Monday, June 12, 2006

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?


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