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Small People, Big Deal

A great example of a PLoS ONE paper, which has benefited from the post-publication features of the TOPAZ publishing platform, is the article, Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia, in which Lee Berger and colleagues describe the fossils of small-bodied humans found in two rock caves on the Micronesian island of Palau.

The Academic Editor of the paper, John Hawks, has already posted an excellent FAQ on his blog outlining his comments on the paper and his involvement with the paper. There is also a link to this post in the discussion section of the paper itself and here is a brief passage from the interesting and informative post:

In the case of this manuscript, I think it was a good fit to PLoS ONE because of the potential to report the new finds in an open access forum, where anyone can read the original research. It is not a monograph on the archaeology or skeletal biology of the sites, it is merely a preliminary report. However, unlike the kind of preliminary reports that we often see in journals like Nature or Science, in this case the journal provided more space for description and the potential to provide long lists of specimens. Many of those additional details were added to the manuscript in response to my editorial comments. If you read the reviewer reports for the paper (available at PLoS ONE), you can see that these additional details were essential to the scientific value of the manuscript, and that is why I required them. In addition, I suggested many other changes that would increase the value of the manuscript. The final version reflects the authors' responses to these changes: a preliminary report on the skeletal remains, in context, given the limitations presented by preservation and the need to conserve and prepare additional specimens.

As Dr Hawks mentions, you can also read comments from both of the referees who reviewed the paper. Referee #1’s review is available here and referee #2, Robert B. Eckhardt, wrote a longer commentary detailing his thoughts on the paper and its context, which is available in full here. To whet your appetite, here is a short extract:

[Rather than what it is not, though,] We should begin with what the paper by Berger, et al., is; their own words serve just fine in this regard: “We feel that the most parsimonious, and most reasonable, interpretation of the human fossil assemblage from Palau is that they derive from a small-bodied population of H. sapiens (representing either rapid insular dwarfism or a small-bodied colonizing population), and that the primitive traits that they possess reflect either pliotropic [sic] or epigenetic correlates of developmental programs for small body size.” Much of the rest of their paper describes the geographic and temporal settings, plus some detailed, professionally competent, morphological descriptions of the Palau skeletal material. There is no need to repeat those descriptions here, but they are well worth reading, and re-reading.

The paper also received extensive coverage in the media and in the blogosphere, with many of the stories including links to the original paper so that readers could check out the study behind the media buzz for themselves – particularly important in the case of a solid paper that also provoked a lot of debate and discussion.

In the news (a small sample of the full coverage):
New York Times – Discovery Challenges Finding of a Separate Human Species

National Geographic – Ancient Bones of Small Humans Discovered in Palau
New Scientist – New bones suggest 'hobbits' were modern pygmies

BBC News – Island find stirs Hobbit debate

The Independent – Skull may identify tiny islanders who shrank to survive

The Guardian – Pygmy human remains found on rock islands

Science – Hobbit Redux?

Reuters – Tiny Palau skeletons suggest "hobbits" were dwarfs

Independent Online, South Africa – Discovery fuels 'hobbit' debate and Fossil find ruins romantic getaway

NPR’s Science Friday –
A New Species, or Just Small Humans? (March 14; including an excellent interview with the author)
The Guardian – Science Weekly podcast (March 17)

Wired News – Were Fossil 'Hobbits' Just Little Humans? and Finding Common Ground in the Hobbit Controversy

Slashdot –
Ancient Bones of Small Humans Discovered In Palau – 3,000 year old small body humans in Palau, Micronesia

Science Notes – Small variety of humans found in Micronesia

Afarensis – Small Bodied Humans From Palau

Pondering Pikaia – Small Humans Discovered in Palau

MetaFilter – Not Hobbits, Just Shorties?

Finally, I was very amused by an article on the UK-based Daily Mash, Tiny Island People Were Ewoks, Not Hobbits, Say Scientists, which seemed particularly funny given the tendency to immediately jump on the hobbit train when it comes to these papers and that it’s entirely conceivable that some readers may not have noticed the crucial difference between this story and some of those listed above.

You can read Berger’s freely available article on the PLoS ONE site and join the conversation, yourself!

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