[Fwd: RE: plant families]

dh321 at excite.com dh321 at excite.com
Thu Nov 15 18:42:41 EST 2001

[I originally submitted this back in Oct. thru google.com but because of the
new moderation it did not reach the email subscribers or the newsgroup
website. Therefore, I'm submitting it again.]

There seem to be many taxonomic websites by professional botanists so it
seems likely that at least some of them are reliable. It also seems likely
that most plant taxonomy websites are derived ultimately from printed
literature. For greater accuracy, it is a good idea to consult several
websites to develop a consensus on a particular issue. I use that technique
when answering student questions on botany. I prefer to give website links
rather than just cite textbooks or research articles which most students
probably cannot easily access. 

Taxonomy has always been one of the more unsettled areas of botany. It is
particularly so recently because new molecular biology techniques are
producing a lot of new data that are rewriting many traditional
classifications. Also, more so than many areas of botany, taxonomy
depends a
great deal on subjective conclusions. This results in differences among
competing classification schemes as between the so-called lumpers and
splitters. For teaching, you can easily justify going with the traditional
Liliaceae with hundreds of genera or a modern Liliaceae with as few as ten
genera depending on your goals.

Textbooks, particularly introductory biology textbooks for high school and
college, often contain many botanical inaccuracies despite being peer
reviewed. There seem to be multiple reasons for this including that many
biology textbook authors have little or no training in botany. Based on
personal experience, I know that the editors of biology textbooks often
reword sections written by the author and inadvertantly change the meaning.
I have also seen editors deliberately change meanings without consulting the
author, illogically relying on their incomplete understanding of botany
rather than on the author's expertise. There are dozens of botanical errors,
or what the politically correct call misconceptions, that are widespread in
introductory biology texts and even some higher higher level texts. 

The overrated peer review system for the research literature is very uneven
and has several inherent weaknesses. First of all it is strictly voluntary,
and manuscript reviewers receive little or no professional credit for their
efforts. In the publish or perish world of research, reviewing manuscripts
is not a good use of a researcher's time so doing a poor or cursory
reviewing job may actually be beneficial because poor reviewers may receive
fewer manuscripts to review in the future. The peer review system is
backwards in the sense that once a manuscript is published, it is very
difficult to criticize it in print. Journals often refuse to publish
letters-to-the-editor pointing out flaws in their research articles. If they
do publish such letters, the original authors get the final word in their
rebuttal and often make personal attacks upon the letter writer rather than
discussing the scientific issues raised. A decent peer review system would
allow, indeed welcome, objective evaluations after publication when
thousands more scientists have had an opportunity to read the article.

Several times as a peer reviewer, I have pointed out major flaws in
manuscripts which the editors and authors simply ignored and published the
manuscript anyway. In other cases, the editor rejected the paper because of
the flaws but the authors simply published the uncorrected manuscript in
another journal. Unethical reviewers can easily misuse the peer review
system for their own benefit resulting in valid research being rejected for
no good reason. I had a paper rejected and after reading my manuscript, the
reviewer who rejected it immediately ran similar experiments and tried to
publish the results in the same journal. Another manuscript was rejected for
no valid reasons by an Associate Editor. I appealed to the Editor, and the
manuscript was published unchanged. Later I received a complimentary letter
about the article from a former President of the scientific society that
published the journal.  

I am not aware that peer review itself has been subjected to much scientific
scrutiny. I don't remember all the details, but I know there was one study
on peer review where someone took a published article, retyped it  in
manuscript form and sent it to about ten peer reviewers. Quite a few, maybe
even a majority, rejected it which illustrated how haphazard peer review can
be. I also remember that the author of the peer review study got in hot
water because he punctured the myth of peer review. 

There are many spectacular failures of the peer review system. In the book,
The Double Helix, Watson and Crick mention one published article on a
proposed structure for DNA that violated basic rules of chemistry but was
published anyway because of the author's reputation. Several years ago,
Plant Physiology published a paper claiming that ethylene increased membrane
permeability of red beet root tissue. In a subsequent issue, others showed
that the results were an artifact caused by the low pH of the Ethephon
solution used to supply ethylene. Anyone familiar with Ethephon should have
known that when they read the first manuscript and rejected it. The journal
Science published a 1977 paper claiming that digestion by dodo birds was
required to germinate seeds of the tambalacoque tree. The paper never should
have been published because there was no control treatment, and previous
literature showed that tambalacoque seeds germinated without dodo birds
involved. However, despite later reports to the contrary, the
dodo-tambalacoque story is presented as an undisputed example of obligate
plant-animal mutualism in many textbooks. 

You need to maintain some scientific skepticism even for peer-reviewed
literature. As Henry Fonda's character said in the movie Spencer's Mountain,
"Just cause it's wrote down don't make it so."

David Hershey


Hershey, D.R. 2000. The truth behind some great plant stories. American
Biology Teacher 62:408-413. [dodo-tambalacoque story]

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Kathleen Pelkki <pelkki at svsu.edu> 
Newsgroups: bionet.plants.education 
Sent: Monday, October 22, 2001 2:24 PM 
Subject: Re: [Fwd: RE: plant families] 

> Regarding the last question from the message below....
> A professor pointed out a difference between the WWW and text books....
> text books typically have been edited and hopefully read by colleagues,
> perhaps undergoing a number of editions and clarification/corrections. 
> Oftentimes, WWW information is from one individual and, while probably
> correct for the most part, how often is it formally reviewed and edited
> by colleagues? Is text book information more trustworthy (in all
> science situations... not just taxonomic)? What do you think?
> Kathy Pelkki
> > Scott: There are lots of good WWW sites that could be used as surveys
> > for a class like this. Just do a Google search. This would have the
> > advantage of more color photographs and WWW links to other resources.
> > 
> > Shouldn't we all be using the WWW in our classes more, instead of making
students purchase expensive textbooks?
> ---

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