Seriously, though, what are we going to do about privately held specimens?

February 26, 2022

Matt and I are writing a paper about Barosaurus cervicals (yes, again). Regular readers will recall that the best Barosaurus cervical material we have ever seen was in a prep lab for Western Paleo Labs. We have some pretty good photos, such as this one:

Barosaurus cervical vertebra lying on its right side in anterodorsal view (i.e. with dorsal to the left), showing the distinctive shape of the prezygapophyseal rami.

The problem is that this specimen was privately owned at the time we saw it, and so far as we know it still is. So according to all standard procedures, we should consider it unavailable to science until such time as it is deposited in an accredited museum. (I was pretty sure the SVP has an explicit policy to this effect, but I couldn’t find it on the site. Can anyone?)

So what should we do? All the possible courses of action seem unfortunate.

1. We could go ahead and include photos, drawings and descriptions of these vertebrae in the paper — but that would violate community norms by building an argument on observations that cannot be in general be replicated by other researchers. (For all we know, these vertebrae are now decorating Nicolas Cage’s pool room.)

2. We could omit these vertebrae from the paper, but use the information we gained from examining them in formulating our diagnostic criteria for Barosaurus cervicals — but this would also not really be replicable, plus it would have that horrible “we know something that you don’t” quality.

3. We could act as though these vertebrae do not exist, or as though we had never seen them, writing the paper based only on our observations of inferior material and of the good AMNH 6341 that is not accessible for study or photography — but that would make our characterisation of Barosaurus cervical morphology less helpful than it could be.

4. We could refrain from publishing on Barosaurus cervicals at all until such time as these vertebrae, or similarly well-preserved ones, are available to study at accredited institutions — but that would simply deprive the world of an interesting and exciting study.

Is there a fifth path that we have not seen? And if not, which of these four is the least objectionable?

37 Responses to “Seriously, though, what are we going to do about privately held specimens?”

  1. Alton Dooley Says:

    I personally would go with option 3 (and have done so in the past).

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Alton, that’s a helpful data point.

    Others, please pile in!

  3. dale mcinnes Says:

    You’re looking for a 5th path ? I have it wrapped up in a bow for ye.
    The 5th path is quite unusual BUT not unprecedented. And it makes far more sense than the other 4.

    Go ahead. Describe your specimen. Publish the photos as well if you have any. Enter it into your description and follow it up in your conclusions.

    How ?!?

    There was one path you forgot. Original specimens that have been lost or destroyed. These specimens no longer exist but are useful from time to time (so long as there are good photos or even good casts). The scientific establishment will have to make judgements on these alone. That is, until the original is recovered. But this is not the case. This specimen is neither lost, destroyed nor badly preserved. It is simply unavailable. So a new category should be created.

    It should be considered as a “VIRTUAL SPECIMEN” = “Privately Owned” until it is catalogued in an accredited institute. Or, in shorthand a pVS specimen (private Virtual Specimen).

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Dale. It reminds me of the concept of a plastotype — a cast or mould taken from a type specimen that stands in place of that specimen if it is lost or destroyed.

    Also relevant is Godfray’s (2007) notion of a “cybertype”:

    Type specimens are often very old and have deteriorated in some way. The more they are consulted the greater the risks of further damage, and access to types is sensibly restricted. Most types also lack associated sequence data. Perhaps we need a way to create a new form of type specimen (call it a cybertype) to be displayed on the web using the very best current imaging methods — often far superior to normal examination.

    I have sometimes wondered whether a good-quality virtual 3d model of a specimen could stand as a cybertype. At present the ICZN does not recognize such a thing, but maybe it’s a concept whose time is coming.

  5. I’m not an academic but option 1 seems the sensible choice with the caveat that that specimen should be supporting evidence not he primary basis of he paper. I would also suggest that there is room for a class of paper that describes a specimen in as much detail as possible to make it virtually available to other researchers. Even just looking back over the history of SVPoW there are discussions of specimens that are lost or destroyed or not readily identifiable. At least with a specimen in private hands there is a possibility that some future researcher can obtain access to check your data.
    In these days of high precision digitisation and scanning why do you always need physical access to every specimen?

  6. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    If it exists, and you’ve made good observations from it – what rule would you possibly be violating to follow common sense? Obviously you’d have to say it’s from a private collection, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  7. Mickey Mortimer Says:


    I’m sure I’ve made the argument here before a few times in the comments, but the SVP’s policy and the idea that museum specimens are eternally available for research is naive and untrue.

    Even ignoring specimens on display, try reading Zanno (2010) on therizinosaurs- “[for Beipiaosaurus] A caudal vertebra, ungual, a putative ischial fragment, fragments of the right forelimb, and several unidentified fragments possibly representing skull material are not currently associated with the rest of the holotype”, “the majority of Alxasaurus elesitaiensis holotype materials (IVPP 88402, two individuals) could not be located (X. Xu pers. comm., June 2006)”, “The current whereabouts of the holotype of ‘Nashiungosaurus’ bohlini (IVPP V11116) are unknown (X. Xu pers. comm., June 2006)”, “Only the pelvis of Nashiungosaurus brevispinus (IVPP V4731) can be located at the IVPP (X. Xu pers. comm., June 2006). The holotype presacral vertebrae are not accessible. The pelvis of N. brevispinus has suffered postcollection damage and is reconstructed with painted plaster in several areas”, “Unfortunately, the skull of Erlikosaurus (as is also the case with the mandible of Segnosaurus and Alxasaurus) is currently on loan to A. Perle (C. Tsogtbaatar pers. comm., November 2006) and was not accessible during this study, nor was any of the postcranial material of Erlikosaurus”, “Whereabouts of the [Segnosaurus] paratype pes,
    fibula, ribs, ischium and pubis (IGM 100/82), and scapulocoracoid
    and manual phalanges (IGM 100/83) are unknown (C. Tsogtbaatar, pers. comm. November 2006).” “The whereabouts of other [Therizinosaurus] IGM materials are unknown (C. Tsogtbaatar pers. comm., November 2006).”

    Or Maidment and Wei (2006) on stegosaurs- “The whereabouts of
    the rest of the postcrania of the [Tuojiangosaurus] holotype and paratype is currently unknown”, “The location of the remaining material, including the cranial material belonging to the [Chungkingosaurus] holotype and all of CV208, is currently unknown”, “the location of the rest of the [Chialingosaurus] holotype and referred material is unknown”, “The whereabouts of the remainder of the [Monkonosaurus] holotype is unknown.”

    So yeah, plenty of published dinosaur work is based “on observations that cannot be in general be replicated by other researchers.”

  8. Lost Dutchman Says:

    You should just Nazify yourself and confiscate the personal property. Better yet it was alive you all could kill it and it’s whole family for “scientific” purposes.
    You all could not even identify seeds from China.
    Do you know what a nut is? Soft tissue in a hard shell, like the brains of the current scientific community.
    Hardheaded and useless when the lights go out.
    Where does electricity come from to fuel EV’s, O, Russian oil currently.

  9. Option five, perhaps, is “see what can be done to get those specimens accessioned in an accredited museum.” Preferably, one where the specimens will be easy for researchers to access.

    Of your four options, option 2 seems like the worst of both worlds, and it would be a shame to choose option 4. Personally, I would favor option 3 as the cautious approach.

    It seems to me that the reason for not publishing on privately-owned specimens about maintaining a precedent so that the field does not grow over-reliant on them. There are certainly cases where privately-owned specimens are more available for research than publicly-owned ones, or where museums have failed in their duty to keep specimens available for posterity, but overall, it would probably be bad if publishing on private specimens became an especially common practice.

    As far as the notion of “cybertypes” goes: that just seems like another way of saying it’s a good idea for high-quality, detailed descriptions of type specimens to be made. There’d still be a physical type specimen that the “cybertype” is based on, so the ICZN doesn’t really need to change anything there.

  10. […] this forthcoming Barosaurus paper, we would like to include an establishing photo of the AMNH Barosaurus mount. There are two strong […]

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for that list, Mickey.

    As you’ll have noticed, the text came through a bit off, with lots of linebreaks in seemingly random placs, If you want to repost a cleaner version, I’ll delete the old one (and this comment); if not, no problem, the current version is legible.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Lost Dutchman, you seem to have wandered in from a completely different comment thread. Thanks for chipping in, though.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    John, I think you’re absolutely right about precedent. It seems clear than in this case, considered in isolation, the community would get a better outcome by including the privately held specimens. And I think that is probably true in the great majority of individual cases, considered individually. The problem is the cultural shift that would arise from that, and I absolutely see why we want to prevent drifting into a world where private specimens are fair game.

    At the same time, I am sensitive to Mickey’s observation that many accredited museums do a terrible job of looking after specimens, so that writing only about specimens held in such institutions is far from a cast-iron guarantee that they will remain available. Come to that, we’ve all ready plenty of papers about AMNH AMNH FR 5777, the long-lost holotype of Maraapunisaurus that is known only from E. D. Cope’s line-drawing. Surely a destroyed specimen is in an even worse state than a privately held one?

    Cybertypes are of interest here if they could stand in place of the physical types, rather than merely being useful additions to them. That’s what would make them types. And for that to fly, the ICZN would certainly need to be involved.

  14. The situation of a “cybertype” is arguably covered by ICZN article 72.5.6, which essentially states that designating a representation of a specimen as the type is taken as designating the specimen, not the representation per se. This makes sense to me. After all, if the “cybertype” itself, and not the physical specimen it was based on, was the type specimen, what would happen if study of the physical specimen led to the discovery of data not available in the “cybertype”? I just don’t see what would be to be gained from designating a digital representation as the type in and of itself, as opposed to designating the physical specimen the type but making the digital representation available anyway.

  15. sdsykes Says:

    Option 5 – just buy it and donate it to a museum.

    No of course this is not a serious suggestion, but I’d be very curious to know how much such a specimen would be worth.

  16. LeeB Says:

    Naming a type specimen on privately held specimens would be a bad idea but including photographs or CT scans of such specimens in a paper seems to be a usable idea; such photographs or scans can be consulted by other researchers.
    To not include them seems to be a loss of information that could otherwise be usable.
    The mosasaur Carinodens was known from teeth and jawbones of a couple of species; then a person with a private museum in Jordan found a lot of mosasaur bones and published his own book on them (and other fossils) among which is a skull, cervical vertebrae and front paddles (at least) of a Carinodens which he designated a new species.
    Whether or not you want to accept the species as valid the specimen in question is by far the best fossil of this genus ever found.
    To ignore it and especially the published photos of it just seems silly.

  17. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    I think it’s important what John said about “the reason for not publishing on privately-owned specimens [is] about maintaining a precedent so that the field does not grow over-reliant on them.” My point about therizinosaurs and stegosaurs was not so much that official institutions sometimes fail to protect their specimens, since that’s just the result of being human. Be it greed or laziness or whatever leads to that material being “lost”.

    It’s more that this talking point that “everything in science needs to be eternally able to be replicable by other researchers” is not only blatantly false, but also in this case employed largely to discourage private collection. You can tell this because as far as I know, there hasn’t been one official rebuke by the SVP or other interested entity against (in this case) the CV, IVPP or IGM. But you see statements all the time about how this is why private fossil collections are scientifically useless and should not exist in certain capacities. As far as the talking point being false, just think of e.g. supernovae, which are observable while their light reaches Earth, but whose data can not be replicated afterwards. Scientists depend on the initial measurements and photos, then later trust that because it made its way into the literature. They don’t just say “guess Stan the T. rex was sold, so we have to pretend everything we know about the specimen doesn’t exist.”

  18. Cary Woodruff Says:

    There’s a great discussion in these posts as to the overall scientific merits, and what could be an ultimate increase in knowledge by including privately held specimens. But I’m expressing my own professional opinion that I believe that Option 3 is really the only viable route (for the foreseeable future). And here’s my opinion as to why:

    1. Reproducibility/Accessibility
    This Barosaurus you’re mentioning is currently viewable in the lab at Western Paleo. Labs – meaning that currently, anyone can go into the Museum of Ancient Life and physically see the specimen in the prep lab. Okay. But what about afterwards? I know they’re silly examples, but what if you include a list of measurements, and there’s a typo; or there’s an obscure morphologic feature? Theoretically, while it’s in WPL, a measurement could be verified, etc. – but what about once it’s sold? What if the owner does not want their property being scientifically examined? I completely understand the perspective and merits of “science it before it’s sold” – and I’m not saying y’all would make any kind of error or insinuating any kind of negative connotation, but essentially, y’all could practically say anything you wanted to about the specimen, and if it was privately sold, nothing could be verified. I’m not going to get into an Amphicoelias fragillimus debate with anyone, but it could be a similar case. Drawing/photos, measurements, etc. are given, but the specimen is “lost”, and therefore nothing can be substantiated. I get a lot of the discussion here regarding how reproducible/accessible objects in museums really are (case in point, the AMNH Baro.). And there’s a legitimate truth to this. But institutions that curate fossils are libraries of the natural history of Earth. And just like any library book, people should be able to access and learn from them. In perpetuity.

    2. Publishing “Ethics”
    Pros and cons, like it or not, etc., the majority of established academic journals have rules/policies on publishing on privately vs publicly held specimens. There’s a bit of variation, but they largely voice the previous point. We most certainly do not lead by example here in the US, but to publish on a specimen, it needs to be held in the public trust so that other scientists can subsequently examine and research it. Now, does that mean it’s in a “repository” or “in the public trust” (US defined, and I’m not going to go down that nightmarish rabbit hole here), but the onus is on the researcher to demonstrate the specimen is available to others in perpetuity. Now, whether you only work on public land material accessioned into a State/Federal repository, or signed over material (like the SMA), that’s your moral choice, but either way, you have to demonstrate the accessibility of the material. They could be freak circumstances, but twice I have been requested by separate journals to provide landowner donation documentation prior to papers being sent out for review. This bit is going to sound bad and lazy, but why spend the time incorporating it into your manuscript, figuring it, etc., only to have a journal and/or reviewers demand that you to remove all of it? Is the science you are trying to share with the world of less value than this one specimen?

    3. Business
    Preface – this bit always makes my stomach churn, it’s cold and callous, and it’s certainly something that I do not like about the discipline. Working on commercially available specimens before they are brought into the public trust is just bad business. Again, my opinions, but there are TONS of great commercial groups out there (Kirby Sieber, Pete Larson, Mike Triebold, etc.), and TONS of bad ones. Let’s say y’all research this Barosaurus, and it’s the best, most awesome one ever. Great. Inadvertently and unknowingly, y’all just helped raised the asking price. And there are most certainly cases of this happening (I’m looking at you MT Morrison material…). It can already be hard enough for a museum to acquire specimens, no need for us to make it harder. Also – and double stomach churning and downright disgusting – it’s not beneficial to a museum. If a museum purchases a specimen, they are doing so to enhance the collections, get an awe-inspiring display piece, increase their publication notoriety/academic laurels, etc. Maybe not in every case, but attempting to publish on a specimen before it’s acquired by an institution can pop the balloon. The gross fact of the matter is that the institution doesn’t get the “first”. The institution and the curator – who is the legally appointed custodian of the object – have the say on who can and can’t do what kind of research and when (and I’m not saying that this is right, merely just the way the world spins). As I said, it’s cold and callous, but if this is legitimately a business deal, just think of it as any other kind of business transaction. Are you going to buy and move into a house, knowing that another family already lives there? Or buy a car knowing others take it for a spin whenever? Would you be satisfied if you went to a restaurant and the meal came out half eaten? It doesn’t make it right or moral at all, but a specimen being published prior to an institution acquiring it could easily make an institution pass on it. Many attempted academic purchases of specimens have floundered because of “ongoing research” prior to sale or presale “research stipulations” (and even literal hints of supposed legal disputes have canceled many a transaction). And as I mentioned above, some of the pseudoscience done via sellers is nothing more than an attempt to give the airs of scientific credibility and importance in order to jack up the asking price.

    Regarding digital and cast data, that’s out of my wheelhouse, and while certainly an important discussion, it may not be the most pertinent to this particular case. If molds had been made of Stromer’s material prior to bombing, I think the discipline would certainly embrace some type of referral to this cast material. But casting and inclusion of actively commercial material? Hmmmm……. Maybe that’s more moral ambiguity. Digital data to me seems a bit more straight forward. The digital data is archived with an institutional number. But let’s look at “Tristan” the Tyrannosaurus: both the Museum für Naturkunde and the Statens Naturhistoriske Museum each 3D scanned the specimen. So, if you were using the Berlin data, you’d use the MFN number (and vice versa for Copenhagen). But a crux I see: each is a scan of what? Yeah, it’s a T. rex, but the original data (the fossil) doesn’t “scientifically exist”. Again, a tangent, and likely the answers to this range the moral gamut – but perhaps something to mull over.

    Now, I have worked on specimens that were formerly commercially available, but I do so only after they were brought into the public trust. And it pains me to say it, but I’ve had to reject something like 4 or 5 papers to-date that focused exclusively on currently commercially available specimens. Of note, and I’m not saying that it is a work around, but professionally, in the context of a larger work, I am not opposed to mentioning such specimens as the WPL Barosaurus (but I don’t rest a large portion of my work on such specimens). Case in point, in an upcoming paper I mention a specimen that was smuggled from Mongolia. It’s not commercially available, but it is not in the public trust. I mention this specimen in the paper because A) bringing it to attention in hopes of having it repatriated, and B) more or less offhandedly saying “damn, look at everything we could learn from it”. But I’m personally betting that the journal and reviewers make us cut this paragraph; and if they do, all we’re out is deleting a paragraph.

    As this and the Twitter threads have shown, you’re going get a veritable sea of opinions (mine included!), and at the end of the day, we’re each going to do what we believe is the right thing to do. And while it might be at odds with your own preferences, it may not be a bad idea to review the policies of the journals you are intending to submit to (again, a time saver).

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    Many thanks, Cary, all of this is super-helpful — and very pragmatic.

    I’m still mulling all this over, and I think so is Matt. Your comments will help us to focus our thinking.

  20. Cary Woodruff Says:

    You’re more than welcome. And I’m sorry for such a massive post. Complex questions require complex answers, and personally, I’d always rather have more info/perspectives than too few.

    (and I felt that if I didn’t answer, I wouldn’t be a good friend to you or Matt)

  21. Jim Kirkland Says:

    I believe that Barasaurus, pretty complete, is part of the collections at Museum of Ancient Life, Lehi, Utah. Also I understand the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry is dominated by juvenile Barasaurus…

  22. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Jim. _sigh_ so many undescribed specimens! Do you who works the Hanksville-Burpee quarry? I’ll try to get in touch.

    The Western Paleo prep lab that Matt and I saw the beautiful Barosaurus cervicals in was part of the Museum of Ancient Life building — I’m not sure what the organizational relationship was. So it’s possible that the “pretty complete” specimen you’re alluding to is the one we saw! That would be good news.

  23. Dan Chure Says:

    Having it described in a scientific paper might increase its market value.

  24. Mike Taylor Says:

    You are right, Dan.

    I realise that my original post wasn’t really clear about two rather different scenarios.

    1. Creating a scientific work which is a description of the privately owned fossil. I think almost all of us agree that this would be the wrong thing to do, not least for the reason you highlight.

    2. Mentioning a privately owned fossil as a minor part of a bigger paper, to illuminate the subject of that paper. In that case we’re talking about using photos such as the one at the top of this post to illustrate characters that are developed and preserved much better in this specimen than in others. I am much less clear that this is a good thing.

  25. LC Says:

    Option #5: I think making high-quality scans freely available to the public is the best thing you can do, regardless of how those scans were sourced.

    Although *in principle* museums are “open” and “public”, that’s not the reality for those of us who are outside of academia. Museums are just as inaccessible as private collections for those of us who don’t have any affiliations. It’s understandable why they need restrictions to prevent untrained people from damaging the material, but it creates an enormous barrier to accessibility. Museum data is often no more available than the specimen itself, if it exists at all. There are so many animals sitting in drawers that have never been scanned.

    For someone like me, open collections like #ScanAllFish are a WAY better resource than ANY museum or private collection will EVER be. Some questions can only be answered by looking at the bones, and this is as close as many of us will ever get regardless of who holds the physical specimen.

    Remember, there are a lot of us who use scientific data for things other than writing papers. I do a lot of study of comparative biology in order to improve my robotics designs. If you’re interested in the kinematics of walking, then dinosaur fossils are incredibly interesting because large bipeds aren’t that common in nature.

    I think that anything that increases public access to good quality raw data is beneficial.

    So from that perspective, I’d scan the heck out of it.

  26. dinogami Says:

    **(If this is a duplicate comment, please delete—I tried to respond once only to get a “your comment could not be posted” message, so I’m trying again!)** I also have drooled over the MoAL _Barosaurus_ specimen! I was raised (academically speaking) on both the “private specimens effectively don’t exist” philosophy and the “data are data” philosophy, so I’m fairly neutral on the subject. In some instances, I think publishing on privately held specimens is warranted, and this may be one of those instances: too much ambiguity surrounds _Barosaurus_, and this specimen has the potential to de-mystify it to some degree. If you’re looking for precedent, remember that two taxa have already been published with MoAL holotypes: the theropod _Tanycolagreus_ (Carpenter et al., 2005) and the pterosaur _Harpactognathus_ (Carpenter et al., 2003), and I don’t recall wild backlashes about either one (though that could easily be my faulty memory rather than reality!). I don’t know the current or future repositorial status of the MoAL _Barosaurus_, but I could try to find out (I have a contact there).

  27. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Jerry, great to hear from you. Interesting observation on Tanycolagreus and Harpactognathus. (Ken, if you’re here, it would be good to get your thoughts regarding the choice to proceed with Tanycolagreus.)

    I emailed Rick Hunter last night to ask about the status of the that Baro, but have not heard back yet. If I’ve not heard in a few days, I will take you up on your offer to get in touch with your contact.

  28. Felix Beyeler Says:

    I assume that you are mostly looking for feedback from your fellow paleontologists. However, maybe my view is interesting to you as well (I am a scientist with a background in microrobotics).

    When I first read that paleontologists avoid publishing data about private specimens I thought that makes sense. However, after thinking about it a bit more I came to the conclusion this is probably hurting paleontology more than it helps:
    – Paleontology is often working with extremely small data sets. When it comes to dinosaurs, the sample size is often 1 incomplete skeleton. To get more meaningful insights, all data that is available should be used in my opinion. Otherwise there is a significant risk that wrong conclusions are made due to incompleteness, deformation, variation within species etc.
    – Other scientific fields do not have the requirement that everything can be looked at or reproduced at all times. In practice, no one would reproduce what I did during my phd.. The reason is that it would not make sense to spend the time and money to redo it (several years of work and 500+kUSD). Or if a geologist publishes data about a volcanic eruption or a virologist observes the spread of corona virus this simply cannot be reproduced. You have to rely on the published data.

    In my opinion it is ok to use private specimen (or other non-reproducible data) in publications as long as the data is carefully obtained, processed and interpreted by a researcher using state of the art methods. Then, the publication is valuable to science even if the original specimen is unavailable or has been lost/destroyed.

    Also, I would like to add that private fossil collectors are often nice people and interested in research. I have seen collectors giving full access to their collection, even allowing researchers to do destructive tests on their specimen and donating complete dinosaur skeletons to a museum. I think it would make a lot of sense to approach the collectors in a friendly way and discuss with them. If you can explain why a specific specimen is important to science I think there is a fair chance that you get access to the specimen (temporarily or permanently).

  29. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Felix. Yes, your thoughts from another scientific are very much appreciated!

  30. Jim Bocho Says:

    The SVPs policies are self serving. All dinosaur bones should be given to museums? Not if you found them on private property and you own them yourself. Museums are literally FULL of hundreds of unprepared jackets and lack funds to prepare them and display them. Some are a century old. So called “amateur fossil hunters” find more specimens than museums and many of the most important fossils have been found originally by the “amateurs”. A bone sitting on the surface today will be soil in 25 years. Who’s gonna recover them? Almost certainly not a museum paleontologist. I’m a scientist, not a paleontologist, and listening to this argument about how bad private collectors are is growing old. Using 3D scans and photos, measurements, very useful data can be shared and knowledge moved forward. What, you’re supposed to not use a known feature of a fossil because it’s not in a museum somewhere? That’s ignorant.

  31. The SVPs poilcy is just poor sicience. The specimens are lost to science because those members chose not to study them. If anyone is interested in the Barasaurus material that was held by Western Paleo, please contact me. or call me 435-744-3428

  32. Emanuel Tschopp Says:

    Nice discussion here. This is indeed a topic that is being discussed widely in the scientific community, and several workshops on fossil ethics lead by Jeff Liston at EAVP and SVP have touched on the topic, with widely diverging opinions.
    I fully support the idea of using accurate 3D digital representations of privately held specimens, if these digital representations are in the public trust and accessible through a scientific collection. Not all private owners allow scanning, but some do, and it greatly increases our knowledge and amount of data points. However, we also have to establish what “accurate” means, and how the scans need to be documented so the specimens become usable for research.
    Maybe it is appropriate to mention that there is a working group discussing standardization of 3D scanning and modeling. Part of the discussion also concerns ethical questions such as if these models may allow wider use, reproducibility, and access to privately held specimens. Other discussions concern accuracy and terminology for 3D specimens used in systematic works (spoiler: cybertype, digitype, plastotype, and so on might not be appropriate terms). The working group is called 3DigiPal, coordinated by Veronica Diez Diaz, and we just presented at the 3rd Virtual Paleo Congress. Anybody is invited to join the discussion, so feel free to contact Vero if you’re interested in chiming in.

  33. dale McInnes Says:

    Has anyone thought about a payment system for privately held specimens? Every time a download occurs, the owner gets a fee. It can be standardized. The world already does this everywhere for just about everything. A virtual or printer download perhaps? A cast made?

  34. Dale Mcinnes Says:

    Dan Chure. Yes. Exposing a specimen in a scientific article would certainly increase its market value. BUT ! It would also set up a unique precedent in favour of palaeontology, would it not? That is, would it not flush out other hitherto unknown specimens? Wouldn’t most collectors then want their specimens exposed in a paper. It works the same way in authenticating a piece of Art. What we truly want in our field, is not so much the specimen but, the collectible data from that specimen. This is a way to make that happen. But the ICZ would have to approve the concept of a “virtual specimen”.

  35. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dale, I can’t see a payment system like this working. It seems antithetical to the scientific ideal, that you can only validate someone else’s findings if you’re able and willing to pay. I don’t imagine I would work on a specimen on those terms.

  36. Brian Curtice Says:

    Option 5 – “Go Grey”
    Publish the private-owned material information on SVPow. Two experts, open dialogue in the comments, real-time feedback, high res images, what’s not to love? That way a “grey area” specimen is published in a “grey area” space. Heck, if we find a treasure trove of AMNH 6341 material it ought to be published here, too, since we can’t get access to it! :-).

    Barosaurus seems to be having a “moment” in the commercial space, there’s a glut of ’em. I can think of 3 specimens not mentioned in this thread, all with articulated cervicals. Which makes me wonder, are they all Barosaurus, or could they be, say Supersaurus :-), or something else? Your work is critical to sauropod science.

    Cybertypes concern me as they (at least not with today’s tech) don’t convey deformation, or areas of restoration, like when holding a specimen itself. As you both have worked on late 1800s material, the coats of paint and restorative materials make it impossible to know what the original bone was like. I still recall the astonishment Jack, Virginia, and I had at seeing the CM diplodocids stripped bare, not what we thought we’d see! Yet I’d take a cybertype over today’s AMNH 5777 any day…

    [Off-topic my opinion alert!] Does the publication of a specimen enhance its value on the collectors market? It may, but to a degree that isn’t universal. You can publish the most amazing Dryosaurus and it might add a few percentage points to the sales price, but show someone a fragmentary T. rex rib that appeared in a regional conference abstract and you might double its value. However, let buyers know it has celebrity, salacious, or salacious celebrity tie-ins and the price just rocketed. Especially considering the number of young millionaires the recent stock market boom has created, they love dinosaurs and grew up with constant internet dopamine hits. Look at NFTs and be wary! Scientific integrity is less than “story value” to them. Sauropods, being awesomely gigantic and incredible space-takers, are fairly insulated from runups in sales prices unless one has a theropod skull hanging onto its tail. I fret that should a few individuals that bought a skeleton for, say $100k a few years back sell them for $1 million, that will create a reseller market and we could become like the collector car community with a new breed of Dino-Flipper (HGTV show?) that won’t even give museums a courtesy call, they’ll instead be making sizzling social media marketing material to drive up the price. It may have already begun as the Tric specimen that sold for lots was, as I recall, available for much less for many years… [off-topic opinion over]

    Oh yeah, I spent a day looking for the Algoasaurus holotype. It is seemingly lost for eternity

  37. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Brian, lots of interesting ideas there. I think “go grey” (or “gray” if you must!) would work if for some reason we just wanted to get information about a specimen out to the public. We could post it here and call it done.

    But in the present case, it doesn’t really help much, since what we specifically want to do is refer to it is as one smallish part of a much larger argument in a paper that is definitely destined for peer-review in a recognised journal.

    You are certainly right that cybertypes are of much less utility than real type specimens — but then, so are plastotypes, and they are recognised by the ICZN and presumably of use. And you are of course also very right that we would love to have a cybertype or plastotype of AMNH 5777! I’m not sure what to think about this issue, so I am far from being in a position to advocate either for or against cybertypes. I just think it’s a concept that is well due some serious thought and discussion.

    Horrifying thoughts on commercial prices for fossils. *sigh*

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