Controversy "Proceeding" at National Academy's Journal

A controversial paper already published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has been halted before appearing in print, and is under review for alleged misconduct during the submission process.

The paper, by Donald Williamson, a retired zoologist in the United Kingdom, argues that butterflies first arose in nature after two distinct species mated in the remote past. Butterflies have a larval and adult stage quite different from each other, and Williamson maintains that a worm-like creature must have had sex with a winged, insect-like creature, and the metamorphoses of butterflies resulted from these distinct lines of genes merging. As reported in  Science, the Williamson paper drew an unusual amount of protest from biologists, who argue, for genetic and morphological reasons, that butterflies have always been one distinct species.

The paper was ushered into print by Lynn Margulis, a member of the National Academy. All Academy members have the right to help colleagues get papers published in PNAS in quick order, a process that bypasses normal peer review. In short, members can select their own judges for the paper, allowing them to pick people inclined to be favorable. PNAS recently decided to eliminate the track, but not until next summer.

Margulis admitted that she canvassed "six or seven" people to get enough positive reviews to get the paper past the editorial board. Now, the Times Higher Education Supplement reports today that PNAS has halted the print publication of Williamson's paper while it investigates Margulis's actions.

Randy Schekman, editor of PNAS, says that members must turn in all initial reviews, good and bad, when submitting a paper for a colleague. It is unclear whether Margulis did so; ScienceInsider has asked her and will report back.

Margulis in turn has accused PNAS of persecution. According the Times, "Professor Margulis also says that three papers she co-authored that were scheduled to be published by PNAS are now being held back because of the furore." Margulis adds, "I am looking into the legality of punishing me for a finished paper they don't like by stopping publication on a second unrelated paper."

Sam Kean

Sam Kean is a science journalist in Washington, D.C.