National Geographic

Mystery of the flatfish head solved *cough* four years ago *cough*

Amphistium_reconstruction_p.jpg

Oh excuse me. I appear to have a cough.

There’s anew press release out about a fossil flatfish called Heteronectes, which is oddly half-committed. In modern flatfishes, like flounders or plaices, one eye moves across the other side of the body, allowing the animal to lie on its side. In this fossil species, the eye only made it halfway around. It’s a beautiful animal.

It was also discovered and described four years ago in a Nature paper, by the same authors. I wrote about it then. That fact is completely missing from the new release, which talks about “a new fossil discovery” described in a new study in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology. Writer The person named on the press release (but apparently didn’t write it) Cody Mooneyhan ignored my email pointing this out.

It’s a shame. All it would take to cross the line from misleading to accurate would be a brief acknowledgement of the initial description and then some detail about what the new paper actually entails. As far as I’m aware, it’s a more detailed description of the same specimen, and some discussion about its relationship to other fish. Or maybe what’s new is that they’re writing about it for the second time, which they clearly couldn’t do the first time round :-/

You may not care. After all, a very beautiful fossil gets another shot at the limelight and we can all agree that this is a good thing. The science itself is accurate, even if the timeline is fudged. But I’m a stickler about this. I really don’t think that science is in such a desperate state that we need to wilfully hide information in order to make things more appealing. It’s just cheap, and frankly, I think it takes us journalists for fools. Andy Farke also pointed out on Twitter that the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology selects just one paper per issue to be laid before the Gods of Media. Some other paper could have used the slot more effectively.

There are 27 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Aatish
    June 26, 2012

    That’s odd, they really have a policy that just one paper gets the media limelight? If that were the case, it would definitely encourage publicists to hype the results in order to make that spot (and that can cross the line into being misleading or overstating things). I agree that this can be unethical, but it also seems like a pointless press release policy that’s not helping the case any.

  2. Martin Brazeau
    June 26, 2012

    Ed Yong writes:
    “Or maybe what’s new is that they’re writing about it for the second time, which they clearly couldn’t do the first time round :-/”

    Could you clarify what you mean by that?

  3. Old Geezer
    June 26, 2012

    Don’t I recall a recent case of an author being accused of plagiarism for republishing his own work without attribution? This would seem to come pretty close.

  4. Jason Anderson
    June 26, 2012

    It is typical for a longer description to follow a publication of a spectacular fossil first announced in a glossy journal some years previous. The issue at hand is not whether the authors are shingling or “self plagiarizing” (a shaded accusation that I think needs to be checked right now), but whether the more detailed information revealed in the new article was sufficiently covered in the press release by the SVP, or, as Ed has suggested, whether other papers might have benefited more from this coverage. The authors have done nothing wrong.

    In the interest of disclosure, I sit on the editorial board for the journal in which this paper was published.

  5. Martin Brazeau
    June 26, 2012

    @Old Geezer:
    In paleontology, it is customary that new taxa published under shorter descriptions in venues like Nature and Science see a more complete description in paleontological ‘trade journals’ such as Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology or Palaeontology. In fact, it is generally expected and often a source of frustration in the community when authors don’t publish such works.

    Nature and Science provide a maximum of four print pages for your work. This is insufficient for a proper characterization of most fossils in a way that would be useful to specialists. Although there is virtually unlimited space for ‘supplementary information’, there are many reasons why you would not want to put this kind of description there. Firstly, it is not indexed by the SCI, so publications cited there do not see an influence in their citation metrics. Secondly, (at least in Nature) this section is not proof read by house copyediting staff. They tend to be unformatted (again, especially in Nature).

    What we should be after is the practice of feeding out dribs and drabs of information through Nature or Science, but never following it up with a description such as this one. That practice is far worse, as the authors basically use this custom to prevent others from working on the material under the pretext that they are “still working on it”.

  6. Dave Godfrey
    June 26, 2012

    Not really. Nature & Science papers describing new species (or recognising features in old ones, as Friedman did in his first Heteronectes paper are about five or six pages long at most, which isn’t nearly long enough to give a proper description of a fossil. Its enough to point out the apomorphies, or whatever new feature you’re interested in, but nowhere near enough to really get into the details of what the animal is really like and how similar or different it is from its close relatives.

    For instance we’ve known about Eotyrannus for quite some time, but the monograph describing all the detailed osteology has not yet been published. It took Jarvik nearly forty years to get his Ichthyostega monograph out (although that was somewhat excessive).

  7. Ed Yong
    June 26, 2012

    Yeah let’s be clear here. I am not in any way having a go at the authors, I’m squarely looking at the press release. Unless of course the authors signed off on the PR…

  8. Kaviani
    June 26, 2012

    Totally understood. This is PR fumble, not an academic one. They’re trying to “sexify” their findings this way to generate more interest.

    And YES, from a journalists’ perspective, this is just shady no matter how the eggheads spin it. It may be status quo to you industry folks, but to the people you need to convince (us regular, unsophisticated, non-tenured joes), it’s laughable.

  9. Mickey Mortimer
    June 26, 2012

    “I really don’t think that science is in such a desperate state that we need to wilfully hide information in order to make things more appealing.”

    Yet that’s increasingly common. In the abstract for their 2012 paper on the new Asian spinosaurid Ichthyovenator, Allain et al. state “Although possible spinosaurid teeth have been reported from various Early Cretaceous localities in Asia, the new taxon I. laosensis is the first definite record of Spinosauridae from Asia.” Yet Ichthyovenator is NOT the first definitive Asian spinosaurid. We have Hone et al.’s (2010) baryonychine tooth from the Majiacun Formation of China, many teeth of Siamosaurus suteethorni from Thailand, teeth and a partial skeleton of Siamosaurus sp. from later sediments in Thailand (Buffetaut et al., 2004), teeth of “Sinopliosaurus” fusuiensis from China, a Siamosaurus-like tooth from Japan (Hasegawa et al., 2003), and a spinosaurine tooth from the Mangchuan Formation China (Lu et al., 2009). Allain et al. imply the numerous teeth are only questionably referred to the family, but their affinity is well supported in most cases and the authors certainly don’t provide evidence they belong to anything else. Even if you discount teeth, the partial skeleton was announced eight years ago. Ichthyovenator should be the second Asian spinosaur postcranium, or the seventh spinosaur from Asia, but I guess that’s just not cool enough.

    Or Fitzgerald et al. (2012), whose paper on a new astragalacalcaneum was titled “First ceratosaurian dinosaur from Australia”, when Ozraptor has been identified as a ceratosaur since Rauhut (2005). The authors claim Ozraptor is undiagnostic, but never say it’s not a ceratosaur, but again “First diagnostic ceratosaurian dinosaur from Australia” wouldn’t sound important enough.

    “What we should be after is the practice of feeding out dribs and drabs of information through Nature or Science, but never following it up with a description such as this one.”

    I looked into this and found only a fourth of the Mesozoic theropods described in Science and Nature had been redescribed later in the necessary detail- http://theropoddatabase.blogspot.com/2010/09/do-theropods-described-in-science-and.html

  10. Mike Taylor
    June 26, 2012

    “Andy Farke also pointed out on Twitter that the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology selects just one paper per issue to be laid before the Gods of Media.”

    Well, I’m not too bothered about that. The journal doesn’t determine what gets presented to the media, the authors (and their press people, if any) do that. None of my work’s media coverage has come from any effort that the journal made.

  11. Jason Anderson
    June 26, 2012

    Mike: I’m not sure what you are driving at. The press release in question was put out by the SVP because the Friedman paper was selected as the featured article. With respect to featured articles, the journal does choose which paper gets special attention.

  12. Paul Barrett
    June 26, 2012

    Some clarifications in my role as Co-Senior Editor of JVP:

    1. JVP makes one article per issue a Featured Article. This is chosen by the senior editors as reflecting the paper published in that issue likely to have the broadest impact of the various papers in that issue. Impact is related to scientific impact as well as public impact. As policy, the Featured Article has an associated SVP sponsored press release, which is produced by the SVP Media Liaison Committee in consultation with the lead author.
    2. SVP does not offer a press release for every paper: JVP publishes ~200 papers per year and if each paper had a press release this would represent an unreasonable burden on the volunteers that run the Media Liaison Committee and the small staff at the SVP Business Office (which runs all aspects of the society’s business). However, this does not in any way prevent authors of other non-Featured Articles making their own press releases and JVP works with them where possible to facilitate this.
    3. Featured Articles are chosen to highlight significant work published in JVP. It is not JVP’s concern that other journals might have already published related papers at other times and gained publicity from them. We are interested in promoting JVP content – it is not our role to police all vertebrate paleontology-based press releases from other journals and try to fit our own publication priorities and procedures around others. In the case of this article we wanted to highlight the excellent of the science and the intrinsic interest of the specimen: we don’t care that others may have made ground with this in other venues. The paper’s aren’t the same.

  13. Andy Farke
    June 26, 2012

    It is worth clarifying that other papers from the same issue can get media attention or press releases; it’s just the author’s responsibility (or the author’s institution’s responsibility), rather than the journal’s.

    And. . .it is also important to note that Friedman does appropriately cite the Nature paper in his JVP paper (thankfully, a different situation from the one Mickey describes).

  14. Ed Yong
    June 26, 2012

    Paul said, “It is not JVP’s concern that other journals might have already published related papers at other times and gained publicity from them. We are interested in promoting JVP content – it is not our role to police all vertebrate paleontology-based press releases from other journals and try to fit our own publication priorities and procedures around others.”

    This just seems irrelevant. I didn’t say anywhere that you shouldn’t talk about the paper. Nor did I say even slightly imply that you should police PR from other journals. As I wrote, what I’d love is “a brief acknowledgement of the initial description and then some detail about what the new paper actually entails.”

    As it is, I don’t see that info and am *less* likely to write about the paper. And I happen to love the field, and the fossil in question. That would seem the opposite result of what you want from good PR.

  15. Paul Barrett
    June 26, 2012

    It’s not irrelevant – it’s the whole point. The SVP press release deals with the JVP paper, not the Nature paper. The fact that some of the content overlaps in terms of the major evolutionary implications presented is incidental. Moreover, press releases are there to provide routes into the actual paper – taking time to read the paper would show how it differs from the Nature paper and the additional information offered. Press releases are hooks to get people interested in going deeper – they are not part of the permanent scientific record. The press release is to direct people to JVP content, not to provide an overview of publication history.

  16. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)
    June 26, 2012

    The release says, “A new fossil discovery described in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology by Oxford University researcher Dr Matt Friedman finally solves the mystery.” If the fossil was described 4 years ago, then the mystery was already solved (or at least on the way to being solved), and this line in the release is just false.

    Journals shouldn’t be making false announcements. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

  17. Ed Yong
    June 26, 2012

    @Paul – Yes, thank you, I’m aware of how press releases work. I don’t write from releases; I write from papers. I saw nothing in the release that suggested that paper would be worth getting and covering, because (a) all the information looked identical to what I had already covered, and (b) it included statements that (as Amos rightly notes) are false or, at best, misleading. So if your intent is to “get people interested in going deeper”, then you have done the opposite. In fact, you’re increasing the odds that the reporters who know most about the field will give the story a miss, because it looks (mind the pun) a bit fishy. Which, as I said, is a shame because the fix is about one clause long, and because I’m sure the paper is actually genuinely interesting.

  18. Darin Croft
    June 26, 2012

    I am the Chair of the SVPs Media Liaison Committee and feel that it is important to clarify a few things.

    1. Cody Mooneyhan was the poster of the release but not the writer. It was written by a member of our committee, working with the author, and reviewed by me and my Vice-Chair.

    2. We are volunteers and do this as a service to the society. And sometimes we make mistakes. We were all aware of the previous publication and were careful to note in the press release that the study “provides the first detailed description of a primitive flatfish,” which it does. It did not occur to us that it might be useful to explicitly state that it had been named previously. We take responsibility for this sin of omission. One can argue about the wording of the release, but it is factually accurate.

    3. Unfortunately, the vast majority of journalists out there are not science writers. Therefore, we try to make our releases as general as possible. We feel that an interested journalist can go deeper by reading the paper and/or contacting the author and/or the other experts we suggest. If that had the opposite effect in this case, then it is certainly our loss.

    4. I find it ironic that this post actually WAS written from the press release rather than the paper. Delving a bit deeper into this “story” (e.g., contacting the author, someone on the SVP media liaison committee, or one of the other experts) would have revealed its true nature: an honest omission by volunteers rather than a plan by the JVP or the SVP to deceive journalists or readers. The author clearly explained to every journalist who contacted him how this study differed from his previous paper. It is a shame that this issue was not tackled in a more constructive way.

  19. Peter Edmonds
    June 27, 2012

    I agree with Ed Yong and Amos Zeeberg about the press release including misleading information. But, despite some detailed comments from editors at JVP, it still isn’t clear what happened here. Ed Yong seems to think that the author isn’t at fault, but Paul Barrett said that JVP press releases are produced in consultation with the lead author. If the author was indeed left out of the process, this means that Cody Mooneyhan, who wrote the press release: (1) made up quotes from the author, (2) ignored science communication protocol by not working with the author and (3) ignored the policy of the journal in producing the release.

    If the author was consulted then he may bear a significant amount of responsibility for not mentioning the earlier study, since he is more familiar with it than anyone else. I can think of many possible explanations. Maybe the author requested that the old study not be mentioned, to make the new paper seem more important. Maybe Cody Mooneyhan or the journal insisted on leaving it out, for the same reason. Maybe it was some sort of oversight, since simple wording changes, as Ed mentions, would have fixed the problem.

    Producing a press release should be a team effort where the responsibility for producing accurate content is shared between the scientists and the outreach team. I know that some press releases are written without involving the scientists, but I suspect that wasn’t the case here. Of course even if I’m right, Mooneyhan should have responded to Ed Yong’s question.

    Ed Yong’s final comment (#17) left me confused. He says based on the release, the information in the paper looks identical to what he already covered, based on the earlier paper. So, how likely is it that the new paper would be genuinely interesting if it’s not novel, and how could he be sure of this anyway, without seeing the paper. Isn’t that implying that the release actually underplayed the result in some way?

  20. John Pappas
    June 27, 2012

    “The press release is to direct people to JVP content, not to provide an overview of publication history”

    And if it twists the truth or misleads people in the understanding of the science or status of the work? Why, that is a small price to pay for some good PR.

    From the Mission of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology after the press release “It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.”

    Where does it mention that your mission is to do that through false marketing and incorrect statements? You seem to be falling far from your mission. It should be a simple thing to admit that the title was misleading and you would do better next time.

    Further Light Shed on the Mystery of the Flatfish Head. See? It isn’t that difficult to be accurate and exciting.

  21. Lars Werdelin
    June 27, 2012

    Paul Barrett has already explained how the procedure works on the part of the JVP. Rest assured that this issue will be more carefully handled in future press releases. I just wish to make one clarification: Cody Mooneyhan, who was name-dropped as the ‘writer’ in the original blog post is, in fact, the Faseb staffer who posted the press release on behalf of JVP and was in no way involved in the writing. The release was posted as coming from Faseb for technical issues that will be fixed for the next JVP press release.

  22. Paul Barrett
    June 27, 2012

    Well, in one sense the press release did do its job: it saved you the time of reading the paper as you remembered the earlier paper and decided you didn’t want to cover this one. However, there are other people out there who won’t necessarily have picked up on the first paper and still others who might be interested to know that there was more detailed information now available on this fish.

  23. Ed Yong
    June 27, 2012

    @Darin – Thanks for engaging. Yes I suppose it’s ironic that this post I based on a press release, but it’s about a press release. 

    You say you wish that it had been handled in a more constructive manner. I sent an email to the person whose email was provided on the release. No reply. I wrote this post, publicly calling it out. I get several JVP reps explaining their case, some even taking responsibility for the error and others promising to fix the misleading authorship info on the release. I don’t know about you but that seems pretty constructive to me.

  24. Jon Tennant
    June 27, 2012

    It seems like this is just one of those errors that can be attributed to a mis-communication somewhere down the line. Finger pointing at members of the JVP publishing staff won’t help, but an assurance of increased rigour regarding the content of press releases is welcome (thanks Lars), especially if only 6/year are actually made. Considering JVP publishes hundreds of articles a year, and this is the first of such mistakes I’ve heard of from them, I’d say there aren’t any sinister motives. Let sleeping fishes lie.

  25. Aur_ora
    June 27, 2012

    I dare say Ed would have been one of the people who would have been “interested to know that there was more detailed information now available on this fish” – if the press release a) made it explicit that this paper contained that information and b) gave at least an idea of what that information was.

    And addressing a point made above, if Cody Mooneyhan posted the release and was listed as a contact, it was his duty to reply to Ed’s enquiry – if nothing else, by pointing him to who *had* written the release.

  26. TomS
    June 27, 2012

    One more thing – the press release says “For complimentary access to the full article beginning June 27, visit http://www.tandfronline.com/ujvp20/current” and also gives the citation to JVP. I just now tried to get access to the full article and to the July issue of JVP, but neither is available.

  27. Zach Miller
    June 27, 2012

    Totally with John Pappos on this one. It would have been exceedingly simple to reword the title and body of the press release to accurately reflect the state of research on Heteronectes. And there’s really no reason NOT to.

    Part of the problem is that those interested in paleontology simply expect more out of JVP in this department, and for good reason. Now, if you’re only going to publish six press releases a year, let’s make sure each one is rigorously vetted, factually accurate, and not weighed down by exaggerated or misleading statements. I hold the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology in HIGH regard, and I’d like to keep it that way.

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