Unmeet the beetles: “A very disappointing story” as authors yank paper on new insect species

Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi via Wikimedia

Don’t tell the aquatic beetles in the family Grouvellinus Champion 1923, but their number just got a little smaller. Officially speaking, that is. Unofficially, keep that place setting at the holiday table. Well, don’t, if you’re under travel restrictions for COVID-19. You get the picture.

A journal has retracted a 2019 paper describing the discovery of a new member of the family, part of a “citizen science” (or “taxon expedition”) effort to collect samples of the insects in the remote Maliau Basin of Borneo, over a bureaucratic dispute. 

Recent forays into the region have turned up several new species of water beetle, including the Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi, which looks, well, not much like its namesake (yes, that Leonardo DiCaprio). 

According to the notice

We, the Editor and Publisher of Journal of Natural History, have retracted the following article: Hendrik Freitag, Christian Molls, Aglaia M. Bouma, Jhoana M. Garces, Marzia Rossato, Emanuela Cosentino & Massimo Delledonne (2019) Additional new species of Grouvellinus Champion 1923 (Insecta, Coleoptera, Elmidae) discovered by citizen scientists and DNA barcoded in the field applying a novel MinION-based workflow, Journal of Natural History, 53:41-42, 2593-2620, DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2019.1709669

The collection permit from Sabah Biodiversity Centre in Malaysia does not allow for the publication of these data, which formed the basis of the article above.

The authors were made aware of this problem with their permit by the Sabah Biodiversity Centre following publication of their paper, and informed Taylor & Francis promptly. They have been fully cooperative with the publisher and the Sabah Biodiversity Centre and have agreed to the necessary action.

We have been informed in our decision-making by our policy on publishing ethics and integrity and the COPE guidelines on retractions. The retracted article will remain online to maintain the scholarly record, but it will be digitally watermarked on each page as “Retracted”.

Of course, the retraction doesn’t eradicate the new species. It just . 

Freitag, of the Ateneo de Manila University, in the Philippines, told us the episode was “a very disappointing story.” According to Freitag, he and his colleagues had a permit for “educational field courses,” but not for publishing the research those courses produced:

For this particular field course, the SaBC appears disinclined to grant permission post-hoc. However, we have asked the SaBC for a more general clarification about whether discoveries made during field courses may be published. As far as we know, their position on this is still pending.

Neither me, nor any other author (citizen scientists and students) was contacted by SaBC. I just learned about it from the field course organizer and was then involved in the discussion with the publisher.

As for the discovery that wasn’t, Freitag said: 

the retraction does not refer to the scientific validity of the work, it only refers to the work’s status with regards to permits.

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