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Retraction of Flawed MPA Study Implicates Larger Problems in MPA Science

After months of public criticism and findings of a conflict of interest, a prominent scientific paper (Cabral et al. 2020, A global network of marine protected areas for food) was recently retracted by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A retraction is a Big Deal in science, especially from a prominent journal. What’s strange in this story is how the conflict of interest intersects with the science. The conflict of interest was apparent immediately upon publication, but it wasn’t until major problems in the underlying science were revealed that an investigation was launched, and the paper eventually retracted.

Cabral et al. 2020 claimed that closing an additional 5% of the ocean to fishing would increase fish catches by 20%. That snappy statistic made for a great headline—the paper was immediately covered by The Economist, Forbes, Anthropocene Magazine, and The Conversation when it was published in October 2020. It made its way through the popular press (the New York Times, Axios, National Geographic, and The Hill have all cited the paper), and eventually into the U.S. congressional record—it was submitted as supporting evidence for a bill by then Representative Deb Haaland, now the Secretary of the Interior. Cabral et al. 2020’s Altmetric Attention Score, a measure of how widely a scientific paper is shared, is in the top 5% all-time.

But with increased press comes increased scrutiny. Several close collaborators of the Cabral et al. group wrote scientific critiques that PNAS published earlier this year. The critiques pointed out errors and impossible assumptions that strongly suggested the paper was inadequately peer reviewed.

PNAS later determined that the person responsible for assigning Cabral et al.’s peer reviewers, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, had a conflict of interest. She collaborated with the Cabral et al. group and was the senior author on a follow-up paper published in Nature in March 2021. That follow-up paper, Sala et al. 2021, included the authors of Cabral et al. and depended on the same MPA model meant to be reviewed in PNAS.

Shortly after the Nature paper was published, Dr. Magnus Johnson (of the University of Hull in the U.K.) wrote a letter to the editor-in-chief of PNAS reporting the conflict of interest; an investigation was launched, and PNAS decided to retract Cabral et al. 2020 on October 6th, 2021—nearly a year from its original publication.

According to the editor-in-chief of PNAS, the frequent collaboration relationship Lubchenco had with the authors constituted a conflict of interest, as did the personal relationship with one of the authors, Dr. Steve Gaines—her brother-in-law. She should not have accepted the task of editing the paper. These conflicts of interest were clear and apparent from the time Cabral et al. 2020 was first submitted, but it wasn’t until the follow-up paper, Sala et al. 2021, received more press than any other ocean science paper in recent memory that eyebrows were raised.

Now the Sala et al. follow-up paper is being questioned—more potential inaccuracies have been found.


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