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!

0 thoughts on “Deep Diving Dinosaurs? Time to Write a Letter.

  1. While I would love to see deep-diving dinosaurs, deep-diving ichthyosaurs will do me just fine.

    It is also unfortunate that many of the points Hayman raised were disputed in a reply to that letter by Rothschild. The problem came with the disparity between the physiology of diving animals (breathing at the surface) and diving humans (breathing from an air tank): having a lungfull of ‘new air’ from the tank necessitates the slow, staged rise to the surface.

    Although ‘Deep-Diving Dinosaurs’ is a (literally) incredible title, from the alliteration, and the use of ‘dinosaur’, this should have been picked up by a review, and communicated to the author. The original paper does not mention dinosaurs. A five-year-old could tell you the difference — assuming that ‘My First Dinosaur’ book they read has it — but in the years between, unless you keep up to date, this knowledge can slip the mind. A quick look at Wikipedia sholud serve to remind you. (But, as I’ve tweeted, Wikipedia is not infallible: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichthyosaur [see titular image].)

  2. Well spotted – that’s one for the #LOLpaper scrapbook…

    You might want to explain a bit more clearly your point – that Ichthyosaurs are NOT dinosaurs (and perhaps never have been, even in the most crackpot of phylogenetic interpretations[?]) – with reference to some authoritative sources to back up this established hypothesis. Your tone is tad overdramatic, and you might find you’ll get more chance of a response if you word it more kindly to the journal/editors (they have feelings too!)

    Perhaps Rothschild et al might also write-in about this? Aside from the mistaken dinosaur slip, what do you make of Hayman’s point about decompression – you should probably mention your position with respect to this (commend? neutral? disagree?), so that you are not misinterpreted as disputing this too if this is not your intention.

    1. Cheers for the comments Ross – I’ll edit them in. Is there a good tetrapod (or more inclusive) phylogeny out there that shows the relative positions of the groups?

      I’ve tried to be pretty friendly with the tone, but pretty stringent at the same time. Hopefully it won’t come off as over-dramatic!

      With respect to the content, I don’t think I’m informed enough to offer any valuable insight or opinion. The last comment of the letter shows this, I think. I’m not attacking the article content, just the incoherence leading to misinformation.

  3. I concur wholeheartily that such a title has made it to publication is unacceptably sloppy. The only thing concerning your letter is that I might say to lean less emphasis on the “whether or not a pathologist is qualified to publish on palaeontology” and more on the apparent absence here of peer review- as of course any and everyone should be able to attempt to publish on anything just with peer review as the obstacle, vetting the quality and so expertise. Otherwise one would risk drawing the attention of certain mavericks why cry out about some kind of fantastical “palaeontological elite” strangling fringe ideas. It is frustrating the amount of ass which has come out in recent months from other scientists evidentially assuming that palaeontology is something that anybody can do and that all professionals must hence be idiots. But yes, I agree with you that such a response to this mistake is important.

    1. Cheers Dave.

      The rest of the sentence you quoted puts it in a better light – I mention consultation, which pretty much means formal or informal peer review. So the logical and usual step, which was so clearly absent here. In the same way I wouldn’t attempt to publish in a neuroscience journal without ‘consulting’ appropriate peers.

      Do the three of you want to add your names to the letter..? (Ross’ mods have been included now)

  4. In my opinion, and with respect: Too long and tone is too harsh and condescending. This tone will just piss off the editor and never get printed and is less likely to have desired effect. Diplomacy will probably get you further in this case; it is a dumb and avoidable mistake but not the end of the world. Shorten the argument, which is fairly simple- ichthyosaurs are not dinosaurs, this mistake should have been caught in editorial/review, and please correct it. The end. No need for lengthy missive IMO. A more concentrated message (1 paragraph is about right here) packs more punch w/o vacillation/bluster.

  5. I don’t have access to Naturwissenschaften, and I don’t know what thier detailed policies are, but I’d be moderately surprised if they did apply more than a light skin of review (i.e. spell checking) to comments and discussion. There is unlikely to be time to do it in a publishing schedule.
    OTOH, “deep diving dinosaurs” are possible ; Gannets go down to tens of metres, and I’m sure I’ve seen references to penguins going sufficiently deep that DCS (decompression sickness) is a credible issue. Or shall we start a round of the BA(N)DD / TAD game (“Birds Are (Not) Dinosaur Descendents / They ARE Dinosaurs”)?
    What the authors (of the comment) were on about were certainly not dinosaurs. But they could have written about genuinely deep-diving dinosaurs.

      1. maybe Hesperornithes too. But I digress. I agree with John that honey catches more flies than glue, especially in this case of a simple, if facepalm-y, error, and a short paragraph pointing it out and advising greater care to such matters should do it. Given this will take the form of a brief correction as opposed to a campaign or cause or anything like that I don’t really see why it would need more than one author as extra signaturies won’t add anything, so feel free to make this one all yours, if you like.

      2. Searching on (as New Scientist’s ‘Feedback’ would put it) A Famous Search Engine for “emperor penguin diving depth” revealed a rich seam of research work that has already been done, and the fact that people at Swansea University (surprise?) and the British Antarctic Survey (!surprise) have published on the matter. Ohhh, shiny Open Access papers ; goody! But I’ve a Schiehallion to climb today, so I doubt I’ll be seeing many diving penguins there.
        I wonder what the Gaelic for “penguin” is?

          1. XKCD is pretty good fun. Puts things in perspective. I wish they’d mentioned that the two boreholes they mention took rather different times to drill : the Macondo well (“Deepwater Horizons” on the drawing) took about a year to drill ; the Kola superdeep borehole was started in about 1978, and drilling operations stopped around about 1990. That’s largely because the Russians had to develop a variety of technologies that TransOcean (owners and operators of the DWH, and in particular, the BOP that didn’t P the BO) and BP (designers of the well but not owners of the equipment used) effectively could go and pick up off the shelf.
            Yeah, you can tell which part of industry I work in, can’t you?

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