Dryad and the results appearing in the paper. The senior authors attempted to address the inconsistencies by communicating with the lead author of the paper, Sarah Pryke. Unfortunately, Sarah had left the university and was unavailable to assist her co-authors due to medical reasons I cannot discuss. Macquarie University held an internal investigation and determined that there were sufficient inconsistencies between the data available to the senior authors (including those published in Dryad) and the published manuscript to request that the journal retract the paper. Given the unavailability of the lead author to address the inconsistencies, the remaining authors and the universities involved agreed to the retraction. Bill Buttemer or Simon Griffith have been very cooperative and forthcoming with the journal, so I recommend that you contact them for further comment.

We contacted Macquarie University about the investigation, and have not heard back from them. We will update this post if we do.

The paper has is not listed in Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, but has been cited twice according to Google Scholar.

Hat tip @Bob O’Hara

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4 thoughts on “Data “mismatch” and author’s illness pluck bird sex-ratio study from literature”

  1. This is a sad story, and could have happened to any of us. Kudos to the authors for taking the right steps.

    There are things you can do to mitigate the risk of being in a situation like this. Alex Bond wrote about having a ‘scientific will’ (, and I wrote about having a ‘publication power of attorney’ ( Nobody expects to be in a situation like this until they find themselves there! (Note: I’m not suggesting any blame on the authors in this case; the actions Alex and I discuss remain highly unusual).

    1. There is another problem here, one which is more widespread that they appear not to be able to reproduce the analyses from the archived data. I think it should be essential that co-authors have access to the raw data and any scripts needed to create the analyses. And, anyone not using a statistical package that allows scripting should either be using one or is doing only the simplest of analyses.

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