When information retrieval goes…weird

Bar-tailed godwit

Bar-tailed godwit

This is a little odd – the tale of the publication that isn’t.

Update: the “missing article” surfaced in my RSS reader on Nov 1; here’s the link


You may recall a recent story that appeared at most media outlets concerning “E7”, a bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) that flew 11 680 km non-stop, Alaska to New Zealand. Here are some of the reports:

If you want to know even more, there’s a NPR podcast interview with Robert (E, not F) Gill, an official USGS press release and a website for Shorebird Research at the Alaska Science Center.

Note that many of the stories mention an associated publication, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. One source states explicitly that the work is online, from October 21 2008. Yet when I go to the journal website, I can find no trace of any such article – and they have in-advance content, running through to December. Nor does searching the site for “godwit” or author names lead to a publication. Nothing can be found in PubMed, Google Scholar, CiteULike or any other web source.

So what’s going on? Possibilities include:

  • The article does exist and I’m just really stupid
  • There’s another arm of Proc. Royal Soc. B. online that I haven’t discovered
  • The article is not in Proc. Royal Soc. B., but some other journal
  • The authors are hoping to submit to Proc. Royal Soc. B., or the article is under review, or in press, or was submitted but rejected
  • Some confusion has arisen with an earlier article from 2005 in the journal Condor
  • Many media sources are lazy, do not check their facts and all rely on one or two organisations to gather information which they then copy, propagating errors to almost every news outlet on the web

This breakdown in my normally-efficient information gathering process has left me quite perplexed. If you have any insights, please share!

4 thoughts on “When information retrieval goes…weird

  1. cameron neylon

    Another possibility is that it was a conference presentation that only appears in a non indexed supplement or is just in a collection of abstracts. Biochem soc trans does that quite a lot with meeting reports. A couple of peer reviewed indexed papers plus a bunch of abstracts.

  2. Duncan

    Hi Neil, I’d go with “Many media sources are lazy, do not check their facts and all rely on one or two organisations to gather information which they then copy, propagating errors to almost every news outlet on the web” see also http://www.badscience.net/?p=172/

    Have you tried contacting the author directly by email?

  3. Cloud

    I suspect Cameron Neylon is correct. I have a publication in one of the Royal Society Proceedings that was for a special issue for a conference. I don’t know if that would have shown up on their own website or not, but the corresponding author says he gets frustrated requests for reprints on the paper, because it is hard to find.

    Media folks may not always check their sources, but this sort of story strikes me as one that came from a press release from either the university where the author works or from the journal- so unless there was an elaborate hoax, it is probably legit.

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