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World’s Most Overhyped Science Headline, Part 2

It’s hard to keep a hot fossil under wraps. A public relations firm issued a breathless press release yesterday about “A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING,” to be announced Tuesday at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. But news of the discovery—a 47-million-year-old fossil primate—has leaked out already.

An article in The Wall Street Journal this morning quoted paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who described the potential significance of the “spectacular” complete skeleton of a young female primate that was discovered 2 years ago near Frankfurt, Germany. Gingerich proposed that this fossil may be the earliest anthropoid—or the common ancestor of all later monkeys, apes, and humans.

Gingerich tells ScienceInsider that his interview with The Wall Street Journal was off the record until the press conference Tuesday. He and other researchers on the team are now refusing to talk to any reporters about the paper, which will be published by the Public Library of Science also on Tuesday. “We can’t say anything,” says paleontologist Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum in Norway, where the skeleton is kept.

Gingerich also gave an interview to the Daily Mail of London, which ran a story about the fossil last Sunday. The story describes the fossil, named Darwinius masillae, and a documentary about it by David Attenborough for the BBC and The History Channel. The PLoS paper had been leaked to the Daily Mail, Hurum says.

Tuesday’s press conference will be attended by the mayor of New York City as well as Ellen Futter, president of AMNH, which opens a major exhibit on mammals tomorrow.

How is the news being anticipated in the scientific community? “I honestly think this is an incredible job of marketing,” says paleontologist K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has not seen the report but has read the news. He points out that other fossils of similar age from China, Myanmar, and India have also been proposed as some of the earliest anthropoids. “At this stage, color me skeptical.”

Update (5:40 PM): Gautam Naik, the reporter who wrote the story for the Wall Street Journal, emailed last night with the following explanation: "Gingerich gave me the information freely, and it was only at the very end of our conversation that he suddenly said his comments were "embargoed" until Tuesday." Standard practice in journalism is that a conversation is off-the-record only if both the reporter and the interviewee agree on that before it begins.