Donald Williamson used to be a marine biologist. He has some strange ideas about evolution. He thinks, for example, that the reason why butterflies have distinct larval and adult stages is because they arose from the fusion of two separate species—a larva-like species and a butterfly-like species.
Lots of us have crazy ideas but it's a real challenge to get them published in the peer-reviewed literature, and that's how it should be. The reason why science is so successful as a way of knowing is, in part, because it's dominated by skepticism and a requirement for evidence-based rational thought. The system sometimes impedes the acceptance of real innovative ideas but not for long. What is does do successfully, however, is weed out the kooks. But even that doesn't work all the time.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is a prestigious journal that's run by the National Academy of Sciences. Once elected to the academy, members have some special privileges when it comes to publishing in the journal. They can "contribute" one of their own papers, in which case they can have a great deal of influence on choosing reviewers, or they can "communicate" the paper of a friend or colleague, in which case they choose the reviewers and send the reviews to the editor of the journal.
It's easy to see the potential for abuse but the remarkable thing is that the process actually works quite well. The quality of papers "contributed" or "communicated" is, in general, no worse than that of papers published in other front-line journals. Two of my own papers were "contributed by" my former Ph.D. supervisor and the process was a rigorous as any other.
But when the system fails, it fails spectacularly.
Lynn Margulis is a member of the National Academy. She "communicated" a paper by Donald Williamson on his strange idea about butterfly evolution (Williamson 2009). That's when the excrement hit the fan.
The editor of PNAS, Randy Schekman, has announced that the "communicated by" option for members will end in July 2010 [PNAS Nixes Special Privileges for (Most) Papers] The Science article reporting on this change in policy leaves little doubt about what prompted it.
An example of alleged gamesmanship popped up online 28 August in PNAS. Lynn Margulis, the noted biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, communicated a paper by Donald Williamson, a retired marine biologist in the United Kingdom. In it, Williamson promoted his longheld, intriguing—and, say most other biologists, almost certainly misguided—theory about the origins of caterpillars and butterflies. Current biological theory argues that they were always a single species and that each stage evolved via natural selection. Williamson argues instead that two distinct species (one caterpillar-like, one butterfly-like) somehow fused into a hybrid way back when. One species' sperm must have fertilized the other's eggs, transferring genes laterally across species in a non-Mendelian fashion.Shame on you, Lynn Margulis, You've made some outstanding contributions to biology over the years—endosymbioisis being the best example—but it's time to hang up your hat and retire gracefully. Your latest ideas are totally wacky and your inability to distinguish between science and fantasy—as evidenced in your promotion of the Williamson paper—is an embarrassment to those of us who, for several decades, have been holding you up as an example of a successful and creative scientist.
Margulis was unavailable for comment, but Williamson says, "Lynn Margulis is prepared to put her name and reputation on the line" to prove that "genome mergers" occur in evolution, a position his paper supports. He also says he knows that Margulis sent his paper to a half-dozen academy reviewers. Williamson says that he thinks they were all positive reviews, but Margulis told Scientific American last week that she canvassed six or seven reviewers to find the two positive reviews necessary to push the paper through.
Williamson, D.I. (2009) Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) Aug 28, 2009 [Epub ahead of print] [PubMed] [doi: 10.1073/pnas.0908357106]