Biologist critiques own paper, journal retracts it — against her wishes

Evolution Cover ImageThe journal Evolution has retracted a 2007 paper about the roles of the different sexes in searching for mates, after the same author critiqued the work in a later paper. 

The case raises important questions about when retractions are appropriate, and whether they can have a chilling effect on scientific discourse. Although Hanna Kokko of the University of Zurich, Switzerland — who co-authored both papers — agreed that the academic literature needed to be corrected, she didn’t want to retract the earlier paper; the journal imposed that course of action, said Kokko

Let’s take a look at the retraction note:

The above article [1], published online on 31 March 2007 in Wiley Online Library (, has been retracted by the journal Editor in Chief, Ruth Shaw, due to inadvertent technical errors in analysis of the model. These errors are explained and corrected in a forthcoming article [2] by Lutz Fromhage, Michael Jennions and Hanna Kokko, which is endorsed by both authors of the original paper.

Kokko gave us a bit more background:

It was me who initiated looking at the topic, but not because I suspected that earlier ideas were wrong, rather because I wanted to expand on some of the results. Lutz then identified the problems, so the project changed from the initial idea.

When asked if scientists should be willing to correct the literary record, she added:

yes in the sense of willing to correct previous results, and openly admit where things were done in a less than ideal way; but no, in the sense of wanting earlier work to be readily retracted as soon as issues are discovered.

The retracted paper, “What Determines Sex Roles in Mate Searching?,” has been cited 49 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science. The new paper, “The Evolution of Sex Roles in Mate Searching,” has not yet been cited.

Kokko noted that constant fears of retraction could make academics reluctant to admit past mistakes. She explained her stance:

In our view science is best served if (a) papers identifying a scientific problem and making initial attempts at solving them are, generally, kept in the literature even if flaws are later found, as there is usually quite a bit of merit left in the sense of identifying areas of research; (b) if I was criticizing someone else’s work (than my own) at a similar level of severity, I would still not want that person to retract (or to be forced to retract) the original, for that would leave counterproductive gaps in literature and change research atmospheres towards a much more destructive game.

She went further to question the journal’s decision:

If the journal rather than the person initiating the criticism is very trigger-happy in rejections, the consequence for me as a scientist is to become somewhat restrained in when I “dare” to criticize, which is a counterproductive result for the scientific progress.

Lutz Fromhage from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, who co-authored the new paper, added more context:

this story started when we first submitted our 2016 paper, which included an appendix explaining the errors of the 2007 paper (which I was the first to notice).

Initially, a reviewer and associate editor suggested correcting the 2007 paper, Fromhage said, but after some discussion, the editors ruled out this possibility on the grounds that an erratum should have the same author list as the original paper — which was not the case here.

According to Fromhage, the errors stemmed from the “mathematical argument” in the 2007 paper, which ended up contradicting its conclusions about why males usually seek out females, and not vice versa. Here is how he presented the conclusions of the 2007 paper: 

(A1) the evolution of mate searching (i.e., should males search for females or vice versa?) is not influenced by females spending more time being unavailable for mating (e.g., because of pregnancy), even if this means that available females are outnumbered by available males.

To explain why males are nevertheless usually the searching sex, Kokko and Wong 2007 suggested that

(A2) this pattern is created by polyandry (i.e. females mating with multiple males)


(A3) this pattern arises if searching is costlier for females than for males.

In comparison, he also listed the conclusions of the 2016 study:

B1) time spent unavailable for mating weakens selection for mate search (contradicting A1 above).  

(B2) male-biased searching is not created by polyandry per se (contra A2), but by the presence of a time interval (‘mating window’) during which the timing of mating does not matter for females.

(B3) finding (A3) above was upheld.

(B4) male-biased searching evolves if the costs of searching are not temporally limited to the act of searching (i.e., cost ‘carry over’ to other parts of the life-cycle)

Fromhage noted that the contradiction between A1 and B1 “directly caused” the paper to be pulled, adding:

A2 is really a clarification of why polyandry had such an effect in the 2007 paper; and the novel finding B4 follows from a previously unstudied assumption.

Kokko and Fromhage have previously also co-authored a 2013 corrigendum in Nature Communications, and Kokko has issued another corrigendum in Ecology Letters in 2008.

Regarding both corrigenda, Kokko said:

Both cases are about typos in printed versions of a paper where one or, in the first paper, two equations appeared in an incorrect form. In neither case have actual analyses (production of figures, etc) used the incorrect form, so the corrections were necessary to restore the match between a printed equation and the analysis that was actually done in the paper.

When asked for comment, Ruth Shaw, the editor-in-chief of Evolution, who is based at the University of Minnesota, and Wiley’s managing editor, Katie Simmons, referred us to the retraction note and the new paper.

Update, 1 p.m. Eastern, 4/29/16: Please see a guest post from one of the reviewers of the updated paper.

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11 thoughts on “Biologist critiques own paper, journal retracts it — against her wishes”

  1. Looks like another conflict between the “retraction = fraud” -crowd versus the “retract every paper that is wrong in some way, no matter how small or honest the error” -crowd.

    1. Well put. In addition to papers are wrong because of mistakes, there are many papers that are wrong simply because science marched on, and some of these are still useful in one way or another.

  2. How many scientific papers would remain in their original form in the long run after we figured out all their logical errors, simplifying assumptions, … This is “politically correct” editorial decisions gone made. Should we really expect no possible improvement on a study after 10 years.

  3. I cannot understand this veneration of “the scientific record”. You can’t just assume correctness because “it is part of the scientific record”, because that record contains a lot of things that are wrong. Science only ever provides truth pro tem, you cannot expect that whatever your search engine happens to regurgitate for you will be safe to swallow without chewing. You have to follow the paper trail forward from there! Contrary to popular belief, reviews are not just something written by aspiring assistant professors to boost their citation rates, they tell you which thoughts and data in the previous literature that turned out to be the good stuff (well, the good ones do anyway).

    The only reason to retract a paper is if there are errors that mean that the paper in fact is not studying what it purports to study, such as someone accidentally mislabelling a jar in the lab or someone else was cutting and pasting images of western blot paper.

  4. The journal is wrong, simply and flatly.

    I hope they have a decency and honesty to undo their error, and unretract the original paper.

    If they don’t, then they are sending a simple message: “Never admit to any weaknesses in your own earlier work, or it might get retracted; and invest time pointing out weaknesses in your rivals’ earlier work, in the hope that your will look better in comparison when their work is retracted.”

    It’s hard to imagine a message more inimical to the advance of science.

  5. I agree with the comments above. This journals’ actions reflect a complete misunderstanding of what retractions should be used for, and they set a damaging precedent that will discourage open debate, self-criticism and self correction.

  6. The grounds on which the decision to retract a paper is made need to be reassessed by journals. There are many papers which contradict or question the claims made by previous studies, but is retraction the only way to correct scientific record? Forcing retraction on authors without a thorough investigation of how the retraction could affect the understanding of that particular topic would certainly be a step back for scientific progress. Arguably, journal editors might not have the time and resources to get to the root of every case, but in cases such as this one, journals should work in tandem with authors.

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