Who's scooping whom and why this matters?

Aetosaurs. No, I have not heard of them until now. But that does not matter - the big story about them today is the possibility - not 100% demonstrated yet, to be fair - that some unethical things surround their discovery and naming. And not just Aetosaurs. Some other fossils as well.

As I am not on the inside loop of the story, you need to first read the background story on Aetosaurs by Darren Naish - Part 1 and Part 2.

Then, carefully read Darren's today's post and responses by Laelaps, Cryptomundo and Paleochick.

For the ethical side of the story, read Janet's take.

For the gory details of the story, read the timeline, the entire collection of information and the brief summary of it.

Finally, this was all made public today in an article in Nature. In short, it appears that a group of people have made it a habit to scoop their colleagues by publishing other people's information (shown by colleagues in private) and naming species faster by using their in-house Journal.

Now imagine a world in a not-so-distant future....

You just spent a long, hard, but exciting day in the Gobi desert. You finally get to eat dinner and shower and get back to your tent and turn on your computer. You post on your blog:

"Gobi. Day 23. It was a very exciting day today - we struck gold: an apparently well-preserved fossil of something that is clearly in the X family, and perhaps related to Y species, but astragalus is so weird - look at this picture of it [insert a photo of the bone]. This is most certainly a new species. It will take a year or two to dig this thing out, clean it up, analyze it and publish the full description, but for now, we name it Blogosaurus...."

And there is a time-stamp on the blog post. And a bunch of palaeo-colleagues post congratulations in the comments. And it is aggregated by a bunch of sites (ResearchBlogging.org, Connotea, etc.).

Scoop that if you can!

Everyone knows that you, indeed, are in the Gobi, as they know about your grant proposal for it and they have been following your blog daily, including all the pictures from the trip. They know they did not just see you two hours ago sipping tea in the faculty lounge at your University. They post congratulatory posts on their own blogs. They discuss the pictures and early descriptions that you posted. Over the next months and years, they keep up with the digging, cleaning and analysis by reading your blog. They come to visit and help with analysis. They teach about it in their classes. Finally, when you publish the official description of the Blogosaurus, they add comments on the paper itself.

Of course, as they all also keep blogs, they have changed the official rules of naming, allowing for official publication no matter how many times the name has been mentioned elsewhere, offline or online (as long as the description was not published in another taxonomy journal). And if they discovered that you kept another fossil find a secret, at least for a while, that would raise all sorts of red flags: was there something fishy about the fossil? Why didn't you immediately tell the world about it if everything was legit? That kind of secretive behavior is automatically suspect, and considered unethical and anti-social.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant...

More like this

Update: Darren has now posted a more detailed summary of this controversy. Other bloggers will likely weigh-in on the subject throughout the day, and I'll soon have something up on why the issue has gotten to the point of appearing in Nature rather than being settled earlier. Some time ago Darren…
In the previous post we introduced the aetosaurs, a strange and fascinating group of armour-plated quadrupedal Triassic crurotarsans. Equipped with stout limbs, a strange upturned snout and (usually) toothless jaw tips, aetosaurs have been interpreted as omnivores, herbivores, and even as…
The silence must have been deafening. As - hopefully - everybody knows, during 2007 Spencer Lucas and colleagues at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) were charged with intellectual theft, of pre-empting the writings of colleagues, and of publishing on material without…
A recent news item by Rex Dalton in Nature [1] caught my attention. From the title ("Fossil reptiles mired in controversy") you might think that the aetosaurs were misbehaving. Rather, the issue at hand is whether senior scientists at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science were…

On the scooping issue:

1. yes, you are right, timestamps will help
2. but Shirley is also right, determined thieves could claim independent discovery

One possible solution to 2, suggested to me at the blogging conference (I think by Moshe Pritsker) is to make your open-ness conditional on giving up anonymity. That is, make sure Google can index everything so that anyone can find you, but also make sure that no one can read your detailed blog/wiki/notebook without registering and taking the time to chat and tell you why they're interested in your stuff. That won't stop the really determined lowlifes but I think the French Chef solution (community mores) will take care of them in time.

Scooping is a major issue, not necessarily because it is such a heinous problem but because it's a very common first reaction to the idea of Open Science. So we should definitely be talking about it, and coming up with ways to deal with it; kudos for catching this and making the OA/OS connection.

Hi, Bora, thanks for covering this important story. I like your vision of a future in which author priority on discoveries is established by widely read blogs. A brave new world indeed!

However, in the current case that is not necessary: Bill Parker's (2003) thesis clearly established that "Desmatosuchus" chamaensis did not belong to the genus Desmatosuchus, AND STATED THE NEW NAME in a Systematic Paleontology section that gave the genus name Heliocanthus and specified the type species, distribution, etymology, Diagnosis, holotype, type locality, etc. Not only that, but in early 2004 Parker sent a copy of his thesis to the NMMNHS, where it will certainly have been read as it deals entirely with aetosaurs.

As if that weren't enough, while Parker's comprehensive redescription and formal renaming of this species was in review and then in press at the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, he reasserted the generic separation of "D." chamaensis THREE MORE TIMES in published papers (Parker 2005; Parker and Irmis 2005; Parker 2006). Throw in two published SVP abstracts that made the same point (Parker 2003; Stocker, Parker, Irmis and Schuman 2004) and you have SIX readily available scientific publications all demonstrating Parker's priority in having recognised the distinctness of "D." chamaensis and showing that he had priority on the renaming of this animal. Really, it's hard to imagine a clearer or more overwhelming staking out of a taxonomic claim.

While that was going on, publications emanating from the NMMNHS show that they still considered "D." chamaensis to belong to Desmatosuchus (Heckert et al. 2005; Lucas et al. 2005). So it came as a surprise, to say the least, when Lucas et al.'s (2006) one-and-a-third-page paper came out, literally a couple of weeks before Parker (2007) finally appeared in JSP. Note that Lucas et al.'s paper even cites one of Parker's reassertions of generic separation (Parker and Irmis 2005), so there seems to be no way that the NMMNHS authors can claim not to have known of Parker's intentions.

To anyone who finds all this a bit hard to believe, I can only encourage you to get over to the timeline at http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/nm/timeline.html and check it out for yourself. Relevant excepts of all the papers are linked from that page. This is not a case that requires a lot of digging through dusty archives and trawling email logs to resolve: all the evidence is right out there in the published record.

So it certainly seems to me that the burden of proof now lies with the NMMNHS team to demonstrate their innocence. I've said several times on public forums (e.g. Dr. Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology blog, the SVP's VRTPALEO mailing list) that I and others would LOVE to be shown that all this really is an innocent mistake. I now repeat my plea to any NMMNHS staff who are reading this to please come forward and explain how this happened. We are ready to listen, if only you will speak.

(References are all over at the timeline, so I won't repeat them here.)

No nail problem that can't be pounded reach full resolution with the glorious solution of a hammer Open Science, eh?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink