Long time readers will, I’m sure, recall Tet Zoo’s role as whistle-blower back in April 2007. The article that started all the trouble – The armadillodile diaries, a story of science ethics – was posted here. Well, as you’ll know if you’ve seen today’s Nature, a new article by Rex Dalton brings this story to wider attention…
For those who haven’t read the original Tet Zoo article and can’t be bothered to do so now, the story is – to put it very briefly – that Spencer Lucas and some of his colleagues (Andy Heckert, Justin Spielmann and Adrian Hunt) at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) appear to have an uncanny ability to pre-empt the unpublished results of others, even when those results run contrary to their own oft-stated conclusions. Lucas and colleagues may have reached these new conclusions on their own of course, but in the cases concerned we know that they had obtained the unpublished literature which they so uncannily pre-empted (in one case they even cited the unpublished thesis concerned and, in another, one of them was acting as reviewer for the paper they then scooped!). I’m not about to discuss the relevant cases in detail again: if you need that detail, you’ll have to read the armadillodile diaries article. To be blunt, it looks as though Lucas and colleagues have been taking credit for the work of others by finding out what other people’s conclusions are, and then publishing them as their own [image above shows Desmatosuchus haploceros, from here. Photo © Robert Gay].
I have no personal stake in the cases concerned and am not really affected by the taxonomy of aetosaurs, or indeed of any of the other Triassic archosaurs that have been involved in this story. I have nothing against Spencer Lucas and his colleagues, nor (honestly) am I jealous of the fact that Dr Lucas has published over 1000 papers, making him the most prolific living palaeontologist (the website Lucaspubs.com previously included a list of all of Dr Lucas’s publications, but curiously enough went down just a few days ago, when word of the Nature article was making the rounds. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence). Nor, one might argue, do I have anything to gain from getting involved in all of this. In fact you might argue the opposite. But it seemed right to bring attention to it all. Interestingly, no efforts were made by Lucas or colleagues to correct any misunderstandings or mistakes in the lengthy exchange of comments that followed publication of my April article. Sure, there were some nasty, anonymous personal attacks directed at certain individuals outside of the NMMNHS team, and I personally received some bizarre and clearly pseudonymous emails, essentially accusing myself and colleagues of being jealous of the NMMNHS team’s work. But I’m sure that none of this originated with NMMNHS staff.
So, what exactly do scientists do when they feel that colleagues have behaved unethically? That’s a good question and the answer is by no means clear. A lot has been going on behind the scenes, and as you can now see for yourselves at the annotated timeline and other material that we’ve put up, letters were written to the NMMNHS team for clarification, to the Department of Cultural Affairs in New Mexico, and to the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of New Mexico, and to others, to see what they made of this. The responses varied from, well, nothing (e.g., in the case of members of the NMMNHS team), to implied threats of legal action against those making the complaints (in the case of Stuart Ashman at the Department of Cultural Affairs in New Mexico), to some that avoided the issues concerned and argued that they simply couldn’t help (the Attorney General’s office). Essentially, those making the complaints were stone-walled, ignored or even threatened. Not good.
What would we like to happen in view of the allegations? For starters, given that claims of unethical conduct should be taken very seriously, we ask that this matter is at least fully and competently investigated. Unethical conduct is not only unfair, it breeds distrust and is contrary to the good relations that many of us in the scientific community work to maintain. It is also clear that the direct control that the NMMNHS team have over the content of their in-house journal lacks the necessary safeguards that govern most scientific publications (the controversial papers involved in these cases were all published in the NMMNHS journal, Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science). Ensuring reliability and fairness is as important to the integrity of the scientific process as is the production of published information itself. How the journal is controlled should be investigated: a strong opinion on this would be that the journal be disqualified and have no role in science until it is brought into conformance with the standards of the profession [adjacent painting depicts aetosaurs as voracious carnivores, a sorry reminder that there is still not really much good art on these animals].
I’m not sure where we go from here, but Rex’s new article in Nature will at least bring this to wider attention. Please read the Nature article (Dalton 2008), and see the pages we’ve put up at Asking for answers in New Mexico. This page includes links to an annotated timeline we’ve produced, and a careful restating of the charges against Lucas and colleagues. None of us asked to be involved in this, and it would make life easier if we weren’t. But standing up and getting involved is the right thing to do.
Ref – -
Dalton, R. 2008. Fossil reptiles mired in controversy. Nature 451, 510.