Ida: The Legend Continues



The exceptionally preserved skeleton of Darwinius, known popularly as “Ida.” From PLoS One.

Even though it has been about a month since Darwinius (or “Ida”, if you like) hit the public scene there is still plenty to talk about. From uncertain evolutionary relationships to the interaction between scientists and the media, this controversy has given us plenty to discuss. One of the most worrying aspects of this entire ordeal, however, has been the prospect that media companies influenced the scientific study of Ida.

As Earle Holland wrote on the Ohio State University On Research… blog, the tight relationship between the scientists describing Darwinius and the companies involved in promoting the fossil (Atlantic Productions, History Channel, BBC, Little Brown, &c.) created competing interests that, contrary to the policies of PLoS One, were not reported. The relationship of the scientists to those companies should have been cleared up in the competing interests section of the paper. This omission is in the process of being corrected. According to an update Carl Zimmer posted yesterday on his blog, a temporary statement has been put up and will be followed by a formal correction. It states;

The authors wish to declare, for the avoidance of any misunderstanding concerning competing interests, that a production company (Atlantic Productions), several television channels (History Channel, BBC1, ZDF, NRK) and a book publisher (Little Brown and co) were involved in discussions regarding this paper in advance of publication. However, to clarify, none of the authors received any financial benefit from any of these associations and these organizations had no influence over the publication of this paper or the science contained within it. The Natural History museum in Oslo will receive some royalty from sales of the book, but no revenue accrues to any of the scientists. In addition, the Natural History Museum of Oslo purchased the fossil that is examined in this paper, however, this purchase in no way influenced the publication of this paper or the science contained within it, and in no way benefited the individual authors.

I look forward to seeing the formal correction, but this statement does not address one of my primary concerns. On May 21 the Australian ran a story in which it revealed that at least one of the authors of the PLoS One paper was not happy with all the media involvement. According to the article, paleontologist Philip Gingerich had told the Wall Street Journal that;

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.

If this is accurate then the media companies were not only engaged in discussions with scientists about the fossil, but actively pushed the authors to finish the study. As documented in one of Carl Zimmer’s earlier posts there was a definite rush to have the paper completed between its May 12th acceptance date and the May 19th press conference, but what about before that? Last month Adam Rutherford mentioned that the media blitz promoting the fossil was already in place before the scientific paper was submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, putting the scientists and PLoS One under quite a time crunch.

Given the comments made by Gingerich, Rutherford, and others, I think there are good reasons to believe that the media companies influenced the study of Ida. To what extent this influence was manifested, I cannot say, but it seems that, at the very least, the media companies put pressure on the scientists to rush their research. This may have even precluded the authors from submitting the paper to different journals. While Jorn Hurum has stated that PLoS One was the natural choice for the paper, the Australian reports that Gingerich was hoping that the paper would go to Science or Nature, journals that have much longer peer-review processes. (Not that either journal would necessarily be likely to bite given the attachment of the paper to Atlantic Productions, &c.) Is it possible that PLoS One was chosen not only for being open access, but also because of the quick turnaround the paper would require to appear by the date set for Ida’s unveiling?

Given that PLoS One has been the party that has primarily been responding to issues about the paper, however, we might never know to what extent the media companies influenced the study of Ida. Hurum appears to have tightly coordinated his appearances with Atlantic Productions and the other authors have been all but silent. Perhaps they are not legally allowed to speak about what went on behind the scenes, and I doubt that the media companies would admit to rushing the scientists.

Indeed, while Darwinius was published in an open-access journal, at least some of the media companies involved exerted an extraordinary amount of control over Ida. The fossil was a brand, something to be promoted like a new album or blockbuster movie, and by keeping journalists and scientists in the dark Atlantic Productions, &c. would be able to ensure Ida got favorable coverage. (It’s akin to when a movie studio hypes an expensive movie but does not screen it for critics. If you are worried about criticism, then don’t let the critics see it until everyone else does.) This was not “open” science, but “science held hostage.”

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