Richard Sternberg Evolutionary Biologist
Smithsonian Controversy

Statement of Facts / Response to Misinformation


I became managing editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in December 2001 when the position was offered to me by the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW). At the time I was finishing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and entering on a new job at GenBank at the National Institutes of Health. In my position at NIH I am assigned to spend 50% of my time working as an curator of the NCBI DNA database and 50% of my time as doing research as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. I worked as managing editor of the Proceedings as an adjunct position to my research at the Smithsonian.

During my tenure as managing editor from December 2001 to August 2004 I was responsible for the publication of 11 issues and one “bulletin” (a monograph published from time to time). I received and processed more than 200 papers as well as the one large monograph.

In October of 2003 I resigned as managing editor of the Proceedings; after almost two years I was tiring of my editorial responsibilities and eager to have more time for my own research and writing. At that time, however, no new managing editor could be found, and so without withdrawing my letter of resignation I agreed to continue on as managing editor until such time as the Council could find my replacement. That happened in May 2004, when Dr. Richard Banks agreed to replace me after the issue Volume 117-3 and a major “bulletin” that was nearly complete. So as planned for some time, in September 2004 Dr. Banks took over as managing editor of the Proceedings. This transition had nothing to do with the publication of the Meyer paper.

Publication process of the Proceedings in general

The process for publication of papers in the Proceedings has been straightforward. The practice was for the managing editor to receive and initially pass on all submitted papers. Then, depending on the subject matter, the managing editor would pass the paper to an associate editor with expertise in the appropriate field for soliciting peer reviews and then editing the paper as needed to prepare it for publication. The managing editor could also select an ad hoc associate editor for a particular paper if no member of the board of associate editors was suitable. Finally, the managing editor could take direct charge of a paper if that was appropriate. In the case of papers assigned to associate editors, the paper would be returned to the managing editor for any final editing before transmission to the printer for inclusion in the next issue of the Proceedings. An overview of the general procedure was provided in a form letter to all submitting authors.

During my tenure as managing editor some problems arose in the process. In one case I strongly disagreed with an associate editor in his handling of a paper. To deal with the problem, I took control of the paper again, had it reviewed and edited, and published it. For various reasons the associated editor was upset, and denied that I had the authority to do this.

In the aftermath of this controversy I met with the Council of the BSW and asked them to clarify and make explicit the rights and responsibility of the managing editor vis à vis the associate editors. At a meeting in November 2002, a near-unanimous Council backed me up completely (only the associate editor in question and one of his cronies voted against me) and formally decided that the managing editor has control over every aspect of the Proceedings and can choose and supervise the associate editors at his or her discretion. The Council ruled that the managing editor has the final say in the publication of manuscripts. The Council asked me, moreover, to draft a formal process document describing the procedures of the Proceedings including their ruling on the role of the managing editor.

At no time during my nearly three years as managing editor did I ever ask the Council as a body for its input on any editorial decision regarding any particular paper. Nor did the Council itself or anyone on the Council intimate to me that the Council ought to be in any way involved in editorial decision-making with regard to particular papers. Even in its recent post-Meyer minor revision of its publication rules, the Council only requires that two people—the managing editor and an associate editor—be involved in the decision to publish paper. As will be seen, I applied an equivalent approach to the Meyer paper, as I consulted on several occasions with a member of the Council before making a decision to publish the paper.

Finally, critics of the Meyer paper have made the false claim that proper procedures were not followed by quoting out of context a sentence from the inside cover of the Proceedings which reads, “Manuscripts are reviewed by a board of Associate Editors.” What the sentence means is that manuscripts are reviewed by some member of the group of associate editors. At no time in the past has the board as a whole (or even more than one associate editor) ever reviewed any paper, nor has that practice and policy changed as a result of the Meyer controversy.

Publication process for the Meyer paper

The Meyer paper was submitted to the Proceedings in early 2004. Since systematics and evolutionary theory are among my primary areas of interest and expertise (as mentioned above, I hold two PhDs in different aspects of evolutionary biology), and there was no associate editor with equivalent qualifications, I took direct editorial responsibility for the paper. As discussed above, the Council of the BSW had given me, the managing editor, the discretion to decide how a paper was to be reviewed and edited as well as the final decision on whether it would be published. I had previously chosen on several occasions to handle certain papers directly and that was accepted as a normal practice by everyone involved with the Proceedings. (This was confirmed even after the controversy over the Meyer paper arose. In a description of a Council meeting called to discuss the controversy, President Dr. McDiarmid told me by email, “The question came up as to why you didn’t pass the ms [manuscript] on to an associate editor and several examples were mentioned of past editorial activities where a manuscript was dealt with directly by the editor and did not go to an associate editor and no one seemed to be bothered…”)

Nevertheless, recognizing the potentially controversial nature of the paper, I consulted with a colleague about whether it should be published. This person is a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, a member of the Council, and someone whose judgment I respected. I thought it was important to double-check my view as to the wisdom of publishing the Meyer paper. We discussed the Meyer paper during at least three meetings, including one soon after the receipt of the paper, before it was sent out for review.

After the initial positive conversation with my Council member colleague, I sent the paper out for review to four experts. Three reviewers responded and were willing to review the paper; all are experts in relevant aspects of evolutionary and molecular biology and hold full-time faculty positions in major research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, another at a major North American public university, a third on a well-known overseas research faculty. There was substantial feedback from reviewers to the author, resulting in significant changes to the paper. The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer’s arguments or his conclusion but all found the paper meritorious and concluded that it warranted publication. The reviewers felt that the issues raised by Meyer were worthy of scientific debate. I too disagreed with many aspects of the Meyer paper but I agreed with their overall assessment and accepted the paper for publication. Thus, four well-qualified biologists with five PhDs in relevant disciplines were of the professional opinion that the paper was worthy of publication.

From original receipt to publication the processing, reviewing, revising, and editing of the Meyer paper took about six months. (By contrast, I once helped colleagues at the Museum rush out a paper on a topic upon which they feared that others were about to preempt them in about four weeks from receipt of the paper to publication.) Even after the paper was completely finished, due to other more pressing matters it sat on my desk for more than two weeks before I finally made time to send it to the printer. Thus, any allegations that I somehow rushed the publication process are patently false.

Scope of the paper and the Proceedings

I have been criticized for publishing a fairly broad review article rather than the kinds of systematic and cladistic articles that are typical of the Proceedings.

According to the official description of the Proceedings published in each issue, the journal “contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and paleontology).” The journal has published in areas such as comparative cytogenetics, phylogenetic hypotheses and classifications, developmental studies, and reviews of faunal groups. In addition, evolutionary scenarios are frequently presented at the end of basic systematic studies. Even a casual survey of papers published in the Proceedings and the occasional Bulletin of the Biological Society of Washington will reveal many titles in such areas:

Rickart, E. A. 2003. Chromosomes of Philippine mammals (Insectivora, Dermoptera, Primates, Rodentia, Carnivora). Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 116(3): 699-709.

Panero, J. and V. A. Funk. 2002. Toward a phylogenetic subfamilial classification for the Compositae (Asteraceae). Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 115(4): 909-922.

Pohle, G. and F. Marques. 2000. Larval stages of Paradasygyius depressus (Bell, 1835) (Crustacea: Decapoda: Brachyura: Majidae) and a phylogenetic hypothesis for 21 genera of Majidae. Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 113: 739-760.

Newman, W. A. 1985. The abyssal hydrothermal vent invertebrate fauna: a glimpse of antiquity? Bull. Biol. Soc. Wash. 6: 231242.

Brusca, R. C. and B. R. Wallerstein. 1979B. The marine isopod crustaceans of the Gulf of California. II. Idoteidae. New genus, new species, new records, and comments on the morphology, taxonomy and evolution within the family. Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 92(2): 253-271.

Given more time for research (which I won’t put in to address this basically unfair complaint), I could certainly find additional and even broader papers. Thus, the topic of Meyer’s paper was within the scope of the journal.

Responses to rumors and allegations

There have been a number of strange rumors and allegations concerning the procedures for the publication of the Meyer paper. As these allegations come to my attention I may add to this list additional information regarding the truth of the matter.

  • The Meyer paper was not rushed through the process. It was submitted in March 2004 and published in August 2004, a normal time from submission to publication.
  • I did not act unilaterally or surreptitiously in my handling of the Meyer paper. Within the Society, I raised and discussed the paper and its potentially controversial nature with a scientist on the staff of the National Museum of Natural History and a fellow member of the Council of the BSW soon after its submission and before deciding to send it out for peer review, and then again after receiving the peer reviews and before sending notification to Dr. Meyer of acceptance. I discussed the paper with this scientist on at least three occasions. Each time this person encouraged me to proceed, stating that the controversy would be beneficial since it was good occasionally to shake up people’s established views on important issues.
  • I followed the standard peer review process, sending the paper to four qualified scientists, three of whom agreed to review it. The reviewers’ comments were provided to Dr. Meyer who made changes in the paper accordingly.
  • Dr. Meyer became a paid member of the BSW after the paper was accepted and before it was published, the standard practice for first-time authors or authors whose previous membership has lapsed. He also paid all the appropriate “page charges” for his article, a bill amounting to approximately $1600.
  • It has been alleged that I was not a member of the Council. In my nearly three years as managing editor of the Proceedings I was invited to and attended all but a few Council meetings, took full part in all deliberations at which I was present, and voted on all matters that came to a vote. This was considered absolutely normal and standard practice by all concerned. In the official minutes of the May 2003 Annual Meeting of the BSW, for example, I am described one of the “Council members present.” So de facto the managing editor is a member of the Council. It is of course possible that de jure the editor is not a member of the Council, but as I have never read (nor was I ever asked to read) any bylaws or other organizational documents of the BSW, I cannot say.


I was asked soon afterwards by a reporter if I felt in retrospect that publication of the Meyer paper was “inappropriate.” I responded as follows:

I’m taking inappropriate to mean one of two things, either a faux pas such as wearing brown shoes with a blue suit, or something politically incorrect. The paper was not outside the journal’s scope (so no white socks and leisure suit in this instance). Furthermore, Meyer set forth a reasoned view about an issue of fundamental importance to systematics: the basis of taxa. Now his ideas are considered politically incorrect or “anti-scientific” by some. But since I don’t do politically correct science and since I think that human reason (i.e., science) is capable of at least considering questions about ultimate causes, no, I don’t think his paper was inappropriate in any meaningful sense.

Continuing on, I provided my view of the range of reactions that I have observed among colleagues, which seems to me a suitable ending for this overview of the controversy:

I’ve received four kinds of responses regarding the Meyer article. The first is one of extreme hostility and anger that the peer-review process was not barred to a “creationist” author—no questions asked (a minority view). The second is what I’d term the herd instinct: this response arises when some key people (often members of the first group) are upset. Some people, once they begin to feel the heat from individuals with strong opinions, feign being upset too or actually become upset, for fear that they’ll seem to be a “supporter” of an unpopular or despised position. Many of these individuals initially displayed no concern or qualms about the paper until some loud voices displayed their discontent. Those in the third category don’t really care about the issue one way or the other, because it doesn’t impact their research. In terms of population size, groups two and three are by far the largest. The fourth group consists of those who found the paper “informative,” “stimulating,” “thought-provoking,” (real quotes I’ve heard from colleagues about the paper), including some who are in agreement with some of Meyer’s ideas. Many members of the third and fourth groups have told me that in their opinion sooner or later the design issue will have to be debated in a reasoned manner.

Additional Responses

Response to The Scientist

Responses to Nature

Response to Science

Letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education

Letter from the Baraminology Study Group