A Journal's Second Thoughts

Caterpillars and butterflies continue to vex the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, a prestigious journal that has found itself criticized for a publishing a paper that many say makes a mockery of evolutionary biology.

October 1, 2009

Caterpillars and butterflies continue to vex the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, a prestigious journal that has found itself criticized for a publishing a paper that many say makes a mockery of evolutionary biology.

While the editors have not publicly retracted the article, a scholar who played a key role in getting the article published released letters to Inside Higher Ed showing that the top editor of the journal has serious doubts about the article she backed. Further, this scholar claims (and has another letter to back her up) that her work is now being blackballed by the journal as a result.

The letters released by Lynn Margulis, a National Academies member who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, may well please her critics -- who have been pushing for a stronger public stance by the journal against the article that was published. But the letters also back up the claim of critics of the journal that its two-tiered review process for submissions did not ensure the same level of rigor for those pieces that had a sponsor such as Margulis.

The article in question, published online by PNAS in July, claims that caterpillars and butterflies do not have the same evolutionary history. Rather than viewing the butterfly and caterpillar as two life stages, the article views them as evidence of some sort of lasting mistake from a butterfly-like being accidentally mating with a worm at some point in the distant past.

Most evolutionary scientists disagree with this view, and many were shocked and angered that a prominent journal published the piece. One scientist went so far as to wonder whether this paper was the worst paper of the year, and Scientific American wondered if the PNAS had been taken over by the National Enquirer. And The Times Higher raised questions about whether Margulis -- "a bigwig" -- had ushered "nonsense" into a top journal.

While a spokesman for PNAS told Inside Higher Ed last month that the editors were studying the question, there has been no retraction, nor any corrections. The author of the paper is Donald I. Williamson, a retired professor at the University of Liverpool

It turns out that the editors have very strong doubts about the piece. Randy Schekman, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley who is editor in chief of PNAS, on September 4 wrote to Williamson -- the chief advocate for the article -- and blamed the publication of the article on the use of a special system (currently being phased out) in which National Academies members can sponsor articles and control the peer review process.

"It seems unlikely that this paper would have passed muster as a Direct Submission," he wrote, referring to the regular process, in which submissions are assigned to experts to review.

Schekman also quotes (anonymously) from a note he received from a National Academies member: "After reading this paper, I am fairly shocked that it could have been published anywhere, but especially in PNAS. It does not seem to contain any supporting data, and yet there are abundant data in the existing literature that show just how ridiculous this idea is....

"I realize that people can disagree on interpretation of data, but in this case, wild claims are made in the complete absence of any data. There is certainly a place for well-formulated hypotheses, but when existing published data show that an idea is untenable (as in this case), its publication does not make much sense. I think this paper will end up being a huge embarrassment to PNAS. Was there any discussion about this article's suitability by the editorial board?"

The letter then goes on to ask Williamson about a quote in the Scientific American article, which said: "[Margulis] says it took '6 or 7' peer reviews before she had the '2 or 3' positive ones necessary to make a case for its publication." This led Schekman to ask for explanation, saying: "Please note that if any of the reviews were withheld from our office (we only received four), it would be a violation of our editorial policies."

In an interview, Margulis said she followed proper procedure and that she was being held to a higher standard than other National Academies members who submit "communicated" articles -- in which the National Academies member puts together the peer review panel, and then sends on the article for publication.

Margulis said she believes that the Williamson article was correct and that it is being criticized by scholars who disagree with its conclusions, and so are trying to question the rigor of its review process.

She said that there may be a wide consensus among scientists about this matter in the United States and Britain, but that elsewhere in Europe, there are scholars who share her views. She also said that PNAS is now treating her unfairly by suspending publication of an article -- previously cleared for PNAS -- for which Margulis recommended publication and on which she was a co-author with two Norwegian scientists.

To back up her views, Margulis released another letter Schekman sent her -- this one on September 11 -- in which he said that the Williamson article would not appear in print and that another article would not appear at all unless she complied with his earlier request. This letter said: "I would appreciate a response to my previous letter regarding the paper you recently communicated to PNAS on behalf of Donald Williamson. As I indicated in my previous letter, the Williamson paper will not be printed until you provide a satisfactory explanation for your apparent selective communication of reviews on this manuscript. In addition, the processing of your contributed paper by Brorson et al. will be suspended until the concerns regarding the Williamson paper are resolved."

Margulis said that the second paper -- about Lyme disease -- could have public health implications, and that there is no reason for the PNAS to suspend publication. "They are blocking this paper because they don't like, in the deepest way, the Williamson paper," she said.

A spokesman for PNAS, who conferred with the top editors there, said that a decision had been made not to respond to Margulis's statements or the released letters. There have been no corrections or retractions of the Williamson article, he said.


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