In a remarkable feat of commenter-blogger synergy, the Loom has helped give Darwinius its name back.
As I posted yesterday, some commenters on the Loom pointed out that, amidst all the hullaballoo over the unveiling of this primate fossil (oh, don’t get me started), it looked as if the scientists who wrote the paper failed to follow the rules for naming a new species. The people who make the rules (the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) require paper copies of a scientific paper, not just a digital one, as was the case of Darwinius.
Today, the executive secretary of the ICZN used the Loom to confirm that, yes, Darwinius was not yet Darwinius.
But at last, it is. Here’s an update from Peter Binfield, the managing editor of Plos ONE, the journal that published the paper.
Regarding the requirements for making the name Darwinius masillae nomenclaturally available in the eyes of the ICZN, we have been in discussion with Ellinor Michel (the ICZN Executive Secretary) and have additionally consultated with Richard L. Pyle (an ICZN Commissioner). They have advised us that by doing the following, we have met the ICZN code and therefore the name should be considered nomenclaturally available.
A print-run of fifty copies of the paper has been created on May 21st. The top sheet of each copy has the following text appended to the footer: “This document was produced by a method that assures numerous identical & durable copies, and those copies were simultaneously obtainable for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record, in accordance with Article 8.1 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Date of publication: 21st May 2009”
Apart from this wording, these copies are identical to the electronic version that is freely available from our web site at: http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObjectAttachment.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0005723&representation=PDF
These copies are now obtainable from our offices at 185 Berry Street, Suite 3100, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA. Anyone who requests a copy, and tenders a fee of $10 (towards the cost of postage and printing) will receive a copy.
Having made the printed copies available, we have been told by the individuals named above that we have conformed with the relevant ICZN codes. They have also indicated that the proposed resolution is an interim step, which should meet the requirements of the Code until a formal amendment is published within the next few years.
We are very grateful to the ICZN for their actions to resolve this matter.
Richard Pyle of the ICZN thought that Peter’s update required a small clarification, which he just sent in:
The pending proposed Amendment to the ICZN Code for allowing electronic forms of publication (see: http://www.iczn.org/electronic_publication.html) is currently in review, as is required for all such major amendments to the Code. This process will likely be completed within the next year, and if adopted, the amendment should go into effect at that time.
What will require “a few years” to be published is the next (Fifth) Edition of the ICZN Code (see: http://iczn.ansp.org ). Presumably, this Edition of the Code will also support the electronic publication of nomenclatural acts (especially if the proposed amendment to the existing 4th Edition of the Code is approved).
To those not steeped in species, genera, suborders and suprafamilies, all of these bylaws and codes may trigger vertigo. But keeping the world’s biodiversity in order is not for the faint of heart. With 1.8 million species on the books, and tens of thousands of new ones being added every year, taxonomists need an intricate set of rules to keep it all straight. The fact that taxonomists share a set of rules, no matter how intricate, was one of the great advances in the history of biology. (See my lecture [audio] for a sense of the chaos that came before.)
But who knows how Linneaus would have dealt with the Internet….
Sometimes big movie production companies decide that they’d be better off not showing a movie in advance to the critics. They know that the reviews would probably do more harm than good. Looking back on the the Darwinius affair, I’m starting to wonder if the unveiling of this fossil was stage-managed in the same way.
I only started looking into the story after observing all the bizarre publicity around it. And as I’ve probed this strange media event, I’ve gotten some interesting information from reporters who were on the Darwinius beat. It makes for a disturbing timeline:
May 10: The Daily Mail gets wind of the fossil and the show that will be broadcast about it.
Ann Gibbons, a Science correspondent, wants to get her hands on the paper. “I struggled in vain all last week to get a copy of the article,” she emailed me this morning. PLOS will not give her the paper, which will not be published until May 19, the same day as a major press conference on the fossil.
May 15: The Wall Street Journal gets a fairly long interview with one of the co-authors of the Darwinius paper (who apparently thought the conversation was off the record)
May 16: Gibbons, having failed to get the paper from PLOS, convinces the producers of the the documentary on Darwinius, Atlantic Productions, to give it to her. In order to get it, she signs a non-disclosure form agreeing not to show it to anyone until 10:30 am on May 19, the day of the press conference. But she does not get the paper until Monday.
May 18: Gibbons finally gets the paper Monday afternoon, the day before the press conference. But she cannot show it to any experts due to her non-disclosure agreement.
May 19: At 10:40 am, I (and many other reporters) get a press release from PLOS about Darwinius. The press release has a link that lets us download the paper, and there is no embargo on it. In other words, we can start writing about it right away. But the email arrives right before the press conference at the American Museum of Natural History where Darwinius is unveiled to a swarm of reporters. The web is almost immediately flooded with reports on Darwinius, based only on the press conference.
As the day progresses, I am puzzled by the lack of outside commentary in articles on Darwinius. The articles I encounter only have quotes from the co-authors of the paper saying how important it is, and television producers telling us how this is going to change everything. (On a related note, the sky is still blue today.)
Not realizing the kind of constraints reporters like Gibbons were under, I decide to get in touch with experts myself and see what they think. Short answer: cool fossil, not a “missing link,” and a paper with some shortcomings.
As the reporter who covered this story for The Associated Press, I’d like to point out two things: 1. Major journals generally make upcoming papers available to reporters a few days ahead of publication so we can get independent comment for our stories. But PLoS ONE withheld the Darwinius paper until 10 minutes after the Hurum press conference began (judging by the time stamp on the PLoS email to me). So reporters had nothing to show outside experts to solicit some perspective before Hurum et al. started talking. 2. Carl, you said you never found a news story that had comments from independent experts. I’m not sure when you checked, but my story quoting both Beard and Fleagle went out at 4:40 p.m. (It replaced a preliminary version that I’d written off the press conference. I’d contacted both men beforehand an arranged to speak after we’d all seen the paper).
Indeed, by the time Malcolm updated his article, I had given up hope of finding comments from indepentent experts and was doing my own blogging. I apologize for implicitly kicking dirt on the work of Ritter and other diligent journalists.
So, to recap: it appears that both PLOS and Atlantic Productions did not give journalists any time to consult with outside experts before launching a major press conference with a huge blitz of media attention. In other words, science writers who were trying to do their job well and responsibly were actively hindered. Those who declared ridiculous things, such as claiming that human origins were now solved once and for all, were not.
I have a hard time even imagining how this behavior could be justified. I’ve sent emails to the contacts listed in the PLOS press release on Darwinius both at PLOS and Atlantic Productions to ask why they took this course of action.
I’ve yet to get a response.
Update #1: This article in the Australian was brought to my attention after I published this post, with quite a quote from co-author Phil Gingerich:
“There was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study. It’s not how I like to do science.”
Update #2: Peter Binfield from PLOS has responded:
I am the Managing Editor of PLoS ONE. This paper was originally submitted to us on March 19th 2009 and underwent appropriate scrutiny by an Academic Editor (named on the published article) and three expert peer reviewers. Peer review comments were returned to the authors who revised their paper accordingly and the paper was ultimately accepted on May 12th 2009. These dates are available on the paper itself.
Once the paper was accepted we made a strenuous effort to publish the article in time for the Press Conference which was happening on May 19th – only a week later. We were not involved in the Press Conference, but felt it was clearly in the public interest to have the article publicly available in time for that conference. Our production team managed to get the article published more than two weeks quicker than normal, so that it would be ready for the 19th. However, it was only on the afternoon of the 18th May that we knew the paper would definitely be available in time and until that point, no final copy of the paper was available.
We do regularly help PLoS ONE authors with the distribution of press releases under an embargo, as do many other journals, but when we do this we only ever issue that information on a date that is acceptable to the authors. The authors of this paper requested that we did not issue a press release, or reveal any other information about this paper, until 10.30 EST on the 19th May (the time of the press conference). We respected their wishes, and at the time of publication also issued our own press release about this article.
We are delighted to have published this work, which has clearly captured the imagination and attention of researchers, the media and the public. The paper has been discussed, scrutinized, praised and criticized, and is a terrific example of why open access to research is so beneficial.
I’m curious what scientists, journal editors, reporters, and other readers think of Binfield’s response. Other prominent journals don’t leave these matters up to the scientists (or their television producer pals). They inform the scientists of which issue a paper is scheduled for, and they put the paper on a press list a few days earlier.
Now, I know that PLoS ONE is unusual in a lot of ways. For one thing, they don’t reject papers for not being of sufficient importance. They state, “Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership (who are the most qualified to determine what is of interest to them).” But does that mean they should also go along with an embargo from their authors that hinders good reporting on the papers?
In any case, I have yet to hear from the television producers. Given PLoS One’s response, I’m more curious than ever to hear from them.
Update #3 (Friday morning):
…the PLoS paper WAS made available under embargo to the press — but only to selected individuals and under very unusual restrictions. I was invited to read it by Atlantic Productions on Tuesday morning (I’m Science Editor of The Times in London), but I had to go to their offices to read it and wasn’t allowed to take a copy away. I also had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which meant I wasn’t able to approach anyone else for comment until the embargo lifted. The Guardian also had advance access (they got to see more in advance than we did, and earlier). So — obviously because they bought the film rights — did the BBC. But other UK papers (Independent, Telegraph etc) got nothing. This is a very weird (and in my experience unprecedented) way to manage the release of published science.
Update #4: Ann Gibbons sent in this point of clarification as a comment, but for some reason comments have stopped being posted. (I’m on it…)
In response to Hank Campbell, no. 6, PLOS and Atlantic didn’t withhold the paper from me as a backlash to AAAS, which publishes Science. They withheld it from all reporters, and in fact, Atlantic Productions did me a small favor–they called me at home on Saturday night, 5/16 to respond to my request for the paper and after signing a non-disclosure agreement, I was given a copy the evening before the embargo lifted, which helped me a bit. In the meantime, like Carl, I called the authors and other leading paleontologists to find out what they knew. But I was prevented by the embargo from printing details that I gleaned about the paper, and no self-respecting researcher will comment about a paper without reading it. We wrote two blogs about the hype last week, but could not post a story with independent scientists’ reactions until Tuesday afternoon and the 29 May issue of Science (see: http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/519/1)
Yesterday I blogged about how Darwinius, the famous fossil primate that will change everything, may not actually have a published named yet. The trouble is that the official rules seem to indicate that a paper in an electronic journal is not enough. Paper is required. A spirited discussion among scientists blossomed in the comment thread, which has morphed into a conversation about Science 2.0.
To get an official comment, I contacted the organization that oversees the naming of new species, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. This morning I got the following message from the Executive Secretary, Ellinor Michel.
1. The names are not nomenclaturally available from the electronic version of the publication.
2. The journal has contacted us for advice on how to ensure these names are nomenclaturally available, which we provided, saying that a separate print edition must be produced by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies, and that those copies must be obtainable free of charge or for purchase.
3. If the publisher does what we recommended, then the names will be nomenclaturally available from the date of the paper publication.
4. This is a provisional arrangement as the ICZN is working on a proposed amendment to the Code allowing nomenclatural availability of names published in electronic-only journals. The proposed amendment is available here: http://www.iczn.org/electronic_publication.html and we encourage public input in this important discussion.
5. There are >1.8 million named species in the world, with approximately 16,000-25,000 new nomenclatural acts each year in zoology alone. Managing the scientific names indexing of this biodiversity requires rules promoting stability. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, representing the taxonomic community and users of zoological names, works to uphold stability but also to develop the rules to accommodate technological development.
I’ve contacted PLOS and the authors and am waiting to hear where things stand now that the official word has been released.
Update: Darwinius is now Darwinius.
Darwinius has achieved the ultimate triumph of pop-culture consciousness, having become for the moment the background image on the main Google search page. But some of the commenters in my post yesterday on the head-slapping hype around this fossil pointed out something I thought deserving of its own post: Darwinius may not actually exist.
By this I mean that the name Darwinius may not be
valid officially published. I first became aware of this from Nature editor Henry Gee’s twitterings. The problem has to do with the fact that the journal where Darwinius was pubished, PLOS One, is only online.
Today Martin Brazeau laid out some details here at the Loom, citing the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature, which sets the rules for naming new species:
…it isn’t named yet. This is starting to pop up in various comments now, surprisingly slowly, however.
According to ICZN:
Article 8.6 Works produced after 1999 by a method that does not employ printing on paper. For a work produced after 1999 by a method other than printing on paper to be accepted as published within the meaning of the Code, it must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself.
If, in fact, these conditions have not been met by this electronic publication, then “Darwinius” has not officially been published…
You’re absolutely right, Martin. Henry Gee (Nature) also has pointed to Article 8.6 (in a Facebook entry) and posted the link to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, for those that want to check out the rules: http://www.iczn.org/iczn/index.jsp. Article 8.6 is in Chapter 3.
The Code has a copyright of 1999, so one has to wonder how they’ll rule on online-only names, such as Darwinius. And Darwinius is only one of a growing number of cases. I’m sure the Commission is looking at the whole issue. In fact, maybe one benefit that may come from the unprecedented over-the-top attention given to “Ida” is that it may bring this whole taxonomic issue to the fore.
I’m part of a group that had been looking at PLoS ONE as a potential venue for our manuscript (mostly because of the ability to include more graphics and movies), but we decided against it for precisely this reason. Would the new name be valid?
While these rules may seem a bit esoteric to most people, taxonomists take them as seriously as a heart attack. I’ll be curious to see how this story develops. How strange would it be for the most famous fossil of the day to be rendered nameless.
Update: I asked John Hawks, the editor of the paper, and he deferred to the PLOS office. I’ve dropped an email with Michael Eisen, too. In the meantime, Hawks pointed me to this blog post, which may clear things up…or not.
Update #2: Michael Eisen, a co-founder of PLOS and a member of the board of directors, kindly left this comment:
In the past, PLoS has gone to great lengths to ensure that taxanomic papers published in PLoS One meet the ICZN standards. Last year PLoS One published a paper describing a revision of several ant genera.
Cognizant of the ICZN standards, PLoS One ensured that print copies of the article were deposited in appropriate libraries. This was described explicitly in the paper.
In accordance with section 8.6 of the ICZN’s International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, we have deposited copies of this article at the following five publicly accessible libraries: Natural History Museum, London, UK; American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA; Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France; Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia; Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. The three new species names established herein have been prospectively registered in ZooBank –, the official online registration system for the ICZN. The ZooBank publication LSID (Life Science Identifier) for the new species described herein can be viewed through any standard web browser by appending the LSID to the prefix “http://zoobank.org/”.
As various people have pointed out, this language not appear in the Darwinius paper. I’m no expert on ICZN standards, and have to say that I think the print requirement is out of date, but it would appear that the omission of this language alone would disqualify the paper as an official taxonomic description.
I don’t know whether this was an oversight, or whether efforts were simply not made by the authors to conform to ICZN standards. I’ll let you know what the people at PLoS say about whether copies were deposited.
Update #3: I just got a new comment from Peter Binfield, the managing editor of PLOS One
PLoS is aware of the problem with the ICZN not recognizing species names that are announced in online only journals. The issue specifically relates to us being online-only (which more and more journals will become in the future) and therefore not conforming to Sect 8.6 of their code (http://www.iczn.org/iczn/index.jsp?article=8&nfv=true ) which states:
“8.6. Works produced after 1999 by a method that does not employ printing on paper. For a work produced after 1999 by a method other than printing on paper to be accepted as published within the meaning of the Code, it must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself.”
The issue comes down to what is meant by “the form in which is it published” for an online-only title and therefore whether or not there is any point to including the statement about 5 libraries until the ICZN has made a determination on the topic.
There has been a lot of debate at ICZN on this topic (specifically how any online only journal can meet their code) but to date there has been no resolution. As the largest online-only journal in the world, this is obviously important to us and so we have been in active discussion with the ICZN (for some time) as to how we can conform.
It is worth noting that all our content is archived in several industry standard locations – PubMedCentral and LOCKSS (http://www.lockss.org/lockss/Home – which deposits an archive copy of every paper in hundreds of libraries worldwide, all named at: http://www.lockss.org/lockss/Libraries ) are two important examples, and we are in the process of being archived at the Royal Dutch Library (as well as being stored on the hard drives of millions of readers, due to our Open Access nature).
We make it clear to authors that publishing in any online only journal (of which PLoS ONE is just one example) is a problem as regards the ICZN recognition of a new taxonomic descriptions. The authors of this paper were aware of this problem but chose to publish the paper with us regardless (as have the authors of several other taxonomic papers published by PLOS ONE). We have also advised the authors to register their name at Zoobank.
Obviously we hope that this issue will be resolved sooner rather than later and that all these names will be recognized retrospectively. In order to make this happen we are actively investigating potential solutions with the ICZN (and have been for many months). Once ICZN has made a determination then we will correct the paper to reflect the approved practice and wording.
I’ve put in a few emails to officials at ICZN for comment. I’ll get back with a response from them as soon as I get one.
Update #4: Ugh! Over at Why Evolution Is True, Greg Mayer rightly points out that Darwinius has been published in paper form already: in the newspapers that ran stories before the PLOS One paper was published. As early as May 10, the Daily Mail had a piece. I’m wondering if this has ever happened before, and have newspapers ended up being cited as the original publication for other species names?
Update #5: The ICZN Executive Secretary has given me the official word. Read here for the details.
Update #6: Darwinius is now Darwinius.
If the world goes crazy for a lovely fossil, that’s fine with me. But if that fossil releases some kind of mysterious brain ray that makes people say crazy things and write lazy articles, a serious swarm of flies ends up in my ointment.
On Friday, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal got a scoop on a new paper on a 47-million-year-old primate fossil that was published today in PLOS One. The story mentioned that the discovery would be revealed at the American Museum of Natural History. It did not mention that the fossil was also the ceneterpiece of a show on the History Channel, along with a big web site and a book–all called “The Link. Yesterday and today there have been a torrent of news articles on the new primate, dubbed Darwinius masillae. Publications that normally wouldn’t give two picas to paleontology, such as New York Magazine and Gawker jumped on the bandwagon.
So what made this primate worth all the attention? Well, reporters who attended a press conference this morning heard things like this (courtesy of the Guardian)
Nancy Dubuc of the History Channel that will be showing the film said Ida “promised to change everything that we thought we understood about the origins of human life”….
Dr Jorn Hurum, the scientist at the heart of the project, made the most exotic parallels. He screened photographs of the Mona Lisa and the Rosetta Stone, without elucidation, though the implication was clear. He variously described the fossil as the Holy Grail of paleontology and the lost ark of archeology.
I watched this media event balloon as I tried to do other work, but I kept getting distracted. I kept waiting to see an article that sought out some opinions from experts who were not involved in the discovery and analysis of the fossil, which might corroborate that this was indeed the Holy Grail of paleontology, or perhaps something just a wee bit more Earthbound than that. I never found one.
Both researchers agreed that it was a lovely fossil, in terms of its exquisite preservation. “It’s really wonderful,” Fleagle said. It’s got bones, fur, and even its last meal in its stomach. Fleagle observed that it will be possible to learn many details about the biology of early primates from Darwinius, down to the stages by which it teeth erupted.
But does this “change everything”? Is it, as the Sun claims, “the missing link in human evolution”?
Actually, I didn’t ask Beard or Fleagle those questions. That would be a bit ridiculous. No scientist, including the co-authors of the Darwinius paper, would ever pretend that they had found a single fossil that was “the” missing link. For some reason reporters (and apparently television producers) are obsessed with the idea, as I wrote about long ago when another primate fossil was touted in a similar fashion. Newly discovered fossils are important instead in helping to resolve the order in which traits evolved, and how groups of species are related to one another. And the more fossils that are discovered, the clearer these pictures become.
Instead, I asked what Fleagle and Beard thought about the actual argument in the paper, which has to do with where humans, apes, and monkeys (known as anthropoids) fit in the primate family tree. Some of the co-authors on the new paper have argued in the past that an extinct group of primates called adapiforms gave rise to anthropoids. Others have favored a common ancestry with small primates known as tarsiers. (Laelaps has a nice history of the debate.) The authors of the new paper argue that Darwinius is an adapiform, but it also has traits that link it with anthropoids. So, according to them, it’s an early relative of our own anthropoid lineage.
Both Fleagle and Beard were not impressed with this argument. Fleagle observed that, ironically, most of the evidence presented in the paper is old news. Except for the ankle and a few other traits, most of the traits offered to link adapiforms to anthropoids “have been known for decades,” said Fleagle. It’s nice to have those traits all in one primate fossil, but they don’t advance the debate. Fleagle is intrigued by the anthropoid-like ankle of the fossil, but he also notes that it’s “roadkill,” flattened down to a 2-millimeter pancake. He wonders whether their interpretation of the ankle will hold up to scrutiny.
Beard has similar things to say via email.
I’ve been deluged today by journalists regarding this. It is a marketing campaign for the ages. The fossil is nice because it is so complete, but it is a rather vanilla-flavored adapiform that does not differ appreciably from other members of that well-known group of Eocene primates…
Beard was also puzzled that the authors did not compare Darwinius to an important early anthropoid fossil Beard found, known as Eosimias. In fact, he was underwhelmed by the entire comparison of Darwinius to other primates (a phylogenetic analysis):
The phylogenetic analysis is not very complete, and I would certainly interpret many of the characters they do cite very differently than they do. But one of the most shocking things of all about the technical paper is that they found room to cite 89 references, but there is not one mention of Eosimias to be found there. This is bizarre indeed. In a paper that purports to tell us something about anthropoid origins, the authors have conveniently ignored the single most significant fossil that has been published to date. Incomprehensible.
We certainly haven’t heard the last of Darwinius–on that, even the critics agree. But let’s hope that we’ve heard the last of the Holy Grail.
[Image: PLOS One]
Update: In response to comments from Kilian and Brett, I thought I’d add a little more detail here on the evolutionary relationships the authors argue for in the paper. Scientists have long split the primate order into two suborders: strepsirrhines and haplorhines. Strepsirrhines included lemurs, galagos, and a few other species, which all share certain traits, such as a wet nose (the root of the name strepsirrhine). Monkeys, apes, and tarsiers are typically included in the Haplorhines. The Darwinius team argues that their new fossil, Darwinius, is more closely related to haplorhines (which includes monkeys and apes) than it is to strepsirrhines. Therefore, it (and other adapiforms) are ancient relatives of monkeys and apes.
Brett wondered whether there was a tree in the paper. There is, and thanks to PLOS’s open access policy, I can post it right here:
A couple points here:
1. They need to fix the typo in Strepsirrhini.
2. This is what Beard would call “not very complete.” Three branches makes for a pretty bare tree, especially when you consider that there are a fair number of early primate fossils known at this point. Fleagle pointed out to me that there are some early anthropoid fossils that lack some of the traits that supposedly join Darwinius to anthropoids. This could all be sorted out with a detailed phylogenetic analysis, which no doubt someone will carry out. The authors of the study get kudos from Fleagle for providing so much anatomical detail and high-resolution images of the primate, because that will enable lots of scientists to take their own stab at placing Darwinius in the primate tree.