Last month I blogged about the ongoing ethics case in which paleontologist Spencer Lucas and several of his colleagues were accused of claim-jumping research from a number of individuals and institutions involving ancient archosaurs called aetosaurs. Mike Taylor has been keeping track and all the developments on an exhaustively-detailed website, and some of the latest news is most disconcerting.
On February 21, 2008, it became known that the Department of Cultural Affairs was holding a third inquiry into the case, an article published that very day in the Albuquerque Journal announcing the closed-doors review in which two independent researchers were brought in. None of the researchers who levied charges against Lucas and his colleagues were contacted and they all learned of the inquiry via the newspaper.
Even more troubling is that fact that the two independent researchers brought in to review the accusations, Orin Anderson and Norman Silberling, have close ties to Lucas including collaboration on a number of papers and book dedications by Lucas to both scientists. As stated on the “Aetogate” website;
In short, this inquiry was deficient in every respect: in using Lucas colleagues as the “outside” reviewers, in failing to include a vertebrate palaeontologist among the reviewers, in being conducted without any reference to those bringing the allegations, and worst of all, in being held in secret.
The results of the review will be published on March 3, 2008 in the Albuquerque Journal, but should Lucas be deemed innocent by the panel it would not surprise anyone. Silberling has already stated his “findings” in a letter to Stuart Ashman (the Cabinet Secretary of the Department of Cultural Affairs) three days before the review, firmly asserting Lucas’ innocence. From the letter to Ashman;
The charge of plagiarism, as brought against the Museum staff, is a very serious one that strikes to the heart of academic research. However, after reviewing the available materials regarding the present allegations, I conclude that no plagiarism was involved in any of the three instances where plagiarism has been charged or implied to have occurred.
What’s more, Silberling denigrates my fellow Scibling Darren Naish and those who have accused Lucas. From the same letter;
It’s difficult to believe that Parker and/or Martz or their associates didn’t prime Naish to initiate his accusatory blog site knowing that all sorts of slanderous, unsubstantiated bile would result. From this, it’s apparent that an interconnected group of mainly young, un- or under -employed workers (including both Parker and Martz) has for whatever reasons a strong grudge against Lucas and the NMMNH&S. But that’s just the way it is. They are not apt to stop, and arguing with them, especially on-line, probably would be a wasted effort and just strengthen their sense of righteousness.
Indeed, rather than responding effectively to serious and legitimate claims of plagiarism and stolen research by a number of other paleontologists generally less well-known than Lucas, Silberling blames the victim. In the newspaper coverage of this case, Bill Parker replied;
“I don’t even know Silberling. … I’ve never even met him, so I don’t know how he could say a thing like that.”
The same article mentions that this review was intended to be impartial, but Silberling makes no allusions as to where his allegiances lie.;
“This was in no way a jury trial, so there’s no way friends of Spencer and people who have been with him shouldn’t comment,” Silberling said.
Furthermore, no mention is made in the newspaper or in Silberling’s letter of the charges brought against Lucas by researchers at a museum in Poland which allowed Lucas access to material that he may have then claim-jumped. Perhaps the international issues are beyond the purview of the Department of Cultural Affairs, but those charges must in turn be addressed (specifically by the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology as present guidelines endorse opening collections to other scientists but say nothing of how to properly protect research from claim-jumps).
There’s no other way to say it; I am disgusted by the behavior of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Silberling, and the present review seems to be an attempt to placate critics while protecting Lucas and his colleagues. Whether Lucas is actually guilty or not remains to be seen, but the Department of Cultural Affairs has utterly failed to undertake a detailed, impartial review of the matter and I suspect that we will all have to wait for the decision of the SVP ethics board in order to achieve any kind of resolution. This sort of behavior gives all paleontologists a black eye, and unfortunately this case will likely close communication between institutions as well as scientists (especially students that are repeatedly told they must “publish or perish”).