Off-topic: “We’re going to need a bigger Ethics Committee”
July 10, 2008
Up till now, I’ve tried to remain completely dispassionate about Aetogate, restricting my public comments to statements of fact and reports of what others have said. In particular, the site that I maintain linking to other people’s commentary on this issue contains no opinions of my own (or at least, if any have leaked through, it’s been inadvertent).
But now that the SVP has released its findings and others have had a month to make their own comments in response, I am going to use SV-POW! to say it how I see it. (The fact that the SVP’s so-called “permalink” has changed in the last few days, if you can imagine anything so dumb, may itself tell you something.) [Update, July 2013: it’s changed again, and this link is now a 404.] [Update 2, October 2015: I made my own copies of the SVP documents, in case they vanish permanently] For brevity’s sake, I’m going to concentrate my comments on Bill Parker’s case, but most of this also applies to Jeff Martz’s case.
Please note that I am speaking only for myself here. (That’s why I am putting this on SV-POW! rather than on the Aetogate site, which remains an objective summary of the case and its coverage, with no opinions expressed.) Matt and Darren have not even seen this posting, let alone agreed to it or contributed to it.
First up, everyone agrees that the SVP did well to take this case on, and that their report contains, in Kevin Padian’s much-quoted words, “something for everyone to like — and dislike”. But the dislikeable part is very problematic. A private correspondent whose name I will not state wrote to me:
The EEC just demonstrated vividly that Lucas can get away with anything, and they practically declared open season on Parker and Martz and anyone else who dares speak up about this.
By blaming the victims, or at least by allowing Lucas’s blaming of the victims to stand unrefuted, the SVP has left Bill and Jeff in a worse position than they were in before all this started. Back then, they’d only had their work stolen. Now, they’ve had their work stolen and have a wholly undeserved reputation as trouble-makers. In effect, the SVP have shown that all those people were quite right who warned Bill and Jeff not to get involved, just to lie down quietly like good little boys and not to think they could go up against The Man. To be sure, I am quite certain that was not the SVP’s intention; but when their statement leaves Stuart Ashman of the New Mexico DCA enough wiggle-room to express “appreciation and satisfaction with the Society’s conclusions regarding these allegations”, and when The Santa Fe New Mexican can interpret the SVP statement as “a completely independent body has cleared the scientists of plagiarism”, there seems little point in pretending that’s not how it’s being read.
In light of this, what can be done to prevent repeats of the transgressions? It’s almost impossible to say. The SVP’s Executive Committee statement on Aetogate suggests on one hand that it’s Bill’s fault he got claim-jumped because he didn’t tell the NMMNHS people enough about his work, but Jeff’s fault that he got plagiarised because told them too much! It’s tempting to conclude that the only safe approach is to keep your dissertation completely secret, let no-one know what you’re working on, and not even to hint about its contents in your published work.
But that in itself won’t necessarily stop all abuses: the broader problem is that there are lots of good reasons for work to be known about before it’s formally published, of which dissertations are only one. Talks at conferences, grant proposals, informal discussions with colleagues — all the things that help to incubate work, to prevent it from becoming isolated, to mitigate against the possibility of inadvertent duplication — in short all the things that foster a collegial spirit, and that show we are working together on the great project of vertebrate palaeontology rather than fighting against each other. Most of the while this sort of pre-publication sharing works well. The problem is that it only takes a few rogue bludgers to piss in the pool, and everyone is affected. And if the professional body that has a mandate to oversee these things starts blaming the victim, it’s hard to see any other consequence than a clamming up, a tendency for everyone who feels vulnerable to plagiarism and claim-jumping (not just students) to stop talking about their work until it’s actually published. I don’t see how inculcating that culture of paranoia will benefit any of us, but it does seem to be where we’re headed right now. *sigh*
One suggestion posted to the VRTPALEO mailing list is that a preprint server, like arxiv.org, used in physics, would help the field of vertebrate palaeontology to sort out priority issues. Unfortunately, I don’t think it would help much (although of course it would be good for other reasons). The problem is plausible deniability. The SVP’s ruling on Aetogate has set a grotesque precedent that if you have a taxonomic reassignment in press, then circulating it widely as an “unpublished” thesis and alluding to it (with citations of both the thesis and the in-press paper) in three published papers and two SVP abstracts is NOT enough to establish your priority. If someone else wants to go ahead and reassign the material while your own work is in press, it suffices for that person simply to claim that neither he nor either of his co-authors was aware of the work in progress. That defence, we now know, is sufficient to deflect the SVP from reaching a firm conclusion, even if the claim-jumper included one of the original author’s relevant papers in the journal that he edits, even if he peer-reviewed it and explicitly commented on the matter in hand in his review, and even cited it in his own work. We now know that even in those circumstances, the SVP will conclude:
Faced with conflicting testimonies, the Ethics Education Committee was not able to resolve these allegations in favor of either side, a position that does not absolve either party of responsibility.
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.
(These are direct quotes. Read their statement yourself if you, like me, find this difficult to believe.)
Just think about that. Provided you are an established vertebrate palaeontologist, you may read papers written by a graduate student from another institution, publish them in your own in-house journal, peer-review them, and even comment on the taxonomic reassignment in the peer-review, and STILL claim that neither you nor either of your two co-authors took any of the six opportunities IN THE LITERATURE ALONE to understand that the grad-student in question plans to reassign the genus. You can claim this, and the SVP will believe you.
What. The. ??!
I have to ask: is there anything Lucas could have done that would have forced the SVP to recognise wrongdoing? Short of a signed statement, I can’t think of anything. And even then, all it would take would be for him to say “I never signed that”, and the SVP would no doubt conclude that “faced with conflicting testimonies, the Ethics Education Committee was not able to resolve these allegations”.
Which is why I am fully resigned to seeing a one-pager in the next NMMNHS bulletin about the Tendaguru brachiosaurid that I’ve been working on, and assigning it to the new genus Rioarribaposeidon. Lucas knows that the SVP won’t pronounce guilt, so what’s to stop him from taking his revenge on me in this way? After all, I only have one widely available abstract to point to in establishing my priority. If Bill’s three papers, two abstracts and thesis weren’t enough, what chance does my poor abstract stand?
So where are we left? The good news is that the SVP’s statement on these cases included, along with their spineless lack-of-verdict, a much more useful document, Professional Conduct: Best Practices Regarding Research, Publication, and Museum Work. We can hope that the availability of these guidelines will go some way towards preventing repeats. But since the SVP has set an impossibly high bar for demonstrating that violations have taken place, it hardly makes any difference. The message to plagiarisers and claim-jumpers, loud and clear, is “go ahead, do what you want! We may not like it, but we’ll never call you on it. Leave a paper-trail if you like — we don’t care. Go nuts!”
As another private correspondent noted:
The EEC may get some teeth for dealing with these cases in the future. Even if they actually can’t or won’t do anything now, someday the extremely naive people running the show will be replaced by a generation of people who lived through this when they were still students and felt helpless and abandoned, and maybe THEY will do something about it.
But is that really the best we have to look forward to? It’s a pretty depressing thought, but I suppose better than nothing, to think that the generation of future VPs who are being born right about now can look forward to working in a cleaner field — one where professional ethics isn’t just something that we talk about.
So I have to conclude by saying that the SVP really dropped the ball here. They had an opportunity to send out a clear message: “You may NOT take advantage of less established scientists by plagiarising their conclusions and claim-jumping the taxa they recognise, and anyone who does will find us coming down hard on them.” The good news is, they did send out a clear message. The bad news is, it was “Feel free to plagiarise and claim-jump. And you victims had better keep quiet about it, or we’ll say that we Can’t Absolve You Of Responsibility”.
How could the SVP committees do this?
I am really unhappy about this last part of my post, and have nearly deleted it several times, but I think it needs to be said. How could the SVP committees have responded as they have? I can only think of three explanations, and I don’t like any of them:
1. They are too dumb to understand the very straightforward and overwhelming evidence in the freakin’ published literature for goshsakes.
2. They’re too cowardly to admit to what it means.
3. (I mention this only for completeness), They’re too corrupt to respond to what they see.
Even if we discount possibility 3 (which I think we can, and which I am very happy to do), I am still left horrified by either of the first two possibilities. I truly don’t know which is worse.
Now let me be clear that I have nothing but respect for the individuals who make up the SVP Ethics Committee and Executive Committee. Whatever’s happened here, it’s obviously akin to a Dilbertesque committee effect: it’s said that the IQ of a committee is that of its least intelligent members divided by the total number of members. But I would really, really, really like to hear from those individuals. I’d like to hear some explanation of how we ended up in this ridiculous state where Bill and Jeff are actually now worse off than they would have been if they’d kept as silent as previous victims (whose wisdom, if not courage, is now shown to have been greater than Bill’s and Jeff’s).
Please, committee members, comment on this blog. We’re all waiting to hear your explanations, and longing for them to be good.
Thanks for listening.
Oh, yeah, and here’s a sauropod vertebra.