In a preprint article posted late last week, a team of astrobiologists claimed to have found fossilized algae embedded in meteorites that crash landed in Sri Lanka late last year. They're making a huge claim: purportedly, remnants of life from space have rained down on our tiny blue planet. The research may seem unbelievable, but it was even published in a "peer-reviewed" journal.
These claims, however, are highly dubious. A closer look at this research — and where it was published — reveals how biased, suspicious research can make its way into the headlines.
|A paralia sulcata diatom found on Earth. Image Credit: University of Tasmania|
Technology Review published a story on this preprint earlier today titled: "Astrobiologists Find Ancient Fossils in Fireball Fragments." But this story isn't entirely new: the researchers published previous research on these Polonnaruwa meteorites (named for the city near where they were found) back in January.
According to the research team, several eyewitnesses saw a streak of light in the sky over Sri Lanka back in December. Local police then collected a number of local rock fragments and sent them to scientists at the University of Cardiff in the UK. These alleged meteorites have yet to be registered in any international database, however.
After only a couple weeks of analysis, research team member and University of Buckingham astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe told the Daily Mirror: “These finds are crushing evidence that human life started outside Earth.” Now that's a bold claim.
Several other scientists disagree strongly. Outside experts who have looked at the scanning electron micrographs provided by the researchers agree that the rocks did contain diatom fossils — typically single-cell algaes found throughout the globe. Curiously, the fact that these diatom fossils were so well-preserved actually works against the researchers' claims.
While the research team thinks the algae came from space, algae could have easily crept into the meteorites after they landed, according to biologist PZ Myers from the University of Minnesota Morris.
"These are porous rocks, and these critters get in everywhere," said Myers. "This is what biology does: It creeps into all sorts of crevices."
Another biologist who specializes in diatoms, Patrick Kociolek from the University of Colorado Boulder, expressed his doubts to blogger Phil Plait in January: "...for me, it's a clear case of contamination with freshwater."
On top of this, no one outside of the research team has appeared to verify that the samples were indeed meteorites. Some of the samples may have simply been rocks found in the area, but the team suggests that they ruled out that possibility.
"Peer Review" Is Not Enough
Some of the most damning evidence against the team's impartiality stems from where they published their research: the respectable-sounding and peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmology. The journal seems to have little editorial restraint in what it published and suffers from clear conflicts of interest.
The Journal of Cosmology bills itself with the tagline: "Peer Reviewed. Open Access to Scholars, Scientists and the Public."
To publish in the journal, authors must submit modest processing fees. If accepted, authors then submit a relatively small publication fee — an example of "gold" open access.
But it's unclear if the journal conducts thorough, anonymous peer-review like most well-regarded scientific journals (regardless of their open access policy). Here's a few reasons why I doubt the Journal of Cosmology's impartiality:
- One of the co-authors of this most recent research, N. Chandra Wickramasinghe, serves as the executive editor of the very section where he published this research!
- The journal has orchestrated bizarre ad-hominem attacks against its critics in the past. (See here and here)
- When asked to answer general questions about the journal's policies, Editor-in-Chief Rudolf Schild hung up on me. Twice.
"They seem to have a little collection of people who act as peer reviewers who share the same bias," said Myers, who has been an outspoken critic of the journal in the past.
The Journal's 1990's era website (despite its debut just a few years ago) features numerous links to Quantum Consciousness books and articles directly targeting several mainstream physics ideas. Authors are invited to submit their papers to the journal's AOL.com email address.
This is why "peer-review" is not enough. Peer review can be done correctly, or it can devolve into the seemingly subjective process at the Journal of Cosmology.
The journal may say it conducts peer review, but their system is not accomplishing the goals of peer review. In this case, dubious research leaked into the popular press perhaps because it hid behind the journal's facade of pseudo-legitimacy and "peer-review."
Unfortunately, readers still need to read articles on peer-reviewed research with a critical eye. Ascribing labels to research doesn't guarantee legitimacy.