Education and advocacy to improve ethics, standards, and practices in paleontology

Ethics and AMMP

Often without explicitly stating it, the decisions and methodologies we practice are based on ethical reasoning. This is a critical element to operating in any field.  When it comes to paleontological data, ethical decision-making and reasoning should be at the core of our thinking. However, it may not be entirely clear what this means or how to place it in context. The science of paleontology has become increasingly complex in methodologies and rigorous in sampling. Maintaining ethical standards in specimen processing, curation, and conservation is an essential component of maintaining the scientific method ascribed to paleontological research.

In 2016, the Annual Meeting featured a day of talks focusing on thirteen of the fourteen essential competencies detailed in Defining the Professional Vertebrate Fossil Preparator. The omitted competency, Ethics of the Use of Specimens, was set aside in deference to allocating a dedicated venue for discussion.

Here, we address this topic with targeted talks on various aspects of ethics in paleontology. Additionally, discussion time will allow for feedback, comments, and questions regarding each topic. Participants are invited to join in an afternoon discussion and augmentation of the AMMP Code of Ethics; a fundamental document that helps define us as an Association.


Ethics Symposium

Wednesday April 19th

13. Ethics of the Use of Specimens

The preparator is able to mitigate the risk of damage from research and education as much as possible without compromising the scientific value of a fossil specimen. The preparator is able to evaluate whether the specimen would be subject to undue or unnecessary risk by sampling, handling, loan, or display. A qualified preparator understands exhibition as a form of specialized specimen storage, and can evaluate exhibitions and their accompanying furniture, lighting, and other materials to ensure their compatibility with sound conservation practices.  

- Defining the Professional Preparator: Essential Competencies, 2012

Keynote Speaker

Christopher J. Bell

Professor and John A. Wilson Fellow in Vertebrate Paleontology

Department of Geological Sciences, Jackson School of Geosciences

University of Texas at Austin

Consequences of Altering Specimens for Research or Exhibition:

Ethical Implications for Data and Public Education

Christopher J. Bell, Michael J. Eklund, and Matthew A. Brown

Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin

Scientific investigations of fossils necessarily involves trade-offs between preservation of intact specimens and their depositional context, and the human interventions that allow us to collect, prepare, study, conserve, and/or exhibit those specimens. Human interventions begin immediately following discovery of a specimen in the field, and encompass a broad range of actions and decisions that impact the specimen and its utility for future scientific investigation and public education. The latter is an important consideration because cultural norms that govern standard practices in paleontology change through time, as do technological capabilities that allow us to interact with specimens in new and unanticipated ways. The decisions that scientists make about how to interact with specimens have consequences in many directions. In this presentation, we emphasize ethical implications for two categorical areas, data integrity and public education.  

Manipulations of specimens and their surrounding matrix in the field, in the lab and for subsequent research purposes all involve decisions that will impact the future use of a specimen. Deliberate actions such as mechanical preparation, retention or disposal of surrounding matrix, and application of hardeners or consolidants all impact the ways in which future generations of scientists can interact with a specimen. Consideration of these issues should necessarily involve an evaluation of both the short-term desires of researchers, and the longer-term need to protect specimens and their contextual data for future, unanticipated uses. An essential component of this is the creation and retention of a record of what is done to a specimen during the various stages of collection, preparation, and curation.  A necessary corollary is that the record remains closely tied to the specimen (in physical and/or database storage) so all subsequent investigators are immediately aware of past interventions, and can evaluate consequences for their own work. Researchers also bear a responsibility for data integrity. This manifests itself primarily in the area of data reporting. Failure to report what is known about a specimen may result from ignorance or indifference, dismissal of data as irrelevant for the current research question, perception of impact on interpretive context, or ulterior motives in other directions. The worst-case scenarios here would involve action or suppression of information with deliberate intent and knowledge – a form of data fraud. A more common manifestation is action from ignorance.  Both scenarios have similar consequences for subsequent scientific use(s) of a specimen.

Exhibition of fossils is an important venue for public education in paleontology. Many institutions maintain policies of exhibiting 'complete' specimens that involve composite materials that include actual fossil material (or casts made directly from original material), as well as constructed material to 'fill out' a specimen. This often is done without any interpretive guides to explain how we fill out specimens (from other specimens of the same taxon, from homologous elements of closely related taxa, from general principles of comparative anatomy, digital technologies paired with 3-D printing, etc.). This is a missed opportunity in public education; we are sacrificing the opportunity for expanded education to achieve a simplistic and increasingly misunderstood representation of a 'reality' (attractive and 'complete' specimens) that we do not often achieve with actual discoveries in the field. This requires careful consideration within our community about the goals of such exhibitions.  Deception is deception, even when it is benign. Current practices result in a vacuum in public education, and we have ceded the interpretive context to the viewing public. That public, in many cases, thinks differently about our discipline than we do, and in the absence of clear context provided by us will interpret what we do to suit their own needs or goals. Communities that are antithetical to science or to particular scientific theories are now seizing the opportunity to exploit paleontology as a new avenue of attack to establish their agendas for public school education.  

Curators and collection managers are not the owners of specimens; we all are custodians of specimens, responsible for studying then to further our collective knowledge of the past, but also protecting and conserving them for future use and for public education. Our community needs to engage in active discussions of the best ways of enhancing data integrity and education. It may help to have preparators and collections professionals develop a unified voice on these topics that can then be carried laterally and vertically to other profesionals in paleontology.

Ethical Considerations for Reconstruction and Restoration

Matthew Smith

Museum Curator

Petrified Forest National Park

In the field of paleontology the terms 'reconstruction' and 'restoration' are sometimes used interchangeably to describe actions taken with a specimen for purposes of display or conservation. However, these two terms are arguably quite different. Restoration is the repair of a specimen that is damaged or broken. Reconstruction is the†generation of a structure or object in new, uncorrelated materials. The use of both of these practices has proliferated in paleontology with varying results on the scientific integrity of the specimen. In particular, preparators sometimes find themselves tasked with correcting erroneous reconstructions, and character obscuring restorations. From the perspective of paleontology as a scientific discipline and the specimen as data, what ethical considerations should be addressed prior to altering specimens with additive materials?

Ethical Collecting - Implementing Practice based on Policy

J. Chris Sagebiel

Collections Manager

Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory

University of Texas at Austin

Contrary to recent news, one can be entirely within the law, and exhibit unethical behavior. Legality is not the only goal of ethics, it includes working for the greater good and following best practices. Taking short-cuts or exploiting loopholes for the expedience of research or collection building is short-sighted and will reflect poorly both on the research and the institution. In the field, we often get only one chance to collect good data. The same is true of ethics - we have one chance to do it ethically, apologizing later is rarely as simple as doing things properly.

If your outfit is successful, eventually your governance will insist on a level of professionalism that includes museum ethics as endorsed by industry groups such as AAM. As professionals we do not want to be on the outside of this argument. For an institution, the loss of reputation can limit opportunities for research and collections building or worse, affect accreditations and ability to retain collections.

Ethics policies are a beginning. But how do we implement policy into our practices? There are a few small things that can keep everyone on board. First we should have written, standard procedures that include considerations for collections care once the collecting is done. Second, communication and transparency give collectors no excuse to avoid ethical behaviors. We should seek opportunities to educate our close colleagues to avoid having ethical issues. Before collecting is done, the responsibilities of all stakeholders should be clear.



8:45 Welcome and opening remarks

9:00 Keynote address: Christoper Bell

10:00 Discussion

10:30 Break

10:45 Chris Sagebiel

11:15 Sarah Werning

11:45 Matt Smith

12:15 Lunch

1:30 Discussion

2:00 AMMP Ethics Statement Round Table

Consumptive or Just Destructive: ethics, policies, and best practices when considering fossil sampling requests

Sarah Werning

Assistant Professor

Des Moines University

Over the past 25 years, there has been a substantial increase in paleontological research requiring consumptive analysis of fossils (i.e., where a portion of the fossil itself is removed and analyzed in such a way that it is "used up" during the analysis). These projects offer unique insights into the biology of extinct animals that cannot be obtained by other methods; for example, diet (isotope biogeochemistry), growth rates and absolute age (histology/skeletochronology), biomechanics (dental wear, histology), genetic relationships (aDNA), and color and biochemistry (molecular paleontology). Many of these techniques have also been used to improve our understanding of taphonomic processes and fossilization, as well. This explosion of new and valuable knowledge has significantly increased demand for consumptive analysis of museum specimens.

Collections and curatorial staff must assess these requests with an eye towards their current and future uses, which may not be limited to research (e.g., exhibition, education, etc.). Even within research, their decisions must strike a delicate balance between long-term preservation of specimens, advancing science using today's methods, and advancing science using future techniques. These questions do not have easy answers, but they are not new questions for natural history collections. I discuss the type of data that can inform better decisions when provided with a fossil sampling request, and relate them to best practices for genetic and isotopic sampling of zoological and botanical specimens.