The editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) decided last week to publish two papers linked to academy member Lynn Margulis, a cell biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. PNAS editor-in-chief Randy Schekman had written Margulis over “apparent selective communication of reviews” of a controversial paper by non-academy member Donald Williamson, a retired zoologist from the University of Liverpool, UK.
Williamson’s paper, which was ‘communicated’ by Margulis under the soon-to-be-defunct ‘Track I’ submission route that allows academy members to handle the peer review process for their colleagues, was published online in August, but was held up from print publication last month following a report in Scientific American that cited Margulis as saying that she obtained “6 or 7” reviews before receiving the “2 or 3” positive ones that recommended acceptance. The publication of a second paper, co-authored by Margulis, was also suspended because of the controversy (see ‘Row at US journal widens’).
Both papers will now move forward, says PNAS managing editor Daniel Salsbury. Williamson’s paper, however, will be accompanied by a letter to the editor from Gonzalo Giribet, an invertebrate zoologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Williamson’s hypothesis that caterpillars arose from an accidental mating between butterflies and velvet worms “is the most stupid thing that has ever been proposed,” Giribet told Nature. “It’s like if I said that humans had sex with fish and then you get whales. It’s nonsense. It’s a non-scientific hypothesis.”
Williamson, who is writing a response that will be published alongside Giribet’s commentary, says that Giribet’s letter “missed the point” of the study by focusing on the evolutionary relationship between insects and velvet worms, rather than the possibility of hybridization. Giribet counters that he was short on space, owing to PNAS’s limit of 250 words and five references, and so he concentrated on only one of many criticisms.
The fate of a third paper, also communicated by Margulis, which was challenged by an anonymous PNAS editorial board member following acceptance by three anonymous reviewers, remains up in the air. The study’s author, John Hall, a computational biologist based in New York City who is an adjunct professor in the same department as Margulis, says he is currently preparing a response to the board member’s concerns about his methods used to compare gene sequences. Salsbury declined to comment on the status of Hall’s paper.
Image: Velvet worm from Wikimedia Commons