Wednesday 23 January 2013

A Tree Skink (Lipinia vittigera) Waves its Tail

Archaeological sites are often good places to see reptiles and birds. Although Angkor Thom and Angor Wat in Cambodia were disappointing in the bird line, a skink provided some zoological interest. A Yellow-striped Tree Skink (Lipinia vittigera) advertised its presence because it persistently waved its tail with the top over the body while moving on the horizontal and vertical surfaces of the ruins. I managed to take a little video footage showing this behaviour at Angkor Thom:

When I got back to UK, I found that this behaviour had been reported by The Lizard Lab at Macquarie University in Australia, again with some footage of this lizard at Angkor Wat.

They speculated that this behaviour may be to draw the attention of predators to the expendable tail as in other lizards with conspicuous tails. Well, maybe? Could it be display or even to attract insects as a lure?

I am afraid that I disgraced myself at Angkor Thom by not recognising the site of a film scene from Tomb Raider nor, indeed, knowing that such a film had ever been made. When Angelina Jolie was mentioned, I am afraid I only vaguely recalled that she was an actress, and could never recall having seen her. In defence, I did point out that former directors of Scottish research institutes were no stranger to video games. Indeed, the late Sir Kenneth Blaxter phoned me in great excitement one day to say that he had finished his masterpiece (written in BASIC, I think) Fragmentation Bombing of ARC Headquarters. For those not born then, the Agricultural Research Council was the forerunner of the present BBSRC; its headquarters were in Great Portland Street, London before they were removed to the outer darkness of deepest Swindon.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Who referees the referees?

Occasionally, but too often, I see a paper that has been really badly refereed. The referees (and of course the author(s)) could have had no knowledge of the earlier literature. The authors — regrettably there are few single-author papers published these days — are allowed to foist their wrong interpretation of their results on unsuspecting readers. In turn, the justification for spending time energy and money on the work in the first place is also deeply flawed.

The reputation of the journal as a repository of good science is no guarantee of good refereeing. I saw a shocker in Science recently while the worst I ever recall was in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).

Poor referees allow myths to be perpetuated and refuted hypotheses to be regarded as extant. Peer review is only effective if referees are chosen who are able to do the job properly. A major problem I see is that with the horizontalisation of the biological sciences, fewer of those working at the lower levels of biological organisation have knowledge of the higher levels. Molecular ...............ists (you add the field) seem to me to be the worst offenders. Ignorance of tissues, organs and whole organisms seems to be bliss.

I smile (with an accompanying degree of annoyance) at the efforts of global warming evangelists to promote their cause by writing to newspapers pointing out that certain findings cannot be ignored by governments and opinion formers because, 'it is peer-reviewed science'. They do the cause they espouse no good and open it to derisory attack. Peer review only lessens the possibility that research findings and their interpretation are wrong. Uncertainty is the name of the game. Good peer review can lessen the degree of uncertainty but review by poor referees can perpetuate ignorance and uncertainty.

The problem for a readers of research papers and those making evidence-based policy is how does one know the quality of the referees who reviewed the original paper and recommended its publication?