Tetrapod Zoology

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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at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) appear to have an uncanny ability to pre-empt the unpublished results of others, even when those results run contrary to their own oft-stated conclusions.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reached these new conclusions on their own of course, but in the cases concerned we know that they had obtained the unpublished literature which they so uncannily pre-empted (in one case they even cited the unpublished thesis concerned and, in another, one of them was acting as reviewer for the paper they then scooped!).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].

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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.

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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.

Finally – I’m pleased to say that this story has already been picked up by other bloggers, including Dinochick, Laelaps, Cryptomundo, Gene Expression, and Adventures in Ethics and Science.

Ref – -

Dalton, R. 2008. Fossil reptiles mired in controversy. Nature 451, 510.

Comments

  1. #1 neil
    January 31, 2008

    All I can say is good on you for standing up to this kind of thing. It has no place in science. Does Lucas have a record of doing this? makes you wonder how many of the 1000 papers were actually his….

  2. #2 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    Hi,

    Good for you to stand for it! If three different groups accuse him of plagiarism, its hard to say it’s all personal.

    Common sense dictates that paleontologist cannot meaningfully contribute to 1000 papers. Sounds like one Soviet senior scientist who put his name on every paper published by his institute. He got publication every 3 days and received dubious honor of IG Nobel prize.

    Maybe Mr. Lucas and company should be also nominated to IG Nobel?

    BTW, senior scientists stealing work of younger ones are notorious problem. I hope that free flow of information in the internet makes it harder. Yes, my work was also stolen once.

  3. #3 HP
    January 31, 2008

    As a nonscientist unfamiliar with the ins and outs of first publications: Ethics aside, is it simply a question of “bragging rights,” or are there financial considerations (grants, tenure, etc.)? If it’s the latter, could stealing someone else’s work this way be considered a tort under civil law?

    (If it’s the former, it’s just sad and pathetic — and of course, infuriating.)

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    January 31, 2008

    One important consequence of publishing first is nomenclature. This is explained in the first Tet Zoo article on the subject: a certain thesis erected a new taxon, and before it was published, Lucas et al. published the same new taxon with a different name. That name is valid.

    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

    Nomenclature lacks those standards. Peer-review is not a requirement for valid publication of names.

  5. #5 Michael P. Taylor
    January 31, 2008

    HP asked: “Ethics aside, is it simply a question of “bragging rights,” or are there financial considerations (grants, tenure, etc.)?”

    It’s very hard to answer this kind of question. There is certainly no immediate financial impact to having one’s work scooped, but the long term effects might be significant. For example, every time a future paper wants to refer to the species that used to be “Desmatosuchus” chamaensis, they will now, if they follow published-order priority as the ICZN says to do, use the name Rioarribasuchus Lucas et al. 2006, which means that the Lucas et al. paper will get cited. Had that name not been hastily erected, all those future papers would instead be using the name Heliocanthus Parker 2007, and of course citing Parker’s paper as the authority for the name. As a result, in ten years’ time when Parker is up for some prestigious job, his paper may have racked up only 50 citations instead of 100. Probably that won’t make any difference to whether he gets the job; but maybe it will. Maybe he’ll be edged out by someone whose paper has been cited 70 times.

    So the effect is impossible to quantify, but probably real.

    (In this case, the effect will be ameliorated by the fact that Parker’s paper is such a superbly comprehensive work. Most authors wanting to write about The Artist Formerly Known As “Desmatosuchus” chamaensis will cite Parker 2007 anyway, for parts of the description if not for the authority of the name. But it will still mean losing some “cheap” citations in papers where TAFKA”D”c is mentioned only in passing.)

  6. #6 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    @HP
    “are there financial considerations (grants, tenure, etc.)?”

    Papers are nominally paid, at best. However, scientists are judged for grants and positions mainly by quality and quantity of published papers. For a young scientist with just one or few papers, insufficently acknowledging part of work is big blow to career. For a tenured professor, it is still important.

    Are legal proceedings possible? Scientists will usually fear ostracism in their micro-discipline, which is usually small group. Proving things is usually very difficult. It requires proving, that somebody couldn’t have this research done in so short time. Opinion of other specialists would need to be sought, which are likely to be biased against young student.

    If somebody picks a clear case, wins and publicises it, would do great job. One example will likely scare others and make universities adopting working, not formal policies to prevent fraud.

  7. #7 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    About priority of scientific name itself:

    I believe there MUST BE something in Code of Zoological Nomenclature which says that frauds, unethical and illegal names must or can be invalid, or ethical rules should be followed or similar. A kind of common-sense switch or ethical escape way. Look carefully.

    Otherwise, a commitee of ZN can invalidate names. In clear case, big guys are likely to be slow but will step away from the fraud.

  8. #8 Graeme Elliott
    January 31, 2008

    It strikes me that this is a very underhanded way to run things. I was under the impression that it was ‘against the rules’ (even if only the unofficial rules) to get papers published in a journal where you are senior editor. Surely groups like the SVP would be automatically suspicious of anyone publishing a vast amount of material in a journal where they get the final say over publication. I’d say that the evidence you have amassed appears pretty damning, and the lack of response suggests more than mere forgetfulness or mistake.

    However that’s just me. I have often wondered what can be done to scientists who ‘cheat’ (for want of a better word) over finds and publications. There doesn’t seem to be any corrective procedures in place, and short of gaining a bad name within the scientific community, there’s no actual repercussions…

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    January 31, 2008

    A kind of common-sense switch or ethical escape way. Look carefully.

    There is no such thing. (Perhaps to prevent people from just saying “I don’t like this name, it was probably published in some unethical way, so I declare it invalid”. Also, ethics isn’t science.) If you find one (the whole code is online, accessible from http://www.iczn.com), tell us, but I’m sure you won’t find such a thing.

    Otherwise, a commitee of ZN can invalidate names.

    Yes, but I don’t think they can do that just for ethical reasons.

  10. #10 Vin Morgan
    January 31, 2008

    Whether Rioarribasuchus Lucas et al. 2006 is a valid publication, as David Marjanovi? presumes, is precisely what is at issue. The question raised is whether it is valid because of the way the information in it was obtained.

  11. #11 Peter Lund
    January 31, 2008

    It looks like you are right and Lucas et al are thiefs.

    Unfortunately, your letters are a bit (a lot!) on the longwinded side and that may be part of the reason why you don’t seem to get anywhere with them :/

  12. #12 Hank Roberts
    January 31, 2008

    Google’s cache still retrieves copies of “lucaspubs.com” pages (copy them now before they disappear).

    Oddly, the Wayback Machine (Internet Archive) has nothing at all on them. This is strange indeed.

  13. #13 Douglas Knight
    January 31, 2008

    Yes, but I don’t think they can do that just for ethical reasons.

    The belief that bylaws matter is far more naive than the belief that scientists don’t commit fraud.

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?
    January 31, 2008

    The question raised is whether it is valid because of the way the information in it was obtained.

    That cannot make it invalid. The Code of Ethics of the ICZN consists only of Recommendations; there’s not a single Rule in it. The whole thing is just an Appendix.

    Test: ? (This ought to be the HTML entity for the last letter of my name. When I post from home, on MSIE for Windows, it displays just fine. Here in the university, on Safari for Mac, it only appears before I click “Post”, not after.)

  15. #15 Vin Morgan
    January 31, 2008

    A recommendation simply means non-mandatory. It doesn’t mean “doesn’t apply” or “can’t impose” or that a committee or group can’t act. It addresses and intends guidance and therefore does not foreclose or prohibit action.

  16. #16 Vin Morgan
    January 31, 2008

    Or should say, “…and therefore anticipates action.”

  17. #17 Chad
    January 31, 2008

    David, ethics may not be science, but ethics are essential to science and are therefore very relevant in this case.

  18. #18 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    Darren, Darren, you are exploiting my kind heart.

    If the story indeed looks as above: original research was unpublished and other person wrongfully published own name, then, of course, you still can act. I found following ways:

    1. Name is invalid, because it violates Code of Ethics. There is not said, as Davisd suggests, that code of ethics cannot be applied – otherwise there would be no need of it.

    2. Real researcher publishes his work as redescription.

    3. Article 51, Recommendation 51E. Citation of contributors. “If a scientific name and the conditions other than publication that make it available [Arts. 10 to 20] are the responsibility not of the author of the work containing them, but of some other person(s), or of less than all of joint authors, the authorship of the name, if cited, should be stated as “B in A”, or “B in A & B”, or in whatever form is appropriate to facilitate information retrieval (normally the date should also be cited).”

    What form of citation is then “appropriate” is left completely open. It is fully possible that citing only another author can be appropriate.

    4. Article 16 Recommendation 16D. Publication of information distinguishing type specimens. When providing information to distinguish the type specimen(s) from other specimens (Article 16.4.1) authors should include information such as specimen numbers and descriptions of labels (see Recommendations 73C and 73D for data recommended).

    - I suppose, Mr. Lucas & Co. didn’t have the cheek to include numbers and descriptions of labels from other work? If not, labels can be changed purely to meet formal criteria of invalidation and renaming. I accept that it is loophole, and in theory permits also wrongful acts against code of ethics. Nevertheless, formal possibility can be satisfied.

    5. Apply to Commitee itself. With clear published (or publicised) case, there should be no problems.

    ****

    Good luck!

    ****

    BTW, you could make interesting story of known zoological frauds and how they were exposed and solved. There was notorious ornithologist called Meinertzhagen, for example…

    ****

    And YES, I noticed the green thing!

  19. #19 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    BTW – keep us informed! :D

  20. #20 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    And sorry for mysspellyng! I have no way to correct it!

  21. #21 Jerzy
    January 31, 2008

    There is also “brute force” method (No. 6). Authors publish their work in sympathetic journal as if nothing happened. They write paragraph that “part of this was plagiarised by… in… but plagiarism is by definition not “original research”, publication is not scientifically valid, so name does not satisfy requirement of having publication”.

    Scientific publications and journals themselves don’t follow IZN. They must follow rules of science in the country – and these are I suppose crystal-clear about ethics.

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    January 31, 2008

    There is not said, as Davisd suggests, that [the] code of ethics cannot be applied

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. It consists of Recommendations, not of Rules. It says “should”, not “must”. People have the explicit right to ignore Recommendations without publishing any justification.

    The Code of Ethics is just an appeal to gentlemen to be gentlemen. As I wrote, this is probably even deliberate.

    I repeat: unfortunately and sadly, Rioarribasuchus is valid, and Heliocanthus is invalid. Period. End of story.

    Unless, that is, we find that the publication of R. contains some technical oversight that makes it invalid; I haven’t read the paper, but nobody seems to have suggested that any such mistake is present.

    I don’t know if the ICZN has the right to suppress R. in favour of H. on ethical grounds. AFAIK it doesn’t; in any case I bet that there is no precedent for such an action. All cases of suppression/conservation have, AFAIK, so far been made to preserve stability in current usage.

    As usual, the code (Art. 78.2.3) does not express itself clearly. Read for yourself.

    Article 51, Recommendation 51E.

    As it says, that’s a Recommendation again. This is why the verb in this long sentence is “should”.

    Article 16 Recommendation 16D.

    Ditto.

  23. #23 David Marjanovi?
    January 31, 2008

    David, ethics may not be science, but ethics are essential to science and are therefore very relevant in this case.

    I was only talking about nomenclature, and trying to explain why the Code of Ethics of the ICZN consists of Recommendations rather than Rules.

  24. #24 David Marjanovi?
    January 31, 2008

    [the] publication is not scientifically valid

    Unfortunately that doesn’t matter. What matters are Chapters 3, 4 and 6 of the ICZN and the definitions of “publication”, “available name” and “valid name” given therein. The PhyloCode will require peer-review for valid publication; the ICZN doesn’t.

  25. #25 Zach Miller
    January 31, 2008

    Ultimately, these sorts of horrifying ethical snafus make me reluctant to pursue journal publication (not that I yet have the scruples to do so, of course). I’ve always thought of science, and paleo in particular, as above those sort of petty egotistical deicions and omissions (Horner is the exception that proves the rule!), so I’m disheartened.

  26. #26 Christopher Taylor
    January 31, 2008

    I don’t know if the ICZN has the right to suppress R. in favour of H. on ethical grounds. AFAIK it doesn’t; in any case I bet that there is no precedent for such an action. All cases of suppression/conservation have, AFAIK, so far been made to preserve stability in current usage.

    I don’t seen why the ICZN wouldn’t have the right to do it – there’s no real restrictions on what the ICZN can do itself, because of course there’s no way of telling in advance what the ICZN might be called on to do. As David said, violation of recommendations is not cause for automatic rejection of a name, but it could certainly be used as support in an application for rejection. Whether the ICZN would support rejection on ethical grounds, of course, is an entirely different matter. I don’t think that there is a precedent for such a decision, and I think the ICZN would be reluctant to set such a precedent.

    In the past, the ICZN has declared certain publications to be ineligible for the purposes of nomenclature, but I think that this has always been simply to support nomclatorial stability.

  27. #27 Jerzy
    February 1, 2008

    In all cases, there is demand of publication. ICZN doesn’t regulate publications. There are several lines of thought there. One is to make publication offcialy unexisting. Plagiarism should be pulled out by editorial board or body overseeing editorial board of a journal. Then publication officially ceases to exist, thence no name. Other is that plagiarism is not scientific publication automatically (author may not wish to pull it out, may be long dead, editorial board may long ceased to exist). Almost as if plagiarised paper magically vanished in a puff of smoke.

    In the past< \blockquote>

    Yes. I can’t believe that Mr. Lucas was the first in history. There were probably many precedents, and were dealt with. There are famous hoaxes, like Plitdown Man, but also many others.

    I repeat: unfortunately< \blockquote>

    Fortunately, scientific names are not given by Lord Allmighty, but by paleo community. In unclear case, scientist can use whatever name it wants. Apparently, Mr. Lucas has made himself more than few “friends”. Therefore, changes of Heliocanthus are good. This turns the table. If a problem exists, it is Mr. Lucas who would have to appeal to ICZN. Think he does it?

    I don’t seen why the ICZN wouldn’t have the right to do it – there’s no real restrictions on what the ICZN can do itself< \blockquote>

    Yes, ICZN has full authority here. These scientists probably know nothing about reptile paleontology, so would require clear presenting of ther matter. But thety were probably chosen from good scientists and wouldn’t like to support the swindle in science. If ICZN wants, they can even demand that author writes his name with raspberry jam.

    BRRR.. Terrible topic – let’s write about giant owls or something alse which is cute and nice.

  28. #28 David Marjanovi?
    February 1, 2008

    In unclear case, scientist can use whatever name it wants.

    There’s nothing unclear about this case: Rioarribasuchus was published first, and Heliocanthus was published second.

    OK, appeal to the ICZN to either suppress R. (…they might be convinced by the facts that H. was in press when R. was published, and that Lucas et al. knew about Parker’s work…) or even to make the whole NMMNHS Bulletin unavailable for purposes of nomenclature. I’m just saying that success is nowhere near guaranteed, as Christopher Taylor explains above.

  29. #29 DDeden
    February 1, 2008

    all i can say is

    WOOT! WOOT!

    TWEET! TWEET!

    (or whatever little dinosaurs say at football games)

  30. #30 Sven DiMilo
    February 1, 2008

    Ultimately, these sorts of horrifying ethical snafus make me reluctant to pursue journal publication

    Unless you publish, it’s just a hobby.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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