Aetogate: so where are we now?

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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 getting an OK from those based at the repository where the relevant specimens were held (all of this is documented in painstaking detail here). In particular, they apparently pre-empted Bill Parker's in-press paper on a new aetosaur genus, and appeared to take credit for Jeff Martz's re-interpretation of Redondasuchus's osteoderms (for more detail on these cases go here). Several people took action in asking for an explanation for these actions and, following a very long and complicated amount of correspondence, February 2008 saw the holding of a special review by New Mexico's Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA).

After planning to write about this a few weeks ago, I finally completed my article on 22th May... only to discover, just as I was putting the finishing touches to the piece.. that SVP's Executive Committee (SVP = the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology) was about to publicly release the results of its investigation of the matter. I therefore decided to leave the story for a while, and to keep quiet on Aetogate. But an appropriate amount of time has past, and here we look back on all that's happened...

We begin with the DCA review of February 2008. The DCA chose two people, Norman Silberling and Orin Anderson, to act as external experts on the review. Alas, it was immediately obvious to anyone paying attention how farcical the review was and, if the DCA were trying to convince anyone that they'd done a proper, impartial job in investigating the case, they failed miserably. Consider the following; (1) Silberling and Anderson were most certainly not the impartial external experts they should have been (Anderson has co-authored 65 publications with Lucas, Silberling has co-authored five publications with Lucas, and Lucas has dedicated entire volumes to both Silberling and Anderson); (2) Silberling and Anderson were not appropriate people to use, given that this case concerns vertebrate palaeontology (and neither Silberling nor Anderson can be considered vertebrate palaeontologists); (3) no comment at all was solicited from those accusing Lucas and colleagues; and (4) Silberling publicly released his 'findings' three days before the review was held.

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Yes, that's right, Silberling actually announced his thoughts on the case before the review was held. Dismissing the charges as without foundation, Silberling even accused Parker of unethical behaviour. None of this matches with my interpretation of what really seems to have happened based on the paper trail. What made Silberling's letter particularly unforgivable were his rather strange conclusions as to the motives behind those making the charges, and the language he chose to use. Firstly, he proposed that I had been 'primed' by Parker and/or Martz, and that this is why I wrote the accusatory armadillodile article. Let me state for the record that this is completely untrue: prior to my armadillodile article, I had not ever exchanged in any correspondence with either Parker or Martz. Secondly, Silberling concluded that those accusing Lucas and colleagues were 'an interconnected group of mainly young, un- or under-employed workers ... [who have] ... a strong grudge against Lucas and the NMMNH&S'. This is such a pile of crap that it doesn't warrant a response, though I will say that we have become 'interconnected' since becoming united by way of Aetogate (note that Wedel and Martz have gained their Ph.Ds while this has been going on ... so not completely under-employed, then). Thirdly, Silberling took to referring to those making the charges as 'young bucks (and at least one doe)'. I don't know if that's meant to be casual and friendly, but it smacks me as both deeply and inappropriately unprofessional, and insultingly derogatory.

I am pleased to say that other people who have been paying attention were also unhappy about Silberling's actions: The Ethical Palaeontologist discussed it here, it was covered on The Reptipage here, on Catalogue of Organisms here, on Adventures in Ethics in Science here, on Dinochick Blogs here, and on Laelaps here.

Lucas responds!

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Anyway... thanks to Silberling's pre-emptive action, by February 18th 2008 it was clear what the DCA review had concluded: that Lucas and colleagues were innocent of the charges, and that the charges had no basis. The DCA held their review on February 21st, and released the findings on March 4th. At last, Lucas provided a response to the allegations, which is what had been requested since the start of the whole thing. This response is lengthy, wordy and difficult to follow, and for this reason I know that a lot of people have switched off while trying to read it (it's available as a pdf here). Indeed, one of the biggest problems that's been faced in drumming up interest in Aetogate as a whole has been the sheer volume of information. The good news is that I'm going to do you a favour here and provide a very condensed version of Lucas's response. It can be summarised into five main points. Lucas claims...

1. That Parker behaved unethically in providing a new name for 'Desmatosuchus' chamaensis as he didn't inform the NMMNHS researchers of his intentions to do so.
2. That the 'Desmatosuchus' chamaensis specimen belongs to the NMMNHS, and hence should by rights have been studied and named by NMMNHS staff.
3. That, with respect to the reinterpretation of the osteoderms by Martz, the NMMNHS team reached their conclusions independently of, and before, Martz published his work on the same subject.
4. That Spielmann et al.'s (2006) many citations of Martz's unpublished thesis (Martz 2002) show that the former work was not plagiarised from the latter.
5. The problem figure in Spielmann et al. (2006) is, rather than being derived from Martz's unpublished thesis (Martz 2002), from Heckert et al. (1996).

Parker and Martz respond to Lucas

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So while it was good that Lucas had finally provided the detailed explanatory response that had been repeatedly requested, the problem is that many details of his response are unsatisfying and, more importantly, completely untrue. They're also totally inconsistent: if Parker was wrong in coming to the NMMNHS and working on an NMMNHS specimen, why is it OK when Lucas published on Polish specimens, much to the dismay of the Polish workers? (see Dalton 2008). The first two of these responses are levelled at Parker's case (wherein Parker's new name for 'Desmatosuchus' chamaensis, Heliocanthus, was made redundant by Lucas et al.'s rushed publication of a different new name for the same taxon, Rioarribasuchus). The last three responses are directed at Martz (Martz's assertion, you will recall, is that his reinterpretation (Martz 2002) of the osteoderm orientation and identity of Redondasuchus was published without attribution by Spielmann et al. (2006)) [adjacent image shows Desmatosuchus spurensis reconstruction from Parker (2008). Parker's restoration of Helio - - Rioarribasuchus (from Parker 2007) shown several paragraphs up].

It has not been difficult for Parker and Martz to provide a very convincing set of responses to Lucas's claims. Parker responded in full here, and Martz here. If you really think that Lucas's responses to the DCA hold water and really do demonstrate that Parker's and Martz's charges are baseless, confused and/or inaccurate, I urge you to read Parker's and Martz's responses. I am dumbfounded that the DCA had not checked up on the relevant details. Of course, all of this would have come up during the DCA review had it been conducted with the co-operation and involvement of Parker and Martz. Why did the DCA perform what was essentially a whitewash, the inevitable and obvious outcome of which was to exonerate Lucas and colleagues and to carry on as if nothing had happened?

Behind-the-scenes weirdness

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It has been stated that the accusations made against Lucas and colleagues are without foundation or below criticism, or even 'whiny and without merit'. These are clearly not unbiased opinions: whether Parker and Martz were correct in making their accusations or not, an impartial look at the paper trail shows that investigation was and is warranted.

It's worth noting that some weird things have been going on behind the scenes. Those of you who followed the comments on my first armadillodile article will recall that a 'Curious Georgia' made a direct personal attack on one person tangentially involved in the Aetogate story. To the individual concerned: you are not really nameless, as you left your IP address. Someone using the pseudonym 'Dick Owen' sent a message to the VRTPALEO email list where they made bizarre personal attacks on Mike P. Taylor and Mathew Wedel (both of whom have spoken in defence of Parker and Martz, and/or maintained web sites on Aetogate). Mike in particular was attacked for his Christianity, which is both hilarious and disgustingly low in moral terms. And I've received pseudonymous emails, supposedly written by undergrad psychology students but transparently written by someone working to undermine the credibility of those of us who have been asking for investigation. This is all very odd: make your own conclusions.

The SVP issues its statements

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Pursuing things through the DCA obviously led nowhere. So, early on in the game, Parker, Martz and others approached the SVP ethics committee. And as mentioned earlier, SVP publicly released its findings on 23rd May: you can read their two statements here. Everyone involved is pleased that SVP took the time to investigate the cases, and did so with an honest intention to get to the bottom of things (unlike, it seems, the DCA). And there are two ways of looking at the results (or, as Kevin Padian said, there are 'things to like - and dislike - about the statement'). On the one hand, SVP's findings can be considered a significant moral victory for Parker, Martz and colleagues.

Consider the following points made by the SVP:-

1. The DCA review is slammed as appearing 'less than objective', and noted as having done 'little to resolve the issues in a satisfactory way'. Note that claims from some corners that the DCA's conclusions have been upheld by SVP is, therefore, very, very far from the mark.
2. The editorial practises of the NMMNHS Bulletin (the in-house publication where the problem papers have appeared) are criticised strongly. Hopefully this will lead to change.
3. The SVP states that it has drafted 'best practises', and they also note a possible change to the Bylaw of Ethics, a move that will 'reduce the likelihood of similar situations arising in the future'. In effect, they are putting in place the sort of anti-plagiarism guidelines that the community needs, right?
4. The 'best practises' explicitly refer to intellectual theft, appropriate technical review and how only substantial contribution should deserve authorship. It is difficult to conclude from this that they didn't have a specific group of researchers in mind when drafting these recommendations.

So far so good. However, SVP's conclusions on the cases themselves are unsatisfactory for several reasons. Note...

1. Their review occurred behind closed doors and hence we don't really know what evidence they looked at.
2. SVP seems - with all due respect - not to have fully appreciated the details of the cases. To take one example: when discussing Martz's case, SVP state that Spielmann et al.'s repeated citation of Martz's unpublished thesis (Martz 2002) - Spielmann et al. cited it 14 times - indicates that Spielmann et al. (2006) gave appropriate credit to Martz, and hence had only made an 'oversight' when failing to credit Martz's re-interpretation of the specimen concerned. However, you cannot look at the papers concerned and conclude that Spielmann et al. (2006) had simply made an 'oversight': they only cited Martz when disagreeing with him, and claimed the re-interpretation that he provided in 2002 as their own. I cannot conclude that this is an 'oversight', especially when - as I said - Spielmann et al. (2006) cited Martz (2002) 14 times.
3. SVP stated that some details of Parker's case were based on 'conflicting testimonies', and they were 'not able to resolve these allegations in favour of either side'. This implies that the entire allegation (that Lucas et al. deliberately scooped Parker's in-press paper naming Heliocanthus) was based on hearsay and/or undocumented communication. In fact, a paper trail and supporting documentation exists, yet it was not mentioned by SVP in their consideration of this case.
4. SVP provides conflicting advice on how charges of plagiarism might be avoided in the future, and they unfairly seem to blame the victims. They propose that lack of communication between workers might lead to problems (in other words, they promote open discussion between workers about their in-progress projects), while at the same time they argue that researchers should be cautious about circulating their unpublished work 'if they are concerned that their work is topical enough that other workers might want to draw immediately from their findings'. These are conflicting pieces of advice: are researchers meant to discuss their unpublished work openly, or keep it quiet until the last minute? One could argue that neither strategy might work, if the Martz and Parker cases really do represent academic plagiarism.

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For a far more detailed discussion of the SVP's findings, please see the response that Martz, Parker, Taylor and Wedel have put online here. It is mandatory reading if you've read SVP's statements.

Finally, one comment made by SVP seems specifically targeted at Tet Zoo (and indeed at other bloggers, as Brian noted): that 'the public posting of opinion and correspondence about these allegations on the Internet has not been helpful to resolving these matters ... [and] has potentially polarized and biased the vertebrate paleontology community in a way that jeopardizes fair consideration of these matters as a community'. Like Brian, I take issue with this and cannot agree. Were it not for the public coverage, the cases concerned would probably never have been discussed by the community at all. Furthermore, in the public coverage, all sides of the debate were covered, and from both sides of the fence. How is this not helpful: the data and assertions were out there for anyone to examine. Would SVP rather that all of this was discussed/disclosed only in private? Finally, we - viz, people on the internet - have a right to discuss things, especially when they are things we really care about, or things that are specifically relevant to our community (and particularly when they concern ethics). You might say that we don't just have a right, but also a duty, to write about such things.

Closing remarks

At the end, perhaps all that matters is that changes have been made to how vertebrate palaeontologists (and perhaps other scientists) think about plagiarism and publishing ethics. The SVP now has words about these subjects in its bylaws, and that's a good outcome. Worth pointing out now is that, while the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) has been at the centre of all that's happened, it is very much hoped that the status and reputation of the NMMNHS (and its in-house bulletin) will be improved and certainly not damaged by the changes that are required if SVP's recommendations are followed. In fact, let me state for the record that it is very important that people do not equate the actions of individual scientists with the standing of the institutions where they work. The NMMNHS should emerge all the better for this, not worse.

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And one thing stands out above all else in this case. It's that so little obvious support has been given to Parker, Martz and colleagues by the vertebrate palaeontology community. I remain surprised and in fact quite shocked that so much apathy and lack of concern exists: in fact some particularly vocal individuals have even repeatedly asked why people like Mike P. Taylor have gotten involved when neither aetosaur taxonomy nor the palaeontological politics of New Mexico are of any direct concern to them.

OK, maybe those individuals don't represent the community as a whole (in fact, I know from personal correspondence with many other individuals that they don't), but why are palaeontologists so reluctant to stand up and voice their opinions on this, or - worse - imply or state that this sort of thing is all part of the way things work and that we should just learn to live with it? If it is part of the way things work, it bloody well shouldn't be, and vertebrate palaeontologists need - ironically - to grow a backbone and take action on behaviour that is totally and unconditionally unacceptable. I salute and thank the individuals who, in public or behind the scenes, have stood up and spoken out here. But, clearly, we have a long way to go.

PS - Bill Parker has just produced a thorough review of the aetosaur genus Desmatosuchus (Parker 2008): the image at the very top, showing D. spurensis, is borrowed from that work and used with permission.

PPS - some time on Sunday night, Tet Zoo ver 2 received its one-millionth hit. Thank you whoever you are, and please visit again :)

Refs - -

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

Heckert, A. B., Hunt, A. P. & Lucas, S. G. 1996. Redescription of Redondasuchus reseri, a Late Triassic aetosaur (Reptilia: Archosauria) from New Mexico (U.S.A.), and the biochronology and phylogeny of aetosaurs. Geobios 29, 619-632.

Martz, J. W. 2002. The morphology and ontogeny of Typothorax coccinarum (Archosauria Stagonolepididae) from the Upper Triassic of the American Southwest. Unpublished M.S. thesis, Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX).

Parker, W. G. 2007. Reassessment of the aetosaur 'Desmatosuchus' chamaensis with a reanalysis of the phylogeny of the Aetosauria (Archosauria: Pseudosuchia). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 5, 41-68.

- . 2008. Description of new material of the aetosaur Desmatosuchus suprensis (Archosauria: Suchia) from the Chinle Formatiomn of Arizona and a revision of the genus Desmatosuchus. PaleoBios 28, 1-40.

Spielmann, J. A., Hunt, A. P., Lucas, S. G. & Heckert, A. B. 2006. Revision of Redondasuchus (Archosauria: Aetosauria) from the Upper Triassic Redonda Formation, New Mexico, with description of a new species. Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science 37, 583-587.

More like this

The public posting of opinion and correspondence about these allegations on the Internet has not been helpful to resolving these matters [...]

I was very disappointed to read that in their findings, as I think absolutely nothing would have been done if it had not been for "the public posting of opinion and correspondence".

Also, a well documented case made in public is a better way to deal with such situations than these closed-door affairs which (in my opinion) lack legitimacy. If we don't know what was looked at or said, how can we evaluate the process? It's for this reason criminal trials are public.

Nevertheless, I think the Best Practises and possible Bylaw change are very positive.

I am also very grateful that fact and opinion exchanges took place in an accessible forum. Many of us do not have the time or expertise to follow along in journals or professional-oriented email lists but appreciate the candid discussion that takes place on the Internet. It appears to me that science bloggers bridge the huge gap between popular media and professional journals. It's where I get a lot of fine insight. Thanks for this clarification and summary. I will pass it on to my geology collegues that are interested.

I strongly agree with your points 2-4 in the "unsatisfactory aspects" of the SVP-EEC response. However, I would say that I understand that committee's policy of "behind close doors". For this particular issue, it may not have been appropriate, but I (and surely they) can see ethics violations situations where a private handling of the matters would be sensible, so they may have been interested in not setting a precedent.

That being said, it would be useful to see a list of the evidence (if not the details), just to confirm that they actually did consult the copious paper trail that Parker, Martz, et al. have documented.

Thanks for the summary, Darren. I'd been wondering what the committee decided. I, too, think that science bloggers have done the world a favor in raising the issues in regards to this...issue. I don't really know what the SVP committee would be against it--it would give them MORE information, not less.

I frankly find all the sneering down noses by experienced supposed professionals at 'un or underemployed palaeontologists' the worst part of this. It just seems obvious to me taht some 'young whipper-snapper' has out done there own work, shown them up and they frankly can't take that so STOLE his work Its as simple as that

an interconnected group of mainly young, un- or under-employed workers ... [who have] ... a strong grudge against Lucas and the NMMNH&S

That's rich, coming from someone who's reviewing an old buddy!

so they may have been interested in not setting a precedent.

You seem to think such a precedent would be binding. I don't see why.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 02 Jun 2008 #permalink


I could envision one aggrieved party in a future ethics case demanding that everything be made public ("in the sunshine", to use Mickey Rowe's phrase) out of fairness sake, citing a previous case as precedent. It might be hard for the committee to argue against that.

Just my speculation as for the reasons behind it.

I think that Jeff and Bill (and Mike and Matt and Darren and Julia and all the other bloggers who helped publicize the evidentiary chain) did a great job of putting this material out in the open external to any Society committee.

This is pretty similar to the political blogosphere. The brahmins of the establishment don't like it when the rabble pays attention.

It might be hard for the committee to argue against that.

Couldn't it argue that the case isn't similar enough?

By David Marjanovi?, OM (not verified) on 04 Jun 2008 #permalink

Even not being a professional palaeontologist, I'm glad to hear of progress with this. I agree that it's been well worth raising, I applaud the integrity and thoroughness shown by those who've pursued it, and I certainly feel that full openness is the best policy in such disputes.
I would guess that the SVP has sought to give sufficiently clear indications of what's right (and not) without point-blank blackening names, since that could prejudice future events (eg hamper working relationships in the field; since - who knows? - those at fault may repent their misdeeds if given the chance, and turn out good eggs in the long term. Whereas labelling someone 'you villain!' outright would have tended to close the door to future improvement.

Good job Darren et al for letting light shine into corners.

By Graham King (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

those at fault may repent their misdeeds if given the chance

If the accused are indeed at fault, I absolutely cannot see what reason they could have to repent (in the absence of a huge and very public outcry). They are basically in charge of all vertebrate fossils in all of New Mexico, their employer protects them, and they own a journal.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

I can't look at Aetogate from the paleontologist's POV not being one and all, but looking at it as the lawyer I am, you guys on the 'prosecution' did an excellent job of marshaling your evidence and presenting it clearly. You would be the kind of people lawyers love to have as clients in civil litigation.

Sadly, you weren't very well served by the SVP ethics committee functioning as a tribunal. The Spielmann - Martz bit is positively perverse: citing Martz' work only to criticize it and not citing the key point of his work which you proceed to claim as your own. If you wanted a clear sign of knowing plagiarism, you couldn't do much better. There are other goofy bits (liking thinking plagiarism is only plagiarism if it is deliberate) but to me that was the worst.

It's too bad it didn't work out better, but at least you forced some improvement.

BTW the remark someone made about 'un or under-employed paleontologists' just highlights how much courage it took for you guys to stand up. Anybody can be brave behind tenure.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink


By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 07 Jun 2008 #permalink