A paper on cats and female students uses up one of its nine lives

via Pixabay

Facing a social media storm, a biology journal has temporarily removed a paper arguing that the proliferation of feral cats around university campuses in China is directly related to the proportion of female students — who evidently are more welcoming than men of the wild felines.  

The article, “Where there are girls, there are cats,” appeared in Biological Conservation, launching a withering Tweet storm with, at last count, more than 275 replies. The comments ranged from incredulous to outraged, with at least one user noting that the paper was submitted, revised and accepted within a period of about 10 days.

The paper has been replaced with the following notice, dated February 10:

The publisher regrets that this article has been temporarily removed. A replacement will appear as soon as possible in which the reason for the removal of the article will be specified, or the article will be reinstated.

We have some, um, opinions about Elsevier’s approach to “temporary removals.”

Author speaks out on PubPeer

Despite its inane title, the article does address an important issue in conservation. As its abstract notes, outdoor cats are a scourge of birds and threaten biodiversity. Whether free-range cats and female college students have a mutual affinity is another matter. 

We emailed the editor-in-chief of the journal, Vincent Devictor, for comment, but have not heard back. We also emailed Zhongqiu Li, of the School of Life Sciences at Nanjing University and the corresponding author of the paper for comment but have not received a reply. 

However, Li posted on PubPeer about the article and the controversy it raised: 

, we did not realize the topic is so sensitive, although at first we actually have tried our best to wirte the words… I firstly want to declare that I have not any sexism or even any thought of it, probably it is an English expression and culture difference that misleading readers since we are not native English speaker. For the title, may be catchier in our current version, it is like to say ‘more girls, more cats?’, just to catch readers that maybe cat density is related to sex ratio? In Chinese, it is very easy to understand and accept. I really don’t understand why human sex cannot be discussed in a paper, as we discuss more in animals research, or it is a culture difference…Not sure… 3, Actually in this paper, we just want to show a phenomenon, a point, a possible correlation, that cat density may be related to human social structure especially the sex ratio. I know correlation sometimes is not causation, but sometimes it is. Someone said feeding station is another more influencing factor, but who made these feeding stations? AT least from our observation, most are females in both universities and communities. Tell them more the fact that free ranging cat is invasive and affects biodiversity significantly and don’t feed them is very important. We have not any suggestions or ideas to control human sex, if I did not misunderstand some readers’ thoughts. Our suggestion is just to tell them the possible impact of feeding behavior to free ranging cats

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12 thoughts on “A paper on cats and female students uses up one of its nine lives”

  1. To be clear, the lead author of this study is a woman. So claims that the title is sexist are bizarre. The title is a little weird, but it’s clearly intended to be playful. It’s not sexist.

    One wonders if this paper would have been as “controversial” as it turned out to be if the lead author’s name had been Amanda instead of Yuhang. I think a large part of the “controversy” is based on Western ignorance of Chinese names.

    In any case, this journal has a history of bizarre editorial choices, as other entries for Biological Conservation on RetractionWatch will reveal.

    1. Actually, a correction of that statement. Yuhang is generally a woman’s name but in this case, it appears as if it is actually a man.

      Sorry. My mistake.

    2. There are many peer-reviewed papers demonstrating that people have implicit and other biases against members of their own group, including women having bias against women. A female author us fully capable of having a sexist attitude against women.

  2. Did I miss the scientifically valid reason for the paper to get pulled? If there isn’t one and this is solely due to social pressure, we got a serious, chilling problem on our hands.

    If other researchers see a problem in the study design or execution, they should absolutely speak out with their criticisms. Until then, I’m not going to let social trends censor the research available for me to read.

  3. Is it just my web browser doing it or is the first paragraph repeated twice for some reason. The paragraph appears twice both on the front page and in the here. Just wondering.

  4. If they found an issue with the rigor of the study then by all means retract.

    If they are just giving in to the Twitter mob about the title than that is concerning.

  5. 1. “Write” is spelled incorrectly, so it might benefit from a “sic” label.
    2. The problem I see is not so much gender bias as it is the horrible science and review process, which seems a perfect opportunity to mention the matter of proportion in items to criticize, and the numerous atrocious science mistakes that present a fun, pleasant way to illustrate for any non-professional readers just exactly what is at stake in bad peer review, publishing and editing, and study design. That’s the point of science and retractions after all, right?

  6. 1. Well, suppose my given name is “Marion.” So am I a man or a woman? (Hint: it’s a trick question.)

    Who does a publishing turnaround in 10 days? I can’t even settle on my ghost writers’ and ghost reviewers that fast, much less get them paid off and tracks erased in 10 days. This could merit a Nobel candidacy.

  7. Surely this energy could be better used by trying to replicate their study. Proving or disproving their hypothesis should be interested. It seems premature to pull their paper so soon.

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