Deep Diving Dinosaurs? Time to Write a Letter.

Deep-diving dinosaurs! How cool would that be?! At least, if it wasn’t total nonsense and possibly another example of a peer-reviewing fiasco. This is the title of a new article from a journal that usually produces pretty damn good science, especially of the Palaeo breed. It’s not worth delving into the content of the article, but what it demonstrates is a complete failing on the part of either the author or publishers, and propagation of misinformation from the scholarly domain. This article is actually about decompression pathologies in marine reptiles and sperm whales as a response to an earlier article on the same topic.

As any five year old will tell you, ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs. Although they are both reptiles, the only aquatic dinosaurs to have ever existed are probably penguins, and they don’t look much like giant ‘fish lizards’ (the Greek etymology for ichthyosaurs). The prevalent hypothesis is that some form of proto-ichthyosaurs diverged from a reptilian relative of dinosaurs at some point during the early Triassic and decided that an aquatic life was more blissful. This does not make them dinosaurs.

Not an ichthyosaur (I think)

Being a reply to a previous article in Naturwissenschaften, you might expect that the title be somewhat relevant to it. It’s not. There’s not a single reference to dinosaurs in it, unless you kind of agglomerate several fragments of words, which apparently doesn’t count. According to Naturwissenschaften, articles in the Comments and Reply section are “to stimulate scientific discussion or elaborate on opposing view in response to an article published in the journal.” Is this an excuse to make such fundamental mistakes? Surely someone still has to review the content of these, as they form a significant part of the scientific process.

As a response to this, I’m going to send the following letter to their Publishing Editor, Paul Roos:

Dear Mr Roos,

I am writing to you to express my concern over the online publication of a recent article in Naturwissenschaften.

The title, ‘Deep-diving dinosaurs’, is significantly misleading and propagates misinformation from the scientific community, as the article has absolutely no involvement of dinosaurs. The article regards the pathologies resulting from decompression in marine reptiles and sperm whales. No authoritative sources have ever claimed dinosaurs to be marine reptiles, or vice versa. There is a host of scientific evidence illustrating the relationships between the two groups, and the title of this article only occludes this knowledge. Despite being published in the ‘Comments and Reply’ section, these articles still have substantial face in scientific discourse, and should be considered equivalent in value to full articles. As a Palaeontologist, this sort of misinformation is deeply concerning when appearing in what is typically regarded as a high profile journal, especially given several recent errors in the communication of Palaeontology by several media outlets.

It is clear that either the peer-review process in this circumstance was faulty or entirely absent. In either case, I recommend reviewing the process to find how such a glaring mistake could have made it through the writing to publication processes, or considering broadening your peer-review policies to encompass supplementary articles within your journal. The alternative is that this is the deliberate pushing of an incoherent title to the article content, which I am sure is not the case in this matter.

I would further recommend that, before this article goes to print, the matter is resolved to avoid further confusion. If the author is aware of this discordance, questions should be asked about whether or not a Pathologist should be certified to publish on the subject of Palaeontology without some form of consultation with a relevant expert in the field, to avoid such mistakes as this in the future. This is not a comment regarding the actual substance of the article, merely on the misleading and incoherent link between title and content.  

Yours sincerely,

Jon Tennant

I’ll hold off sending for about 48 hours from writing this, so that anyone else who wishes can become a signatory on the letter. If you would like to, please leave a comment below or drop me an email. I’ll rewrite the letter accordingly if more people chose to sign.

So yeah, the moral of the story is to at the very least, in a time when access to scientific information is increasing, get the very basic facts right, and make sure the title isn’t incredibly misleading as to the content of an article. I can’t possibly think of any deliberate motivation behind such falsehoods, except to grab a bit more media attention, but it’s just such an obvious mistake that it’s difficult to perceive as just an accidental or oversight at some point during the writing to publication process.

If someone reading this article didn’t know any better, they would now consider ichthyosaurs to be dinosaurs, or vice versa. This is a classic case of communicating misinformation, and really needs to stop.


Comments from John Hutchinson and Ross Mounce below made me rethink the approach of writing this letter. Following their advice, I’ve drafted the following letter instead:

Dear Mr Roos, 

I am writing to you to express my concern over the online publication of a recent article in Naturwissenschaften. The article, titled ‘Deep-Diving Dinosaurs’ is misleading in it’s conflation of dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs, the latter of which are the subject of the paper. Dinosaurs are not ichthyosaurs, and vice versa, as any credible source can reveal. This discrepancy between the title of the article and the content should have been picked up during the review or editorial process. Could you please correct this, especially before the article goes to print to avoid the propagation of misinformation.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Tennant

Less ranty, short and concise. Cheers John – I’d be an idiot not to take your advice!

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