An ecologist in Australia realized a database he was using to spot trends in extinction patterns was problematic, affecting two papers. One journal issued an expression of concern, which has since turned into a retraction. So far, the other journal has left the paper untouched.
The now-retracted paper concluded that medium-sized species on islands tend to go extinct more often than large or small mammalian species. But a little over a year ago, Biology Letters flagged the paper with an expression of concern (EOC), noting “concerns regarding the validity of some of the data and methods used in the analysis.”
Now, last author Marcel Cardillo at Australian National University has come to a new conclusion about extinction patterns. A retraction notice that has replaced the EOC explains:
When a researcher encountered two papers that suggested moonlight has biological effects — on both plants and humans — he took a second look at the data, and came to different conclusions. That was the easy part — getting the word out about his negative findings, however, was much more difficult.
When Jean-Luc Margot, a professor in the departments of Earth, Planetary & Space Sciences and Physics & Astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles, tried to submit his reanalysis to the journals that published the original papers, both rejected it; after multiple attempts, his work ended up in different publications.
Disagreements are common but crucial in science; like they say, friction makes fire. Journals are inherently disinterested in negative findings — but should it take more than a year, in one instance, to publish an alternative interpretation to somewhat speculative findings that, at first glance, seem difficult to believe? Especially when they contain such obvious methodological issues such as presenting only a handful of data points linking biological activity to the full moon, or ignore significant confounders?
“How many and which ant species are being accidentally moved around the world?,” published in 2013, has been retracted because the authors “used a wrong list of species and omitted to include a reference.”
The authors claim that this affected the magnitude of the issue, but not the overall conclusion.
The paper was written up by the press several times, including by the BBC, though according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, it hasn’t been cited.