Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ant Wars

Citations in Ant Publications

It is the rule in scientific publications, that a source is given for facts and ideas, which do not belong to the authors. The number of how many ants there are belongs to this categorie. However, despite some recently published figures in some of my papers (e.g. 1, 2) , and indeed an online service providing a continuously updated known figure of ants provided through antbase/Hymenoptera Name Server, the figure is given in journals, but without a citation.

The latest example is Moreau et al.'s phylogeny of ants in Science, another by Wilson and Hölldobler on The rise of the ants: a Phylogenetic and ecological explanation in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When I asked Hölldobler about the source of the number of ants, he replied that this was just an intelligent estimate. It seems to me pretty odd to cite approx. 11,000 species, when a figure of a little more than 11,000 has been published in the mentioned sources above - a figure, which nobody could have expected, after Bolton published in his New general catalogue of the ants of the world a figure of 9536 species by 1995. Nobody would have expected a such strong surge in the discovery and descriptions of more than 1,500 new ant species or and addition of 15% of the total ant fauna. And only since we have the Internet, we have a chance to figure out the total number of taxonomists working on a partiular taxon, such as the ants (see the list of ant taxonomists. It is even difficult to keep up updating the list, for reasons see a forthcoming blog on community involvement), or the systematics publications of the last ten years.

Actually, the reason why I asked Bert Hölldobler was, that I pointed out to editor of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that my name has been lost in a citation in Eusociality: Origin and consequences. The citation is the one of Ward (2000) referring to an article in a book, co-edited with four colleagues with me as senior editor. In this reference, my name as senior author suddenly did not appear. After some time, this has been corrected by PNAS (but not in the original article linked to above), and the reasons by the authors was simply, that the name has been lost when copy/pasting this citation from an earlier paper they published in the same journal.
Being cited in important journals is a very important element in one's scientific evaluation. Being deleted from a paper, which might be cited widely, could thus have an adversarial effect - a tool of the toolkits in scientific turf wars.
I must admit, I found it (and still do so) hard to believe, that exactly one noun could have been lost in the middle of a long string of words, a noun which is a name of a colleague, told explicitely to be careful about future comments on one of the authors (Wilson). The comment "you are hypersensitive!!!!!!" in a separate email by Wilson's secretary did not defuse the situation either.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The last of its kind

After EO Wilson's monograph Pheidole appeared, I wrote a rather critical review of this rather unusual volume published by Harvard University Press. My core point was - and still is - that it needs to be open access. Wilson is the proponent of the Encyclopedia of Life, a project aiming at providing for each species its own web page, similar to Wikispecies or ispecies. All these depend on a global collaboration of specialists, and the 10 - 100 million of printed pages of species descriptions are the logic starting point, and thus the problem of coypright needs be resolved. Wilson's position, one of the very few in the field, is to keep the monograph copyrighted. Thus, it could not be linked to the now over 75,000 pages of systematics literature on ant currently available at

Within two weeks after the appearance of my review, Nature published a news article by Rex Dalton, and inhouse science journalist, in which Wilson was cited to state that the publisher is now putting the book online. After few months, I contacted Harvard University Press, where the reply simply was, that this was a misquote, and that the book remains copyrighted. When I asked Wilson directly, he just replied that it is up to Harvard University Press, and added "I ask you to be cautious in future published comments on my intentions and policies".

Still now, more than three years after the appearance of Pheidole, it is still up for USD130.00 as the only way to access its content.

In the meantime, the Encyclopedia of Life has become alive, just that it is now a proteomics initiative in the life science community. There are advances though in systematics such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library and ways to make this content accessible, such as being developed at the American Museum of Natural History. The stumbling block again is copyright, which is, ironically, supported by EO Wilson.

Just a question of style?

The recent publication of an ant phylogeny in Science by Moreau et al. (Science 312(5770): 101-104 (2006) raises some serious question how this research has being done. The publication of their phylogeny caught everybody by surprise, since the US NSF Tree of Life program has awarded a grant to Phil Ward (UC-Davis), Brian Fisher (California Academy of Sciences) and Ted Schultz and Sean Bready (Smithsonian) with exactly this goal. No doubt, rivalry is an important and legitimate driving force in science. However, in this case the signs seem to point in a different direction.

The lead author, Corrie S. Moreau, a former student of one of the principle investigators of the Ant ATOL (Brian Fisher) would not inform Fisher about their intention to launch a competitive project, after her suggestions to become part of the ATOL team have not been accepted. She and her group then used tacitly information regarding the primers and specimen from the California Academy of Sciences itself (10% of their taxa) they got from the ATOL group and from her earlier work with Brian, obviously without declaring its usage.

The value of the analysis will certainly be discussed in forthcoming papers, and is questioned in here latest on Bulldog ants. An entire series of papers on ant phylogeny over the last 15 years proved just one point, that approaches like Moreau et al.’s only add some more pieces to a complex field, rather than getting a major step towards the understanding of ant phylogeny, as they claim in their general conclusion.

Doing research and publishing the results in such a clandestine way is like back-stabbing your closest allies on a long journey to figure out the diversity and evolution of planet Earth – an effort only achievable by making use of all possible collaboration and emerging synergies. But how will that happen if such a prestigious institution as Harvard, championing ideas like the community based “Encyclopedia of Life”, and its scientists behave otherwise?