Bone Wars in the Blogosphere

Aerosteon Wikimedia Commons

When a scientific paper is published, it is not the last word on the topic. It is truly only the beginning, and that new research becomes widely available for debate and discussion. Normally comments are traded between experts, and arguments take place in the halls of symposia, but blogs and open access publishing allow the public a unique look into how scientists react and respond to published research.

Two weeks ago I wrote about a newly-announced predatory dinosaur named Aerosteon, described in the open-access journal PLoS. For years, the scuttlebutt among paleontologists was that these fossils were a significant find, which the PLoS paper confirmed, but not everyone was entirely bowled over by the paper.

At the blog SV-POW!, which specializes on the weird vertebrae of sauropods, paleontologist Matt Wedel wrote a detailed critique of the Aerosteon paper. Beyond debating the anatomical analysis of the new dinosaur, Wedel charged that those who described Aerosteon had not properly cited (and even unfairly criticized) previous studies on air sacs in dinosaurs.

Particularly perplexing was a quote from Paul Sereno, one of the scientists who wrote the Aerosteon paper, who said “The fossil provides the first evidence of dinosaur air sacs, which pump air into the lungs and are used by modern-day birds.”

As Wedel aptly pointed out in his first post on the subject, air sacs in dinosaur bones have been recognized for over 100 years, and in the past decade a more detailed research program have centered on these features (on which Wedel himself is an expert). Even as recently as 2005, a well-publicized paper was published about air sacs in the predatory dinosaur Majungasaurus (then called Majungatholus). Aerosteon is cool, but it’s not the first time these features have been seen by a long shot.

Paul Sereno and his co-authors have not taken Wedel’s criticisms lightly. In a response posted to the discussion boards at PLoS, Sereno wrote:

In two trackbacks to our paper, Matt Wedel offers a misleading, longwinded, ad hominen critique of this paper on the new theropod dinosaur, Aerosteon riocoloradensis, and the significance of its pneumatic features. Some personalized aspects of the commentary and erroneous claims push the limits of the “good practice” guidelines posted for commentary in this journal.

Sereno goes on to describe what he and his fellows authors aimed to do in the paper, but ultimately he remarks that he does not feel “personalized, ad hominem blogs like Wedel’s advance scientific understanding or enhance collegiality.”

This response troubles me for several reasons.

First, Wedel’s response appeared on his own blog and is not subject to whatever “good practice” guidelines might apply to discussion on the PLoS website. Even so, the response of Sereno deems Wedel’s critique an “ad hominem” attack (meaning directed against the authors rather than their research) without illustrating why this is so.

In fact, none of the specific issues Wedel brought up in his post were addressed in Sereno’s reply. Sereno’s reply, for instance, states that the authors of the Aerosteon paper strove to “Cite the literature thoroughly and fairly (95 citations).”

Ninety five citations is an imposing number, but sheer volume of references alone does not constitute an argument. It is what is said about those citations that matters, and none of the points Wedel brought up were responded to.

Wedel, in turn, has posted a reply to the latest dispatch. As he freely admits, he did speculate on why, in his view, some of the work on air sacs in dinosaurs had been misinterpreted in the Aerosteon paper. This is likely what the authors of the paper considered to be an ad hominem attack, even though no specific response to Wedel’s speculations were provided. After a criticism of the terse response, Wedel concluded:

If someone brings a fact-based critique against your work, rebut them with facts or not at all. Calling names just makes you look weak and gives the impression that you have no factual case to pursue. My critique of the Aerosteon paper is “longwinded” only because it is so thoroughly documented. Sereno tries to paint it as a content-free exercise in pique–which is a pretty fair description of his own response. The irony could hardly be any richer.

I lack to expertise to be any type of arbiter on the technical issues, but the fact of the matter is that Wedel wrote a very detailed critique (practically a paper by itself) of the Aerosteon research in the spirit of scientific discourse. The reply from the authors of the paper, by contrast, addressed none of his points and went so far as to try and discredit Wedel’s criticisms by belittling the fact that he shared his arguments with the interested public.

I also beg to differ with the authors of the Aerosteon paper that Wedel’s work (and science blogs in general) do not advance scientific understanding. I learned far more from reading Wedel’s point-for-point discussion than I would have been able to on my own. It makes a technical discussion otherwise held between experts, largely inaccessible to the public, available to everyone who is interested.

Science blogging still has a bit of a “Wild West” atmosphere where ethics and niceties are still being worked out, but it does provide a powerful tool to discuss and respond to new research. This is especially important when there are aspects of new papers that appear to be false or can be debated. This provides the public a view into how we come to understand what we know about the natural world, and I hope that the authors of the Aerosteon paper make the most of the opportunity to let us in on the scientific discussions in a more substantive reply.

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