Retractions of scientific papers are by their nature quite dramatic — the decision to withdraw recognition in this very public way is never taken lightly, especially given all the work that goes into writing a paper. But the specialist site Retraction Watch, which we wrote about back in August, has a new retraction story that is rather out of the ordinary. It concerns a much-cited 2004 paper about a piece of scientific software called Treefinder. The program is used to create phylogenetic trees, which show the probable evolutionary relationships between species based on comparing their respective DNA sequences. Retraction Watch explains what happened:
Recently, German scientist Gangolf Jobb declared that starting on October 1st scientists working in countries that are, in his opinion, too welcoming to immigrants — including Great Britain, France and Germany — could no longer use his Treefinder software, which creates trees showing potential evolutionary relationships between species. He’d already banned its use by U.S. scientists in February, citing the country’s “imperialism.” Last week, BMC Evolutionary Biology pulled the paper describing the software, noting it now “breaches the journal’s editorial policy on software availability.”
Here’s the official retraction note published by the journal in question:
The editors of BMC Evolutionary Biology retract this article due to the decision by the corresponding author, Gangolf Jobb, to change the license to the software described in the article. The software is no longer available to all scientists wishing to use it in certain territories. This breaches the journal’s editorial policy on software availability which has been in effect since the time of publication.
The editorial policy on software availability is as follows:
If published, software applications/tools must be freely available to any researcher wishing to use them for non-commercial purposes, without restrictions such as the need for a material transfer agreement.
The policy then goes to make an important suggestion:
BMC Evolutionary Biology recommends, but does not require, that the source code of the software should be made available under a suitable open-source license that will entitle other researchers to further develop and extend the software if they wish to do so.
Another advantage of releasing the code as open source is that it would have avoided the current awkward situation, whereby the Treefinder program is no longer available to everyone, and BMC Evolutionary Biology retracted the original paper. Once code is published under a free software license, that can’t be rescinded, although the same or modified versions of the source could be published later under a non-free license by the copyright holder. It’s regrettable that Treefinder was not released under a free software license, but it’s nonetheless good to see an open access journal sticking to its requirement for free availability of software, and retracting the offending paper.