Monday, September 27, 2004

Sternberg Replies

The editor responsible for the publication of Meyer's paper, mentioned in the previous post, was Richard von Sternberg. He has set up this website to answer the charges that have been levelled against him.

I have no inside information about the workings of the Biological Society of Washington. All I can do is read what he has written and draw my own conclusions. And it seems to me that he has left a lot of unanswered questions. At times his phrasing strikes me as a bit too cagey, and I think there is more going on here than he has described.

Sternberg begins with a summary of the key points. He writes:

In the case of the Meyer paper I followed all the standard procedures for publication in the Proceedings. As managing editor it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself, something I had done before in other appropriate cases. In order to avoid making a unilateral decision on a potentially controversial paper, however, I discussed the paper on at least three occasions with another member of the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW), a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History. Each time, this colleague encouraged me to publish the paper despite possible controversy.

This statement is contradicted by this statement from the BSW mentioned in the previous post. They state that:

The paper by Stephen C. Meyer in the Proceedings (“The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239) represents a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history. It was published without the prior knowledge of the Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, or the associate editors. We have met and determined that all of us would have deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.

I'd say there's something to be resolved here. It is possible, however, that the Council member Sternberg mentions is no longer with the BSW. Perhaps the person Sternberg is referring to here would be willing to step forward.

Also, the issue at this point was not whether the content of the paper would be controversial, but whether its subject matter was appropriate for the journal. According to the journal's home page, the PBSW:

contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and paleontology), and notices of business transacted at meetings of the Society.

They seldom publish review articles and certainly not review articles about evolutionary biology. Evolution certainly has a role to play in botany, zoology, and paleontology, but it is clear that this is not a journal devoted to evolutionary issues.

This relates directly to Sternberg's next point:

According to the official description of the Proceedings published in each issue, the journal “contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and paleontology).” The journal has published in areas such as comparative cytogenetics, phylogenetic hypotheses and classifications, developmental studies, and reviews of faunal groups. In addition, evolutionary scenarios are frequently presented at the end of basic systematic studies. Even a casual survey of papers published in the Proceedings and the occasional Bulletin of the Biological Society of Washington will reveal many titles in such areas. Thus, the topic of Meyer's paper was well within the scope of the journal.

The logic here seems to be that since the journal has published papers addressing evolutionary subjects, it is appropriate to publish a critical review article of the entire field. The difficulty with this argument is not hard to spot. Any journal dealing with biological subjects will inevitably include discussions of issues related to evolution. It is impossible to avoid evolutionary questions when doing research in biology. But that doesn't mean that any biology journal would be an appropriate venue for the sort of article Meyer wrote.

Recently I co-wrote a research paper addressing certain problems in combinatorics. I sent it to a well-known journal in the field, entitled Discrete Mathematics. My paper used some ideas from differential geometry, but Discrete Mathematics did not become a differential geometry journal when they published the paper. And if I decided to write a review article in which I criticized the foundations of modern differential geometry, there isn't a mathematician in the world who would think Discrete Mathematics was an appropriate venue for it.

To back-up his claim that the journal does deal with evolution, Sternberg offers five recent articles. You can find them here. The titles suggest precisely the scenario I am describing: They use some ideas and methodologies of evolutionary biology, but they are not primarily about evolution. All of them are primarily papers about systematics and taxonomy.

Sternberg's next point is:

The Meyer paper underwent a standard peer review process by three qualified scientists, all of whom are evolutionary and molecular biologists teaching at well-known institutions. The reviewers provided substantial criticism and feedback to Dr. Meyer, who then made significant changes to the paper in response. Subsequently, after the controversy arose, Dr. Roy McDiarmid, President of the Council of the BSW, reviewed the peer-review file and concluded that all was in order. As Dr. McDiarmid informed me in an email message on August 25th, 2004, “Finally, I got the [peer] reviews and agree that they are in support of your decision [to publish the article].”

It seems unlikely to me that a small journal like PBSW routinely has its articles reviewed by three separate reviewers. Far more likely is that articles are sent to one outside reviewer, maybe two. If I am right about this, then the paper did not follow the standard processes of the journal. The fact that Sternberg felt he needed to get three independent assessments of the paper makes it all the more odd that he did not bring the paper to the attention of the full Council before proceding with it. That is assuming, of course, that the review process was as above-board as Sternberg is suggesting. I have some doubts.

The final sentence is also interesting. Apparently Dr. McDiarmid was shown a file and concluded that the reviews agreed with the decision to publish the paper. Was that really the issue? No one has suggested that Sternberg misinterpreted the conclusions of the reviewers. The real question is whether these reviewers were chosen for their qualifications or whether they were already known to be sympathetic to ID.

Sternberg elborates further on the review process later:

After the initial positive conversation with my Council member colleague, I sent the paper out for review to four experts. Three reviewers were willing to review the paper; all are experts in relevant aspects of evolutionary and molecular biology and hold full-time faculty positions in major research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, another at a major North American public university, a third on a well-known overseas research faculty. There was substantial feedback from reviewers to the author, resulting in significant changes to the paper. The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer's arguments or his conclusion but all found the paper meritorious and concluded that it warranted publication. The reviewers felt that the issues raised by Meyer were worthy of scientific debate. I too disagreed with many aspects of the Meyer paper but I agreed with their overall assessment and accepted the paper for publication. Thus, four well-qualified biologists with five PhDs in relevant disciplines were of the professional opinion that the paper was worthy of publication.

It would be nice if the referree's reports could be released. I'd like to know specificlly which parts of the paper the reviewers found meritorious. It's probably asking too much that the names of the reviewers be released. On the other hand, they must surely be aware of the controversy surrounding the paper, so perhaps they would be willing to come forward and join the fray.

There's something else odd here: the term “full-time faculty position”. That term could include post-docs and adjuncts. Since Sternberg is trying to impress us with the credentials of the reviewers, it seems strange that he did not describe them as tenured faculty members. Having tenure is an instant sign of credibility, so I think he would have mentioned that had the reviewers been tenured. He also chooses to emphasize the numerous degrees held by the reviewers. But again, post-docs have PhD's and adjuncts frequently do. But no one would consider a post-doc to be an appropriate reviewer of this paper.

It is possible that I am reading too much into this. But Sternberg's phrasing is suspicious, and I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about the peer-review process for this paper.

Another paragraph that struck me as odd was this one:

The Meyer paper was submitted to the Proceedings in early 2004. Since systematics and evolutionary theory are among my primary areas of interest and expertise (as mentioned above, I hold two PhDs in different aspects of evolutionary biology), and there was no associate editor with equivalent qualifications, I took direct editorial responsibility for the paper. As discussed above, the Council of the BSW had given me, the managing editor, the discretion to decide how a paper was to be reviewed and edited as well as the final decision on whether it would be published. I had previously chosen on several occasions to handle certain papers directly and that was accepted as a normal practice by everyone involved with the Proceedings. (This was confirmed even after the controversy over the Meyer paper arose. In a description of a Council meeting called to discuss the controversy, President Dr. McDiarmid told me by email, “The question came up as to why you didn't pass the ms [manuscript] on to an associate editor and several examples were mentioned of past editorial activities where a manuscript was dealt with directly by the editor and did not go to an associate editor and no one seemed to be bothered...”)

Am I the only one who wants to see the rest of that last sentence? I have no doubt that for an ordinary, run-of-the-mill paper addressing technical issues in taxonomy and systematics the editorial board would indeed have no problem. But the situation is quite different when the paper is a review article outside of the journal's usual domain that is sure to generate a lot of controversy and bad publicity. Somehow I think that for that kind of article the rest of the Council would have appreciated a heads-up.

As I mentioned at the start, I have no inside information about what went on during the processing of this paper. I can only read what Sternberg has written and make a judgment based on that. And it seems to me that he has left himself enough wiggle room to make me suspicious about just how above-board this review process was.

That's really the crux of the whole matter, I think. Were the reviewers honest brokers with stellar credentials as Sternberg suggests, or were they hand-chosen because they were sure to give a positive response. What did they actually say in their reports?

If the paper was so good that it could survive the rigorous review process Sternberg described, then why didn't Meyer send it to a more appropriate journal? Are we to believe that only at PBSW could the paper be given a fair shake? If four qualified biologists with five PhD's thought the paper merited publication, why didn't Sternberg trust his Council enough to let them know what was coming?

I don't think we've reached the end of this story.


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