23 September 2015

Ancient legacies promoting ancient legacies

In all the excitement about the discovery of the new fossils of Homo naledi, many of my friends in the science community have remarked on this discovery being published in the journal eLife, a new open access journal, rather than Science or Nature.

“Look, this shows that you don’t have to publish short articles in those closed access journals to get lots of attention!”

What I haven’t heard many people point out is that the discovery of Homo naledi had the advantage of being publicized by a well-oiled, well established, recognized print brand: National Geographic.

The style of coverage for Homo naledi was almost exactly what you would see for Science or Nature: simultaneous press releases, probably embargoes, cover of a magazine,and so on. The only difference is that National Geographic isn’t a peer reviewed journal, but I’m not sure that difference is one that a lot of the non-scientist crowd (maybe even including many in journalism) would recognize. I would wager that for many, National Geographic is viewed as having the same authority as Science or Nature.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great that this kind scientific research is in an open access journal with an unlimited page count. See this post by team member John Hawks which shows how this publication compares to the scientific arguments over other fossils: short papers, long waits for descriptions, etc. And the scans of the fossils that people can print on 3-D printers are something pretty new to scientific publication. All of that is important for the science, but I’m asking more about the outreach.

If this same amount of attention had been garnered by the eLife articles alone – or, to head into complete fantasy, a bioRxiv or PeerJ pre-print (say) – then it will be safer to say the landscape for scientific publicity, news, and outreach has changed significantly. Right now, it’s just showing how much muscle the established media brands still have.

External links

New species of human relative discovered in South African cave
Is Homo naledi just a primitive version of Homo erectus?
Cover image from here.

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