A hyped-up fossil find highlights the potential dangers of publicity machines.
Last week's publication of paper describing a 47-million-year-old fossil primate with a remarkable degree of preservation (see http://tinyurl.com/oycvo8) prompted a trickle of news in The Daily Mail that quickly swelled to a flood of media coverage.
In normal circumstances, the interpretation of the specimen given in the paper (J. L. Franzen et al. PLoS ONE 4, e5723; 2009) would have been no more contentious than that of any other fossil primate, and a good deal less so than some. The fossil, called Darwinius masillae, represents a new species that seems to be closely related to other (albeit fragmentary) primate fossils found at the same site, near Messel, Germany. These belong to a group of extinct primates called adapids, which are generally considered to be more closely related to the sub-order containing lemurs and bushbabies (strepsirrhines) than to the one that includes higher primates and humans (haplorrhines). That suggests that the new species has little to do with human ancestry.
Indeed, in the paper the authors explicitly state that Darwinius masillae “could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids”. The authors also refrain from claiming that the fossil changes our understanding of primate evolution.
But the circumstances surrounding the paper's publication were anything but normal. Before the paper had even been submitted to the journal, Atlantic, a production company based in New York, had commissioned a television documentary and an accompanying book about the find. Just a week after the paper appeared, the book has been published and the documentary has been aired on the History Channel in the United States, as well as Britain's BBC and Norway's NRK.
Both book and documentary include the the suggestive words 'The Link' in their titles. A press release associated with the New York press conference at which the fossil was first officially described claimed that the fossil represents revolutionary changes in understanding. The History Channel website calls the find a “human ancestor”, and the BBC website describes it as “our earliest ancestor”.
To be fair, the authors' claims at the press conference were appropriately measured. Nonetheless, the researchers were fully involved in the documentaries and the media campaign, which associate them with a drastic misrepresentation of their research.
Another damaging aspect of the events was the unavailability of the paper ahead of the press conference and initial media coverage. This prevented scientists other than those in the team from assessing the work and thereby ensuring that journalists could give a balanced account of the research.
There is no reason to think that PLoS ONE's editors and reviewers did less than their duty to the paper. Nonetheless, the clock was ticking at the time of submission. Nature has over the years received occasional offers of papers associated with television documentaries, and the offers usually come with broadcast dates attached. Where the refereeing process might have been compromised, we have always said no to the paper. When time is tight, there is a risk that the broadcast will go out even if any problems uncovered by peer review cause the paper to be delayed or rejected.
In principle, there is no reason why science should not be accompanied by highly proactive publicity machines. But in practice, such arrangements introduce conflicting incentives that can all too easily undermine the process of the assessment and communication of science.
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