Jonathan R. Wagner: Asking for answers everywhere

Date: Mon, 02 Jun 2008 10:39:07 -0500
From: "Jonathan R. Wagner" <>
Subject: Asking for answers everywhere

By now, we are all quite ready for the Aetogate affair (AKA: Bill and Jeff's Bogus Journey) to go away. Regardless of how you feel about this incident, it has been an important step in the evolution of SVP toward taking an active role in professional conduct. If an expanded mandate for the Ethics Education Committee is to be considered, it is worth thinking about what we want from it. To do so, I highly recommend that everyone read the SVP report, the attached recommendations, and the response the accusers posted yesterday.

I'm sure I will catch some sort of hell for speaking up about this, but I am left with some serious, pressing doubts about SVP's statement on the matter. The Ethics Education Committee (EEC) and the Executive Committee (EC) are a who's who of VP luminaries, personal heros, mentors, cherished colleagues, all people I sincerely respect. I can therefore reconcile the SVP-EEC/EC statement on Aetogate only by assuming that I, and many many others, are simply taking the wrong message from it. It would be most welcome if SVP could clear up some of the lingering questions the official report has left, including:

1) Why does SVP use a definition of plagiarism substantially different from that used in every other educational or scientific venue of which I am aware, including the NAS document referenced in the SVP recommendations?

2) Why does the EEC place so much relative weight on personal testimony, rather than tangible evidence? Does this not make the whole process moot, since it relies on the accused's recollection of events, and their willingness to confess?

3) Even if outright plagiarism didn't occur in the Martz case, wouldn't the ethical approach be for Lucas et al. to at least apologize for the "oversight?"

4) Several others have pointed out the contradiction in advising Parker to share his unpublished manuscript on NMMNH fossils with Lucas et al., but scolding Martz for sharing his unpublished thesis on NMMMNH fossils with same. I am sure I am not the only graduate student left more than a little confused as to what the EEC considers proper and sufficient professional communication.

5) I am not so naïve as to think that sharing unpublished work is safe. However, I am concerned about the impression the EEC gives by making the latter statement (#4, above); it certainly appears to some that this is an accusation against Martz. Moreover, it suggests that SVP has little interest in protecting its members from intellectual predation. By analogy, we all know that walking through a rough neighborhood with your wallet hanging out is not a good idea, but there is a difference between pointing this out before something has happened, and lecturing a mugging victim while he is lying on the ground. The latter is especially disheartening when the lecture is from the policeman sent to find the assailant.

6) The New Mexico State Government has been roundly criticized for its secretive, back-room "investigation," while the EEC lauds open communication among professionals. However, the SVP report expresses the EEC's distress that this case was discussed publicly by the Society membership. This latter might be construed as advocating a culture of silence with regard to unethical behavior.

7) Expanding on the above, the EEC's statements have been interpreted as a gag order by the Santa Fe New Mexican. Some graduate students, including myself, agree. Almost every public response I've seen goes to tremendous pains to avoid looking like it is arguing with the EEC's conclusions. I am especially concerned that the SVP response seems to imply retaliation against those who would comment further; minimally, it is likely to embolden those who would retaliate independently. Threats have already been made; I'm expecting my share for posting this. If this is not what was intended, then SVP should quickly set the record straight.

8) Similarly, the SVP-EEC/EC report has been represented as a vindication of the NM state government's review by DCA Secretary Ashman. I assume this was not the intent of SVP. Should we let this pass without comment?

9) The EEC's new recommendations are a wonderful step forward. I am concerned, however, with their application. A direct reading of the document suggests that Dr. Jeri Dzik is singularly responsible for the pre-emptory publication of his students' dissertation material from Kasiejów by Dr. Lucas and others, as detailed online. Surely someone must be responsible for this tragedy; should Dr. Dzik be held accountable for the misappropriation of his students' intellectual property?

10) I have always believed that the statement that "taxon X needs a new name" (as in William Parker's case) clearly establishes intent to provide a name at a later date. Indeed, such statements are always followed soon thereafter by a new name from the same author(s). In cases where another author was expected to provide a ename, this is phrased "to be assigned a new name by author Y." No one I know thinks that this is ever meant to open the floor for naming by other workers. Why would you invite others to take credit for your observation? It would be helpful to know if the EEC accepts this as common practice, and, since they clearly feel it was insufficient here, if they could recommend more appropriate wording.

11) The EEC has found no evidence that Dr. Lucas and colleagues did not act unethically in either case, and, although it clearly feels that Jeffrey Martz acted unwisely in distributing his MSc thesis, it found no wrong on his part. In Parker's case, is difficult to see how both parties in the case could have acted ethically. The EEC report seems to imply that William Parker's acted unethically by publishing on (previously published and illustrated) NMMNH material. Is this what the EEC meant?

12) Finally, some of my fellow graduate students feel that the tone of the SVP response suggests that complaints from graduate students are not welcome, or that SVP has no real interest in dealing with situations such as this. Given the obvious difficulty the EEC went through to even address these cases, this is clearly incorrect. I encourage the SVP EEC and EC to consider clarifying this formally.

Thanks for listening,

Jon Wagner