Seven Reasons to Kill Someone (Involving Palaeontology) 3: Establishing Priority

I know, I know, you want to know where I’ve been. Reporting on roller derby, for the record. Also playing roller derby, at job interviews, and also in  Dublin. And then I’ve been reading Hunger Games, and as I’m halfway through Mockingjay, you’re lucky I’m sitting at a computer at all.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes. Reasons a palaeontologist might kill someone.

Incidentally, while the last instalment was about illegal activities on the black market, fossil smuggling and dastardly private collectors, there is a more above board, but just as fraught disagreement going on right now with a twelfth specimen of the renowned Archaeopteryx, the “first bird” known from only eleven specimens all from Germany. The recently discovered twelfth specimen is not just worth millions of euros to its discoverer (and the owners of the land, if they can claim ownership) but is almost priceless in scientific worth, if it ends up in an accessible collection. [Please note, I am not saying that anyone is going to be murdered over ownership disputes over this specimen and its availability to researchers. I am saying it would make an EXCELLENT crime show plot.]

But anyway:

3. To Establish Publishing Priority

Okay, technically Elementary already did this plot this season, albeit with maths (whups, spoilers for Solve for X, I guess.) So it’s understandable that they didn’t go this route with palaeontology, but they so could have.

Publishing priority means that the first person to publish a description/theory/idea generally gets the credit for that description/theory/idea. When there are many people in many places working on a problem, it becomes inevitable that one, or indeed a few people could come up with an answer. However, the first person to publish on that will usually get the professional credit, and the first paper to outline an idea will generally be the one that gets all the citations. There are other factors in play – like the status and visibility of the publishing scientist, the journal and the language they in, and so on. But being first counts. Witness the related-to-palaeontology subject of evolution by natural selection: two man (Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace) working independently to find the mechanism by which evolution happens, followed similar life paths, read similar prior works and made similar observations in order to arise as near-identical conclusion. When Darwin learned of Wallace’s work, he rushed to finish in order not to yield priority. As it happens, Darwin and Wallace co-published, but Darwin, being middle class, English, and well connected, and a thorough, engaging writer, gained the prestige.

Where publishing priority is really important is in the naming of new animal species. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature oversees the naming of all new species, ensuring that each species gets one “official” name that can be used internationally  and universally to always refer to one species and only that species. There are certain rules names have to follow, in order to hold up the Very Serious Linnean Tradition, and to prevent zoologists from getting up to the sort of antics geneticists get up to when naming things. Still, some very silly animal names slip through.

Priority in naming is important for two reasons: the most obvious one is that if YOU named a species, your name and the date of naming is forever associated with that name. Convention dictates that when referencing a species name in the literature, one should also reference the namer. So the correct way to refer to Nanotyrannus by species is Nanotyrannus lancensis (Gilmore, 1946). Gilmore, by the way, named the species not the genus which was renamed later, but his name remains attached to the species. Depending on how you rank prestige, a potentially more important part of publishing first is the habit of funding bodies to award grants based on publication volume. This has also included the idea that the more new species you describe, the more secure your job, an idea that sometimes persists in some areas, but leads to a lot of hastily named ‘new species’ which is later questioned by other workers.

Possibly the most famous palaeontologists in history, Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope, are to be characterised forever more as a visual example of publishing priority gone mad. In a fierce competition now known as the Bone Wars, the men competed outright to establish superiority by naming more new species than each other. Racing to name species after species led to the kind of sloppy palaeontology than resulted in Marsh naming one species twice: first as Apatosaurus and again as Brontosaurus. Publishing priority dictates that the first name is the one that is used in scientific literature.

“I’m a better palaeontologist than you!” sounds like the sort of exaggerated animosity that belongs in tales of 19th century prospectors, but with reputation, money, even one’s career on the line even today, an updated Sherlock Holmes might just encounter an updated Othniel Marsh, if he just ventured up to Connecticut for a weekend.

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10 Responses to Seven Reasons to Kill Someone (Involving Palaeontology) 3: Establishing Priority

  1. Dave Godfrey says:

    I didn’t know about the disputes over the new Archie specimen (I was lucky enough to see it at Science Uncovered in September, and its a very nice specimen indeed, I hope it ends up in an accessible collection).

    An obvious inspiration for a plot for Elementary would have been the recent “Aeotogate” dispute. That might have been a bit too close to reality though.

    • Dave Godfrey says:

      ETA: Its the 11th not the 12th that I’ve seen. 🙁

      • Debi says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure anyone’s seen the twelfth, it’s still in dispute. That article does say it’s in three pieces, so it might not be up to the standard of the other eleven.

        What is the Aeotogate dispute, please?

        • Dave Godfrey says:

          Basically Bill Parker showed that a species of the aetosaur Desmatosuchus needed a new genus, coined a new name in his thesis (so it doesn’t count), published a couple of symposia abstracts stating this, and had a paper with the name accepted, before being scooped by the people working at the institution which owns the specimen in their in-house journal before Parker’s description is officially published.

        • Dave Godfrey says:

          As one of them is a single wing, and the Teyler specimen isn’t great either three pieces might actually be comparatively good!

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