@protohedgehog brings attention to a strange and perhaps novel kind of retraction. Unless the published retraction leaves out a big part of the story, this one is hard to understand. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have announced that they are retracting Ottman et al (2016) because, according to the authors “It has come to our attention that our paper includes findings that should be updated”.

Apparently, after Ottman et al shared their original data (surely a commendable practice), two other researchers (Andreson and Garza, no reference given) did a reanalysis and came up with a potentially better explanation for the original observations. Ottmann et al, it seems, then even shared the biological samples (fish) on which their data were based (hopefully the rawest form of data one can share), which allowed Anderson and Garza, “using a novel next-generation sequencing approach for species identification”, to confirm that their explanation was better than Ottmann et al’s original contention.

If that isn’t a textbook example of how research should work, and a brilliant demonstration of the advantages of open, collaborative science, I really don’t know what is. This is exactly how things are supposed to work, and I struggle to see why Ottman et al should be punished for their role in what seems a success.

I’ve heard of papers being retracted because they were fraudulent, unethical, or were based on fundamental methodological errors, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one being retracted simply because it was superseded. Given the very high stakes of peer reviewed journal authorship in the prestige economy of academia, this kind of behavior by a journal is a clear threat to the emergence of a truly open and collaborative research landscape. The only thing more costly for a researcher than having a paper rejected, after all, is having a paper retracted (or, very rarely, having a paper discussed).

I am of course open to the possibility that some details of the story have not been shared, and if that is the case, I can even understand why. I also keep a certain reserve because this research is far outside my field, and I may be missing some important cues.

However, without breaching any confidentiality, and without creating any legal problems, I think it would be very important for the journal to confirm whether the paper was retracted simply because it was superseded. If that is not the case, then everyone should know it (even if not why) so as to avoid casting a freezing chill on open data (and even sample) sharing. If it was indeed retracted simply for being obsolete, then we have a whole history of papers to retract, and some serious questions should be asked of the PNAS editors. But my first question for them is: “can you unambiguously state that the paper was not retracted simply because it was superseded?”


Ottmann et al Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 113:14067–14072

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