Paper Retracted in Climate Change Moths Model Mix Up

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Ecologists have retracted a paper published only months ago in Science Advances, after realizing that they had misinterpreted a climate model.

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The October paper examined the effects of climate change on populations of 155 species of British moths and butterflies. According to a press release from the authors’ institution, the University of York:

“Using data collected by thousands of volunteers through ‘citizen science’ schemes, responses to recent climate change were seen to vary greatly from species to species.”

But the authors quickly realized that the variation they had measured was not due to climate change alone, according to the retraction notice they issued for the paper last week:

“In our recent Research Article “Individualistic sensitivities and exposure to climate change explain variation in species’ distribution and abundance changes” (1), we presented an analysis relating species-specific measures of sensitivity and exposure to climate, to species’ recent population changes. While our measure and interpretation of species’ climate sensitivity remain correct, we now recognize our interpretation of the exposure measure was inaccurate: Our climate models included an intercept, representing a nonzero average population growth rate; thus, the exposure measure incorporated not only climate effects but other nonclimatic—and potentially unmeasured climatic—effects as well. While our results still demonstrate that a significant proportion of variation in population trends can be explained by exposure and sensitivity, the correct interpretation of the exposure measure means that the explained variation is not solely due to climate. As such, our conclusion that a large proportion of variation in population changes can be explained by individualistic responses to climate is misleading. Given this, and to avoid confusion, we are wholly retracting the Research Article, and we apologize that this was not picked up sooner.”

The paper — which is not yet indexed by Thomson Reuters Web of Science — was covered by IFLScience when it appeared.

Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of the Science family of journals, told us that the authors came forward with the error:

“I felt that their explanation for why the paper was being retracted was a model for clarity in that it exactly explained to the readership the exact shortcomings that led to the decision.”

Indeed, authors who act so quickly and transparently to explain what went wrong get our “doing the right thing” label.

We’ve reached out to first author Georgina Palmer and last author Chris Thomas to ask how they discovered the error. We’ll update this post with anything else we learn. 

Hat tip: Rolf Degen