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Fw: ngm article/Olson letter



 

 
Friends,
 
I think it valuable to communications that both articles and the readers reactions be widely available. Storrs Olson wrote several days ago an open letter to Peter Raven in his role as chair of the Committee on research. Olson addressed several issues concerning the "Feathers for T. rex" article in the November issue. The letter was considered open and was widely circulated. Subsequently it was posed on more than one web site along with a selection of replies and responses that changed regularly.
 
There are some issue here that have not been mentioned or discussed adequately that would would like to bring to the attention of readers of this list. First, this is not an argument primarily about the origins of birds. Although this issue has been used by various correspondents to discount Olson's remarks, there is more. Admittedly, Olson's comments regarding the biases of various journals may be strong, and have solicited replies where necessary..This argument will not be resolved quickly.
 
I would like to point out that National Geographic Magazine is indeed a peer reviewed journal. It is also a publication of a society that want to present information to the public, supports research, and has its own agenda as a for-profit enterprise. The article by Senior Editor Chris Sloan was indeed sent to at least 4 outside reviewers who were asked to comment on the manuscript and make suggestions for its improvement. This was done with the reviews knowledge that some of the material, particularly the art work was privileged. At least 2 of these individuals responded with open letter to Raven.  The more difficult aspect to understand is that the author and the editor are both NG employees. Decisions on what is published rests with the editor. Much of the test, figure legends, and even the title were revised based on the reviewers comments.NGM does indeed have agenda. There is a history of sensationalism, or excitement, in the tone of there articles. That is part and parcel of their image.
 
To my mind, and clearly to Olson, are the issue regarding the specimen -Archaeoraptor. First, its provenance is unknown. Czerkas apparently bought it from a dealer, and did not check its origin. He may or may not have known it was smuggled from China. It is in private hands, so not deposited  in a place where it would be available to other workers. There has been no technical description published, so not critical review of the specimen and its description. NGM was aware of all of this. They were aware of making news out of a technical description. In most cases, to their credit, the do not release their articles until after or along with regular publication. Again, these are editorial decisions and the responsibility for problems rests with the editors. In this specific case, the author (Sloan) is also a Senior Editor.
 
NGM is trying to change its image, and has been for some time. Earlier there was an aborted attempt to develop an more rigorous publication that included more technical articles written by scientists that received NG research support. That attempt failed (for too many reasons to discuss here). Consequently many of the articles in NGM are written in-house by various 'editors' rather than the scientist primarily involved. At the present that is the way the Society has decided to run its ship. As I am prone to say, "when we're on your ship, we'll do it your way". Meanwhile, the responsibility for these issues regarding publication rests with the editors.
 
Perhaps more importantly, the responsibility for the specimen rests with Czerkas. Does he intend to return it to China? If so, to whom? How much work has been done on it, and has the preparation been careful. In a sense this , and every specimen, belongs to the entire community and it is important that the preparation be careful, the measurement be complete and the description be creditable. The quote in relation to  Archaeoraptor (p 100) that "It's a missing link between terrestrail dinosaurs and birds that could actually fly" gives one pause. I haven't heard arguments like this for a very long time. A ladder of evolutionary progress with a series of missing links to be filled in as time goes by seems wonderfully 19th Century and should give everyone pause.
 
I'm certain that we have not heard the end of these issues. The entire community should anticipate the technical publication with the primary description.
 
Cheers,
 
 
        Alan H Brush
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   brush@uconn.cted.edu
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