Aetosaurs. No, I have not heard of them until now. But that does not matter – the big story about them today is the possibility – not 100% demonstrated yet, to be fair – that some unethical things surround their discovery and naming. And not just Aetosaurs. Some other fossils as well.
For the ethical side of the story, read Janet’s take.
Finally, this was all made public today in an article in Nature. In short, it appears that a group of people have made it a habit to scoop their colleagues by publishing other people’s information (shown by colleagues in private) and naming species faster by using their in-house Journal.
Now imagine a world in a not-so-distant future….
You just spent a long, hard, but exciting day in the Gobi desert. You finally get to eat dinner and shower and get back to your tent and turn on your computer. You post on your blog:
“Gobi. Day 23. It was a very exciting day today – we struck gold: an apparently well-preserved fossil of something that is clearly in the X family, and perhaps related to Y species, but astragalus is so weird – look at this picture of it [insert a photo of the bone]. This is most certainly a new species. It will take a year or two to dig this thing out, clean it up, analyze it and publish the full description, but for now, we name it Blogosaurus….”
And there is a time-stamp on the blog post. And a bunch of palaeo-colleagues post congratulations in the comments. And it is aggregated by a bunch of sites (ResearchBlogging.org, Connotea, etc.).
Scoop that if you can!
Everyone knows that you, indeed, are in the Gobi, as they know about your grant proposal for it and they have been following your blog daily, including all the pictures from the trip. They know they did not just see you two hours ago sipping tea in the faculty lounge at your University. They post congratulatory posts on their own blogs. They discuss the pictures and early descriptions that you posted. Over the next months and years, they keep up with the digging, cleaning and analysis by reading your blog. They come to visit and help with analysis. They teach about it in their classes. Finally, when you publish the official description of the Blogosaurus, they add comments on the paper itself.
Of course, as they all also keep blogs, they have changed the official rules of naming, allowing for official publication no matter how many times the name has been mentioned elsewhere, offline or online (as long as the description was not published in another taxonomy journal). And if they discovered that you kept another fossil find a secret, at least for a while, that would raise all sorts of red flags: was there something fishy about the fossil? Why didn’t you immediately tell the world about it if everything was legit? That kind of secretive behavior is automatically suspect, and considered unethical and anti-social.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant…