US journal attacked over 'hobbit' paper

Reconstruction of the head of Homo floresiensis on display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
John Gurche (reconstruction) ; Tim Evanston (photograph)

US journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has come under attack over a paper it published earlier this month that claimed the tiny hominid Homo floresiensis, discovered on the Indonesian island Flores, was merely a modern human with Down's syndrome.

Robin McKie reports in the Observer that scientists around the world are furious that PNAS allowed the authors of the paper to avoid independent peer review because one is an academy member and so, amazingly, is allowed to select his own referees when submitting the paper. Professor Peter Brown, of the University of New England in Australia told the Observer

The article is a contributed submission from an academy member, Kenneth Hsu, an 89-year-old hydrologist who has absolutely no expertise in the subject and who selected referees that were also without expertise in fossil hominid skeletons. This is an outrageous abuse of the peer review process.

Other scientists say there is nothing to suggest that Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "the hobbit", is anything but a separate species of hominid. As Professor Dean Falk, of Florida State University, argues

It is interesting their paper contains no images of skeletons of Down's syndrome individuals. If it had, you would see clearly that they look nothing like the Flores specimen. The idea is nonsense.

If all this is true, and the National Academy really does run its processes like an old-fashioned gentlemen's club, it is pretty dispiriting. As if there aren't enough detractors of science out there already. And now they have what looks like straightforward cronyism in one of the world's most important institutions as further ammunition.

So far, the lead author of the PNAS report has defended Hsu as an "excellent and accomplished geologist" – although quite what that has to do with the subject in hand is not entirely clear – but nothing from PNAS or the academy on the more important issue of how of its peer review policies are run. An explanation is needed urgently.

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