Springer “apparently” retracts a creationist paper, but it’s still on the website

On December 18 of last year, I wrote to Springer’s International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology, which had published a loony creationist paper by one Sarah Umer, whose affiliation was listed as the “Department of Visual Arts & Graphic Designs at the Institute of Visual Arts & Designs at the Lahore College for Women University in Lahore, Pakistan”. She’s pretty clearly a Muslim, with the paper, straight-up creationism that almost surely derives from Umer’s faith. As I wrote at the time:

And the content is dire: this is a straight-up creationist paper, impugning the evidence for evolution, arguing for human separatism from the rest of the planet’s species, and claiming that modern humans (yes, H. sapiens sapiens, not Neanderthals or any other species of Homo), as well as other species, appeared suddenly and fully formed about 50,000 years ago. Yep, that’s Genesis-style “instant appearance” creationism, though Umer appears to be somewhat of an old-earth creationist.

Of course Springer is one of those predatory-journal outfits that charges a ton for open-access publication, but why an apparently reputable outfit would publish such tripe—you can still see the paper here on the journal’s website though it’s “retracted”—eludes me.

I wrote to Springer the next day and also wrote this on this website:

Yesterday, after reading a ridiculous creationist paper in a Springer journal (International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology), I wrote both a post about the paper and a kvetching letter to the “general inquiries” address of Springer Nature. I got a reply within 24 hours, which is good, but the response was lame and evasive, which is not good.  First my letter (again), which was sent to General enquiries: info@springeropen.com.

Dear Springer,

I am writing to call to your attention to something you probably already know: the December issue of your International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology has published a straight-out Genesis-style creationism paper by Sarah Umer, “A brief history of human evolution: challenging Darwin’s claim.” (Link is at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s41257-018-0014-2). Not only does the paper make a number of false statements about evolution, and misquotes prominent evolutionists, but also quotes the jailed Turkish creationist loon Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya) in support of its thesis that humans and all species originated instantly at the behest of the “divine”. The editing is also dreadful: there are grammatical and spelling mistakes throughout. Did anybody whose first language is English even edit the paper?

I would like to know how this paper got published and what review process you used. Are you going to let the paper stand as is? Also, why was it so poorly edited?

This paper is an affront to all evolutionary biologists who do good work, as well as a tremendous embarrassment to Springer, who should have known better.

I would appreciate the courtesy of a reply. In the meantime, I’ve posted a short critique–it would take pages to refute Umer’s misstatments and lies–on my website Why Evolution is True. That link is here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/12/18/creationist-paper-gets-into-a-springer-journal/

Cordially,
Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

I got a tepid and defensive response; the journal clearly intended to do nothing. First have a look at this paper to see how dire this paper really is; it could have been written by Duane Gish—if Gish were smarter and still alive. Here’s my response from the Springer flack:

Nevertheless, I persisted; I did NOT contact the paper’s author, but pursued the matter further, writing to anybody other than Romel Jake Cruz whom I could contact at Springer (they make it hard to reach them!).

From: Jerry Coyne
Sent: Thursday, December 20, 2018 2:55 AM
To: OR Support
Cc: Carl Johann Samson; Jerry Coyne
Subject: Creationist paper published in your journal

Your International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology recently published a creationist paper by Sarah Umer, a paper that is so full of lies and misstatements, and so poorly edited (if it WAS edited), that it casts shame on the journal and, indeed, on Springer. That paper is here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s41257-018-0014-2

I wrote about that paper on my website, which has almost 60,000 subscribers, pointing out its flaws: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/12/18/creationist-paper-gets-into-a-springer-journal/

Yesterday I got the enclosed response [JAC: above] from a “Global Open Support Executive,” which is a non-response, just saying that the paper was “peer reviewed”. That’s not satisfactory, because if your peer review system allows this kind of creationist nonsense into your scientific journals, something is wrong with the reviewing system. And the editing is so horrible that the paper reads like it was written by a fifth grader. I realize that the author’s native language may not be English, but that’s what editors are for.

I have written another post on my website about Springer’s non-response: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/12/19/springer-writes-back-defending-its-publication-of-a-creationist-paper/

I also sent a tweet to Springer’s CEO, but it looks as if he doesn’t use Twitter very often.

I want to call the publication of this paper to your CEO, managing executives, and to the editors of the International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology. But I can’t find their email addresses; it’s as if they’re deliberately keeping themselves insulated from scientists and the public. I would appreciate it if you could put me in contact with those people, especially the scientists who are responsible for maintaining the quality of your journals. Thanks very much,

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

Well, clearly Springer had lied: they were in a position to correct the paper. After more than two months, I got the following email on Wednesday, saying that the article had been retracted because it was “published in error before the peer review process was completed.” (If you believe that, then you’ll believe that crystals can cure your rheumatism.)

Dear Dr. Coyne,

I hope you are well.

Thank you for contacting Springer Nature regarding the article published in the International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology. Further to our previous correspondence, we would like to inform you that the Editor-in-Chief has retracted this article because it was published in error before the peer review process was completed. Further post publication peer review determined that the article is not suitable for publication in the International Journal of Anthropology and Ethnology.

Kind regards,
Johann
Carl Johann Samson(Mr)
JEO Assistant
Journals Editorial Office (JEO)
Springer Nature
carljohann.samson@springernature.com
Springer Nature is one of the world’s leading global research, educational and professional publishers,
created in May 2015 through the combination of Nature Publishing Group,
Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Education and Springer Science+Business Media.
Now this letter is polite but not that informative, for two days ago I checked the website, and found that the paper was still there, with the only indication that it was retracted being a note (“RETRACTED ARTICLE”) on the BROWSER TAB of the paper, as well as on the downloadable pdf of the paper. I saw no indication on the paper’s site itself that it had been retracted, and it still appeared on the Springer Page. Here are screenshots. Note the browser tab:
And what you see if you download the pdf:
I  wrote back to Carl Samson, noting that it was odd to keep a retracted paper on the journal website with only a cryptic admission that the paper had been retracted, and asking if they had any plans to remove the article entirely.  I did not get an answer, and waited two days. I still have no answer, but note that these words now appear on the relevant Springer webpage (click on the screenshot):

Now if a paper that is published in a paper journal gets retracted, it can’t be withdrawn from circulation; all the journal can do is post a “retraction” notice in a subsequent issue of the journal. But for an online journal, like this one, it seems to me that retracting an article should involve removing it from the journal’s website.

That Springer has not done, and so the paper still appears with all its flawed (and palpably dumb) creationist arguments. I guess I can take some satisfaction that the paper has been “retracted”, but really, in what way has it been “retracted”? It’s still there, freely available on the paper’s website and even in the journal’s table of contents (where, I note, it is labeled as “retracted”.

I just found another note that the paper was retracted, but the paper is still online, perhaps because “the author does not agree to this retraction” (click on screenshot):

So, Springer, what is the story? Does an author have to agree to a retraction before the paper gets removed from the journal? Can Umer can still cite the paper on her c.v.? And why do you even NEED an author to agree to a retraction?

I’m not sure I’ll contact Springer further (though I really feel that I will, as I have no free will), but you’re welcome to if you’re so inclined and are nice about it. Samson’s email is carljohann.samson@springernature.com

In the meantime, a dubious, erroneous, duplicitous creationist paper remains on the journal’s website. Springer and Mr. Samson, TAKE DOWN THAT PAPER!

19 Comments

  1. Adam M.
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I think clearly marking it “RETRACTED” in both the title and content is enough. Anyone who looks at it or tries to follow up on a reference to it will see that it was retracted (and removing it from the site won’t help anyone who doesn’t check the reference). At least, I don’t see what’s gained by actually deleting it as opposed to marking it as they have. In fact, I think it’s better to be able to see retracted papers, as you can read them and judge their merits for yourself, which you can’t do if they simply disappear, and even a retracted paper – though perhaps not this one – may contain something worth reading.

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly. Springer would undoubtedly catch flack if they deleted it. Any further discussion of the paper in question would contain dead links to it or have to link to some safe copy on another site, Also, a journal is a sort of official record. It is against tradition to edit for content after the fact except to correct typos and such. Even that is usually done in a separate “errata”.

    • Adam M.
      Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Also, given papers being disappeared for apparently political reasons, I think keeping them in the record is a much better precedent to set, and the more papers do retractions via marking instead of deletion, the better, in my opinion. In this age where Twitter mobs have the influence they do, we have to remember that such weapons can be turned against real science just as easily as bogus science. (I’m not making a statement about the merits of the specific paper discussed in the link.)

  2. ploubere
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Presumably if they delete it they’ll have to reimburse the author’s payment? Which would be why they’re reluctant to do so.
    Regardless, the journal’s reputation, if it ever had one, is shot.

    • John Harshman
      Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      It seems like a positive benefit to keep the retracted paper on the site. It’s a badge of shame for anyone to see and use to judge the quality of the journal’s submission process. Of course it also taints the journal’s other content, but that’s what you get for publishing in a journal that allows such things.

  3. Carlos
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I don’t know. Having it up there, stamped as RETRACTED, clearly identifies such attempts at “creation science” as the horse shit that they are. It’s also a Scarlet Letter that Springer chooses to wear in light of its instance of gross intellectual negligence.

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Right. Such a policy might discourage creationists and other woo merchants from submitting to the journal in the first place. It should be discouraging to have their paper accepted but labeled “Crap”. On the other hand, it does sound kind of mean-spirited.

  4. John Harshman
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Of course Springer is one of those predatory-journal outfits that charges a ton for open-access publication
    Did you mean to say isn’t? Springer is of course a reputable publisher that publishes many legitimate journals (though we can complain about their prices, lack of open-access, and such).

  5. Jonathan Gallant
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    A strong second to the comments above. Keeping this creationist drivel on the website under the scarlet letter RETRACTED is much better than simply making it disappear. For one thing, it is funnier: in effect placing the label “errata” over its entire discourse .

  6. Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    On a related subject – I see that the University of California has stopped buying from Elsevier!

  7. Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I think it makes sense to remove it from search engines (that the publisher controls) but remove it from institutional memory. Too bad there isn’t a DOI category or something one could use to mean “known garbage”.

  8. Herb Hunter
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m grateful that Jerry Coyne has persisted in attempting to have the article in question removed.

    It is inexcusable that such an article was published by an ostensibly reputable, scientific journal.

    I disagree that the article should remain with the meaningless label, retracted. One can’t claim to have withdrawn something if it remains. If found in a scientific journal, a non-scientific, fallacious article gains credibility among those in need of edification, even if labeled as “retracted”, and that is something creationists will exploit.

  9. Posted March 1, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that journals necessarily pull retracted articles, which is surprising to me.
    The infamous Andrew Wakefield paper about the MMR vaccine and autism is still up in Lancet. It just says its been retracted:https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673697110960?via%3Dihub
    This may be a matter of policy, but for what?

    • Posted March 1, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      I was going to say the same. And I, like other commenters above, think that this policy to mark retracted articles and to keep them in place is good: the public must be able to read them.

  10. Jenny Haniver
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    this states their policies, but it doesn’t explain HOW COME:

    1)This on the Springer website under “ethical responsibilities of authors” https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/journal-author/journal-author-helpdesk/publishing-ethics/14214:

    3… in severe cases retraction of the article may occur. The reason will be given in the published erratum, expression of concern or retraction note. Please note that retraction means that the article is maintained on the platform, watermarked “retracted” and the explanation for the retraction is provided in a note linked to the watermarked article.

    The author’s institution may be informed

    A notice of suspected transgression of ethical standards in the peer review system may be included as part of the author’s and article’s bibliographic record.

    2) And this under “Frequently asked questions” https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/journal-author/frequently-asked-questions/3832, ”
    Can I still make corrections to my article after it has been published Online First?

    The online publication represents the official publication of research results. It is not simply a prepublication service on the part of the publisher. As soon as an article is published online, it is citable and quotable. If changes are then made, confusion can easily arise, with authors citing different versions of the same publication.

    Springer has therefore decided not to make systematic use of the technical possibilities that an online publication offers and not to simply replace a published document with an updated one. After online publication, further changes can only be made in the form of an Erratum, which will be hyper-linked to the article.

  11. Posted March 1, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    My admiration to Prof. Coyne for the struggle, and congratulations for the victory!

  12. ratabago
    Posted March 1, 2019 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m with the group that thinks it should be left up. It’s a bad idea to censor this BS. Better to let the poor scholarship speak for itself. It’s just a pity that the retraction notice is so weak. Some acknowledgement of the many factual errors might have been nice.

  13. Posted March 5, 2019 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Good work in following this up. On the topic of how retractions are indicated, pulling articles down is reserved for serious legal/privacy/safety issues and is very rare. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and the Council of Science Editors (CSE) guidelines say retracted articles should remain online, clearly marked as retracted (as was done here) : https://doi.org/10.24318/cope.2019.1.4; https://www.councilscienceeditors.org/resource-library/editorial-policies/white-paper-on-publication-ethics/3-5-correcting-the-literature/#3521.

    COI: Head of Research Integrity at Hindawi & former editor at BMC (before it merged with Springer)


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