Friday, June 26, 2020

When the mob decides truth

The Film Mercury, 1926 (Wikicommons) – When the mob decides truth.

Until recently, it was almost impossible to remove an article from the published scientific literature. You would have to ask each university library for permission to go to the stacks and tear it out from a bound volume. Your request would almost certainly be denied.

All of that has changed with online publishing. Now, you only need permission from the publishing company, and removal is just a click away. The ease of online removal can lead to abuse, as noted back in 2005:

Before the advent of electronic journals, it was very hard for publishers to purge articles from their journals. At best, they could publish a later retraction. [...]

Now, however, with publishers controlling their own digital archives, and print copies no longer being produced, it has proven to be entirely too easy for some publishers to purge these archives of unwanted articles, much to the dismay of those who, like me, fear for the long-term integrity and trustworthiness of the published record of science and our intellectual heritage. In addition, if such materials can be removed, it often means they can be modified after publication as well.

Elsevier, for example, has removed about 30 articles so far from its ScienceDirect journal article archive, just since the year 2000, for various reasons. [...] The fear that many of us have is that individuals, corporate entities, and even governments, including ours, will begin to use such techniques to control the published record for political purposes or in order to cover up embarrassing information. (Davidson 2005)

That fear has come true with the removal of a paper by J. Phillippe Rushton and Donald Templer from the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences. Rushton is known for his belief that cognitive ability varies not only between individuals but also between human populations. That was not, however, the subject of the removed paper. The subject was body coloration, specifically the fact that darker animals tend to be larger, more polygynous, and more aggressive. This correlation seems to hold true not only between species but also within species.

I believe such a correlation exists, but it’s not a simple one of cause and effect (see my last post). In any case, my opinion doesn’t matter. What matters is the right of all researchers to present their findings and interpretations in the scientific literature. If errors are made, others will point them out. That’s how the system works. 

Unfortunately, that’s not how some people want the system to work. Rushton had enemies, and they now see an opportunity to destroy his legacy, much of it being papers he published in Elsevier journals. I suspect they identified the above paper as the easiest target for removal, a kind of “test case.” It’s not about human cognition and is viewed with skepticism even by Rushton’s defenders, who seem to have fallen back to a defense line around his IQ work. Pauvres naïfs.

Demands for removal began a year ago, but it was really the events of the last month that made the journal give in.

My email exchange

Initially, I wasn't sure who authorized the removal. Was it Elsevier, i.e., the publisher? Or was it the current editor of Personality and Individual Differences? I emailed the latter, Don Saklofske, partly to protest this decision and partly to confirm he had been responsible. The following is my email exchange with him and with Elsevier:

Dear Dr. Saklofske:

I am writing with regard to your decision to remove the 2012 article by J. Philippe Rushton and Donald Templer from your journal.  This is an unusual move and breaks with longstanding practice. Once an article has passed peer review and been published, it remains in the scientific literature even if subsequently proven wrong. There have been a few cases of articles being withdrawn shortly after publication, but there have been no cases, until now, of an article being removed eight years later.

My personal judgment of this article is like that of many articles I read. I agree with parts of it and disagree with others. It is true that darker-colored animals tend to be larger and more aggressive, this being true not only between species but also within species. We can disagree about the causes, but the correlation is real and has been confirmed by other researchers.

I could argue this point at greater length, but I shouldn't have to. None of us has the right to sit in judgment on an article that is already established in the scientific literature. If one disagrees with an article, one is always free to write down one's criticisms and submit them for publication to the journal in question, but no one has the right to "unpublish" an existing article, however much one disagrees with it.

I urge you to reconsider your decision. You have created a dangerous precedent.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Frost


Hello Peter... thank you for your email.  Indeed this was a difficult and challenging investigation and resulting decision that began last year but for which the controversy had been ongoing even before I became editor of PAID.  I am forwarding your letter to Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services at Elsevier, who would have a much greater knowledge of the timelines on retracted articles following publication.



D.H. Saklofske, Ph.D

Editor: PAID



Perhaps I am mistaken. Was this your decision or was it Elsevier's? In other words, who actually made the decision and who will take responsibility for it?


Peter Frost


Hello Peter...  decisions related to corrigendums, letters of concern/warning, and retractions 'rests with the editor'!   I along with a panel of PAID Sr. Associate Editors comprised the signatories who reviewed the 'evidence' resulting in the decision to retract the Rushton and Templer article.

This was NOT Elsevier's decision; their office was consulted and advised of our investigation and actions only because they are the owners and publishers of the journal and it was important that I then understand their position on such matters re. legal and ethical guidelines. However I also thought you were also raising the point of 'time between publication to retraction' and this might be better known by the publisher of PAID and many other journals across varying disciplines. Should I have misunderstood, I apologize and withdraw my previous request to Elsevier.

Lastly,  retraction of journal articles  is not so uncommon (e.g. see Brainard and You; › news › 2018/10 ›) and while the time from publication to retraction is usually less than 8 years, we began our examination of this paper last year (2019) following increased concerns from the scientific community, and two years after my appointment as editor.

Thank you for sharing your comments and viewpoint.


D.H. Saklofske, Ph.D

Editor: PAID

cc.  Elsevier: Catriona Fennell and Gail Rodney


Dear Dr Frost,

Thank you for your comments, we appreciate that there are a variety of views on how the literature should be corrected.

Since 2009, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines (updated in 2019) have recommended retraction for cases where misconduct has taken place, but also in cases of error:
"Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:
• they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)"

Elsevier journals endorse these guidelines from COPE and put them into practice, as do most major publishing houses.  Analysis by Retraction Watch, who have compiled a database of >18,000 retractions, found that at least 40% of retractions were due to error rather than to fraud:
However, it is likely that retractions due to misconduct receive more amount of attention in the media and community.

It is not particularly unusual for older papers to be retracted, please see below some examples of retractions from Elsevier journals several years after publication, in one case a 1985 paper being retracted in 2013. More data is available, also from other publishing houses, from the Retraction Watch database:

Sincerely yours,

Catriona Fennell

Director Publishing Services
STM Journals
Radarweg 29, 1043NX Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Dear Catriona Fennell,

I looked through the examples of retractions you provided. All of them concern papers in engineering or the medical sciences. Most of them were retracted because the same material had been published elsewhere, either by the same author (duplication) or by another author (plagiarism). There were a few other reasons:

- Paper retracted at author's request
- Fabrication or falsification of data
- Inability to confirm authorship of the paper and inability to interrogate the data presented in the paper

None of these examples resembles the retraction of the paper by J. Philippe Rushton and Donald Templer. That paper was in the social sciences, and there was no duplication or plagiarism involved. Nor do any of the other reasons apply. The reason seems to be more ideological. Am I right?


Peter Frost


There were no further replies from Catriona Fennell or Don Saklofske. Perhaps they consider the case closed. They did prove me wrong on one point: several longstanding articles have already been removed from the scientific literature. The record is a paper published in 1999 and removed in 2019. Removal was justified on the following grounds:

Despite contact with Futase Hospital and Kurume University in place of the co-authors, who could not be located, the Journal was unable to confirm whether ethical approval had been granted for this study and has been unable to confirm the authorship of this paper. The Journal was also unable to interrogate the data presented in this paper as no records have remained of this study. This constitutes a violation of our publishing policies and publishing ethics standards.

After twenty years it’s often difficult to locate the authors of a paper, especially if they are grad students. Their academic affiliation has changed or they may have left academia entirely. Even if they can be located, they may no longer have the raw data to support their findings. My PhD data files are on floppy disks. How can I read them today? And would they still be readable?

So if you dislike a scientific paper, and if its authors are no longer available, you can get rid of it by making a plausible accusation. Who is going to prove you wrong? This is another kind of abuse alongside the political and ideological one. "Science" increasingly belongs to established researchers with secure positions and access to legal assistance. Yet, historically, most innovative research has been done by individuals working alone with little institutional support. Charles Darwin was a country squire with no academic affiliation. Albert Einstein published major papers while working at a patent office. Intellectual breakthroughs tend to be made by outsiders.

Outsiders are losing their place in the academic community, especially ideological outsiders. This may be one reason why scientific and technological progress is slowing down. Indeed, such progress may sow the seeds of its destruction by creating better ways to manage information. And people.

But there’s another reason why outsiders are being squeezed out of academia. During the late 20th century, Christianity could no longer control what people said and believed, but it was still strong enough to keep other belief systems from taking over and imposing their controls. That happy interregnum is over. We’re moving into an intellectual environment where insiders are no longer interested in finding truth. They want to decide truth. To that end, they want to decide who gets published and who remains published. If you fall out of favor, they may delete all of your publications, and you will cease to exist as an intellectual entity. You’ll be unpersoned.

A few words to the journal editor

Don Saklofske,

You have created a precedent, and we’ll see more of these “removals.” I suspect you realize the gravity of your decision but feel you had no choice. Such a decision must be especially difficult for you, an evolutionary psychologist who has worked on genetic determination of cognition, impulsiveness, and empathy. Your research interests, however, have to be weighed against the treatment you’ve seen meted out to certain academics, including some at your university. Why share their fate?

So you had no choice. Anyway, someone else would have done the same thing sooner or later.
And, anyway, J. Philippe Rushton was a racist, like those Confederate generals whose statues have been torn down and taken away.

Apparently, Rushton is like a lot of people nowadays, such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Sir John A. Macdonald. Of course, you’re not like those people either. Your name is further down the list, and it’s not a statue that will disappear when your time comes.

So remember: the more you give in now, the more you’ll have to give in later. At best, you’re buying yourself time, and not as much as you think.


Davidson, L.A. (2005). The End of Print: Digitization and Its Consequence-Revolutionary Changes in Scholarly and Social Communication and in Scientific Research. International Journal of Toxicology 24(1): 25-34

Rushton, J. P., and D.I. Templer. (2012). Do pigmentation and the melanocortin system modulate aggression and sexuality in humans as they do in other animals? Personality and Individual Differences 53(1): 4-8


Anonymous said...

the whole case resembles badly the historical case of the stalinist fight and purge of darwinists in USSR in the 30ies - i.e. the implementation of lysenko's neo-lamarckianism at all costs... when darwinists were labeled petty-bourgeois scientists and purged (their works banned from libraries) - some of them sent to workuta. koestler wrote a famous essay/novel about ('der kroetenkuesser' - the toad kisser :)
nowadays it's the accusation of being racist to get purged without mercy - academic punishment inclusive (s. the case of dr. watson, who discovered the double-helix structure of dna)
just to add my non-scientific observation on the specific issue: one generation earlier it would have been some kind of compliment (rather than an insult:) to state that 'darker' (=black) individuals/races/species are 'bolder, stronger, sexually more active'... nowadays it's seen as an insult! :))
nb: apologies for my bad english, but I'm no native speaker.

Peter Frost said...

I would compare the present situation to something farther back in time: Saint Petersburg, 1917. The government is no longer in control, and the revolutionaries can mobilize in full view.

Michel Rouzic said...

Thank you for prodding those responsible, even if it does little to stem the tide. Since it's only the beginning maybe we should start thinking of compiling scientific papers containing forbidden knowledge and eventually let the Streisand effect undo censorship efforts. At this rate we can somewhat safely expect an anti-racist review and purge of scientific literature, so now would be a good time to keep a personal archive of papers and wait and see which get memory-holed, which might become a quieter process as it becomes more routine. But maybe you should also think about your career, if the angry mob finds out/remembers that you're one of those evil people who believe that the modern human brain isn't immune to evolution and that mob sets their sights on you then your university might have to cut ties with you and pour more money into Mesoamerican transwomen studies to truly decolonise their curriculum.

Peter Frost said...


My name is further down the list, so I might as well continue to do what I enjoy doing. Actually, I'm not afraid of talking back to True Believers. I worry more about normal people who go along with True Believers out of cowardice or dumb conformity. They end up doing most of the dirty work.

TomR said...

Are you sure it's a mob, rather than left-wing politicians needing 3-rd world immigrants for votes? Especially votes from government handouts takers, they are the most reliable voters for left-wingers. Chinese are dangerous - they come here to take the positions of power, as a left-wing politicians you'd prefer immigrants with low IQ, they are no threat to your job.

Remember to think into information control role in DECISION MAKING, rather than just being there for itself, or for just beliefs.

Santo's said...

Murrica has been safe/for psychopathic trash morons and "$ome" ratz since its foundation. But everything to destroy stupid White tra$h uhlegacy is valid.

Anonymous said...

Here's one thing you missed: the knowledge is not lost. A retraction is merely a recommendation not to base any further investigation on this article. COPE recommends leaving the article online and explain why it was retracted, so the article itself stays online. This is not like burning books.

And should we discourage racist research? Well... yes. You might argue that "who to say what is racist?", but the fact that there's a human judge is a given in scientific publishing. This was racist even in the time of its publication, and shouldn't have been published to begin with. A retraction is a correction of that.