Thursday, October 21, 2004

Letter to Nature

Also in the current issue of Nature is this letter:


Sir:

I cannot in all honesty share in the anxiety surrounding publication of a dubious paper on 'intelligent design' regarded by most scientists as a version of creationism in a journal with an impact factor of less than one. Your News story “Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design” (Nature 431, 114; 2004) suggests that getting an intelligent-design paper into a peer-reviewed journal is a huge achievement for creationism. I am more surprised it took so long to get one in.

The paper in question presents no new arguments and is unremarkable in any way except in that it has been published. It appeared in a journal that, until this particular editorial decision, enjoyed much-deserved obscurity. Proponents of intelligent design would have us believe that this publication is a testament to the scientific legitimacy of their theory although the editor has since left and the
journal has disowned the paper as “inappropriate” (see Nature, 431, 237; 2004).

In my opinion it is yet another testament to the rampant proliferation of scientific publications, resulting in a flood of inconsequential papers appearing in those thousands of journals that exist on the fringes of scientific publication.

The editors and reviewers of many low-impact journals cannot provide the quality reviewing process one gets with Nature, Science, Cell and a few (very few indeed) other established magazines, but any of them can affix the stamp of legitimacy to
their outpourings by formally following the 'peer-review' protocol.

Let's admit it and this is the real dirty secret of academic publishing one can publish just about anything if one goes far enough down the list of impact factors. There are papers all around us containing problems glaring enough to fai their authors in undergraduate midterm exams. The only reason they are not in the spotlight is because they do not deal with the theory of intelligent design.


Vladimir Svetlov
Department of Microbiology, Ohio State University,
484 W 12th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA


I certainly agree with the overall thrust of Svetlov's letter. The fact that ID folks managed to slip a paper into a low-end journal hradly indicates that their idea are gaining any kind of acceptance.

But I have two disagreements with Svetlov. The first is that I think he is being very unfair both to the Biological Society of Washington (who published the article in question) and to the majority of journals residing below the highest echelons. I suspect it's a huge exaggeration to say that “there are papers all around us” guilty of elementary errors.

Certainly in my own field of mathematics it's not true that you can publish just about anything. Even low-end journals publish papers that are (for the most part) correct and new. It's that the results they publish tend not to be terribly important, and the methods used tend not to be very original.

And the problem with what happened at the BSW was not that they couldn't provide a quality reviewing process. It was that the editor was biased in favor of the paper, and almost certainly manipulated the peer-review process to ensure its publication. I suspect the normal fare for the Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington are papers that are solid and correct, but not ultimately very consequential.

But a more serious problem is this line: “Proponents of intelligent design would have us believe that this publication is a testament to the scientific legitimacy of their theory although the editor has since left and the
journal has disowned the paper as “inappropriate” (see Nature, 431, 237; 2004).”

If by 'us' Svetlov means the scientific community, then he is making a serious mistake. It is not scientists that ID proponents are trying to impress. It is the general public. And the public, upon hearing that a peer-reviewed journal published a pro-ID paper, is not going to make a distinction between high-end and low-end journals.

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