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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 23, 2009

PNAS Shuts a Door

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Posted by Derek

I've written before here about how I actually like reading the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). It's a journal that has published a lot of groundbreaking work, and a fair amount of nonsense, and that mix is largely due to its unusual paths to publication.

Well, one of those paths is drying up. The academy has decided to stop the "communicated by" option (Track III), where someone can approach a PNAS member and ask them to send in a manuscript (each member could do this up to twice a year). Some members seem to mourn the passing of an old tradition, while others are glad that they don't have to pick and choose between manuscripts from their friends. Science has some details, and you can see the PNAS announcement here.

One of the things that may have either sped this along, or at least made people think about the decision more, was a recent paper by Donald Williamson, communicated by Lynn Margulis. Williamson presents an evolutionary hypothesis that is controversial to say the least, the idea that larvae (caterpillars, etc.) are the result of a wholesale gene transfer between completely different phyla. I think that this idea is very likely to be wrong, but in Williamson's defense, he proposes some ways to test it - and if by some chance he's right, he'll rewrite a big chunk of evolutionary theory.

Some people may look at the latest PNAS move and think "Good, now we won't have any more craziness like that caterpillar stuff". But I actually like to see a bit of such craziness, and I worry that there are already too few outlets for it to see publication. It may not have been an appropriate paper for PNAS - but where else would it have been published at all?

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Matthew on September 23, 2009 12:43 PM writes...

I agree with the sentiment. I like reading crazy articles too. But, doesn't this just highlight the old adage about extraordinary claims? If the crazy papers have some good, solid evidence to support the craziness, then it'll get picked up somewhere. The better the evidence, the better the journal.

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2. Sili on September 23, 2009 1:11 PM writes...

I'm sorry but this 'controversial' in the same manner that cdesign proponentsism is controversial. Or flatearthism or carbondioxide-does-not-absorb-infrared-radiation-ism.

Plugging this hole, won't change much, but the Academy members have brought it upon themselves by allowing such utter nonsense to be published. Margulis had a great idea, but has now succumbed to Big Idea Syndrom to the point that her original insight looks like a lucky hit.

But it's interesting to see what you find interesting. I'm still puzzled by your attitude to the Blacklight fiasco. And of course I vehemently disagree with your take on AGW.

But to each their own.

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3. Kismet on September 23, 2009 1:38 PM writes...

Oh, I know! I know! Obviously, Med hypotheses is a nice venue for such papers.

If you like crazy, Med hypotheses offers plenty of it.

Sili, you do know the meaning of "interesting", right? It's the very definition of something subjective. And it's pretty understandable that crazy is often very interesting. Interesting *not* true or necessarily very valuable resarch.

It should be published *somewhere*, somewhere between PNAS and Med Hypotheses I'd guess - depending on quality of their research.

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4. rcyran on September 23, 2009 3:32 PM writes...

I wonder if there's a market for a "bar stool" jounal/web site. In other words, pieces would be published on the basis of how interesting the idea was rather than evidence supporting it.

Every article would come with the following disclaimer - the editors and authors don't entirely believe the following ideas, but we get a kick out of thinking about them.

I've often noticed that interesting ideas are suppressed for fear of derision because there's insufficient data backing them.

Odd that this doesn't already exist in science (maybe I just haven't run across it). In politics/business you see this all the time with leaked trial balloons.

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5. Peter Ellis on September 23, 2009 3:34 PM writes...

Problem is that this isn't just "crazy but maybe just right", it's "demonstrably wrong". That kind of hybridisation, even were it possible in the first place, would have shown up like a neon light as soon as we had any completed insect genome. You'd see part of the genome falling on one branch of the overall phylogenetic tree, and the rest on a completely different branch. We have multiple insects fully sequenced, and have had for many years, and it's just not the case.

In chemical terms it's, oh I dunno, like claiming glucose has a nitrogen in it somewhere, and proposing some atomic force microscope experiments to "test the theory".

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6. Sili on September 23, 2009 5:59 PM writes...

It should be published *somewhere*, somewhere between PNAS and Med Hypotheses I'd guess - depending on quality of their research.
Well, why not get a preprint server like arXiv, then? If it works for maths and physics, I don't see why we can't benefit from it. No need to waste paber or proper editors on ideas that are as Peter Ellis doesn't yet say "not even wrong".

Yes "interesting" is subjective, but there's interesting and then there's interesting. I think cdesign proponentsists can be interesting, but not because there's a shred of evidence for there ideas, but because of the psychological and sociological features they can represent. Similarly I think it's interesting how Margulis, Dyson and the late Pauling can grow nutty in their old age, but I don't think that the nutty ideas they espouse are of much interest.

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7. anon on September 23, 2009 6:43 PM writes...

I am glad this option is gone. It seemed like people that took this route did it to have a pub in PNAS, but when anyone who knew what "communicated by" actually meant, it wasn't as prestigious. So kind of a double-edged sword.

I think it is good, a paper should be published based on its merit, not the merit of its members.

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8. Old Pharma Guy on September 23, 2009 8:21 PM writes...

Sorry but it's about time that papers can't be submitted by NAS members due to their secret club member handshake.

Since I'm old I remember the infamous paper Peter Duesberg published in 1989 in PNAS claiming that HIV was not the cause of AIDS.

The piece of tripe still reverberates. Thabo Mbeki's denial of HIV treatment in South Africa is causally linked to that paper.

Weird hypotheses on butterflies may be amusing but the possibility for real damage exists and is demonstrable.

BTW, many insects go through various instar stages before their adult form. A maggot doesn't look much like a fly nor dragonfly larva like the adult. That paper seems like bad entymology to me.

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9. SD on September 24, 2009 1:17 AM writes...

You're in luck, there is such a place, and it may expand to other subjects; Rejecta Mathematica:

"Rejecta Mathematica is a real open access online journal publishing only papers that have been rejected from peer-reviewed journals in the mathematical sciences. Click here to learn more, or read the current issue."

It sounds like a joke, but read through a bit - it's actually seriously done, for serious reasons, and seems to fill a niche in the publishing community. They do have *some* standards - TimeCube-style gibberish doesn't get a pass just because it was rejected from everywhere else, for example - but they do proudly publish stuff that doesn't have a home elsewhere.


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10. Morten G on September 24, 2009 3:33 AM writes...

WTF? I thought they were discontinuing both the referral and the members fast track? So basically the members can still get their papers preferential treatment but they don't have to excuse themselves when the plebes ask for a referral? Bollocks.

And on the subject of interesting papers. Why is always with these steaming piles that the authors claim "My brilliant theory can easily be tested!" but they haven't bothered to do any science themselves? If I was the reviewer I would have sent it back saying that since it can so easily be tested they should - then they can see if they want to re-submit afterwards. Yes, I also hate Med Hypothesis and yes, I am a bit cranky today.

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11. Daniel Newby on September 24, 2009 3:36 AM writes...

"Thabo Mbeki's denial of HIV treatment in South Africa is causally linked to that paper."

Oh, dear. It is certainly correlated with that paper, but it is caused by him being a prescientific psychopath who needed a pat explanation for using the poor as a pavement. Politicians need pat explanations to avoid looking like the deer caught in the headlights.

If anything, the Mbeki/Duesberg affair is an example of the moral necessity for intentionally publishing ringers in prestigious journals: as a sort of high-affinity fluorescence probe for Epic Fail.

This butterfly paper supplies enough reagent to run my Fluorescence Activated Bozo Sorter for years.

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12. InfMP on September 24, 2009 9:30 PM writes...

The comment in the last paragraph about liking those kinds of publications seems to contradict what you usually say Derek.

What about all those "sack of raving nonsense" blog posts? You didn't approve of people publishing ridiculous things then. Remember the post about how you can use a computer program to generate random papers that actaully get accepted?

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13. Derek Lowe on September 25, 2009 6:40 AM writes...

InfMP, the "sack of raving nonsense" post was about a paper that claimed to be detailing a new chemical process, and appears to have been (at the least) severely mistaken. The authors themselves had to backtrack severely on that one. I most definitely do not approve of publishing procedures that don't work.

But as for ridiculous hypotheses, bring 'em on, if they're interesting, if there's even an outside chance that they might have something to them, and (especially) if there's a good way to test them. Williamson is retired, and has no access to lab facilities himself. Someone will eventually look for the gene transfers that he's postulated, and almost certainly not find them. But we're going to be sequencing everything anyway, eventually, and it doesn't hurt to look.

In short, if someone has a crazy-sounding idea, I'm at least willing to listen for a few minutes. But if someone fakes results, though, or messes them up so badly that fakery is a possibility, and it's out the door with 'em.

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14. doctorpat on September 28, 2009 3:26 AM writes...

a sort of high-affinity fluorescence probe for Epic Fail

I thought that was the point of the international Jewish conspiracy. As soon as someone starts to complain about the Elders of Zion, you can safely killfile them and get on with your life. (Note: Killfiling someone in real life may require use of duct tape, but the same theory applies.)

To reply to Derek's point: There is a vast difference between claiming "These results are true" and saying "This theory might be true, why don't we check it out?"

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15. Mark Alliegro on April 13, 2010 9:21 AM writes...

The trouble is that relegating controversial ideas to some "controversial idea forum", or to some fourth rate journal, sweeps them under the rug as long as possible. And this is what mainstream thinkers (aka unimaginative people who not only can't think out of the box, but ridicule and punish others for doing so) like to do. "This is not of general enough interest for Nature", or Science, or PNAS. A death knell for unique ideas. Stop and think for a moment, all of you who are so quick to ridicule, stop and think how blisteringly continental drift was ridiculed 50 years ago. It took only a child to look at the shape of the continents and see the relationship. And it didn't necessarily require genius to look at a mitochondrion and say to oneself, "this looks like a bacterium". We've been ridiculing Lamarckian inheritance for 150 years. Now we accept, but soothe ourselves by calling it "epigenetics". People, use the tools that scientists are supposed to have in addition to an analytic mind: an open mind and imagination.

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