Probe leaves butterfly paper's fate up in the air

Top scholar may have broken PNAS rules when advocating unorthodox study. Zoë Corbyn reports

October 1, 2009

A controversial paper that contains unorthodox views on the lineage of butterflies is being held back from print because of question marks over whether the high-profile academic who advocated it broke the rules to get it published.

The paper, written by Donald Williamson, a retired academic from the University of Liverpool, appeared in August in the online advance copy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal.

As reported by Times Higher Education online, the journal has been criticised by biologists for publishing the paper, "Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis", which takes an anti-Darwinian position, claiming that the transition of caterpillars into butterflies may be the result of different species accidentally mating with one another in the distant past.

Scholars have rounded on PNAS' "communication" process, which allows National Academy members to submit papers outside the normal peer-review process, although they must obtain two referees.

Now print publication is on hold because Lynn Margulis, distinguished university professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, may not have given full information to the editorial board when she communicated the article, the journal says.

A hard look at review

Randy Schekman, editor-in-chief of PNAS, said that Professor Margulis had been asked to explain a comment in the magazine Scientific American that it had taken her "six or seven" peer reviews before she secured the "two or three" positive ones necessary to make the case for the paper's publication.

"Our stated policy is that academy members must submit all the reviews that were received for a paper, not merely the favourable ones," Professor Schekman said.

He added that it was also PNAS policy that reviewers should not have recently collaborated with the authors of the papers they scrutinise, yet it appears that one of the reviewers Professor Margulis secured had recently co-authored a paper with Dr Williamson. Professor Margulis denied this, stating that none of the reviewers had ever collaborated with him.

"Although the Williamson paper has now appeared in PNAS online, we are concerned that the decision to accept the paper may have been based on incomplete information," Professor Schekman said.

Professor Margulis also says that three papers she co-authored that were scheduled to be published by PNAS are now being held back because of the furore.

In emails seen by Times Higher Education, she writes: "I am looking into the legality of punishing me for a finished paper they don't like by stopping publication on a second unrelated paper with my name on it."

The journal declined to comment on the matter, citing confidentiality.

Professor Margulis said there were six reviews of Dr Williamson's paper: four strongly favoured publication, one made no comment because it was outside the reviewer's field, and one was highly critical of its findings but stopped short of advocating rejection.

All papers are evaluated by the journal's editorial board before final acceptance, regardless of the submission method, added PNAS.

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