Nature | Research Highlights: Social Selection

Unusual reference attracts notoriety

One paper's glaring mistake spurs online chatter after being brought to light on social media.

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An editorial oversight has turned a report on fish pigmentation into one of the year’s most talked-about papers. Look-alike hipsters and bat acoustics were also hot topics among researchers on social media.

The paper about poeciliid fishes, first published online in July by the journal Ethology1, received scant attention until ecologist David Harris at the University of California, Davis, tweeted his comment and included a screenshot of one of its pages:

In one of dozens of responses, Tim Elfenbein, managing editor of the journal Cultural Anthropology, tweeted:

Harris’s tweet, which was shared more than 3,000 times in just two days, prompted quick action by Wiley, the publisher of Ethology. The paper briefly disappeared from the website and was replaced with a revised version that lacked the “crappy” comment. A Wiley spokesperson told the blog RetractionWatch that “we are in the process of investigating how this line made it to publication”.

In a follow-up interview, Harris said that scientists often use strong words when talking about the work of other researchers, but the publisher’s main purpose is to ensure quality. However, one of the authors of the Ethology paper, Michael Tobler, an evolutionary ecologist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, says that he doesn’t blame the journal’s editors. He apologized to Caitlin Gabor of Texas State University publicly on Twitter and privately in a phone call, he says. The errant comment didn’t “represent a scientific assessment of the paper”, Tobler says.

Gabor says that her 1999 paper on mating choice in poeciliids, which that comment was referring to, offered alternative hypotheses to the one proposed in the Ethology article. “Personal biases may overshadow an objective evaluation of published scientific work,” Gabor said in an interview. Jennifer Gumm, a behavioural ecologist at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, used Twitter to stick up for Gabor, her former adviser:


Hipster effect

Another paper2 making the rounds on social media took a mathematical approach to an intriguing question: why do so many nonconformists end up looking so similar? Jonathan Touboul, a mathematician at the Collège de France in Paris, writes that “2014 hipsters all look alike, although their look progressively evolves.”

The paper uses a model often applied to the study of magnetism to show how the presence of both conformists and nonconformists in a population can create predictable cycles. People who want to deviate from the norm often find themselves in the mainstream as fashion trends catch up, forcing them to eventually change styles once again.

Whereas some commenters on Twitter found humour in the topic, Adam Calhoun, who studies computational neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, had a different take on his Neuroecology blog: “Distinctiveness is a serious matter in ecology and sociology. This is useful!”

Steve Kaufman/

Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).

Bat jamming

A Science paper about the sonic skills of the Mexican free-tailed bat3 garnered admiration for the mammal from researchers. Lab studies showed that these bats emit certain calls to jam echolocation signals from other bats — a clear attempt to thwart competition for insect prey. The report was accompanied by a YouTube video that demonstrates the jamming technique, complete with audio of bat calls. Allison Barner, who studies ecology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, tweeted:

Journal name:


  1. Culumber, Z. W., Bautista-Hernández, C. E., Monks, S., Arias-Rodriguez, L. & Tobler, M. Ethology 120, 10901100 (2014).

  2. Touboul, J. Preprint at (2014).

  3. Corcoran, A. J. & Conner, W. E. Science 346, 745747 (2014).

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