Field of Science

Implications of Aetogate: Who Owns the Data?

I thought I'd say some more things about the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's ethics committee's judgement about the Aetogate affair. A lot of ink has been spilled (or keypad buttons thumped, if that's the more appropriate phrase these days) over this - in addition to the links I supplied the other day, I'd recommend reading Darren Naish's and Chris Rowan's comments. Most of all, though, I would recommend Janet Stemwedel's posts on the subject. Many people have disagreed with the SVP's opinion that the public coverage of this affair has caused more harm than good, and I would add my voice to the disagreers. Whatever the result of the investigation, it has led to what I think can only be productive discussion about proper practice in palaeontology and, by extension, science in general. Without the impetus of public scrutiny, this investigation would have probably never happened.

The point that I would like to focus on, though, relates to the right to publish on museum material. One of the allegations investigated was that the Lucas et al. (2006) paper establishing a new genus Rioarribasuchus for the species previously known as Desmatosuchus chamaensis (material held at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science - NMMNHS) was rushed into publication through an inadequate reviewing process in order to pre-empt a more detailed and more thoroughly reviewed paper by Parker (2007) that established a new genus Heliocanthus for the same species. In response to Parker's complaints, Lucas et al. counter-claimed that Parker did not have authority or permission to publish on the NMMNHS material, and "That the 'Desmatosuchus' chamaensis specimen belongs to the NMMNHS, and hence should by rights have been studied and named by NMMNHS staff" (quote from Darren Naish). To quote from the SVP decision:

For example, Parker claimed that he had permission from staff members of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to study the aetosaur material and publish on the fossils, but Lucas et al. assert that only Lucas can grant such permission, and that he did not. Parker claimed that Lucas said in a conversation at the museum (corroborated by a witness) that he (Parker) should name the new genus. However, neither Lucas nor his provided witness claim to have any recollection of this conversation. Parker noted that he expressed his intention to publish on the new genus in a number of venues (abstracts, talks, other papers), but Lucas et al. state that they were unaware of his intentions to publish a new name, noting that they knew only that Parker considered the genus assignment incorrect. They do cite Parker and Irmis (2005) in their 2006 paper as justification for the assignment of D. chamaensis to a new genus, but maintain that they came to their own determination, independent of the work by Parker and his colleagues.

The big question hanging over all this, in my opinion, is that of who has the say on publication in the first place. This has implications beyond palaeontology only, and relates to the status of museum collections of any kind. The implicit claim that NMMNHS material should only be worked on by NMMNHS staff is rather dubious. Any sizable museum will hold material of many more groups of organisms (or, for that matter, art genres or archaeological periods or whatever) than it has staff working on them. As a result, it is far from unusual for outside experts to work and publish on a museum's collection. Indeed, the professional relationships resulting from such outside input are regarded as a vital part of the scientific environment. Interloans of material are regularly made between research institutions. Having worked on material from another museum, what obligations does the outside investigator hold in regards to permission to publish?

The NMMNHS staff are claiming that Lucas required explicit permission to publish on the 'Desmatosuchus' chamaensis material. Speaking from a personal viewpoint, this is in total contradiction to my own experience. While admittedly it is up to the individual instute to establish their own conditions, the general expectation is that if a museum grants permission for research to be conducted using its specimens, it is also implicitly granting permission for the researcher to publish their findings. After all, publication of research is one of the most important factors in the progress of scientific knowledge, and research that cannot be published and communicated might has well have never been conducted in the first place. In order to check whether my personal expectations were actually correct, I dug up a couple of loan agreements relating to specimen collections in have on loan myself from other museums. While none commented explicitly on whether or not recipients on loans have the right to publish, one requested that:

If the work on the borrowed material is published, the borrower should either forward a reprint or indicate when and where his paper is to be published. [Emphasis in the original]

Another stated in more detail (name of institute removed by yours truly):

  • Any published material that includes results based in total or in part on Museum specimens must include an acknowledgement of the Museum.

  • The Museum would be grateful if the borrower could send to the relevant collection manager a copy of any paper published that cites AM specimens.

Both these sets of loan conditions only make sense if the right to publish is assumed, with the perfectly reasonable caveat that the museum in question be fully informed of any such publications. It is possible that the NMMNHS has different conditions that do require explicit permission to publish, but I would suggest that if so, then they are placing an unethically large barrier to scientific progress in general. Unfortunately, the SVP committee did not themselves make any explicit statements in their correct practice guidelines about the right to publish, though they did say that:

Visiting researchers should inform the museum of the results of their work based on the museum’s collections. Museums benefit in many ways from having researchers work on their collections. In some cases, the results of research can lead to news articles that will increase the profile of the museum in the local, national, or international community. In others cases, the information can be presented through exhibits and public programs. Thus the museum will want to know what visiting scientists have done with results of the observations on their specimens, and especially what abstracts or papers are published that include reference to material in their collections. Published papers, published abstracts, dissertations, and theses should be provided to the repository in a timely fashion.

Again, the right to publish once access to specimens has been granted seems to be fairly implicit. However, I am rather disappointed that it could not be made explicit. After all, as Chris Rowan stated, "Many of these suggestions seem to fall into the category of 'bleedingly obvious', but if this case hasn't made it crystal clear exactly why even the bleedingly obvious should be explicitly stated, I don't know what will". Many of the best practice guidelines recommended by the SVP, such as improved communication and the desirability of independent investigation of results, really only funtion meaningfully in the presence of the right to publish.


  1. Everything you say seems sensible to me: seems like what I would think OUGHT to be standard practice. My own discipline (analytic philosophy / logic) doesn't HAVE museum specimens to work from, so the issue doesn't arise for me in the same way. But suppose that my own university library doesn't have a particular mathematics journal and I go to another university to consult it (this happens). It would be lunatic to say that the institution where I found the journal should have a veto on my publishing research making use of the journal article I consulted!

  2. I also think your approach is sensible. Could I take it a little farther and suggest a few cases in which withheld permissions may be reasonable and less reasonable?

    I've been a curator in a paleontological museum for most of three decades and have worked in museums all over the world. An early lesson I learned is that if a specimen is in the literature, any qualified investigator should have access to it for further study. That is a responsibility of a curator. One cannot simply say that he might work on it some day, or that he once described it and therefore it is off limits.

    The other side of the coin is that the requestor is responsible for being very clear about what exactly he wants to do and to get clear permission to do so. He cannot, for example, get permission to look at an undescribed specimen and then go off and describe it without permission. He cannot ask to have access to a cabinet of duckbills and then secretly look at the stegosaurs and decide to go off and publish on them. Those actions are unethical and result in bad reputations and exclusions from other collections. One should NEVER write about a specimen in a collection without explicit permission.

    1. Taxonomy: if a specimen has been named and described, it should be available to all qualified investigators. They have to be able to check the features, characters and so on that you have published. And yes, they can include it in their phylogenetic analyses once it's published. And no, they don't have to ask your permission to do their own phylogeny, or even to determine that your identification or systematic placement was wrong.

    One caveat: sometimes taxa are named briefly in publications that are space-limited like Nature and Science, and not everything is put in Supplementary Materials. If a monograph-length treatment is foreseen by the original authors, other workers do not have the right to beat them to it. They should be given access to the specimen to check the original characters listed, with the understanding that that is all that they can comment on in their own work until the monograph is published.

    2. Non-taxonomic work: Sometimes original investigators are continuing descriptive and taxonomic work on a published specimen, and someone asks them whether they could include it in, say, a functional morphological or biogeographic study. If this does not impinge on the original authors' plans, and would not entail the publication of details that would "scoop" their work in progress, one hopes these requests would be accommodated whenever possible. It's good for the wider field of science.


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