Not so fast

I like PLoS ONE. I know a lot of scientists don’t. I think there’s a niche for what my PhD advisor called ‘bricks’: papers that may not be groundbreaking, but present rigorous results that contribute to building a larger structure (he was, BTW, describing one of my papers, and it wasn’t a compliment). It’s also possible that research that may not be obviously important when it’s done turns out to have big implications that weren’t at first obvious. PLoS ONE explicitly aims to ignore the ‘impact’ of a paper in accepting or rejecting papers, focusing only on the rigor of the results:

PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership, who are the most qualified to determine what is of interest to them.

But a couple of recent developments are worrying. First, as I’ve previously written, a recent article reporting a phylogenetic tree for eukaryotes was published in a form that never should have survived peer review (“A cautionary tale on reading phylogenetic trees,” PLoS ONE responds“). The article contains numerous misinterpretations of the tree, unexplained contradictions in the inferred divergence times, and, most importantly, a choice of outgroup that pretty much invalidates all of the phylogenetic inferences.

I have contacted the editors by Twitter and by email, and so far I haven’t gotten much more than “we’re looking into it.” I am very interested to see what the journal does about this, because, as I said before,

The only thing that separates a high-volume, open access journal like PLoS ONE from the dark underbelly of scholarly publishing is a rigorous peer review process.

Now there’s a whole new reason to worry.

Okay, that line above is exactly how far I got before reading the paper I’m about to write about. I’m leaving it in as a caution against rushing to judgement.

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A valid point

A reader commented by email about my criticism of the PLoS ONE article that inferred a multigene phylogeny of eukaryotes, with Chlamydomonas reinhardtii as the outgroup (“A cautionary tale on reading phylogenetic trees“).

Although you are of course correct to complain about nearly everything in the paper (esp. re “basal” and node rotations), and I am sure the tree is wrong in more ways than it is right, I think you might reconsider or put in context complaints about the “provides a link between”. My thought is simply that if one has a long branch between two nodes in a tree, if you add a taxon group that branches off in the middle of this long branch, then it does, in a sense, provide a “link” between these two nodes. A more proper way to put it is that it provides information concerning the ancestral state at the two original nodes (i.e., may substantially modify the posterior probability of the states at the two nodes). I doubt that the authors mean it in this sense, but in the general context of teaching people about trees, I would want students to understand this.

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PLoS ONE responds

PLoS ONE logo

PLoS ONE is a strange journal. Until recently, it was the largest journal in the world, publishing as many as 30,000 papers a year. It’s definitely the low end among the Public Library of Science (PLoS) stable of journals, but opinions of its quality vary over a wide spectrum. PLoS ONE‘s mission is explicitly different from most journals, as they say impact (i.e. significance) is not a consideration:

Often a journal’s decision not to publish a paper reflects an editor’s opinion about what is likely to have substantial impact in a given field. These subjective judgments can delay the publication of work that later proves to be of major significance. PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership, who are the most qualified to determine what is of interest to them.

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bioRxiv gets a boost


Biologists have the option of posting preprints, articles that have not yet been through peer review, to bioRxiv. Modeled on the physics preprint server arXiv, bioRxiv is much newer, and its adoption by biologists (unlike arXiv’s by physicists) has been well short of universal. bioRxiv recently got a small boost, though, and I suspect it may be approaching a tipping point.

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Rediscovered after two thirds of a century: Pleodorina sphaerica

Pleodorina sphaerica

Figure 1 from Nozaki et al. 2017. Pleodorina sphaerica.

There really aren’t enough people looking for volvocine algae. There’s a suspicious tendency for the geographical centers of volvocine diversity — southern Africa, central North America, southeast Asia — to include the home institutions of phycologists studying volvocine diversity — Mary Pocock, Richard Starr, Hisayoshi Nozaki, respectively. I find it much more likely that this is an artifact of sampling effort than that, for example, central Africa and Central and South America are depauperate of volvocine algae.

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Two more tools for (legally) avoiding paywalls


Most of the articles published in scientific journals report publicly funded research. You can see this in the acknowledgments section, where the authors list their funding sources, which will often include the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, etc. (this is obviously a US-centric list, but most countries have similar funding mechanisms). Even if the work isn’t supported by a government grant, much of it is done at public universities, meaning that the facilities and possibly researcher salaries are government supported. And government-supported means taxpayer-supported.

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Say it ain’t so! Beall’s list shuts down

I hate it when a resource I rely on stops working. First it was igoogle, then Google Reader (necessitating a switch to Feedly, which I don’t like as well). Now it appears that Scholarly Open Access, the website that hosts Beall’s List of predatory open-access publishers, has shut down (I found out about this from Retraction Watch).

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I’m resorting to name-calling, and I don’t even know who I’m talking about.

Retraction Watch carries the story of a peer reviewer who published a paper he or she reviewed as his or her own. Stole the paper, in other words:

…after Michael Dansinger of Tufts Medical Center realized a paper he’d submitted to Annals of Internal Medicine that had been rejected was republished, and the journal recognized one of the reviewers among the list of co-authors, it published a letter from Dansinger to the reviewer, along with an editorial explaining what happened.

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Chance favors the minute animalcule: John Tyler Bonner on randomness


A colleague recently (well, not that recently; sorry, Art) lent me a copy of John Tyler Bonner’s latest bookRandomness in Evolution. Dr. Bonner is emeritus faculty at Princeton University, where he has been since 1947, shortly after World War II interrupted his Ph.D. studies. Among many other contributions, Bonner was a pioneer in the development of the social amoeba (or cellular slime mold) Dictyostelium discoideum as a model system for multicellular development and cell-cell signaling. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he has published over twenty books and mountains of peer-reviewed papers.

As much as David Kirk’s Volvox, Bonner’s books The Evolution of Complexity and First Signals: The Evolution of Multicellular Development influenced my decision to study Volvox in grad school. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bonner in 2009 when, as a graduate student, I invited him to give a departmental seminar at the University of Arizona. It really was a pleasure; this is someone who thinks deeply about big questions and has made important contributions to understanding many of the answers.

The central argument of the new book is that randomness plays a larger role, relative to natural selection, in the morphology of small organisms than that of large ones. Typically of Bonner’s work, the book is coherent, readable, and full of fascinating examples. Although the cellular slime molds are his primary study organism, Bonner has long had an interest in, and interesting things to say about, Volvox, so I was excited to read his most recent thoughts.

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