Reserving Specimens

A while back I mentioned that I had sort of ‘reserved’ the new pterosaur specimens in Toyko to work on. This practice is pretty normal in vertebrate palaeontological circles – there are only so many specimens available and it can take a lot of time and money to go and see something. If you spend that only to discover that someone else is already publishing on that material then it’s rather wasted and your funding body may not be too impressed.

As such if you have an invitation to work on something or have seen something and the curator has agreed that you can work on it, the unwritten rule / general consensus is that this is your ‘exclusive’ specimen and no one else should work on it without permission until your work is done. This can apply as much to revisions of old material as new specimens but the general idea is the same. Obviously if you come across something and are informed that someone else has ‘reserved it’ then you need to get in touch with the ‘owner’. Naturally, many people are happy to collaborate on something, or are happy for people to do minor work like code something for a phylogenetic analysis, or even carry on as normal if the work is completely non-overlapping (say you want to take a histological sample and the other guy is only interested in skeletal proportions or doing and FEA analysis of the skull). In theory at least this also means that if you can’t get the work done for whatever in a ‘reasonable’ amount of time, then you should make it clear and let any circling people into the fold and let them do their work (and if they are being generous, they should try to involve you).

When this all works, it works well. People can guarantee they won’t be gazumped after writing a grant or spending all their cash to do a piece of work, and others know what they can and can’t do in advance. People can collaborate or tailor their projects to build up a piece of work or avoid toe treading and feelings can avoid being hurt. Of course there are those who either cling on to stuff they can’t (or won’t) work on and there are (true) horror stories of specimens being withheld for decades while someone (allegedly) works on them and at the other end, some people try (and even succeed) in publishing on things they have been told other people are working on. It is imperfect, but in my experience at least it generally leads to much better working practices and less confusion and paranoia, than simply declaring anything up for grabs.

10 Responses to “Reserving Specimens”


  1. 1 FoundOnWeb 30/08/2011 at 2:55 pm

    Just don’t die. As I recall from Gould’s book on the Burgess Shale, it took so long for the material to be published because the original investigator started the work, got distracted, and then died, and the boxes sat unopened for decades.

    • 2 David Hone 30/08/2011 at 3:38 pm

      As I recall at least part of the issue there was that the material was uncatalogued and only he knew what was where. That’s a real issue, but not quite the same one. Some things are set in shelves and everyone knows what they are and what needs doing, they just can’t get permission.

  2. 3 Andy Farke 30/08/2011 at 4:22 pm

    The associated practice is “reserving ideas” – i.e., “I plan to work on this problem.” Although I generally think reserving specimens is OK (within the ethical limits you discuss), reserving ideas is a little more questionable. In my experience, it ranges from warranted (the researcher has a grant for the topic and is mid-way through the project) to a cheap way to squash students. I still vaguely recall a conversation early in my student career, where I was discussing possible research interests with a noted paleontologist. This individual’s response to at least one of my prospects was “Oh yeah, I’m thinking about working on that,” with the strong implication that I shouldn’t. I wish I could remember now what the exact idea was, but I’m pretty sure it’s never been published on (argh on both counts).

  3. 4 Ricardipus 30/08/2011 at 5:50 pm

    Very interesting… in the field of C. elegans biology (to save you looking it up, it’s a free-living nematode that had its genome sequenced as a proof-of-principle in advance of the Human Genome Projeect) there is a somewhat similar level of collegiality, to the point that the community published a non-peer-reviewed publication, the “Worm Breeder’s Gazette”, containing abstracts of ongoing research and suchlike. While helping everybody along with data in advance of “real” publication, it also served the secondary purpose of letting each researcher advertise what they were working on – or stake a claim, if you prefer. My own supervisor once indelicately likened it to dogs urinating on trees to mark territory. “Hands off – the dopamine signaling pathway is MINE!!!!”, or words to that effect.

    • 5 David Hone 30/08/2011 at 6:51 pm

      I do indeed know of C. elegas, I thought everyone did it’s so ubiquituous. Anyway, that’s an interesting concept – doing abstracts like that (I assume outside of normal meetings etc.). I can see it helps keep everyone informed of what’s going on, but I can also see it causing problems. I mean you may have just initiated a project or at least been gestating one when an abstract pops up, the two might have completely independent, but you can see how the person who did put the abstract up might see a later publcaition or grant on the same thing as serious toe-treading….

  4. 6 Heinrich Mallison 30/08/2011 at 8:52 pm

    what this system needs is stability on the curatorial positions, so that there is a person one can ask if something is reserved, and who can point me to the right person to ask for collaboration. Sadly, that is hardly ever the case……. Here in berlin there are a number of reserved things, and because the curator is good all is well. Elsewhere…. don’t get me started!

  5. 10 Heinrich Mallison 30/08/2011 at 8:53 pm

    oh, and as Andy pointed out, ideas are a slightly different matter. however, I really hope people do not publish my ideas for SOLUTIONS, but only my ideas for study TOPICS :)


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