Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is My Fossil Not Spongeworthy?

The Australian reports on a recent announcement of possible sponge-grade metazoan remains from the Flinders range in south Australia claimed by a research group from Princeton University and hints at a darker controversy involving priority:

Paleontologists such as Jim Gehling with the South Australian Museum say it is no surprise that simple sponge-like animals lived 600-650 million years ago, as reported yesterday in the journal Nature Geoscience. But they are far from convinced they are what the Princeton University team has found.

"To argue these were sponges is a difficult proposition. They look like Coco Pops, " said Dr Gehling.

Moreover, Dr Gehling said better, older fossils had been found three years ago by University of Melbourne geologist Malcolm Wallace and his team. Dr Gehling suggested that competitive pressure might have been the reason Dr Wallace's group has been unable to publish their results.

The Australian understands that one of the co-authors of the contentious paper is a reviewer for the journal Science, to which Dr Wallace's group has submitted a paper. It is not clear whether the reviewer has read the paper but Dr Wallace acknowledged that "we've had difficulties getting our results published". He preferred not to discuss Dr Gehling's suspicions. He did affirm that his group's finds were roughly 20 million years older than those reported by the Princeton team, headed by paleontologist Adam Maloof.

Using a position of influence to suppress a rival groups study from being published would be a very serious ethical transgression but if the identity of the reviewer is that obvious would anyone take that risk?

Andrew Alden at and Chris at Highly Allochthonous express their opinions about the study.


  1. While I'm not going to argue such behaviour is unheard of, in the absence of knowing what exactly what Dr Wallace and his team have discovered, I'd be cautious about crying foul too loudly. 'Better' is a subjective judgement, after all.

    There is also a huge speculative link between 'x reviews papers for this journal' and 'x reviewed this paper' (which Dr Gehling is implyng but can't confirm). It's not completely unlikely of course, because you tend to want experts in a given field to provide peer review in that field - and those experts face the (sometimes unconscious) conflict between trying to give an objective assessment, and not wanting your own research to have its thunder stolen.

  2. and those experts face the (sometimes unconscious) conflict .. i agree this is all speculation .. i just found it an interesting behavioral conundrum... if Dr. Gehling's suspicions about the identity of the reviewer are correct then in this case at least it would have been a very conscious obvious conflict.. but at the same time if the identity of the reviewer is such an open secret would that reviewer risk his (her) reputation by suppressing a rival's work?