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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

BBC's Fairness in Chimpanzees story. Why it's flawed.

This morning, the BBC was airing a story about chimpanzees having a sense of fairness.  I am not surprised, I would have guessed that, although fairness is not something one ever really witnesses with my two dogs, it would exist in a chimp! (Humour, intelligence, fun, pretending and affection all seem to be there in dogs, but I've never noticed fairness!) BUT did you know that the very publication of that story was "unfair".

Original Link:
BBC Link: 

...I write the rest of this with a mouthful of water :-/
This is how professional science usually works:  We scientists do some work/experiments/mathematical proof whatever.  This is sent of to a "Journal" where an editor reviews it.  If the Editor thinks it's sensible s/he sends it to other anonymous (expert/qualified) scientists who review the work to check it is valid.  Only if the Editor and the Reviewers view the material as sound does it get published in the Journal as a "paper".  The most famous Journals are Nature, Science, Lancet and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), but there are thousands of other ones too.  New Scientist, BBC Focus magazine etc. are NOT journals.  They are interesting, but they do not operate the rigorous review system of "proper" Journals.  The BBC then peruse the various proper science Journals and pick stories to air on the TV/Radio/Internet, safe in the knowledge that the work has been rigorously reviewed by experts.
HOWEVER, PNAS, as a journal is a sort of club and it has a large number of papers which are NOT subject to this rigorous Editor chosen/anonymous review!  These "contributed" papers are published by MEMBERS of the National Academy of Sciences and reviewed only by their own chosen friends (see here).  Whilst it is true that the members of the National Academy of Sciences will be pretty reputable scientists in their own right... the papers have not had the same level of review as in other Journals.  So my issue, is not just that is unfair for members to have an easy route of publication compared with non-members, but it stands to reason that the papers are likely to be more wacky, or unreliable. If I were the BBC Science Editor...   I would be inclined to steer well clear of "contributed" PNAS papers...

Ironic, I thought, that a paper on the expression of fairness in apes is published in a journal known to be unfair!!

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