Darwinius: what’s at issue?

by Greg Mayer

I’m leaving in a few days for Costa Rica, and Jerry is back, so this will be my last post on Darwinius, at least for awhile. At least three different issues have been debated in the blogosphere concerning “Ida“: 1) What are her phylogenetic relationships; 2) Was the media campaign excessive; and 3) Has the name been published?

Darwinius on toast1) What are her phylogenetic relationships? This is the most important one, because it is, as John Maynard Smith once put it, about the world, and not about names. Is Darwinius close to the common ancestor of monkeys, apes, and men, or is it a member of the group that includes lemurs and lorises? The question has been raised and discussed most forcefully by Brian Switek at Laelaps, who thinks the evidence presented for relationship to monkeys and apes is weak. To my mind (and I’m not a specialist in primates or even mammals), he’s got a strong point, and we can look forward to a publication by Brian (or some other critic) on this issue.

2) Was the media campaign excessive? The short answer is yes. I expressed some uneasiness over the media campaign here at WEIT, and many others have documented the extravagant claims and consequent media misunderstandings further. See especially what Carl Zimmer had at the Loom, Brian at Laelaps, and PZ Myers at Pharyngula. But by far the best (or at least funniest) take on this was Ed Yong’s satirical evisceration of the inflated media campaign at Not Exactly Rocket Science, from which I have been kindly permitted to reproduce the by now iconic “Darwinius on Toast” above. There are many unresolved questions concerning how to present science to the public, and differing views concerning how aggressive a media campaign should be, but this one was at least one step beyond.

3) Has the name been published? This is the most technical issue, and is about names (rather than the world), but it’s attracted the most attention. See the posts here at WEIT, the Loom (and here), the Lancelet, and Laelaps, including the ensuing commentary by, among others, Henry Gee, Martin Brazeau, and Larry Witmer. There are several issues, and I’ll treat them very briefly (since this is a blog post, and not a paper in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature!).  For reference, The International Code is online here.

3a) Has the name Darwinius masillae been published (in the sense of the Code) in Plosone? No. Many people have noted that Art. 8.6 requires non-paper works to be deposited in 5 major libraries, and that a statement to this effect must be included in the paper. No such statement is in the paper. More importantly, although it has been noted in only one comment I’ve seen, Art. 9 goes on to specify that nothing distributed by the web counts as being published. The non-paper works envisioned in Art. 8 are things like CDs, not web postings. So, the various remedies proposed, such as reposting on Plosone with the requisite statement, would not work. To be published, a non-Web work must be made: paper, CD, DVD (the latter two requiring the fulfillment of the 5 major libraries rule), or something else which satisfies Arts. 8 and 9.

3ai) Can the name be made available by publishing a short paper (on paper) with a bibliographic reference to the Plosone posting? No, because availability by bibliographic reference must be by reference to a published work (Art. 13.1.2), and anything on the Web is not published (Art. 9.8).

3b) Has the name been published elsewhere? I hope not, but fear it may have been. I pointed out that the various newspaper articles may count as publication, because they meet the various criteria for publication (obtainability, simultaneity, etc.; Art. 8), and also contain 1) the name, and 2) are “accompanied by a description or definition that states in words characters that are purported to differentiate the taxon” (Art. 13.11), and even follow Recommendation 13A: “a summary of the characters that differentiate the new nominal taxon from related or similar taxa.” Many newspaper articles, in addition to a general description, included explicit differentia– incisors, grooming toes– from related taxa, thus providing a diagnosis.

3bi) Can newspapers provide a public and permanent scientific record? In my post, I considered that the newspaper articles might be discounted, because perhaps they had not been issued “for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record” (Art. 8.1.1). Some commenters have taken the position that this is self-evidently the case, but it’s not crystal clear to me.  The Code has always been loath to mandate specific formats of publication, specifying rather general properties (availability, simultaneity, identity, etc.) that a variety of formats might fulfill.  Historically, a huge variety of things have counted as publications (although no newspaper examples come to mind). Some newspapers have science sections, some are “papers of record”; I think the spirit of the Code is to approach each case on its individual merits. That is why the Code urges authors and editors to avoid anything that might make the situation murky, but it does so through recommendations (see my previous post for the specific recommendations).

3bii) Doesn’t the Code try to avoid “accidental” publication? Yes it does, as several commentators have pointed out. It has added meeting and symposium abstracts to the list of formats that are not permissible (Art. 9.9) to help avoid what the Code calls “unintentional publication”; but newspapers, as such, are not mentioned. The Code also now requires that the intention to establish a new name be explicit (Art. 16.1). This article is intended to prevent new names, especially a replacement name (nomen novum) to be introduced without mention, en passant if you will. Unfortunately, the newspaper articles make it absolutely clear that a new nominal taxon has been discovered and is being given a new name, and that this is the intention of the authors (on which, see next paragraph).  The Daily Mail article even uses the word “christened”. The Code urges authors to use “sp. nov.” or some other appropriate indication (Rec. 16A), but, again, does not require it. The Code recommends that any appearance of a new name in a work prior to its intended publication be accompanied by a disclaimer, making the new name unavailable (Art. 8.2 and Rec. 8D). The Daily Mail article contains the phrase “a scientific study to be published”: this might be taken to be such a disclaimer, and while it’s not as clear as one might want, it’s perhaps the most straightforward way of discounting the Daily Mail article. Such phrases may (or may not) appear in the other newspaper articles.

3biii) If it has been published elsewhere, who is the author of the name? The Code provides that when it is clear from the contents of a publication that the name and the conditions that make it available other than publication (i.e. the description or diagnosis) are the work of a person(s) other than the author of the publication, then the author of the name is the other person (Art. 50.1.1). In this case, the newspaper articles make clear that the name and its description were provided by someone else, many mentioning Jorn Hurum and Phil Gingerich. They (or whoever is mentioned in the earliest article published) are thus the authors.  This is a good thing, because it gives credit to at least some of the people actually involved in the work. The newspaper reporter would not be the author of the name.

To summarize the question of publication, the name has not been published in Plosone, but it may have been published in a newspaper. I hope the latter is not the case, and perhaps the Commission could issue a clarifying opinion (following an appropriate application) on the status of names published in newspapers (the problem may be distinguishing newspapers from newsletters from cheaply printed bulletins, and so on).

There are some other issues that have been discussed– the merits of paper vs. the web, the nature of peer review– but these go well beyond the particulars of Darwinius, although it might provide a case study for some of these issues. But one of the take home lessons here is that the recommendations of the Code should be taken to heart, and authors and editors should ensure that works affecting nomenclature are “self-evidently published within the meaning of the Code“(Rec. 8B), and that new names should not appear in works prior to their intended publication, or, if they do, they should “contain a disclaimer (see Article 8.2), so that new names published for the first time therein do not enter zoological nomenclature unintentionally and pre-empt intended publication in another work” (Rec. 8D).

Update. While I was writing this, Carl Zimmer got a reply from the Executive Secretary of the ICZN. She confirms that posting on Plosone does not make a name nomenclaturally available. The issue of the newspaper publication was not addressed; I’m not sure if Carl asked about this. I’m leaning myself toward the idea that inclusion of the statement that the study is going to appear somewhere else could be construed as a disclaimer, thus avoiding newspaper publication of the name (I’m still not sure that all newspaper articles included such a statement).

Update 2. Carl Zimmer at the Loom has a nice account of the PR run-up to the press conference, which he titles “Science Held Hostage“. And, also from Carl, Plosone has today printed a 50 copy paper edition. If we can dismiss the newspaper versions (which, as I indicate in my first update, I think we can because they can be plausibly interpreted to have a disclaimer), then the name is now published with the intended authorship; the date of publication is 21 May 2009 (not 19 May, which is when it was posted to the web). Carl also succinctly explains why the nomenclatural rules are necessary:

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.

10 thoughts on “Darwinius: what’s at issue?

  1. 1. I agree with you points about how authors and editors should work “within the meaning of the Code“.

    2. The code should be reviewed and updated to reflect current technologies.

    3. Authors and museums, etc. should not start a public circus like this set of announcements.

    4. There needs to be more trained fossil hunters and there needs to be more fossils found 🙂

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