Publishing: Special Thrust Privileges Some Science Papers?

Now, at PNAS Three Papers in Question:

The science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) offers special publication privileges to members of their Academy, a group of elite scientists chosen by other esteemed scientists based on their unique contributions to science research. Now the editorial board has retracted some of those privileges in light of papers that recently appeared in the journal.

Nature News reported on a "row" caused when PNAS published research that didn't meet the journals' standards for peer review. The dispute is now heating up. The controversy began in August when one article published on-line at PNAS forwarded a theory by author Donald Williamson, on what he called "larval transfer hypothesis".1

Williamson suggests that the process of metamorphosis, whereby larvae turn into butterflies, arose when butterfly Leptidorae larva "mistakenly fertilized their eggs with sperm from velvet worms", as Scientific American put it (funnily twisting agency). Velvet worms, Onychophora, look like larvae but have completely different life cycles -- they don't turn into butterflies. According to Williamson, evolutionary transfer of genetic material causes butterflies to have essentially two lives, one as a worm-like larva, and one as a butterfly.

But there are problems with the theory. First, he offers no proof, just a "testable" hypothesis. And while interspecies fertilization is not unheard of within the animal kingdom, velvet worms are too distinct from butterflies to make this feasible, say scientists. The sperm could not fertilize such a distantly related egg and produce a viable embryo, and even if it did, it wouldn't "explain the process of metamorphosis".

Less charitably, scientists said that the paper was better suited to a a tabloid than to a science journal, and called the paper "absolutely ridiculous". They also scoffed at his attempt to show the "superficial similarity between adult velvet worms and larval moths and butterflies" with "very poorly reproduced line drawings that really need to be seen to be believed".

In short, the August PNAS paper brought a torrent of harsh criticism for the octogenarian's ideas. Moreover, while some people tolerated Williamson's submission as an attempt to generate discussion, nobody thought that PNAS should have published such a speculative paper. Scientific publishing is very competitive and many scientists who produce worthy research with real results are summarily rejected from high profile journals like PNAS. So how did the research get published? The tale gets even more interesting.

When Push Comes to Shove

Shortly after Williaimson's PNAS article saw daylight, Scientific American published an interview with evolutionary microbiologist Lynn Margulis, an editor at PNAS who shepherded Williamson's work through the peer-review and publishing process. In recounting her story of how the paper got published, Margulis mentioned that she had been trying to publish the work for twenty years. After convincing Williamson to ask the question of how the worms fertilize caterpillars -- rather than the more conceptually challenging idea that worms breed with butterflies, she told SA it took 6 or 7 peer reviews before she got 2 or 3 that were positive enough to push the paper through to publication. Her narrative raised more eyebrows in the science community.

It turns out that Lynn Margulis "communicated" Williamson's paper to PNAS, a method of publishing offered to Academy members that differs from "submissions". Via this method, members can suggest for publication papers by non-members, along with reviewers selected by the member. PNAS recently announced it will eliminate this "Track I" publishing in 2010. In the meantime PNAS editors will not publish Williamson's paper in print edition.

But now it's not just that paper. Another PNAS paper by Margulis and co-authors that's being questioned apparently proposes a treatment for Lyme disease that's "800" times more effective than doxycycline -- "it is very important to get this paper published", co-author Oystein Brorson told Nature.

A third paper in question is a computational biology paper by an adjunct professor of the Margulis lab. PNAS has asked Margulis to withdraw that paper because of problems with the methods. Margulis told Nature she would do no such thing, and when asked in turn for comment, PNAS told Nature: "We don't want to respond to any questions or complaints she [Margulis] has through the media." Sounds like more entertainment is forthcoming.

The three PNAS papers all circle themes that Margulis has been pursuing for decades -- Spirochetes, desiccation, spores, symbiosis and more symbiosis than you'd ever believe, and disease. Is the recent spate of publishing from the Margulis camp a final push for these ideas? And even more controversial ones?

Another 2009 paper has been published on-line in the (less well-known) journal Symbiosis (another journal that Margulis edits), by the same authors -- Hall, Brorson, Margulis and others. This "position paper" proposes that antibiotic treatment of Lyme and Syphilis, both caused by Spirochetes, induces the formation of cysts, or "round bodies", that then revert to their original Spirochete form in a favorable (antibiotic free) environment, causing secondary infections, long-term human symbioses, and compromised immunity.2

Although the abstract is pretty straight-forward, the paper quickly leaps out on a limb to suggest that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by Spirochete round bodies. Again, there's no evidence. The authors draw tenuous connections between quotes made by public health officials after a 2007 HIV vaccine trial, and their own round-body theory of AIDS. They reason that HIV seems not to infect heterosexual partners as much as men who might be infected with syphilis but not fully treated with antibiotics even though medical professionals say they are. So the authors have an idea:

"Is the situation [AIDS] better described as an obligate and ancient symbiosis where the bionts (spirochetes and humans) are integrated at the behavioral, metabolic and genetic level rather than a new viral infection such that HIV equals AIDS? ...We urge that the possible direct causal involvement of spirochetes and their round bodies to symptoms of immune deficiency be carefully and vigorously investigated."

So then HIV might not be caused by a virus but by Spirochete-round bodies. See? Someone test this right away.

Forget Crabs, Look Out For Round Bodies and Symbiosis

Margulis told Nature her attitude about the three PNAS papers in question: "If they definitively reject these papers I will make it very clear to the reading public (because they make it clear in their anonymous letters) that, as usual, they don't like my ideas." Two years ago, we posted on Margulis's controversial ideas and public relations skirmishes. Our post followed her debut on PZ Myers blog, where unchallenged, she forwarded her idea that HIV didn't cause AIDS. If HIV causes AIDS than why doesn't NIH write back to me, she asked? We wrote:

"Margulis relishes controversy and slings mud far better than most people, a well-honed and essential skill....[but] famously, despite her formidable offense skills, she forever portrays herself as someone who has been pushed in a mud puddle."

The PNAS controversy is interesting, although it wouldn't leap out at everyone so much if the papers in question weren't so blatantly ludicrous. PNAS's publication "favoritism" is far from unusual in the science world. Margulis has been publishing these ideas for years, drawing connections based on thin research (often foreign, often Russian, somehow lost on Americans), and asking the science community to run some experiments to test her ideas. In our previous post we talked about her theory of Spirochete symbiosis forming nerves:

"Think of the nerve as coming from what had formerly been a bacterium, 'trying' but unable to rotate and swim. Thought involves motility and communication, the connection between remnant spirochetes. All I ask is that we compare human consciousness with spirochete ecology."

That was in 1991. But the gulf between what she "asks" and a warm reception from scientists has grown as science has advanced. Williamson is an 87 year old retired scientist, who himself is no stranger to forwarding controversial ideas. Sketched drawings weren't so ludicrous 60 years ago when he was starting. But now, the idea that a paper could simply describe what you see, like generations and generations of cell biology papers before us, seems ridiculous. As an educator at Princeton said recently, "The days of sort of naturalistic walking around and looking at flowers are long gone". (Look at the emphasis on clinical description in this excerpt from a ptomaine poisoning paper from the early 1900's. Williamson was a scientist not too long after that.)

Margulis has always published in PNAS. Some of the labs' older papers have similar themes and a little research. But it's a different world now. Margulis still has the prestige to gather a cast of characters around her in symbiotic relationships, to continue to push ideas out, and to entertain admirers like PZ Myers and his followers. But while her fame draws admirers and moths it also draws vipers, many of whom are now online.

PNAS claims they were going to change their Track I policy anyway. OK, sure, but no doubt the deluge of online criticism didn't tempt them to tarry with the announcement. Just as high-tech science has redefined what a good science paper looks like, online science criticism has become blood sport. And that's a good thing, don't get me wrong. But imagine what would we'd learn if all papers and journal publication policies got such a thorough raking over?


1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis Donald I. Williamson, Communicated by Lynn Margulis, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA, July 24, 2009 (received for review May 19, 2009)

2SYMBIOSIS Vol. 47, No. 1 (2009) Position paper. Spirochete round bodies. Syphilis, Lyme disease & AIDS: Resurgence of "the great imitator"? L. Margulis, A. Maniotis, J. MacAllister, J. Scythes, O. Brorson, J. Hall, W.E. Krumbein, and M.J. Chapman

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