The science-blogging world has seen a fair bit of discussion in the last couple of days over an alleged piece of unethical behaviour on the part of certain researchers at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, who have been accused of rushing articles into print deliberately pre-empting or even plagiarising the work of other researchers. I won't repeat all the sordid details here - instead, I recommend that you go to Tetrapod Zoology and read what Darren Naish has to say. However, a question has emerged in the comment thread at Darren's post that I feel is worth addressing.
Among the matters directly affected by this underhanded dealing is the correct name for what once was Desmatosuchus chamensis. Two separate papers were published in rapid succession (only two weeks apart) placing this species in a new genus, which the earlier-published paper dubbed Rioarribasuchus and the latter-published dubbed Heliocanthus. The principle of priority demands that the earlier-published name is the correct one, making the creature Rioarribasuchus. The problem is that the very brief earlier paper has been accused of being based on the PhD thesis of the author of the much more detailed later paper, which provided the basis for the later paper. If this is the case, it would be a serious ethical breach, and it would seem unfair to continue to use the unethically published name.
The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is not completely silent on the question of ethics - a Code of Ethics appears in an appendix to the Code which states (among other things) that, "A zoologist should not publish a new name if he or she has reason to believe that another person has already recognized the same taxon and intends to establish a name for it (or that the taxon is to be named in a posthumous work). A zoologist in such a position should communicate with the other person (or their representatives) and only feel free to establish a new name if that person has failed to do so in a reasonable period (not less than a year)." However, this is included as a recommendation, rather than a rule. Indeed, the Code then goes on to state that, "The observation of these principles is a matter for the proper feelings and conscience of individual zoologists, and the Commission is not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches of them."* In other words, even if unethically published, Rioarribasuchus is still the correct name. Some of the commentors at Tetrapod Zoology have pointed out that people are entirely at liberty to ignore Rioarribasuchus and use Heliocanthus anyway, and to a certain extent they are quite right. After all, the ICZN is only accepted as correct by the compliance of the researchers using it - no legal penalties will attend a researcher who does not follow the letter of the ICZN. However, the problem with this approach is that the name Rioarribasuchus is still out there, and might always be re-introduced as the correct name by future researchers who are unaware of the controversy surrounding it. In such a case, the confusion potentially caused by having two "correct" names floating about for the same organism possibly outweighs the ethical advantages.
*Okay, so that might contradict my comment at the Tetrapod Zoology thread on the ability of the ICZN to declare the unethical name invalid. My mistake.
This may seem like a rather senseless state of affairs, but in fact there are good reasons why the ICZN has not made the ethical code obligatory. Deliberate ethical breaches are extremely difficult to demonstrate, and things might be overly complicated if names could be quashed for ethical reasons. To illustrate my point, I'll give you two examples of names that have been accused of ethical beaches that are less clear than the Rioarribasuchus case.
The name Archaeoraptor was attached to a fossil specimen illustrated in a 1999 issue of National Geographic. At the time of the Geographic article, a formal description of the specimen and the name was supposed to be published in Nature (the National Geographic article did not include a description of the specimen, and so does not count as valid publication for the purposes of nomenclature). However, before the formal description was published, it was discovered that the "Archaeoraptor" fossil was actually a chimera, composed of fossils of two different animals that had been joined into one (who exactly was responsible for the fusion, and whether it was originally done knowingly or inadvertently, remain open questions that will probably never be answered). The anterior part of the fossil was a basal bird, while the posterior part belonged to a small dromaeosaur that would later be described from more complete remains as Microraptor. The formal description was never published. However, Storrs Olson, a prominent palaeornithologist at the National Museum of Natural History who had made a public complaint about National Geographic's publication of the invalid name, published an editorial in the museum newsletter in which he briefly described the fossil and suggested that the name Archaeoraptor be restricted to the dromaeosaur remains (probably to directly prevent the name from becominng attached to ornithology). Unfortunately, Olson's publication actually pre-dates the publication of the name Microraptor, raising the possibility that Archaeoraptor is the correct name for this now well-known dinosaur. In this case, the general decision seems to have been to let sleeping dogs lie - there is a good case to be made that Olson's editorial also does not constitute a valid publication, and most researchers feel that it can be safely disregarded.
The other case involves another dinosaur name scandal. The dinosaur genus Syntarsus was named by Raath in 1969, but the name was later realised by a team of entomologists (Ivie et al.) to have been used for a beetle genus in 1869. Normally, it is considered good form to allow the original author the chance to replace the invalid name him/herself, and so not lose the connection to the organism he/she discovered (the ICZN Code of Ethics says that, "A zoologist should not publish a new replacement name (a nomen novum) or other substitute name for a junior homonym when the author of the latter is alive; that author should be informed of the homonymy and be allowed a reasonable time (at least a year) in which to establish a substitute name.") Ivie et al. claim to have attempted to contact Raath, but on receiving no reply assumed (incorrectly) that he had passed away, and in a 2001 issue of the entomological journal Insecta Mundi they somewhat facetiously published the replacement name Megapnosaurus (which translates as "big dead lizard"). The inappropriate derivation, the pre-emption of Raath and the publication in a source of whose very existence most vertebrate palaeontologists would be unaware meant that the name caused a great deal of protest - it was grudgingly admitted that the name was valid, but many continued to insist on the invalid "Syntarsus" in protest. In this case, the issue has only been resolved by the fact that most researchers no longer regard Megapnosaurus as a separate genus from the closely related Coelophysis, though it must be admitted that the desire to lose Megapnosaurus was certainly a factor in many people's willingness to accept the synonymy.
The main point of these examples is that in both it is pretty much impossible to say whether the offending authors can be said to have acted ethically or not - and indeed, whether or not their actions would be regarded as unethical depends rather strongly on the interests of the person doing the regarding. It is to avoid setting precedents that would lead to complex and potentially unresolvable debate on such grey areas that the ICZN makes the ethical code effectively voluntary. On the other hand, while their names may remain, it seems likely that a researcher who engaged in repeated unethical conduct would eventually find their career suffering as their peers realised what was going on!
The Wikipedia page on Archaeoraptor has a good overview of the controversy surrounding this name. The name Megapnosaurus was published in:
Ivie, M. A., S. A. Slipinski & P. Wegrzynowicz. 2001. Generic homonyms in the Colydiinae (Coleoptera: Zopheridae). Insecta Mundi 15: 63-64.
7 hours ago in Variety of Life