Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Up Side of Hype

Darwinus is not a dinosaur. I've gritted my teeth and resisted posting on the whole whirlwind of ridiculous media hype, fallout from said hype, shady purchases from private collectors, TV deals forcing incomplete science through the fast track, and online publications that laugh in the face of actually officially naming and describing new finds.

For those who want to catch up, here's a few links, which have all unfolded in the bloggy goss-o-sphere (these are from The Loom, but check literally any paleo or science blog for more):
And because it's a really nice fossil, I've even included a pretty picture from the paper, but that's all I have to say about that.

Anyway, the whole controversy over Darwinius not meeting ICZN standards for valid publication has implication for dinosaurs as well. Namely, Aerosteon and Panphagia, both of which were published in the same online journal, PLoS ONE. Now, you'd think an online journal would go out of its way to make sure species published in it were valid, however this does not seem to be the case. It's apparently on the authors to make sure their papers have proper printing and distribution to meet ICZN criteria. Aerosteon and Panphagia, as far as we know, do not meet these criteria and are not valid names. Their papers are unpublished manuscripts at this point. If and when the names are printed in 50 or more copies and made publicly available for sale or to libraries, then they'll be valid, but at least the year of publication for Aerosteon will need to be amended from 2008 to 2009, assuming it happens this year. The same goes for the early whale Maiacetus, which is a Stinking Mammal.

Because of all the hype and the potential PR fallout should somebody pull an Aeto-Gate on "Ida" (Rioarribasimius as Mike Taylor jokingly threatened), PLoS ONE has acted quickly and pushed Darwinius through the proper print channels, checked with the ICZN higher-ups, and gotten the green light. Who will think of the poor dinosaurs in all this?

So, a warning to anyone publishing online: Make sure you arrange for a print run of your paper. Think of poor Epidendrosaurus--there but by the grace of the ICZN go you.


  1. I'm actually quite surprised that a fossil recieved such massive media coverage; especially a small mammal like this! The media isn't typically interested in paleontology.

    I mena, to give attention to a small mammal such as this, but completely bypass Xiongguanlong???

  2. @Rick Charles, if you supply the media with enough grist for their mill, you'd be surprised how quickly you can start a frenzy. ;-)

    Matt: In your opinion, what would you consider a good journal to publish a descriptive/comparative manuscript that would avoid these problems? I have been interested in preparing a manuscript to go to Paleontologica Electronica.

  3. The new commenting system on Blogger is pretty cool. I wonder how I missed the changes.

  4. @ Nick Gardner, that's a good question and as of now I don't have any good advice... up till this week I would have assumed PLoS ONE would take care of things just fine. I think it's up to individual journals to set their policy and it appears to be on individual authors to make sure steps are taken to make their publications valid, at least concerning taxonomic opinions and new names. I'd check with Pal Electronica to see what their stance is, but unless you're erecting a new name I don't think it's quite as big a deal even if they don't have standard print channels, library distribution, etc.

    If you really believe online publishing is the way of the future, then this is all probably moot anyway, especially if the ICZN starts allowing for it. But concerns about permanency are still fairly valid IMHO. It's the reason the blurb about library distribution was only included in the print run of the Darwinius paper, not appended to the online version (though it would be very simple to add). That would have been proof positive that online documents are far from permanent, unchangeable records. And, as some commentators have pointed out, some supplementary material available online for papers less than ten years old has already been lost or deleted due to server changes.

    If you want to be sure your work is accessible to researchers 100 years from now, I say traditional journals are the way to go until a better system is in place.

  5. Regarding to the ICZN requierements, I let you know that PLoS made the printed copies. So, the problem of the validity or not of the new species is over.
    Ricardo Martínez, Panphagia paper author.

  6. Thanks for the update! I've made a new post about it, hopefully PLoS makes this standard policy from now on.