Author of retracted PLOS ONE paper wonders if he was punished for being honest

The stars did not align for a 2016 paper ancient astronomy in the Amazon region after the author discovered errors in his work that the journal deemed fatal to the case, although the author has objected to the retraction.

And the author feels as though he was punished for being honest. 

The article, “Solar-Aligned Pictographs at the Paleoindian Site of Painel do Pilão along the Lower Amazon River at Monte Alegre, Brazil,” was written by Christopher Davis, then at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, and appeared in PLOS ONE. According to the abstract:

This research suggests that Monte Alegre paleoindians delimited the azimuthal range of the sun in a solar year with notational pictographs aligned to horizon sightings at Painel do Pilão, and leaving a painted grid of tally marks that might have served as a rudimentary early calendar. The broad-reaching implication for early Americans is that through the strategic placement of rock art, these ancient artists fostered predictive archaeorecording from which resources could be optimally extracted, ceremonial activities could be consistently scheduled, and gatherings for social and economic exchange could be more efficiently

But the retraction notice sheds a somewhat different light on things. According to the statement, after the article appeared Davis:

informed the journal office that there are errors in the data reported in the article [1]. Specifically, the compass measurements used in Figs 9, 11, 12, and 13 are inaccurate due to magnetic distortion in the study area. When the compass measurements are corrected, the following results are no longer supported:

  • The red alcove circle in Fig 13 faces 300°, not 270° and therefore it does not mark a spot where the sun would shine through the crevice directly beneath the circle on the day of the equinox. Instead, the circle may mark a position where sun would shine through the crevice at sunrise on the day of the winter solstice at ~114 ° (compass readings of 113°, 109°, 121° on different devices, averaged to 114.3°).

  • The six vertical lines do not face 114°, and therefore do not mark the position of sunrise on the winter solstice.

PLOS ONE says it ran the changes by an “external peer reviewer” and a member of the publication’s editorial board:

Following evaluation, there are concerns about the reliability of the results and conclusions, and some results are no longer supported, as follows:

  • Compass measurements require independent validation; concerns remain regarding the accuracy of the data.
  • Original key conclusions related to the intention behind the placement of the paintings are not fully supported.
  • An astronomical alignment with sunrise on the true equinox was reported for the original compass measurements, and it is unclear what steps were taken to avoid a potential bias in the interpretation of the new measurements towards possible alternative astronomical alignments or explanations.

In light of the concerns raised about the accuracy of the data and the strength of support for the original conclusions, the PLOS ONE Editors retract this article.

‘I was trying to be honest and forthright’

Davis, who is now listed as being at the University of Illinois at Chicago, did not agree with the retraction of his paper, which does not appear to have been cited yet. In response to a request for comment, Davis told us:

The editors felt that the errors, which I self realized and reported, changed the premise of the paper, which I disagree with. I always contended that only the sky-themed images are aligned to solar positions along the ecliptic, and that several other images are either tallies of celestial observations or stars/constellations ….

Davis added that:

I was trying to be honest and forthright, but I can’t help but wonder if the paper would never have been retracted if [I] had not said something. I understand you write about scientific integrity, which is what I tried to earnestly maintain. However, to retract my initial paper instead of publish a correction to my paper feels like punishment. As a society, we have to allow for people to correct their mistakes. Otherwise, we encourage scholars to be defensive, secretive, and unscrupulous.

He then echoed a theme Retraction Watch readers may find familiar:

The entire academic industry is exponentially pressured to publish as much as possible as soon as possible, which naturally will produce higher rates of error. Additionally, any given research loses its social and intellectual impact when so much is published each month. PLOS publishes several thousand article per month alone. From their point of view, they lose nothing by retracting my paper, but from my point of view, and the region I report on, they are silencing the accomplishments of one of the earliest paleoindian community in the Amazon, once again, instead of allowing me the opportunity to correct an error. …

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2 thoughts on “Author of retracted PLOS ONE paper wonders if he was punished for being honest”

  1. Good grief, author. Such a sob story. Buck up and resubmit the corrected article. I would send it back to PLOS, recommending the editor who handled the retraction as the handling editor of the resubmission. After all, retracted material is now unpublished material. Wouldn’t hurt to ask for a fee waiver for the resubmission.

  2. I’m not an expert in this area, but it seems to me these data errors undermined the major contribution of the work. The author seems to be saying that his honesty should trump scientific accuracy, but if these errors did indeed eliminate the article’s contribution then he really has nothing to complain about. I doubt PLOS did this out of malice…they did it out of duty to scientific rigor.

    There’s really nothing more to be said about it.

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