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Eugenics, genetics and how they collided in the 20s and 30s

Roystonea, the royal palms, are the most striking palms in the Caribbean, and arguably, in the world (though, granted, a talipot palm in flower comes a close second). The name of the genus was coined by Orator F. Cook, an American botanist, in 1900, in honour of Roy Stone, an American general involved in the capture of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war.

I’ve wondered for years why Cook replaced what seemed to be a perfectly good generic name, Oreodoxa, with Roystonea…turns out that there were problems with Oreodoxa that were not easily addressed. Over the course of trying to figure that out, I started reading some of Cook’s writing. The article in which he first proposed the name1 gives fascinating insight into the state of botanical nomenclature a century ago (now there’s a subject I can imagine throngs of people being fascinated by), so I did a search on Web of Science to see what else of his I could easily find.



Ideas in Ecology and Evolution

Ideas in Ecology and Evolution is a new open-access journal which “publishes only short forum-style articles that develop new ideas or that involve original commentaries on any topics within the broad domains of fundamental or applied ecology or evolution”.  They also have an interesting review process:

Referees for Ideas in Ecology and Evolution are not anonymous; they are paid – not just for their reviewing services, but importantly, they are paid to forfeit their anonymity.  In other words, in the event that the paper is published, payment of referees secures their consent to reveal their identities – directly within the published paper – as having refereed the paper.  Referee identity is also revealed to authors of rejected papers.  Referees must agree to these conditions in advance, before receiving the paper for review.  This is done on-line, and the referee is paid upon receipt of the review.

The author pays for the review process and publication.  It costs $400 to submit an article ($300 to pay two reviewers, $100 for the rest of the process) and an additional $300 upon acceptance. That’s the drawback of most open-access systems – that they require authors to incur substantial costs.  Not that ‘closed-access‘ journals publish your articles for free…but it can still be a barrier for some authors.  Granted, many of them are willing to waive their fees for authors who are unable to pay.  I haven’t seen anything of the sort here, but that isn’t surprising in a journal this new.

H/T Bora.

PLoS ONE Synchroblogging contest

In a world of ever-increasing journal subscription prices, there’s a real need for an alternative model.  Pricer journal subscriptions have led libraries to narrow the range of journals to which they subscribe.  Much of the scientific literature is out of reach for institutions in poorer countries.  Researchers working in these settings are less able to place their research in the context of modern research, which reduces their chance of having their work published.  While some professional societies have tried to keep their subscription costs down, open-access publishing is becoming more attractive.  Yesterday I blogged about OpenJ-Gate, a portal that provides access to a vast assortment of open-access journals. PLoS ONE is an “interactive open-access journal for the communication of all peer-reviewed scientific and medical research”.  It combines open-access publishing with rapid publication.  And then encourages readers to provide feedback.  Bora Zvikovic, who blogs at A Blog Around the Clock is the PLoS ONE Community Manager.

This month, PLoS ONE will be celebrating its second birthday.  In honour of that event, they are having a Synchroblogging Competition in collaboration with ResearchBlogging.org.  In order to join in the fun (and maybe win some PLoS ONE swag) all you have to do is (a) register your blog with ResearchBlogging, and (b) on December 18, publish a blog post about one of the almsot 4,000 papers at PLoS ONE.  Pretty simple?  Of course, the post has to meet the standards of ResearcBlogging (read the paper and understand it, provide some serious commentary on the article).  Bora has some more information here, and the official rules are here.

The biggest challenge, as I see it, is narrowing down what to write about.  PLoS ONE has 335 ecology articles, and 115 plant biology artices (some of which, I presume, are not about Arabidopsis), so there’s lots of interesting stuff to sort through.  There’s also lots of papers about minor fields like biochemistry, infectious disease, and other topics that somehow fall outside of the intersection of plant biology and ecology…

Open-access journal portal

OpenJ-Gate, which bills itself as “the world’s biggest open access English language journals portal” , provides access to 4649 “academic, research and industry journals”, 2,528 of which are peer-reviewed.  The site is run by Informatics India in support of the Open Access Initiative.

If you’re looking for open-access journals, it’s probably the place to start.  You can browse journals by name and by subject, and you have access to each journal’s Table of Content.  There are a couple negatives – while you can access the articles, they isn’t an obvious link to the journal itself.  Sure, you can open an article and then work backward to the site’s URL, but the lack of easy links to the journal seems a tad unfriendly.  In addition, the link to the journal’s archives is incomplete, at least in the case of the Journal of Tropical Forest Science.  Overall though, it looks like a very valuable resource, especially for accessing less well-known journals.

On science reporting – and blogging, no doubt

Deborah Howell, the Washington Post’s Ombudsman, took a look at science reporting.  She opens by saying:

The job of science reporters is to take complicated subjects and translate them for readers who are not scientifically sophisticated. Critics say that the news media oversimplify and aren’t skeptical enough of financing by special interests.

Howell’s article, while it seems a little choppy, is well worth reading.  Some of the points she makes are obvious – science reporting should be heavier on evidence and lighter on hype; that it’s important to determine whether the results are preliminary or published in a reputable journal/presented at a meeting*; that you need to look at who sponsored the research and other potential conflicts of interest.  But beyond that, there are some things that I hadn’t thought about.  David Brown, a Washington Post science reporter and physician, makes a good point when it comes to evaluating articles about science:

Brown recommends noticing how much space in an article is devoted to describing the evidence of the newsworthiness of the story and how much is devoted to someone telling you what to think about it. “If there isn’t enough information to give you, the reader, a fighting chance to decide for yourself whether something is important, then somebody isn’t doing his job, or hers.”

While this is useful for consumers of science reporting, it’s also something that anyone interested in science communication should keep in the forefront of their minds.

The thing that interested me most in the article was the discussion of what ends up on the front page.  I have always taken for granted the fact that science stories are buried near the end of the first section.  I never thought to ask why? I just figured that was the way it was, that it reflected some immutable law of the universe.  And, of course, that front page stories selected themselves, not that there was editorial input into what ends up on Page 1.  Howell writes

Don J. Melnick, professor of conservation biology at Columbia University, said that if a story “doesn’t sound newsworthy or front page-worthy, it will be buried or not printed at all. That tends to promote people hyping the research. They have to convince their editors to put it in the paper.”

That makes sense – everyone who wants their writing read engages in some amount of promotion or hype.  But the next point is more enlightening

Nils Bruzelius, The Post’s science editor, said, “I thought the story and Page 1 play were justified because the potential impact was significant, even as I understand the criticisms. There’s an inevitable tension between the desire of reporters and editors to get good play for their stories and the need to avoid hype or overstatement, and we feel this very acutely in dealing with scientific or medical stories, because the advances, even those that prove to be part of something very big, usually come in incremental steps. I’ve long believed that science and medical stories enter this competition at some disadvantage. I certainly don’t have data on this but I suspect that most of the top editors who make the front-page decisions tend to be less drawn to these topics than the average reader because, with a few exceptions, they are a naturally self-selected group who got to where they are by dint of their interest and ability in covering such topics as politics, international relations, war and national security — not science.”


*I think people put too much credence on “presented at a scientific meeting”.  Sure, abstracts are screened, and your colleagues are there to critique your work.  Maybe.  There really isn’t enough information in most abstracts to judge their scientific merit properly.  And while the big sessions and plenary speakers attract a large crowd, many sessions are small and many talks are presented to just a handful of people.  So “presented at a scientific meeting” is a highly uneven measure of the quality of a discovery.

H/T DemFromCT at dKos

The best of science blogging

The submission deadline for the Open Laboratory 2008 science bloggin anthology has passed, and Bora has posted a complete list of the submissions.  Five hundred (or so) of the best science blog posts of the last year.  As Laurent described it, “it’s like a Carnival”.  It’s also a good place to go and update your RSS reader.

Exploring Life’s Origins

The Museum of Science in Boston has a great new website up called Exploring Life’s Origins.  The site, which is visually stunning, showcases the work of Janet Iwasa, a 2006-2008 NSF Discovery Corps Postdoctoral Fellow and Jack Szostak and his laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are three main sections – A Timeline of Life’s Evolution, Understanding the RNA World and
Building a Protocell.  The Resources for Educators section allows you to download the movies (which are available under a Creative Commons (Non-Commercial, No Derivatives) license – basically they’re free to use for non-commercial purposes as long as you give proper attribution.

H/T Panda’s Thumb.