Laelaps

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”).

Comments

  1. #1 Louis B.
    February 23, 2008

    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.

    It’s a conspiracy!

  2. #2 pough
    February 23, 2008

    It’s difficult to believe that Parker and/or Martz or their associates didn’t prime Naish…

    Speaking of difficult to believe, this was spoken by a member of the exonerating “independent” panel who just happens to be a buddy of the “wrongly” accused. I think perhaps Darren’s latest post, “Traumatic anal intercourse with a pig” is the appropriate response.

  3. #3 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 23, 2008
  4. #4 Darren Naish
    February 24, 2008

    Many many thanks for the coverage Brian. I’m hoping to put my own take on this up at Tet Zoo later this week. I can only echo the sentiments stated above: Silberling’s comments about myself, Martz and Parker seem to be uninformed guesswork, and for the record I can emphatically state that there was no collaboration WHATSOEVER between Martz, Parker and myself prior to the appearance of my aetosaur article. In fact I don’t think I had ever corresponded with them, ever (we have of course been in contact since). And what does the ‘un- or under-employed’ comment mean?

  5. #5 Luna_the_cat
    February 24, 2008

    I don’t know the field of paleontology very well, so please forgive me if this is a stupid question. But, is there any way of encouraging people simply not to deal with these schmucks, as long as they haven’t faced the problem and dealt with it honestly? I mean, encouraging collaboration elsewhere rather than with them, not inviting Lucas and his cronies to conferences or to see others’ work, and isolating them from other peoples’ research as much as possible?

    Since their home institute is obviously going for the “of course there’s no problem here, never was, nothing here to see, move along” approach, this might be the only way to get a message across, not to mention help protect peoples’ work from them.

    But I do realise that this may be a completely impractical, hopelessly naive thought. Just asking, though.

  6. #6 Will S.
    February 24, 2008

    I found the closing paragraph of Silberling’s letter the most disturbing of all–his suggestion that Parker’s superiors be “informed” of how his or her employee was serving the public. Mr. Silberling is overstepping his position (and reinforcing his tremendous bias) by suggesting that punitive action be taken against Parker for proposing the ethics investigation in the first place. Silberling is in effect saying that there is no forum in which a grievance like Parker’s can be aired without punishment. Most astounding is that Parker’s request has been transparent and clinical, the very soul of courtesy and professionalism; what rankles with Silberling is the *publicity.* If his letter is not proof of “circling of the wagons”, they need to redefine the term. I said it on JD Stemwedel’s site, and I’ll repeat it here: VP is a snake-pit, and Mr. Silberling is just another old viper. A small consolation is that, following Mr. Silberling’s insulting classification of the objectors as “young bucks and does”, he should remember that it was the reptiles that went extinct…

    @Luna
    The field of VP is just too small and too interconnected to find collaborators or reviewers or colleagues who are not in some way linked to everyone else–it’s typically one to two degrees of separation between any pair of researchers. In addition, Lucas and his friends (e.g. he and the “Orin Anderson” mentioned above go waaaaay back, back to the period in which they teamed up to destroy a VP collection in Socorro following the ‘Tyrannosaurus Sue’ legal fiasco) constitute a large part of the framework of the field these days. It is impossible to go anywhere in the field and find someone who doesn’t know Lucas or his immediate circle of colleagues; as Mr. Silberling demonstrates, too many of them are his friends.

  7. #7 Luna_the_cat
    February 24, 2008

    Ah, so an entrenched interest with a wide network, who can (it seems) get away with anything. Fabtastic.

    (You’ve piqued my interest on something, though. Please remember this isn’t my field, and excuse my obvious ignorance — but, “teamed up to destroy a VP collection in Socorro”? What happened there? Whose collection? Why would they *want* to destroy it? Can you fill me in on this history? Inquiring minds want the dirt. So to speak.)

  8. #8 Depressed
    February 25, 2008

    Luna asks “is there any way of encouraging people simply not to deal with these schmucks…?”

    The answer so far has been, sadly, no. As Will S. mentioned, the VP community is small, and the Lucas team provide a potentially valuable service through their Bulletin series. As I see it, there are AT LEAST two large challenges to your suggestin. One is that many workers with insight into ethics charges have published in this Bulletin, and while their individual research might be quite responsible, they may feel that criticizing what is alledged to be slipshod and unprofessional management of the series might call their previous work into question. The other is that most of these VP folks are either lazy or just outright cowards. Senior faculty in any field have an obligation to help police it, and in cases like these, silence equals complicity. While Will is also right that just about everybody knows or knows of the players, that does not excuse them for putting up with this kind of evasive nonsense. A credible profession would have investigated these kinds of supposed antics years ago when stories like this one first surfaced. Enormous kudos to those few with the fortitude to speak out for ethics, and shame on everyone else for their outright failure to set an example for and provide protection to the people who are the future of this field.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    February 25, 2008

    Conferences aren’t something to which you’re invited. If you can pay the registration fee, you can come.

  10. #10 Luna_the_cat
    February 25, 2008

    David Marjanovi? – Fair enough; not something I usually think about, given that I am usually sent. Or, for the more interesting ones, I usually just pretend that I work there, walk in confidently and park myself in a corner. ;-)

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