Paleontology Scandals and Alleged Theft from Grad Students

Posted by at 8:06PM

While perusing PZ Meyers’ blog I read an interesting entry about a brouhaha brewing up in the paleontological world over alleged theft of naming rights to specimens.
In Summary
A graduate student, Bill Parker, completed his master’s thesis using a New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science specimen
He argued that the specimen was unique enough to warrant its own name and submitted a paper to the Journal of Systematic Paleontology in which he bestowed a new name on the specimen.
The rules of paleontology apparently state that whoever publishes first gets naming rights. I’m not a paleontologist, but apparently naming a new specimen is very important and can make a Paleontologist’s career.
Parker’s article to the Journal of Systematic Paleontology was reviewed by Spencer Lucas.
Here comes the murky and alleged parts:
Lucas then published a paper in an New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science’s in-house publication (which is not peer reviewed) two-weeks prior to the January 2007 publication date of Parker’s article.
Parker is alleging that Lucas used his position in the Museum and as journal reviewer to steal the naming rights away from Parker.
Given the timeline presented, Parker’s allegations have a lot of merit

after the break – the allegations mount


Another, graduate student at the time, Jeff Martz has also alleged that Lucas and co-authors have published the findings of his unpublished (but award winning) 2002 thesis without attribution, presenting his ideas as their own. Martz had circulated his thesis to Lucas and others in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and at least one of Lucas’ co-authors heard Martz give a presentation on his thesis. The article in which the alleged theft took place also was published in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science’s in-house publication.
Both Martz and Parker complained to the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, which is responsible for overseeing the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
When the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs convened the ethics review, it staffed the board with paleontologists who had co-authored papers with Lucas, the person being charged with the ethics violation.
It is charged that one of these individuals announced his findings – that the allegations against Lucas were unfounded – before the review board met to make a decision.
To an unbiased observer, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science’s ethics review looks hinkey.
Furthermore, if these researchers are using the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science’s in-house publication to steal ideas from junior researchers, then the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science needs to place some review measures into the publication process and to penalize researchers who use the publication to advance their career in an unethical manner.
Read more about this “Aetogate” scandle here and here.
So What?
The stealing of ideas by senior members of departments from junior members or the stealing of ideas from graduate students by professors is the dirty, not-so-little secret, of academia.
The graduate students and junior members have little or no recourse: Complaints make them an outcast and perceived trouble maker. Because the professor or senior member of the department has usually garnered an impressive body of work, the student or junior member’s charges are viewed as unfounded or as attempts to garner the credit for the higher ranking individuals idea – after all, why would someone, particularly someone at a high ranking school or museum researcher have to steal ideas from a junior member or graduate student.
Furthermore, the individuals stealing the ideas are often in positions of power over them, they are often the graduate student’s advisor or the junior member’s reviewer. Alienating the more prestigious individual not only ensure that you cannot work with that individual, but often, that you cannot work with that individual’s friends and colleagues. In the case of a graduate student, alienating an advisor can mean not completing your dissertation.
And what is the remedy? Often the senior member gets a slap-on-the-wrist. A “don’t do that again” warning. The student or junior researcher’s name is added to the paper as a second or third author as a “go-away-and-shut-up” concession.
This also inhibits the sharing of ideas. Sometimes members of academia hoard ideas, projects, and data for fear of theft. Sometimes papers are only circulated to trusted individuals until right before submission.
First authorship, naming rights, whatever the prize, is crucial to junior members of departments and graduate students. Theft should not be tolerated.
In academia, we often say that theft is not tolerated, but the penalty and discipline for such actions do not always bear this out. Or, in the case of Lucas, the review of these allegations do not seem objective and the findings seem biased.

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