ASKING FOR ANSWERS IN NEW MEXICO
A CASE OF SCIENTIFIC ETHICS AND THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE
Jeff Martz, Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel and Darren Naish
Early in 2007, we became aware that Dr. Spencer Lucas at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (hereafter NMMNHS) and his colleagues (Dr. Adrian Hunt, Dr. Andrew Heckert, and Mr. Justin Spielmann), had published two scientific papers (Lucas et al., 2006 and Spielmann et al., 2006) in which they appear to have taken credit for work and insights of others researchers. Over the past year, we have made repeated appeals to Mr. Stuart Ashman, Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (hereafter DCA), which oversees New Mexico State Museums, including the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS), where Dr. Lucas is an employee. Dr. Lucas is also an adjunct faculty member of the University of New Mexico (UNM), sponsored by the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and we therefore contacted Dr. John Geissman, the Department Chair. We have (for reasons that will be explained) also contacted the Governor of New Mexico, the Attorney General of New Mexico, members of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees at NMMNHS, and the ethics committee of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP).
With the exception of SVP, which is currently investigating, nearly all responses to these communications have either been nonexistent or highly unsatisfactory, and even threatening. We are therefore posting this document, which summarizes our actions to date and makes available the correspondence between ourselves and representatives of the New Mexico State government and the University of New Mexico, so that the scientific community and interested members of the general public may consider the case themselves. We also hope to encourage the individuals we have contacted to explain their conclusions and actions.
The papers in question were published in a scholarly bulletin of the NMMNHS, which was also edited in part by Dr. Lucas and Mr. Spielmann. These papers were discussed by Dr. Darren Naish of the University of Portsmouth in a web blog entitled "The armadillodile diaries, a story of science ethics" on his "Tetrapod Zoology" web site, and are also discussed in more detail in our original letter to the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, which was sent on Friday, June 8th, 2007. Additional details may be found on the timeline. To summarize:
The first paper (Lucas et al., 2006), which is less than two pages long, provided a new name for a fossil animal two weeks before a much longer paper (Parker, 2007), which had been in the works for over a year, did the same. The name suggested by Parker had already appeared in his unpublished thesis (2003), which was known to Lucas and his colleagues. It appears that Lucas and his colleagues did not agree that a new name for the animal was needed until they became aware of Parker's work, that they knew of Parker's intention of provide such a name, and that they rushed their paper into press at the last minute in order to take credit for an insight that was not their own. Under Article 23.1 of the rules of the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), strict chronological priority must be followed, so that the name proposed by Lucas and his colleagues is the one that must be used from now on, denying Parker credit for his insight. Under the ethical guidelines of the same (# 2 in Appendix A), such behavior would also be unethical. Mr. Parker communicated with Dr. Lucas by phone, and Dr. Lucas claimed that he had independently reached the same conclusions as Mr. Parker. Given that Dr. Lucas has clearly been aware of Mr. Parker's conclusion for years, and openly disagreed with it, this claim appears to make no sense.
The second paper (Spielmann et al., 2006) seems to have taken credit for insights made in the master's thesis of one of us (Martz, 2002) regarding another fossil animal. In his thesis, Martz had corrected a mistake made previously by Lucas and his colleagues regarding the orientation of a particular bone. In their paper, Spielmann et al. take credit for this correction without attributing it to Martz, including a figure (fig. 1) showing a reconstruction identical to the one in Martz's thesis (2002, fig. 3.1c). Spielmann et al. discuss Martz's thesis in great detail on other matters that they disagree with, making clear that they were familiar with its contents. It is therefore difficult to understand how this oversight could have been accidental. Being able to openly and freely disagree with another researcher's work is a normal and necessary part of science. Taking credit for another researcher's insights is considered plagiarism by most researchers. We sent Mr. Spielmann a letter, both by regular mail to the NMMNHS and as an e-mail attachment, asking him to explain. We have received no response.
Dr. Lucas and his colleagues have been publishing papers through the NMMNHS bulletins for several years. These bulletins are mostly collections of scientific papers, many of which are authored in part by Dr. Lucas and his colleagues. As these bulletins are also usually edited, at least in part, by Dr. Lucas and his colleagues, they also have final say in whether a paper is published or not. This is an unusual situation in science, in which the normal practice is to send papers to a scientific journal, where they are reviewed and edited by other scientists familiar with the subject matter. These scientists evaluate the papers for quality and accuracy before deciding whether or not to publish them. Peer review is one way in which important oversights, such as (for example) taking credit for the work of another researcher, even accidentally, may be detected and corrected. Dr. Lucas and Mr. Spielmann are able to circumvent this procedure and publish as many papers as they want, containing whatever they want, without the restraint of independent quality control. For scientists to have this kind of unilateral control through regularly self-published bulletins is an extremely troubling and unusual situation.
The New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and NMMNHS Executive Committee
Dr. Lucas is currently serving as temporary executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (an office occupied previously by Dr. Hunt). Accordingly, we contacted Mr. Stuart Ashman at the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs to express our concerns. The responses we have received from Mr. Ashman have caused us to question his objectivity and willingness to take the matter seriously.Our first letter (sent on Friday, June 8th), summarized our case, requested an investigation, and made two requests in order to prevent possible future abuses without requiring that the NMMNHS bulletins be discontinued:
"First, we ask that a statement be produced by Dr. Lucas and his colleagues explaining how these oversights could have occurred unintentionally. If it is impossible to produce such a statement without stretching plausibility to the breaking point, we ask for a public apology from the senior authors of these papers."
"Secondly, we suggest that all editorial control of the volumes be removed from the authors of constituent papers. Editors outside the influence of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science who have complete control over the review and publication of manuscripts might solve these problems."
Mr. Ashman sent a response dated June 19th, 2007. In this one-page letter, Mr. Ashman indicated that "after discussing this matter with Dr. Lucas and Dr. Hunt, I find that they adhered to the publishing practices and policies of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science." We found it odd that Mr. Ashman's investigation consisted solely of asking those implicated if they had, in their own opinion, done anything wrong. Moreover, stating that Dr. Lucas and Dr. Hunt adhered to "publishing practices and policies" does not address whether such practices and policies are ethical. Mr. Ashman also commended the size of the literary output of Dr. Lucas and Dr. Hunt, even though we had discussed how the manner in which they produced this high output is a problem. On Tuesday, July 10th, we e-mailed a short letter to Mr. Ashman requesting a copy of the NMMNHS document outlining "publishing practices and policies." This message received no response.
Finally, Mr. Ashman's letter mentioned responses to Dr. Naish's blog posted on his website, several of which had been made by us. Mr. Ashman noted that "New Mexico state laws provide for recompense when defamation results from false statements that are published." We interpreted Mr. Ashman's comments as a threat to discourage us from pursuing the matter of Dr. Lucas's conduct. We sent a letter dated July 22nd, 2007 to the Attorney General of New Mexico expressing our concerns and asking for clarification about the possibility of legal reprisal. We received no response from the Attorney General, even after sending a follow up message asking if the first letter was received.
We also sent a letter to the Governor of New Mexico on Tuesday, July 24th expressing our concerns that Mr. Ashman was not dealing with us in good faith. We received a response dated August 10th from Governor Richardson's Chief of Staff, Mr. James Jimenez. Mr. Jimenez assured us that the ethical standards of New Mexico's scientific community were of the highest concern, and that he had directed Mr. Ashman to "communicate directly with you to decide if further examination of the points you make would be prudent." Mr. Ashman did not contact us to discuss the matter. However, he did send us a second one-page letter, dated October 10th, to notify us that a decision had been made. He informed us that he had consulted with the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees for the NMMNHS and that "after thorough review and discussion, the Executive Committee determined that no further action is required." He concluded by hoping "that this puts the matter to rest and that you can continue with your valuable scientific work." No attempt was made to explain or justify the Executive Committee decision.
In our first letter to Mr. Ashman, we carefully outlined our evidence for apparent academic theft, as well as why this was a matter of great professional concern, and how we thought that this behavior was enabled by the troubling publishing practices of the NMMNHS bulletins. To simply be informed in a one-page letter only that "no further action is required" is not a satisfactory response, especially considering that Mr. Ashman's first letter gave us reason to doubt that he was dealing with us in good faith. We sent a third letter to Mr. Ashman on November 15th, and also sent letters to four members of the NMMNHS executive committee: Gary Friedman (President), Peter Gerity (Vice President), Joseph Powell (Department of Anthropology at UNM), and Nancy McMillan (Department of Geological Sciences, New Mexico State University). In these letters, we requested clarification on the following points:
Did they find the reasoning behind our allegations that academic theft and plagiarism had occurred to be in error? If so, would they please explain in detail, answering the specific points and evidence that they found to be questionable?
Did they find our concerns about the seriousness and unethical nature of academic theft and plagiarism to be unwarranted? If so, would they please explain?
Would they please provide us with copies of the NMMNHS publishing practices and policies that we had requested previously from Mr. Ashman?
In the interest of fairness, would they please tell us what response Dr. Lucas and his colleagues had provided in response to our allegations?
Our letters have received no response of any kind from members of the Executive Committee. Mr. Ashman's third and final letter to us, dated November 16th, was his shortest. He made no attempt to explain the decision or to answer any of our questions. He only added that Mr. Jimenez had also reviewed the case, and that all involved had found our concerns "to be without merit and had recommended no further action." Our final letter to Mr. Ashman, dated December 10th, we reiterated that such an uninformative response was unacceptable, and repeated our request for a more detailed response. We also noted that if he was unwilling to provide such a satisfactory response, there was little point in further communication. Mr. Ashman has not responded, which we take to be an answer. Copies of our last two letters expressing our dissatisfaction with Mr. Ashman's responses were also forwarded via e-mail to Mr. Jimenez. We have not received a response from the governor's office.
University of New Mexico Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
We sent our first letter to Dr. John Geissman, head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UNM, where Dr. Lucas is a member of the adjunct faculty, on Thursday, July 5th, 2007. In this letter, as with our first letter to the DCA, we explained our case in detail. We also cited Appendix V of the University of New Mexico Faculty Handbook, which includes the following passages:
I. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty[Italics ours]. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry.
III. As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. Professors do not discriminate against or harass colleagues. They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas professors show due respect for the opinions of others. Professors acknowledge academic debtand strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues. Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution. [Italics ours]
Dr. Geissman's first, formal letter was encouraging, and seemed to agree with the points we had made. Although he acknowledged publishing scientific papers with Lucas, he noted that "most of these have been in the mainstream science literature, because that is where I strongly assert most science should be published, not in NMMNHS bulletins." He also admitted that our "suggestions of unethical behavior on the part of Dr. Lucas appear to be well-founded" and that he was "concerned about these allegations, and promise to carry out the appropriate level of investigation." However, he also added that "other than eventually remove Dr. Lucas as an Adjunct Faculty, I am not quite certain exactly what can, or should be, done from UNM's side. It is my understanding that adjunct faculty are not legally bound to any practices spelled out in the UNM Faculty Handbook." He assured us that he would discuss our allegations with Dr. Lucas, and also with his associate chairs in the department.
Our subsequent communications were less encouraging. At the end of September, one of us (Martz) e-mailed to ask if any decision had been made, and reiterated that we felt that UNM had reason to be concerned about the matter. Geismann sent a response:
Yes, I have responded to your communications, and have communicated with Dr. Lucas concerning your allegations, first via writing, where I sent him the complete set of documents you provided, and then via phone. In addition, I have brought up the matter with my two Associate Chairs. As you know, I am not in any form of position to reprimand Dr. Lucas. Each year, our Department reviews the status of our adjunct professors, and your concerns will be raised at this point in time. Is there anything else you would like me to do? Am I missing anything here?
We apologized for any misunderstandings or miscommunications we may have been responsible for, reiterated in detail our concerns, and asked if he had come to any conclusions about the validity of our concerns. We also asked what response Lucas had made to our allegations. Dr. Geissman's response, sent October 3rd:
"Hi, Jeffrey. Great to hear from you. At this point, I'll keep my reply short. I think that your very best approach is to wait until the next permanent museum director is appointed, and then direct your concerns, in particular about museum publications, to that individual. The subject of Dr. Lucas's status as an adjunct faculty will come up in the future."
To us, these responses seem to indicate a complete about-face in terms of Dr. Geissman's cooperativeness and willingness to discuss the matter with us, which we found puzzling and alarming. He also refused to answer our questions, and the strategy suggested by Geissman has in any case been rendered futile by the appointment of Lucas himself as interim museum director. As Dr. Geissman seemed unwilling to discuss the matter further, we decided to contact another member of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences to request clarification on the department's policy on academic dishonesty and how Dr. Lucas's case was going to be handled.
On November 12th, we sent a letter to Dr. Gary Smith at the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, in which we outlined our concerns. We asked whether the department was responsible for the behavior of its adjunct faculty, exactly when Dr. Lucas's adjunct faculty position would be reviewed, and whether, if the department found our allegations to be valid, they would publically acknowledge it. Dr. Smith sent an e-mail response on December 21st:
"Your letter was received and I have asked the department chair to explore the accusations and ask the department faculty to discuss whatever action may be appropriate regarding Spencer's connection to the department. I have no response to make as an individual at this time and await further discussion and decision-making in my department."
This response did not answer any of the questions in our letter, and only informed us that he had forwarded our letter to the department chair (Dr. Geissman). Dr. Geissman has not subsequently contacted us to answer our questions. We still have no idea if Dr. Lucas's case will be reviewed any time in the near future, or what the department's policy is on academic dishonesty in adjunct faculty.
The Krasiejów material
In 2007, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science produced yet another bulletin (The Global Triassic). This bulletin was also edited by Dr. Lucas and Mr. Spielmann, and contained numerous papers authored by these individuals, the third such bulletin in the past two years. One paper in particular shows that problems with NMMNHS bulletin persist. This paper (Lucas et al., 2007) describes vertebrate material from the Late Triassic Kasiejów locality in Poland. Over the past several years, material from the locality has been described in several publications by Jerzy Dzik and Thomas Sulej of the Institute of Paleobiology in Warsaw and their colleagues, including Mariusz Lubkla of the University of Wroclaw. Some of the material has been described in detail, but other specimens, notably material referable to the aetosaur Stagonolepisand the phytosaur Paleorhinus, has received only brief treatment in a three-page short communication published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (Dzik, 2001). Publications and a doctoral dissertation are currently being completed by the Polish workers on this material, including detailed descriptions of the Paleorhinusand Stagonolepismaterial which was briefly discussed in the JVP short communication.
Dr. Dzik has stated that Dr. Lucas visited the Institute of Paleobiology to examine the collection at a time when most researchers working on the material were in the field or abroad, and that he had left instructions with technicians for Dr. Lucas to be given open access to the collections. Consequently, Dr. Lucas did not communicate with any researchers working on the Krasiejów material during his visit. He did not receive an explicit prohibition on publishing on the material from the technicians. Dr. Lucas also did not ask Dr. Dzik or any of the researchers, either by e-mail or by phone, if it was acceptable for him to publish on the material, and did not notify them at any time that such a publication was in the works. Dr. Lucas published his observations and photographs of the Krasiejów material, including a short description of the Paleorhinusand Stagonolepismaterial, in the Global Triassic paper (Lucas et al., 2007).
Dr. Dzik wrote to Dr. Lucas on Monday July 9th, 2007, not long after publication of the bulletin, and informed Dr. Lucas that the Krasiejów material was still being studied, and that his actions in publishing on it were therefore harmful to students and other researchers describing the material. He also noted that the Institute of Paleobiology has allowed open access to its collections for fifty years, and had never had problems of this sort before. In Dr. Lucas's reply, sent the following day, he argued that no one had told him that he could not publish on the material, and that it was "normal procedure at museums and collections" for a visiting researcher to be informed if they could not. He implied that as the specimens discussed in Lucas et al. (2007) were "published on before and/or were on public display in your museum" that it was safe to assume that he could publish on them unless he had specifically been informed otherwise. He also noted that he had visited hundreds of collections around the world in the past thirty years, and did not publish on material if specifically told that he could not.
Dr. Lucas implied that being allowed to access that Krasiejów collection, the fact that the material had been published on previously, and the fact that the material was on display, all made it safe to assume that he could publish on it unless specifically told otherwise. However, as Dr. Dzik correctly noted, allowing examination of material currently being worked on by others is a courtesy which is frequently extended to visiting researchers. It is also not uncommon for additional work to be done on material which has already been published on, especially if it has received only a preliminary discussion in a three page short communication. It also seems strange for Dr. Lucas to argue that he had not been told that he couldn't publish when the researchers who had been working on the material were not even present during his visit, and he did not discuss the matter with them or notify them of his intentions at any time after his visit.
Dr. Lucas's failure to ask about or discuss his intentions to publish with Dr. Dzik and his colleagues may have been an honest oversight. Nonetheless, students and other researchers have had material they worked on for years published by another researcher, this could have been avoided by Dr. Lucas at least as easily as Dr. Dzik and his colleagues, and it occurred in yet another NMMNHS bulletin paper edited and authored by Dr. Lucas and his colleagues. Taken with the ethical questions raised by the papers the previous NMMNHS bulletin (Lucas et al., 2006; Spielmann et al., 2006), the Krasiejów paper (Lucas et al., 2007) only emphasizes our concerns about the way the NMMNHS papers are written, reviewed, and published.
It did not take us very long into our letter writing campaign, particularly in our correspondence with the DCA, to realize that the effort was probably going to prove fruitless. We persevered, expending time and effort we would much rather have spent on more fulfilling pursuits, because we consider this matter to be one of extreme importance. Vertebrate paleontologists are fortunate among scientists in that our field is a generally ethical and friendly one. Although science is sometimes portrayed as a competitive and underhanded enterprise, it flourishes when open communication and cooperation between researchers is encouraged. When we are able to share research (including unpublished research) with individuals who we can trust, provide and gracefully accept honest and objective criticism of academic research through the peer review process, and acknowledge the contributions of other scientists rather than claiming credit for everything ourselves, science functions phenomenally as a group effort. For the most part, we find our interactions with other vertebrate paleontologists to be open and enjoyable, and part of what makes this field so rewarding. Cases of academic theft, which breed distrust, paranoia, and bitterness, are mercifully rare. For our field to retain its appeal, they should not only be avoided, but must also be responded to immediately and decisively when they do occur.
To date, no one we have contacted has either explicitly found or denied to us that Dr. Lucas and his colleagues committed unethical academic theft and plagiarism in their 2006 publications. Dr. Lucas and his colleagues have also not responded to Dr. Naish about his blog, challenged its veracity, or requested that it be taken down. Of the individuals we contacted, the closest that any response has come to a denial is Mr. Ashman's vague statement that our allegations were "without merit" in the opinion of himself, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, and Mr. Jimenez. Compared to our detailed discussion of the case, this two-word judgment can hardly be considered a convincing refutation.
We are also deeply dissatisfied with our responses from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Lucas is clearly and openly affiliated with, and therefore a representative of, the department, and we therefore have a difficult time believing that his behavior is not the department's problem. We are also troubled that Dr. Geissman seemed to regard the information we provided merely as something for the department to put on the shelf for its own use in making an intradepartmental decision at some indefinite point in the future. As individuals outside the department who have been impacted by and are concerned with Dr. Lucas's behavior, we feel we have a right to request immediate investigation and action by the department. If we are willing to put off demands for immediate action and wait for the department's review of Lucas's adjunct faculty position at some indefinite point in the future, we feel we are at least entitled to have our questions about the matter answered clearly and openly, rather than being brushed off as nuisances who have no right to be informed.
Dr. Lucas remains a member of the adjunct faculty at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at University of New Mexico, and the acting Executive Director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, under the purview of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. Those in charge of these organizations should therefore have an ethical obligation to answer allegations of misconduct with openness and clarity. We hope that the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico, and other individuals in the New Mexico state system we have communicated with, will agree that allegations of ethical misconduct should be responded to more openly, thoroughly, and convincingly, than they have so far deemed necessary.
Jeffrey W. Martz, M.S.
Department of Geosciences
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, TX 79409
Michael P. Taylor
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Portsmouth
Portsmouth PO1 3QL
Mathew J. Wedel, Ph.D
School of Natural Sciences
5200 N. Lake Ave
Merced, CA 95343
Darren Naish, Ph.D
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Portsmouth
Portsmouth PO1 3QL