Adventures in Ethics and Science

In response to my earlier post on the allegations of ethical lapses among a group of paleontologists studying aetosaurs, a reader sent me a message posted to a public mailing list of vertebrate paleontologists. The message gives a glimpse of an attitude toward others in one’s professional community that, frankly, I find appalling, so I’m going to give you my dissection of it.

Please note that the quoted passages below comprise the entire post to the mailing list, save for the poster’s (presumably real) name, which I’m excising because I’m not sure I want Google to link him in perpetuity with an attitude that he may grow out of.

I have read the article and emails on the “War of the Aetosaurs” with some degree of amazement. I observe a “backlash” against what some in the paleontological community view as a couple of “aggressive paleontologists” who would dare publish huge volumes of papers in their institutional publication (how dare them!), at a rate that we mortals could not even comprehend. The paleontologists in question may publish a lot in the NMMNH Bulletin, but they also publish a huge volume of papers in other places (so much for the “they only publish in their backyard” theory).

Calling the matter a “backlash” reflects a judgment that the complaints raised against the NMMNHS group are without substance. The NMMNHS group publishes lots of papers, so the people complaining must be motivated by jealousy that their own output marks them as “mere mortals” in the world of paleontology.

Also, since the NMMNHS group publishes lots of papers in journals besides the NMMNHS Bulletin, it’s unthinkable that they could possibly be using the NMMNHS Bulletin to take unfair advantage of information gleaned from others in their field in the race for priority. Unthinkable!

For those parties involved in this controversy, does it give you a warm, fuzzy feeling of “I finally got these guys”?

Clearly, the allegations must be driven by personal vendetta, or a hunger for warm fuzzies. Again, there couldn’t possibly be any substance to them.

Maybe you think some huge ethics violation has been committed (O.K., whatever),

Ethics? Meh. That’s not really what we paleontologists do.

but in the interbred arena of paleontology (or any other science) there is always some worker(s) who think their ideas have been “ripped off”.

It’s all in your head, baby. Clearly you’re too sensitive to play with the big boys in our arena of gladiatorial combat.

The best way to not get ripped off, is to do what these guys do – publish the stuff.

So, apparently the people complaining were asking for it (even though a bunch of them had manuscripts under review). It must have been how they were dressed — they weren’t wearing an in-house private journal like the NMMNHS Bulletin.

I should not be preaching here, because I am pretty bad about not publishing what I should. I can say that my inactivity resulted in these same workers publishing stuff “out from under me”. That was my fault, not theirs.

They did it to me, too, but you don’t hear me crying about it. (I was asking for it, too.)

The question that enters my mind is, where does all this get anyone?

Will slandering (or if you wish, exposing the truth) concerning these paleontologists actually prevent them from continuing their voluminous publication rate? I know these guys, you aren’t even going to put a dent in their production. In fact, if you hack them off like you may be doing now, they will probably put forth even greater effort (the Bill Belichick theory of pissing people off).

Don’t you see that the group you’re accusing has more power than you do? And that they care more about that power, and about their ability to strike back, than about any kind of respect for some “community” of paleontologists where you imagine that you’re a member on equal footing with them?

Resistance is futile. You may feel like the ethical standards put you in the right, but that won’t keep you from getting trampled.

Will these actions result in outrage in the paleontological community, ruination of careers, civil proceedings, etc.? I hope not.

The careers of our superstars are more important than your careers, whiny complainers.

You better hope that the harm done doesn’t also include your own career.

Graduate student(s), do you honestly think that raising a lot of hell when you are looking for employment is really going to help your career? You must not work in the same niche of academia that I inhabit.

Do not for a minute forget, junior people, how powerless you are compared to our superstars. If you mess with the people at the top, it will be bad for you. We will not take your concerns about integrity or harm done to your own research and careers seriously. Rather, we will circle the wagons and do what we can to make things even harder for you.

You never really were part of our professional community. If you were, you’d have known enough to shut up and take it.

How about the guy(s) who are supposed to be coordinating the paleontological community in developing the resources in their national parks, museums, etc.? What are you going to do? Are you going to limit access to your institutional resources based upon your view of the “right way to do paleontology”?

C’mon, I already told you that the best way not to get ripped off is to publish stuff. It wouldn’t be fair at all to protect yourself from getting ripped off by restricting access to your collections and excluding the big boys who have ripped people off before.

Don’t you know our superstars set the rules? You’d better give them what they want …

Think about what you do there; that could come back to haunt you! Do you really think that it helps your institution to have your name (but it is also their name) drug through the mud? Maybe it makes you (temporarily) feel good about it all, but you may not be pleased with the outcome.

… or they’ll make sure something bad happens to you.

You may sincerely think that ethics violations have been committed – that is O.K. with me. However, in my opinion this stuff is not doing anyone, anywhere, any good.

Having been ripped off by these guys myself, and having figured out no way to stop them, I have given up. You should give up, too. There is absolutely no foreseeable good that could come from working together as a community to address issues like these. So lie back and take it.

For those involved, please feel free to ignore all of my comments (hey, the vast majority of paleontologists probably don’t care what you think either!)

Again, we never really viewed you as members of our professional community whose opinions we should take seriously. That you dare attack our stars and the status quo just makes it clear that we were right.

Really, a message that make you want to run out and become a paleontologist, no? You would get to work with such interesting people. (The trick, though, is figuring out how to get in at the top of the power hierarchy.)


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    February 1, 2008

    Guy sounds like consigliere for the Don Corleone of paleontology.

  2. #2 Sven DiMilo
    February 1, 2008

    slandering (or if you wish, exposing the truth)

    Hey, what’s the diff? Six and half-a-dozen; potato/potahto.
    This attitude really creeps me out.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    February 1, 2008

    I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that it’s not slander if it’s the truth.

  4. #4 Laelaps
    February 1, 2008

    When I saw this I couldn’t really believe what I was reading. Fortunately a number of people pointed out how backwards it was, but it seems that a number of paleontologists are more fixated on the “tabloid” nature of all this coming to light than the actual wrongs that may have been committed by the New Mexico team.

    I actually was a little hesitant to post anything, being that I would like to study vertebrate paleontology as a career and some future employer might not like that I covered the issue, but it really does seem that something has gone awry here and that ethics shouldn’t be overlooked. The New Mexico team had the chance to “set things right” and effectively respond, but their inaction has led to greater attention on what they did (or didn’t ) do. I would be more shocked if ethics violations of the kind that there seems to be evidence for didn’t come to light and were not discussed, so I really don’t buy the “It’s all tabloid journalism and you’re ruining your own career” treatment.

  5. #5 Kate
    February 1, 2008

    The main – and sad – thing this person’s post demonstrates to me is how powerless academics feel. This person totally internalized how little s/he’s been made to feel and seems to think no one in the field really has any power to do anything… and anyone who is delusional enough to think they do have power is going to get their ass whupped.

    Unfortunately, this is how I saw a lot of my fellow grads trained. Don’t think for a second that you matter or that you can do anything. You’ll never know enough. You’re junior to everyone. And the people in charge will always remain the people in charge… that’ll never be you.

    In addition to demonstrating that we need to be doing a better job empowering academics at all levels, it honestly says something to me about how we train each other (with powerlessness, threats, general unpleasantness). The funny thing is, I imagine folks at ALL levels of the hierarchy feel some level of what this person was conveying. When we feel like our research doesn’t get the big money, or our university considers us a boutique department, or we are encouraged to babysit undergrads through the accreditation machine rather than try to inspire or teach them, this is what happens. (I’m no saying this happens at all universities, but I imagine we’d be hard-pressed we’ve never experienced at least one of these issues at some point in our academic careers.)

    I’d love to see this opened up and talked about more. Why feel powerless when we are so well trained, when our disciplines have so much potential, when we actually do have the ability to make ourselves count for something? Why shortchange our colleagues, our students, and our science?

  6. #6 Lorax
    February 1, 2008

    When I read your original post on the matter, I thought to myself “This is why I hate ethics training.” It has always been my perspective that it is fairly obvious, in my NIH mandated ethics training, what was ethical and not ethical. Stealing other peoples ideas and data – unethical. Making up data – unethical. It has also seemed to me that those who are unethical are not going to have an epiphany during one of these classes/training sessions. So when I read the first post I thought, if the allegations are true, then DUH! massive ethical violations. I also thought those who did commit the violations would not care much (they are already unethical). I also thought everyone who reads about the issue will think those are charges of significant proportion……then I read today’s post.

    What a tool. Here is a person who clearly thinks ethics are a quaint concept. (For the record, I am a strong advocate of ethical behavior, but writing that is analogous to writing I am against murder in my opinion.) He clearly has problems with how things can and should be done. I wish I knew who it was because I would be extremely skeptical of this “scientist” and their ability to ethically evaluate and present data.

    To conclude. Ethics good, Ethics training mostly a waste, the person focused on in this post = tool.

  7. #7 Michael P. Taylor
    February 1, 2008

    To me, the saddest thing about the message that this post analyses is that the writer blamed himself for having been plagiarised: “I can say that my inactivity resulted in these same workers publishing stuff ‘out from under me’. That was my fault, not theirs.” I understand that it’s common for the victims of certain crimes to blame themselves — I think it’s a recognised syndrome, but I don’t remember its name: anyone? But of course it makes no sense at all. It’s on a par with “I walked along a dark street on my own, and I was mugged. But that was my fault, not theirs”. What a way to live.

  8. #8 octopod
    February 2, 2008

    Wow. Hearing about things like this is what made me absolutely convinced not to go into vertebrate paleontology.

    Vertebrates suck, anyhow.

  9. #9 David Marjanović
    February 2, 2008

    Publishing too fast only leads to abbreviated and superficial papers. Compare the publication of Rioarribasuchus with that of Heliocanthus. That’s why most scientists think publishing lots of papers in no time is not a good idea (even though the same people think publishing only one paper a year is not a good idea either).

    The author of the incredible e-mail cited here seems to agree — why else would they publicly admit to still being “bad” at publishing fast?

  10. #10 DC
    February 2, 2008

    Wow. That was awesome. Thank you. When I first read this guys email, I actually had to read it twice! I could not tell if he was just being sarcastic or if he was really serious. What a jerk. Thanks for dissecting his email.

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