12 January 2010

Tuesday Crustie: “The flavour of the day is...”

“...strawberry.”

It’s always great to see inverts in the news, particularly crustaceans, but I have some misgivings about the stories that made this pretty wee beastie news-worthy...



They’re calling it the “strawberry crab.” This goes to show that something as mundane as finding a new invertebrate (which happens all the time) can make world news if you can give it something that copy-writers can sink their teeth into. Don’t get me wrong – this is a very pretty beast, but so are many other crusties, as the regular “Tuesday Crustie” feature has tried to show.

This AFP wire story has been picked up by many news services, Stories about it can be found in the Times, the LA Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and elsewhere.

But this is a bad example of how to proceed in science. The Times article says (emphasis added):

“We will formally announce the discovery in a thesis to be published in the quarterly Crustaceana published in the Netherlands,” chief researcher Ho Ping-ho said.

“Scholars at the National University of Singapore have also found a male Strawberry Crab on a Pacific island and made it into a specimen. We plan to jointly write the paper to announce the discovery,” he added.

If I was on the Crustaceana editorial board, I’d be mightily pissed.

It sounds very much like the technical paper hasn’t been written, or even started! It’s bad form to say, “This is where it’s going to be published,” before you have:

  • Completed the manuscript to journal specifications
  • Submitted for initial editorial review
  • Have had the manuscript peer reviewed
  • Receive the comments of the reviewers and make any requested changes from them and the editor
  • Get official acceptance from the editor; this is the absolute point you should get to, but there is still more...
  • Receive page proofs and check for errors
  • Submit proofing corrections

Journals reject papers all the frickin’ time. You can’t presume that your work is just automatically going to be accepted and published in general, much less in a specific journal. It implies that the journal lacks rigor, and that they’ll publish any old slop.

The Daily Mail article says:

Taiwanese crab specialist Wang Chia-hsiang confirmed Professor Ho’s finding.

No! Peer review is not asking one other person what he thinks. Wang might be close to Ho. There may be a conflict of interest there. I don’t know how closely Wang has scrutinized the material, or if others in the field will agree.

Several stories specifically mention how closely this animal resembles an already described species, Neoliomera pubescens. When you’ve got a putative “new” species – particularly in one of the more speciose animal groups in the world, with around 6,559 living species (De Grave et al. 2009) – that looks very much like an already described species, you have to:

  • Comb the literature thoroughly to make sure you’re not re-describing something that has already been described
  • Provide evidence that this falls outside the range of variation of Neoliomera pubescens

There will no doubt be rare cases where you want to get news out before the technical paper is published. But this is not one of them. It would not have killed anyone, or hurt anyone’s career, to do a proper job of the species description, have the paper accepted, and only then put out a press release.

Reference

De Grave, S., N.D. Pentcheff, S.T. Ahyong, T.-Y. Chan, K.A. Crandall, P.C. Dworschak, D.L. Felder, R.M. Feldmann, C.H.J.M. Fransen, L.Y.D. Goulding, R. Lemaitre, M.E.Y. Low, J.W. Martin, P.K.L. Ng, C.E. Schweitzer, S.H. Tan, D. Tshudy and R. Wetzer. 2009. A classification of living and fossil genera of decapod crustaceans. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement 21:1-109.

1 comment:

César Sánchez said...

Great post! Bad science reporting is not always the journalist's fault...