Monday, April 7, 2008

Critique on “The position of Hippopotamidae within Cetartiodactyla”

ResearchBlogging.orgStudent post, submitted by Stephanie Chow

This article was extremely well written and detailed. These may have been its greatest flaws. As the introduction develops, the article becomes so technical that there is difficulty following the progression of information. As each new order name is mentioned, there are no defining characteristics or descriptions given to aid in differentiation. Thus, all the orders seem to run together and the reader is left with a mess of similarly named orders without a way to sort them. As was stated in the introduction: “Morphologists have already offered a variety of hypotheses, cetaceans alternatively being assumed to be the sister group of all artiodactyls (30, 31), of the ‘‘anthracotherioids’’ (29, 32), of the Hippopotamidae (33), of the entelodonts (figure 2a in ref. 28), or of the ruminants (figure 2b in ref. 28).” The reader would have to look up these six different references in order to understand the background information for just this one sentence. The goal of the introduction is to give the reader enough information so that the discussion will be more logical.

There are only two small diagrams to demonstrate a few of the points brought up in the article. The first diagram shows two of the hypotheses suggested for the origin of Hippopotamidae, and the second is of the various orders mentioned against a timeline. However, these figures are very skeletal, and the labels are only the scientific names. They give the reader only a slight indication of what they could fully represent. Thus, more diagrams that illustrate the relationships and dissimilarities between the aforementioned orders would be of immense assistance.

The title implies that the focus will be on the relationship between Hippopotamidae and the grouping Cetartiodactyla, a blending of the orders Cetacea and Artiodactyla. This is emphasized in the abstract and introduction as well. However, this focus seems to be lost in the results and discussion portions of the article. There is a divergence to postulating Hippopotamidae with the order Artiodactyla, and Cetacea seems to be merely an afterthought once the reader is past the introduction.

Moreover, the discussion brings up countless characteristics relating various families within Artiodactyla. These characteristics include “rounded postcanine muzzle transversal section”, “limited development of the mandible angular process”, “bucco-distal crest bearing one or two accessory cusps on upper premolars”, and many more. The reader would have had to taken an extremely in-depth anatomy course, with great emphasis on dental morphology, to understand the numerous features that are mentioned.

This article is unpleasant for many reasons. It is not lacking research, as the seventy-one references are substantial proof. It is not absent of proper format or writing style. It merely fails to make the information accessible to the reader. This is not to say that it should be written so that a five-year-old will perfectly understand it; that task would be inconceivable. The article needs to help the reader develop a foundation for this topic so that the importance is not lost. Using less flowery language, giving more background information, and using many more diagrams can accomplish this. Even a trained scientist would need to do several hours of extra reading to understand what could be explained more thoroughly in the introduction. Scientific articles like this one give evidence as to why so many people are scientifically illiterate. Articles must be written so that they can be understood after reading from beginning to end. The references should simply be enhancements to the information, and not be expected to do the job of a well-written introduction.


Boisserie, J. (2005). The position of Hippopotamidae within Cetartiodactyla. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(5), 1537-1541. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0409518102


Nimravid April 8, 2008 at 4:44 AM  

I'm confused. It would be impossible to make every journal article in-depth enough that everyone outside that discipline can understand it. I think that would require inserting a 20-page review article in front of each article. Even in a general science journal like PNAS (or Nature or Science) most articles are not going to be easily understandable by the entire range of scientists. Heck, I don't even look at the astronomy and physics articles because I know they will be incomprehensible.

I haven't read the article you mention but will take a look at it today. I expect it will be like many other articles I've read, targeted at people who are already familiar with the science. You say "The reader would have had to taken an extremely in-depth anatomy course, with great emphasis on dental morphology, to understand the numerous features that are mentioned." Well, that's because they're writing for fellow paleontologists!

PNAS and the complexity of its articles are not to be blamed for the general level of scientific ignorance, because PNAS' readership is primarily educated beyond the college level. Scientifically illiterate people are not interested in reading PNAS.


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