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.