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Second Thoughts

March 1, 2012

Score one for science this week. Evolutionary biologists were horrified by the news that a scholarly press was going to publish a work in favor of intelligent design. But a spokesman for the publishing house confirmed to Inside Higher Ed Wednesday that the book’s publication is on hold as it is subjected to further peer review.

Earlier this week, the Panda’s Thumb, a blog about evolutionary theory, posted an item about a forthcoming book from Springer called Biological Information: New Perspectives. The blog-poster and other commenters said the book was a compilation of articles by creationists and intelligent-design proponents and Springer had no business publishing such "creationist pseudoscience."

After the item was posted Monday, word spread and many more people started weighing in.

But information about the book had disappeared from Springer’s website by Wednesday morning, though a version could still be viewed on Amazon.com. The company’s webpage, which just a day earlier listed the editors and a brief description of the book, had a message saying “an error occurred.”

Eric Merkel-Sobotta, executive vice president of corporate communications at Springer in Germany, said in an e-mail, that the initial proposal for the book was peer-reviewed by two independent reviewers. “However, once the complete manuscript had been submitted, the series editors became aware that additional peer review would be necessary,” Merkel-Sobotta said. “This is currently underway, and the automatically generated pre-announcement for the book on Springer has been removed until the peer-reviewers have made their final decision.”

He said Springer was unaware the role the editors of the book play in the intelligent design movement, and the publishing house does not “endorse intelligent design as a legitimate area of scientific research. Springer stands behind evolutionary theory as a fundamental component of modern science.”

Robert Marks, one of the editors of the book, said he was unaware of Springer’s decision but did not offer any further comment.

Glenn Branch, deputy director at the National Center for Science Education, said publications like the one Springer originally approved pose a problem for scientific literacy in the United States. “Once published, they can claim that scientific authority is behind them,” he said. Branch lamented the slipping standards in scholarly publications and lax screening procedures.

Nick Matzke, a Ph.D. student at the Center for Theoretical Evolutionary Genomics at the University of California at Berkeley, who posted the original blog item, said he suspected that intelligent design supporters might have played down what they were actually doing in the book proposal or that Springer staff in charge of approving the book did not have enough expertise in evolutionary biology.

“This falls into a trend that has been going on for the past few years, where creationists/IDists have been exploiting engineering venues to get carefully-phrased versions of their stuff published,” Matzke said.  

“But as is often said, publication isn’t the end of peer review, it’s the beginning of it. And if a scientific publisher seems to be dropping the ball, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to say so.”

Douglas Theobald, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University and a Springer author, and some other colleagues who have been published with the company, are drafting a letter of protest to editors because, Theobald said, they have a vested interest in the quality of books published by Springer. “Our default take on this is that Springer has been duped and that the senior editors are unaware that this is a quack group of anti-evolution creationists,” he said.

Theobald said that neither he nor his colleagues have read the book, but did have an idea of the content because of the blurb and the names of the editors. He called the book another effort “in a long sordid history here of trying to get pseudoscientific, anti-evolution papers published in journals to raise the respectability of ID with non-scientists” and according to him, the Springer book was the latest in a list of “devious attempts.”

He worried that Springer might compromise its credibility with the book and prospective authors might be discouraged.

Last year, the publishing giant was embroiled in a controversy when Synthese, a journal it publishes on the philosophy of science, published a note in its print edition that seemed to apologize for some content in a special issue on “Evolution and Its Rivals.” The issue’s guest editors said at the time that they were appalled by the note, which they said referred to an article by Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, and an opponent of intelligent design.

This week’s furor broke along predictable lines, with the editors of the book criticizing the attitude of the supporters of evolution. John Sanford, one of five editors of the book and a courtesy associate professor at Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture, said in an e-mail that he was amazed that anyone could think that the “Darwin Dissidents” were trying to take over academe.

“Obviously we are only trying to exercise academic freedom and freedom of speech, and are challenging a sacred cow,” he wrote. “Where are the academics who profess tolerance and open dialog? Where are the academics who would confront ‘hate speech’ on their own campus?” 

John West, associate director at the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, an organization that advocates for intelligent design, said the critics had not read the book and were bigots. “In the academic world, it is not considered a mark of scholarship to attack books you haven’t read,” he said, calling Matzke, the blog-poster, a hypocrite. “Intelligent design scientists are criticized for not publishing and then you denounce them for doing just that. It is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

 

 

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