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Conflicts around a study of Mexican crops

Nature published a paper last year claiming that transgenic DNA had become genetically incorporated into traditional maize in Mexico. A debate ensued ...

Sir

Scientific endeavour is based on formation and testing of hypotheses. Very few hypotheses persist unmodified after they are first proposed; most are tested, modified and re-tested, and often refuted. Many journals include a forum for scientists to make technical comments on recent publications and for the original authors to respond, so that readers can evaluate the merit of reported scientific findings.

The cornerstones of a rigorous publication process are the subject editor, who is familiar with the research area of a submitted manuscript, and the independent outside reviewers whose recommendations are solicited by the subject editor. This thorough evaluation ensures, to some extent, the journal's impartiality in publication decisions.

Despite this rigorous process, however, Nature recently published a technical exchange1,2,3 accompanied by an editorial note stating: “Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper”.

In our view this statement reflects poorly on Nature's editorial policy and review process, and sets a dangerous precedent. Why has Nature refrained from releasing similar editorial retractions of earlier publications later found to be incorrect or open to alternative interpretations? What sets this particular publication apart? If the interpretation of the results proposed by the authors of the original paper4 was judged by Nature to be sufficiently erroneous to warrant this editorial statement, why did Nature publish the report in the first place?

By taking sides in such an unambiguous manner, Nature risks losing its impartial and professional status. This is particularly troubling when articles are related to economic or political interests. Nature asks its contributors to provide information regarding conflicts of interest, but does Nature hold itself to the same standards?

Additional information

Other signatories to this letter: Mike Benard, Neil D. Tsutsui Department of Evolution and Ecology, Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, USA Todd A. Blackledge Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA Kirsten Copren, Eli M. Sarnat, Alex L. Wild Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis, USA Wayne M. Getz, Philip T. Starks, Kipling Will, Per J. Palsbøll Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, USA Mark E. Hauber Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, USA Craig Moritz Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, USA Adam D. Richman Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology, Montana State University, USA

References

  1. 1

    Metz, M. & Fütterer, J. Nature 416, 600–601 (2002).

  2. 2

    Kaplinsky, N. et al. Nature 416, 601 (2002).

  3. 3

    Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 416, 602 (2002).

  4. 4

    Quist, D. & Chapela, I. H. Nature 414, 541–543 (2001).

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