New Paleontology Guidelines Enforce Ethics, Reproducibility


Ethics is a cornerstone of science, informing everything from how we design our experiments to what we do with the resulting data. Given the diverse nature of the research results published in PLOS ONE, no short and simple set of ethical guidelines can cover every situation. Thus, it is important for the journal to adapt and expand its ethical standards as the journal itself expands.

The field of paleontology, by its very nature, presents some special situations in ethics. Although the fossil subjects are long-dead, rendering matters of patient consent or laboratory animal care non-existent, other complicated concerns ranging from legalities to reproducibility must be taken into account. Any journal that hopes to be a major player in the study of fossils must confront these issues head-on.

As the volunteer section editor for paleontology at PLOS ONE, I am thrilled by the growth in the number of high-quality publications related to my field. I also want to make sure that all of these papers are held to the highest ethical standards, and many of my colleagues and I felt it was important to provide explicit ethical guidelines focused on paleontology. After extensive and thoughtful discussion with the journal’s internal editors and other interested parties, I am happy to announce that a specific set of editorial standards for paleontology submissions is now in place.

Critically, reproducible research in paleontology requires a long-term guarantee of accessibility and safety for fossils. This means that all fossils should be deposited in a permanent repository, such as a museum or university collection. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that collections owned by private individuals—no matter how noble their intentions—will be accessible in the long-term. In one notable recent case, the family of a fossil enthusiast sold off the bulk of his scientifically important collection after he died. Some of the specimens had even been published in the peer-reviewed literature, but there is now little guarantee that any of those fossils will be accessible in fifty years, or even five. Moreover, not everything that calls itself a museum is a permanent collection; some are little more than showroom floors for a commercial fossil business. Some of these fossils do end up in permanent museum collections, but until this happens, it is extremely hazardous to publish on the specimens. Reproducibility and accessibility are key, as reflected in the new policies.

Ethical consideration is also critical for fossil collection in the field. Stories abound of skeletons in the Gobi Desert being looted for the most marketable parts (such as skulls or claws), which then end up for auction in Europe or North America. In fact, one recent PLOS ONE paper discussed dinosaur skin impressions salvaged from the mess left by fossil poachers who carted off more enticing pieces. Legal loopholes often mean that the specimens can then be traded or sold elsewhere, often accompanied by official-looking paperwork that purports to legitimize the original export. This horrible practice drains the world of its historical heritage and destroys scientific information. Thus, the new ethics policy explicitly prohibits publication of specimens that were obtained without permission or legal export.

This is a great day for paleontology at PLOS ONE, helping to ensure the journal’s future as a trustworthy publication with the highest ethical standards. I challenge everyone—authors, editors, readers, and reviewers—to carry the torch forward into a better world.

About the Author:  Dr. Andrew Farke is a vertebrate paleontologist and an academic editor at PLOS ONE. Andy also has his own blog, The Open Source Paleontologist, and can be found on Twitter @andyfarke.

Image: The fossil reptile Captorhinus (collection of Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology)

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