Adventures in Ethics and Science

A week ago, while I was busy grading and being tenured, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology released its report on the allegations that have come to be known as “Aetogate” (about which I’ve posted here, here, here, and here). ReBecca was kind enough to forward the Statement from the Executive Committee (PDF) and the accompanying “Best practices” document (PDF). Also, you should read what Brian and Chris have to say about the decision.

Since I’m finding myself with a lot to say about these documents, I’m going to break it up into more digestible pieces. This post will examine how the SVP Ethics Education Committee responded to the two sets of allegations it was considering. A second post will discuss what the committee identifies as the “lessons learned” from this investigation. A third post will then consider the “best practices” proposed by the committee.

At the outset, it’s worth noting that the SVP Ethics Education Committee seems to have made every effort to conduct a fair and impartial review of the allegations. None of the members of that committee coauthored or collaborated with any of the parties on either side of the charges (including as advisors or students), no there’s no obvious conflict of interest. Moreover, both the accusers and the accused were allowed to present their cases and to present a response to what the other side had presented.

UPDATE: Via email, I have learned that my interpretation of the back-and-forth of this process may be mistaken. My correspondent writes, “Martz et al did not have the opportunity to read or respond to the last submission Lucas made to the SVP ethics committee. Martz’s eventual response to the executive committee should reflect this.” I was basing my interpretation of the process on this passage from the Statement from the Executive Committee:

The accused party was notified of the allegations and was given an opportunity to reply in detail. Both the accusers and the accused were given the opportunity for a second round of responses.

Obviously, if the process is to ever move beyond the taking-testimony stage, there has to be a last response to which there is no further response, but it seems I assumed that each side received what felt like a sufficient chance to respond to all matters of substance, and that I may well have been mistaken about that.

There were two sets of allegations brought before the committee, which the statement addresses in turn.

Jeffrey W. Martz, Michael P. Taylor, and Matthew J. Wedel accused Lucas et al. of committing plagiarism in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin … Martz et al. claimed that Spielmann et al. took credit for re-interpretation of an aetosaur osteoderm without crediting the Masters thesis of Jeffery Martz (2002) for the same insight. While it was an oversight of Spielmann et al. not to indicate by citation that J. Martz had previously reached a similar conclusion concerning the orientation of the scute, the Ethics Education Committee concluded that this omission did not rise to the level of plagiarism, in which there is clear intent to take someone else’s work and pass it off as one’s own. Spielmann et al. (2006) cited Martz (2002) extensively (14 times) in the 2006 paper. Indeed, Martz’s thesis is one of the two most heavily cited references. The authors of Spielmann et al. (2006) acknowledged that it was an “oversight” on their part not to cite Martz (2002) in the discussion of the re-interpretation of the osteoderm, and stated that they had no intention of plagiarizing his ideas.

It is worth noting here that the most basic definition of plagiarism is failing to properly identify the words or ideas of others as such. Not all definitions of plagiarism require clear intent. Indeed, here’s a piece of the official definition of plagiarism at my university:

Plagiarism includes:
1.2.1 Knowingly or unknowingly incorporating the ideas, words, sentences, paragraphs, or parts of, or the specific substance of another’s work, without giving appropriate credit, and representing the product as one’s own work.

The “unknowingly” here means that one can commit plagiarism even absent a clear intent to deceive. And, while not as unambiguous in its wording, here’s what the Office of Research Integrity has to say about plagiarism:

As a general working definition, ORI considers plagiarism to include both the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property and the substantial unattributed textual copying of another’s work. …

The theft or misappropriation of intellectual property includes the unauthorized use of ideas or unique methods obtained by a privileged communication, such as a grant or manuscript review.

Substantial unattributed textual copying of another’s work means the unattributed verbatim or nearly verbatim copying of sentences and paragraphs which materially mislead the ordinary reader regarding the contributions of the author.

To my eye, the definition is this third paragraph focuses on the effect — the ordinary reader will be materially misled about whose words or ideas these are — rather than on whether there was a conscious intent to bring about this effect.

Possibly SVP relies on a definition of plagiarism where intent is an essential part of the crime. If this is the case, then establishing that plagiarism has been committed also requires proving intent. But I think there’s a larger question lurking here. To the extent that a profession like paleontology builds a body of knowledge through the exchange of information and ideas among its members, where does the burden fall for identifying whose words and ideas are whose? In cases of striking similarities, is the presumption in favor of different scientists arriving at the same conclusions? In cases where these conclusions are temporally separated, should there be a presumption of originality by the person who got there first and an added burden on those who got there later to ascertain that they have not failed to cite the prior work that may have shaped their own conclusions?

If those questions seem to abstract, let’s make matters a bit more concrete. What does careful scholarship demand? If one is drawing heavily on a source (such as a Masters thesis), does one have a responsibility to give it more than just a cursory reading? (Does one have a responsibility to acknowledge afterwards that one’s own conclusions might have been influenced by it, even if one didn’t realize it at the time?)

Is there something dishonest about citing a source you haven’t read carefully?

And what is the appropriate ethical response when you’ve recognized your “oversight”? Intentional or not, if the oversight has resulted in harm to another member of your professional community, are you obligated to take some steps to mitigate that harm?

On to the second allegation.

William Parker accused Spencer G. Lucas, Adrian P. Hunt, and Justin P. Spielmann of deliberately rushing to publish a new genus name (Rioarribasuchus) for the aetosaur Desmatosuchus chamaensis, despite these authos knowing that Parker had been working on the same aterial for several years, and that he intended to reassign the material to a new genus in a forthcoming publication. The two-page paper naming this genus by Lucas, Hunt and Spielmann appeared in the December 2006 issue of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin and was followed by Parker’s publication in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology (January, 2007) that erected the genus name Heliocanthus for the species, as part of a larger review of aetosaur phylogeny.

Faced with conflicting testimonies, the Ethics education Committee was not able to resolve these allegations in favor of either side, a position that does not absolve either party of responsibility. For example, Parker claimed that he had permission from staff members of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to study the aetosaur material and publish on the fossils, but Lucas et al. assert that only Lucas can grant such permission, and that he did not. Parker claimed that Lucas said in a conversation at the museum (corroborated by a witness) that he (Parker) should name the new genus. However, neither Lucas nor his provided witness claim to have any recollection of this conversation. Parker noted that he expressed his intention to publish on the new genus in a number of venues (abstracts, talks, other papers), but Lucas et al. state that they were unaware of his intentions to publish a new name, noting that they knew only that Parker considered the genus assignment incorrect. They do cite Parker and Irmis (2005) in their 2006 paper as justification for the assignment of D. chamaensis to a new genus, but maintain that they came to their own determination, independent of the work by Parker and his colleagues.

This dispute is primarily about a priority claim for an important scientific conclusion. Who should get credit for crossing the finish line first, and was there something unethical about the tactics used to get the conclusion in print first? Much of the discussion to date has focused on the time involved in getting a manuscript reviewed, revised, and published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology compared to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin. However, the committee statement also shines some light on a particular way research in paleontology differs from research in (say) chemistry.

No one owns the Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction, the Diels-Alder reaction, or the Haber process. Even though each of these chemical reactions now bears the name of names of particular chemists who figured them out, any chemist with access to the starting materials, with the lab equipment to control reaction conditions, and with the insight and luck to put the chemicals together in the right way could have arrived at these results — possibly even at the same time. Chemists generally have no standing to restrict what other chemists study, what chemicals they order, or what laboratory apparatus they can construct.

On the other hand, paleontologist are drawing scientific conclusions from their examination of fossil remains that were unearthed by specific individuals and are controlled in particular collections. The paleontologist can’t place an order with Merck for a jar of standardized aetosaur vertebrae. He or she has to get access to the aetosaur remains that have been located. This requires cooperation between paleontologists — the ones who want to study the fossils and the ones who control access to the fossils — of a sort not usually necessary to do successful chemical research.

Judging by what the various sides had to say about this allegation — at least so far as the SVP Ethics Education Committee could ascertain — there may have been a lack of clarity about which specimens at NMMNHS were “under study” and which were fair game to be studied by multiple (competing) workers. They may have been a lack of clarity about who could grant permission to access these specimens, about what that access would allow (study, publication of findings), about whether permission had actually been granted.

What was actually clear and what was not is not itself clear, since the committee is navigating in the realm of what can be proved, and what might have been conveniently forgotten.

Connected to the issue of this priority dispute is a larger question about timeliness in scientific activity, and especially in reporting results. There is certainly an extreme at which activity is too slow — where the slowness of a scientist in conducting the research and sharing the results might impact the community’s ability to build important knowledge (including the knowledge that might be built using the results-that-never-resulted as a starting point). I’d imagine molasses-like progress on the part of a paleontologist who controls certain rare specimens might present an extra difficulty, given that while those specimens are “under study” other paleontologists are excluded from accessing them. On the other extreme, moving too fast might mean publishing findings that are not well thought out, well supported, or scrutinized for weaknesses before they are offered up as knowledge to the professional community. What kind of time is required to expose one’s own conclusions to the appropriate level of scrutiny? Is the ability to expose your conclusions to scrutiny helped or hindered by restricted access to your fossils “under study”? Is there a uniform level of serious organized skepticism in the peer review applied to manuscripts by the different journals in a field like paleontology (or do different levels of stringency in peer review account for different average times between manuscript submission and publication)?

Finding the goldilocks pace that is “just right,” the level of scrutiny of your results that is enough before you put them out there, is sometimes a challenge.

That priority is such a big deal to scientists raises further questions about the nature of scientific activity in the tribe of paleontologists and more generally. Given that science is supposed to be an activity centered on building objective knowledge from empirical findings, you might expect it to be a good thing when independent workers come to similar conclusions. Surely, it’s a good thing from the point of view of supporting those conclusions. However, it may well be a bad thing for some of those workers in terms of keeping score. The scientific credit goes to the workers who cross the finish line first. The others who arrive there after have contributed to the community’s confidence in the original results, but in terms of individual credit they walk away empty-handed.

In other words, the stakes are high enough that someone who catches wind that a competitor is getting close to the finish line might have a pretty good incentive to find a faster way to the finish himself. Maybe this would just involve kicking one’s own research into high gear, but it might involve finding a shortcut, or a way to slow down the competitor nipping at one’s heels.

Given this situation, it’s reasonable to ask: What would the foreseeable consequences be of a private, unambiguous communication that you were planning to reassign material to a new genus? Cooperation from the competitor to whom you communicate this information? Or a more frantic race to the finish line?

Two models of science in tension with each other here: the cooperative discussion within the professional community, or the winner-takes-all competition to be the first to publish a particular result. Depending on which view of science one takes more seriously, different ways of behaving seem rational — and different ways of treating your fellow scientists seem ethical or unethical. In the forthcoming post on what the SVP Ethics Education Committee identifies as the “lessons learned” from this investigation, I’ll return to the ways these two faces of science show themselves in the ideals and in the practices of the paleontologists. Stay tuned.


  1. #1 Laelaps
    May 30, 2008

    Wow. I was hoping that you would get to the SVP decision and I am certainly glad you did. I can’t wait to see the other posts. All I know is that this is an important event that has much broader implications for the way information is published and how access to collections are handled and I hope that such considerations are not lost in the shuffle now that the case is “closed.”

  2. #2 leigh
    May 31, 2008

    Anyone interested in this situation and its implications should read Mickey Rowe’s superb analysis,

  3. #3 leigh
    June 1, 2008

    The abused parties have now issued a final statement, which is also persuasively argued:

  4. #4 David Marjanović
    June 8, 2008

    I’d imagine molasses-like progress on the part of a paleontologist who controls certain rare specimens might present an extra difficulty, given that while those specimens are “under study” other paleontologists are excluded from accessing them.

    This is a relatively common occurrence, actually. I know of a fossil vertebrate species where plentiful (though disarticulated) material of, reportedly, many individuals and several growth stages is known but nothing has been published except the three-page description in Science in 1969, two papers that mention the peculiar shape of the teeth in 1977 and 1979, and a paper that mentions the ear region in 1985. The author of all these papers is, I am told, still sitting on the material.

    Is there a uniform level of serious organized skepticism in the peer review applied to manuscripts by the different journals in a field like paleontology


    or do different levels of stringency in peer review account for different average times between manuscript submission and publication

    To some degree — but another factor is the general lack of money for publication. The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology is currently a quarterly; I’m told it gets enough submissions that it could have been turned into a monthly long ago, but the money for that just isn’t there. And that’s a journal with an impact factor below 2!

    That priority is such a big deal to scientists raises further questions about the nature of scientific activity in the tribe of paleontologists and more generally. Given that science is supposed to be an activity centered on building objective knowledge from empirical findings

    1) Science, yes, but not nomenclature.

    2) In many countries the value of a scientist (for purposes of hiring, grants and the like) is measured by their impact factor. If you let someone else publish first, they’ll get the citations that could otherwise be yours. “The scientific credit” you mention is not some immaterial kind of honor. It goes all the way to cold hard cash.
        That said, I wonder if some people have internalized this system way beyond all necessity. For example, Lucas has 1400 publications. A thousand four hundred. He has a stable, comfortable job… I don’t understand why he hasn’t long ago started writing fewer and more monographic papers per year.

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