Fossil Finds Must Be Shared

DR. ROBERT Sullivan's views about fossil specimens ("Students Don't Have a Bone To Pick" letter) are at odds with the practices of curators in most museums, based on my 30 years' experience in collections around the world.

He maintains that because some of the fossils in question were collected by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, they are exclusively the research property of its staff.

To handle this case fairly, New Mexico officials need to understand some basics about museum ethics. All specimens that have been described, figured or mentioned in the published literature are ethically available for examination by all qualified scientists at any reasonable time. That's how we test someone else's reported observations. It's a necessary part of the self-correcting progress of science.

In this case, the specimens in question had been published on several times by their discoverers. Other museums have specimens of these animals, too. As a federal and state repository, the New Mexico Museum has a contractual obligation to facilitate the research of other qualified workers, not merely those of its staff.

Sullivan also maintains that the young scientists who have complained that Spencer Lucas and other museum staff claim-jumped their work are just whining, because they should have given their conclusions to Lucas and his colleagues and let them publish them.

In effect, that's exactly what the complaints are: that Lucas and company were collegially provided manuscripts, theses, and access to work in progress, and that they then published this work as their own.

The merits of the case have appeared stronger to some outside observers than to Sullivan (a long-time research associate and co-publisher with Lucas and company) admits.

Regardless of the outcome of the complaint, however, there is a great need for due process so that the museum and its staff are not tarred unfairly, and also so that the young scientists who charge that their work was claim-jumped receive a just hearing.

Berkeley, Calif.

Editor's note: Kevin Padian is professor and curator of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, which has provided unrestricted access to its collections to Drs. Sullivan, Lucas, and their colleagues.