Amber, palaeontologists and a military dictatorship

Most people are familiar with the term ‘blood diamonds’, meaning diamonds clandestinely exported from areas infested by the lethal activities of military and paramilitary forces. Indeed such conflicts are often fuelled by the large profits to be made from trading diamonds.  One such source was in Sierra Leone during the civil war of 1991-2002. Others include Liberia, Côte d’ Ivoire, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like illicit money, gemstones can be ‘laundered’ and find their way into conventional trade. To some extent the blood diamond trade has been slowed down by a programme of certification of packaged uncut diamond ‘rough’ by bona fide producers, and banning the sale of uncertified rough. The Kimberley Programme has been criticised because certificates can be issued in corrupt ways, so that blood diamonds probably still make their way to the international diamond markets: certification may hold no fears for those who force people to ine at gun point. However, because diamonds often show geochemical signatures and minute inclusions of other minerals that are unique to individual pipe-like intrusions of kimberlite that carry deep-mantle material to the surface. So, it is technically possible – but costly – to check for suspect rough. Such controls do not apply to other gemstones. A major source of very-high value gems is Myanmar (formerly Burma), whose widely condemned military dictatorship may be engaged in their unethical trade, including smuggling to neighbouring Thailand and China to avoid scrutiny.

Foot of bird chick preserved in Cretaceous amber from Kachin, Myanmar. Credit: Pinterest, Xing Lida, China University of Geosciences)

Myanmar is well endowed with sedimentary deposits that contain amber, the solidified resin from a variety of now extinct trees. Oddly, completely clear amber has low intrinsic value: it is semi-precious, albeit attractive. But it often contains inclusions of vegetation fragments, insects, feathers and small vertebrates, of interest to palaeontologists. Myanmar amber is especially interesting as it is dated to the Middle Cretaceous (~130 Ma), older than that found around the Baltic Sea (Eocene ~44 Ma), which was the main source for European jewellery since the 12th century, and that from Canada (Upper Cretaceous ~80 Ma). Myanmar amber has been used decoratively and medicinally in China since the 3rd century CE, and in Europe since prehistoric times. It is attractive but quite common, so historically amber never commanded high prices but was widely used as a trade item. Since the publicity attending the supposed extraction of dinosaur DNA from the bodies of reptile parasites to resurrect dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park, public and scientific interest in amber has boomed. It is primarily the exquisite preservation of encased organisms that piques the interest of palaeontologists. Papers that rely on the Myanmar amber have grown in number over the last ten years, despite the country being infamous for military repression of tribal and religious groups in its rural areas.

One of the most conflict-riven areas is the northern state of Kachin where the most interesting amber to palaeontologists is collected by the Kachin people of the Hukawng Valley. Government forces have been in conflict with the Kachin Independence Army since the 1960s, most particularly for control of the amber industry. A recent paper has focussed on the ethical issue of publications based on fossil-bearing amber from the area (Dunne, E.M. et al. 2022. Ethics, law, and politics in palaeontological research: The case of Myanmar amber. Communications Biology, v. 5, article no. 1023; DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-03847-2).

In 2010 the military began forcibly to take over mines in Kachin.  Between 2014 and 2021 the annual number of publication underwent a tenfold growth from between 10 to 15 to over 150, despite the fact that in 2015 the government in Yangon prohibited removal of fossils from the country. But the export laws exempt gemstones, so the growing demand for fossiliferous amber is clearly reflected in its supply to foreign scientists.  Rare specimens that include vertebrate remains command prices up to US$100,000. The Myanmar amber trade is now estimated at around US$ 1 billion per annum. The Myanmar military took over all the mines in 2017, and is clearly the main supplier to palaeontologists.

In the seven-year period, only 3 papers out of 872 included contributors from Myanmar, which also suggests an element of ‘parachute science’: unsurprisingly Myanmar-based scientists also find it difficult to visit the Kachin area. Before 2014 most of the 69 publications involved scientists in the US; since then, the top spot has been occupied by Chinese scientists who have amassed 417. It seems clear that there is a web of contacts linking together the source of Myanmar amber, its market and science. In 2020 the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology called for a moratorium on publishing data from Kachin sources. But since then there is little sign that palaeontologists have taken any notice.

See also: Ortega, R.P. 2022. Violent conflict in Myanmar linked to boom in fossil amber research, study claims. Science v. 378, p.10-11; DOI: 10.1126/science.adf0973 (This commentary includes opinion that seeks to mitigate the views of Emma Dunne and colleagues)

Geoscience academic under threat

While she was US Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hilary Clinton the 2016 Democrat candidate for presidential office habitually used her private email server to send and receive messages, both personal and concerning affairs of state. She did not activate a email account for the official stuff, saying that it was ‘for convenience’ as her Blackberry smartphone could only access on account. More than 30 thousand undeleted e-mails were hacked by ‘persons unknown’ and appeared on Wikileaks in early 2016, with more in late October 2016, to become one of several issues central to the 2016 US presidential campaign. This practice was twice exonerated by the FBI, despite her account proving to be insecure and the risk to state secrets.

Hans Thybo, President of the European Geophysical Union and a widely esteemed professor of seismology at the University of Copenhagen, was not so lucky. He was fired by the University authorities, allegedly for using his private email account for work-related issues and advising a postdoctoral fellow that criticising the University’s management was ‘legitimate’. More than 1000 academic colleagues have petitioned the University of Copenhagen to reverse its decision and reinstate Thybo, and his case was central to the lead editorial A creeping corporate culture in Nature of 15 December 2016.

Anyone connected for more than a few years with academic life in probably every university on the planet will be conscious of the spread of a culture of bureaucratic control, corporatism and commodification in what formerly were largely self-governing institutions of higher education and research. The trend is in line with increasing, omnidirectional economic pressures stemming from the aftermath of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. But it is not entirely new. My own experience suggests it is partly a logical outcome of leading academics becoming increasingly prone to saying ‘Yes’; at best simply disengaging from dispute with a growing managerial caste within education and research, at worst by opportunistically joining it. A serious disjuncture has developed between teachers and researchers and the managers and business administrators in institutions of higher education. Symptomatic of this kind of schism was the recent passing of a motion of no confidence in the Vice Chancellors Executive of Britain’s Open University by its unionised academic and academic-related staff, following disastrous bungling of a new means of tuition of its entirely non-residential undergraduates in the current academic year. Those who were to implement the measures were inadequately consulted by the leading managers, most of whom had little experience of how the OU had functioned successfully since it received its Charter in 1969.

In Britain, checks and balances on the requirements of management and faculty historically centred on their Senate, once the primary academic authority of universities, in which all members of both academic and non-academic sectors freely debated and passed judgement on new directions and the abandonment of practices that had been found wanting. In most institutions, the Senate has been reduced since the mid 1980s to a mere fraction of staff, who, after nomination, are elected by the various components of the institution, together with unelected, ex officio, members of senior management. In practice, Senates now generally act as a ‘rubber stamp’ for decisions of the top echelons, much in the manner of business corporations.

Part of the new culture attempts to regulate electronic communications. An example of such an IT regulation states that the institution ‘… may monitor all data, systems and network traffic at any time …’, i.e. it claims ownership of work-related communication. No wonder Hans Thybo fell foul of his university. Should outside pressure persuade the authorities of the University of Copenhagen to reinstate him, that would be a significant blow against what has become an unwholesome aspect of learning and scholarship.

Impact factors: cat out of bag?

Two articles in the 14 July issue of Nature make interesting reading for those concerned about many universities’  and education ministries’ enthusiasm for bibliometrics as proxies for research excellence (E-P, January 2015) and their place in the academic equivalent of the Guides Michelin’s star system. Such institutions have become increasingly obsessed by ‘impact factors’. These are a metric applied to individual science journals, and are really quite simple: the average number of citations that articles published by a journal in the previous two years have received in the current year. So, it is supposed, if you get a paper published in a journal with a high impact factor, that can be deemed to be a ‘good thing’; it must it be more excellent than one published in a journal with a lower impact factor. That is a statistically very naive view. Indeed the first article by Nature regular Ewen Callaway (Callaway, E., 2016. Publishing elite turns against impact factor. Nature, v. 535, p. 210-211) implies that it is downright stupid. Citations do not follow a normal distribution; the majority of papers receive far fewer entries in reference lists than the mean of all those published, and that stats have a long tail towards papers with very large numbers of citations. The impact factor is strongly biassed by the much smaller number of papers the ‘go viral’, generally because they excite interest and often point many researchers in new directions. Take the top two science journals, Nature and Science: respectively their impact factors this year are 38.1 and 34.7, but in both 75% of all papers that they published cited less times than the mean. Indeed, a fair number got no citations at all. PLoS Genetics, an on-line, open-access journal of the Public Library of Science, whose throughput of papers is far higher than those of both Nature and Science has a much lower impact value (6.7) but only 65% receive fewer that number citations.

But there seems to be something a bit more sinister going on, to do with massaging the citations for individual papers to give the impression of ‘high impact’ and a long ‘shelf life’ for their influence. The sort of ‘gaming’ that goes on is covered by Mario Biagioli, of the University of California, Davis (Biagioli, M., 2016. Watch out for cheats in the citation game. Nature, v. 535, p. 203). Would you believe that some authors supply journal editors with e-mail addresses for ‘sock-puppet’ peer reviewers to get into print in the first place, and suggest additional references to other work by the authors? There’s more, with rings that effectively trade fake reviews in exchange for citations of the reviewers papers; a lot worse than the familiar practice of self citation. It isn’t necessarily the case that such papers are themselves fraudulent in some way, but to milk the citations cow and tart-up CVs. Biagioli believes that this tendency emerges partly from the drive towards collaborative papers with huge numbers of authors, which again institutions demand in order to be able to say that its research output is international in scope and ‘world-leading’, without being transparently hyperbolic. But skillful individuals can build up bloated reputations with relatively little effort; it’s also possible to guess who they might be. Properly unmasking what Biagioli terms ‘post-production misconduct’ is possible, but only by mining journal databases for evidence, which takes a lot of time. Some of this data analysis is done by journals themselves, pour encourager les autres I suppose, but rarely reported. Biagioli mentions new watchdog groups, Retraction Watch and PubPeer, the latter fostering post-production peer review. But such groups may themselves be gamed, because the ‘pursuit of excellence’ has a competitive side too: overweeningly ambitious academics have tended, until recently, to do the ‘proper thing’ by stabbing one another in the chest in plain view …

A ‘proper’ stratigraphic view of the ‘Anthropocene’

Readers may recall my occasional rants over the years against the growing bandwagoning for an  ‘Anthropocene‘ epoch at the top of the stratigraphic column. I , for one, was delighted to find in the latest issue of GSA Today a more sober assessment of the campaign by two stratigraphers who are well placed to have a real say in whether or not the ‘Anthropocene’ is acceptable, one serving on the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the other on the North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (Finney, S.C. & Edwards, L.E. 2016. The “Anthropocene” epoch: Scientific decision or political statement? GSA Today, v. 26 (3–4).

A certain shyness about research misconduct in the UK

Since Earth Pages was launched at the start of the 21st century there have been highly publicised cases of gross misconduct by researchers, including plagiarism, ‘massaging ‘data and even sabotaging the work of others, as well as lesser cases where publications were withdrawn or removed from journals. The most notorious have been from the USA, Japan, the Netherlands and a number of other advanced countries. But sharp practices in science are not well known in the UK; indeed I can’t recollect more than one case that reached the same degree of coverage as the most notorious instances. Yet, in 2009, Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinbugh reported the results of her analysis of accessible information from the UK about this matter. She found that about 2% of British scientists, who had been interviewed or answered questionnaires, answered ‘Yes’ when asked if they ever fabricated or falsified research data, or if they altered or modified results to improve the outcome. Up to one third admitted other questionable practices or knew of them having been committed by colleagues. Fanelli doesn’t refer to more grievous matters such as sabotage or exploitation of students’ work.

The silence from British Universities on research misconduct has become such an embarrassment that it was a subject of an Editorial and a News In Focus Report in the 21 May issue of Nature . While there are guidelines that urge British universities to publish annual reports of their investigations into misconduct, for 2013-14 only 12 such reports have been published : of the 88 universities contacted by the informal UK Research Integrity Office, 30 institutions responded to UKRIO’s survey. These reports covered 21 investigations, mostly unspecified, with 5 cases of plagiarism, 2 of falsification, 2 concerning authorship, 1 of fabrication and 1 breach of confidentiality. Three were upheld and 3 are pending.

These figures speak loudly for themselves: misconduct by researchers (and academics in general) is something that the halls of British academe ‘dinnae care to speak aboot’. As the author of UKRIO’s survey observed, ‘It’s just not credible’, although many of the universities that she contacted claim that such reports were in progress. A likely story… We all know that the ‘filthy snout’ (Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities) does ‘come popping to the surface’, but is buried in confidentiality by university Research Committees, leaving any victims dangling in a sorry psychological state and allowing journals’ peer review system to catch any perpetrators before they reach the press, which it is rarely able to do. It takes a case as severe as that of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper in the Lancet associating the MMR vaccine with autism to see justice done.

Any excuse to return to the Moon

Humans first set foot on the Moon 45 years ago, yet by 42 years ago the last lunar astronaut left: by human standards staffed lunar exploration has been ephemeral. Yet for several reasons – romantic and political – once again getting living beings onto other worlds has become an obsession to some, in much the same manner that increasing numbers of countries seem hell-bent in increasing the redundancy of equipment in orbit; redundant because many of the satellites being launched all do much the same thing, especially in the remote sensing field. It’s all a bit like the choice between buying a Ferrari or hiring a perfectly serviceable vehicle when needed – prestige is high on the list of motivators. A new obsession is extraterrestrial mining and some very rich kids on the block are dabbling in that possibility: James Cameron of Aliens and Avatar fame (both films with space mining in the plot); a bunch of Google top dogs; billionaire entrepreneurs and oligarchs with cash to burn. Resource exploitation has also motivated Indian, Russian and Chinese interest in a return to the Moon, at least at an exploratory level.

NASA's proposed Moon colony concept from early...
NASA’s proposed Moon colony concept from early 2001 (image: NASA)

The main prospective targets have been water, as a source of hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis to make portable rocket fuel, and helium, especially its rare isotope He-3, for use in fusion reactors. Helium is more abundant on the Moon than it is on Earth: only 300 grams of He-3 per year leaks out of the Earth’s depths. On the Moon there may be as much as 50 parts per billion in its dusty regolith cover where it remains supercooled in areas of permanent shadow. But to get a ton of it would require shifting 150 million tons of regolith. A decade ago geologists suggesting that metals might be mined on the Moon – noble metals and rare-earth elements have been mooted (the latter’s export being embargoed by Earth’s main producer China) – would have been laughing stocks, but now they get air time. Yet none of these materials occur on the Moon in the type of ore deposit found on Earth; if they did the anomalous nature of such enrichments on a body devoid of vegetation would have ensured their detection already. Even if there were lunar ore bodies, anyone with a passing familiarity with resource extraction knows just how much waste has to be shifted to make even a super-rich deposit economic on Earth, and that vast amounts of water are deployed in enriching the ‘paying’ metal to levels fit for smelting. For instance, while the rise in gold price since it was detached from a fixed link with paper money in 1971 has enabled very low concentrations to be mined, the methods involve grinding ore in water and then dissolving the gold in sodium cyanide solution, re-precipitating it on carbon made from coconut husks, redissolving and then precipitating the gold again by mixing the ‘liquor’ with zinc dust. Dry ore processing methods – based on density, magnetic and electrical properties – are hardly used in major mining operations nowadays.

The other, and perhaps most important issue with lunar or asteroid mining is that the undoubtedly high costs of whatever beneficiation process is deemed possible must be offset against income from the product; i.e. determined by market price on the home world which would have to be far higher than now. Such a rise in price would work to make currently uneconomic resources here worth mining, and anyone who believes that mining on the Moon would ever be competitive in that capitalist scenario risks being en route to the chuckle farm. Unless, of course, their motive is an exclusivist hobby par excellence and the bragging rights that accompany it – a bit like big game hunting, but the buzz coming from risking their billions rather than their lives.

But it turns out that a refocus on bringing stuff back from the Moon is not confined to floating stock on the financial markets. There are academic efforts to rationalise the Dan Dare spirit. There aren’t many scientific journals with a level of kudos to match the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science and probably the longest running since it was established in 1665 at the same time as the Royal Society itself. Recently one of its thematic issues dubbed ‘‘Shock and blast: celebrating the centenary of Bertram Hopkinson’s seminal paper of 1914’  (Hopkinson, B. 1914. A method of measuring the pressure produced in the detonation of high explosives or by the impact of bullets. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A v. 213, p. 437-456) a paper appeared that examines the likelihood of fossils surviving the shocks of a major impact (Burchell, M.J. et al. 2014. Survival of fossils under extreme shocks induced by hypervelocity impacts. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A v. 372, 20130190 Open Access).

The authors, based at the University of Kent, UK, used a high-velocity air gun to fire quite fragile fossils of diatoms frozen in ice into water at speeds up to 5.34 km s-1. They then looked at solids left in the target to see if any recognisable sign of the fossils remained. Even at the highest energies of impact some diatomaceous material did indeed remain. Their conclusion was that meteorites derived by large impacts into planetary bodies, such as those supposedly from Mars or the Moon, could reasonably be expected to carry remnants of fossils from the bodies, had the impact been into sedimentary rock and that the bodies had supported living organisms that secreted hard parts. My first thought was that the paper was going to resurrect the aged notion of panspermia and a re-examination of the ALH84001 meteorite found in Antarctica claimed in 1996 to contain a Martian fossil (and believed by then US President Bill Clinton). Likewise it might be cited in support of the similar claim, made by panspermia buff Chandra Wickramasinghe, regarding fossils reputedly in a meteorite that fell in Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012: widely regarded as being mistaken. Yet Wickramasinghe’s team reported diatoms in the meteorite!

The Martian meteorite ALH84001 shows microscop...
The Martian meteorite ALH84001 shows microscopic features once suggested to have been created by life. (credit: Wikipedia)

However, Burchell has suggested that their results open up the possibility of meteorites on the Moon that had been blasted there from Earth might preserve terrestrial fossils. Moreover, such meteorites might preserve fossils from early stages in the evolution of life on Earth, since when both rocks and whatever they once contained have been removed by erosion or obliterated by deformation and metamorphism on our active planet. ‘Another reason we should hurry back to the Moon’ says Kieren Torres Howard of New York’s City University…

Geology and creationism

Anti-evolution car in Athens, Georgia
Creationist car in Athens, Georgia (credit:Amy Watts via Wikipedia)

Creationism is a topic about which I would not normally comment for much the same reason that once prompted pub landlords to have a sign behind the bar reading ‘No politics, no religion’. Yet geology has played an historically central role in the debate about Genesis vs Science. An excellent summary of how this emerged and was fundamentally resolved in favour of scientific endeavour, even if the ‘Genesisists’ have not been entirely rooted out,  appeared in the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today in November 2012 (Montgomery, D.R. 2012. The evolution of creationism. GSA Today, v. 22, p. 4-9).

Starting with Steno’s break with a literal acceptance of Genesis in 1669, the dominant view grew among clerics as well as scientists – ‘back in the day’ often one and the same – that the Earth was far older and its history one of changing natural processes. That outlook prevailed to strengthen through the late-18th and 19th centuries. Of course there was a tendency among ‘people of the Book’ somehow to blend their religious and scientific views, along the line that ‘scientific revelations that contradicted biblical interpretations provided natural guidance for better interpreting scripture’. But by the end of the 19th century there were very few literal creationists though a great many Christians who endorsed attempts to reconcile biblical text and geology.  Yet long after the Reverend William Buckland finally admitted in the mid-19th century that his imagination had ruled his zealous quest for evidence of a Noachian Flood and abandoned a literal idea of that and other aspects of Genesis there remained a persistent dribble of creationism.

Young-Earth Creationism
A wry view of Young-Earth Creationism (Photo credit: seriouscher)

That minor current split in the 20th century into a ‘tanky’ tendency that defended young-Earth creation and a global flood in the last ten thousand years, and a more ‘moderate’ wing of ‘old-Earth’ creationists. ‘Old-Earthers’ happily accept geological evidence of great antiquity, but maintain that God made it for eventual use by humanity; i.e. it had just sat around awaiting Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. Both wings evolved along equally bizarre paths using a logic that boils down to a blend of perversity and simply ignoring any contrary evidence, such as that unearthed by Buckland long before. For instance when confronted by the fact that the deepest parts of the oceans contain less sediment than has accumulated on the continents, they defy gravity by insisting that ocean basins were eroded out by the Flood and then deposited with all their internal structures intact on higher ground.

Unsurprisingly, most creationists believe that there has been a centuries-long conspiracy by scientists to mislead the rest of humanity. Were it not for the fact that more than 40% of people in the United States believe in young-Earth creation, David Montgomery’s account of what is now a somewhat one-sided yet stupidly lively debate as regards true evidence would be amusing. His concluding sentence, ‘How many creationists today know that modern creationism arose from abandoning faith that the study of nature would reveal God’s grand design for the world?’ is probably one of the best ways of enraging any creationist who tries to enlighten you: he/she will certainly not just go away, but in the foam they generate you should be able to make good your escape.

Una parodia della giustizia?

Damage caused by the L’ Aquila earthquake of 6 April 2009. (credit: Reuters)

Lying above a destructive plate margin, albeit a small one, Italy is prone to earthquakes. Seismometers detect a great many of low magnitude that no one notices and that do no obvious damage to buildings. From 2006 to autumn 2008 the Abruzzo region on the eastern flank of the Appenine mountains of central Italy experienced a background of one low-magnitude tremor every day (Papadopoulos, G.A. et al. 2010. Strong foreshock signal preceding the L’Aquila (Italy) earthquake (Mw 6.3) of 6 April 2009. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, v. 10, p. 19-24). In the following 6 months the rate more than doubled but the epicentres continued to be almost randomly situated. Things changed dramatically in the 10 days following 27 March 2009: the pace increased to twenty times the normal ‘background’ and epicentres clustered directly beneath the regional capital L’ Aquila (population 73 thousand) close to a known fault line. At 3.32 am on 6 April 2009 the Paganica fault failed less than 10 km below L’ Aquila, directing most of the Magnitude 6.3 energy at the town. This was the deadliest earthquake in Italy for three decades; 308 people died 1500 were injured and 40 thousand found themselves homeless. Silvio Berlusconi, not a man to flinch from controversy, commented on German TV about the homeless, ‘Of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary. But they should see it like a weekend of camping’.

English: Silvio Berlusconi in a meeting with J...
Former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi (credit: Wikipedia)

L’ Aquila has a dismal history of seismic damage, having been devastated before: 7 times since the 14th century. Having grown on a foundation of lake-bed sediments, notorious for amplifying ground movements, the city was clearly in a high-risk status in much the same manner as Mexico City. Shaken several times before and built with no regard to seismicity, much of L’ Aquila’s centuries-old building stock was incapable of resisting the event of 6 April 2009: up to 11 thousand building were damaged, some collapsing completely.

Not only was the earthquake preceded by an increasing pace of foreshocks, but many local people reported strange ‘earth lights’ during the months beforehand (Fidani, C. The earthquake lights (EQL) of the 6 April 2009 Aquila earthquake, in Central Italy.Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, v. 10, p. 967-978). In fact, so many sightings were made that plans have been outlined for a CCTV monitoring network in rural areas.

So, this disaster was not short of signs that all was not well in Abruzzo, in a seismic sense: historical precedent; poor urban siting; foreshocks and oddities that have come to be associated with impending energy release. But was this litany sufficient to predict the place, date, and magnitude of what was coming? Plate tectonics, local structural geology and worldwide seismicity allow geophysicists to assess risk from earthquakes in the same way as hydrologists can outline flood-prone areas: literally on flood plains. Yet there are few if any records of a devastating earthquake having been predicted anywhere with sufficient accuracy to allow evacuation and mitigation of death and injury. That is despite the fact that teams of seismologists in the western US, Japan, Italy and several other well-off countries continually monitor seismic events even with a power many orders of magnitude less than those which kill or injure. Such bodies are faced with a dreadful choice in the face of evidence like that summarised above: warn tens of thousands to evacuate, organise such an exodus in a few days and prepare accommodation for them, or advise that similar seismic escalations rarely lead to massive damage with an estimate of the probability of risk. Both choices are guesswork for there are no rigorous equations that spell ‘doom’ or ‘all clear’ from such data. Earthquakes are not rainstorms or hurricanes, as 250 thousand dead people on the shores of the Indian Ocean bear grim witness.

Despite broad knowledge of the deep uncertainty associated with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – no longer privy to specialist scientists these days, even in the least developed parts of the world – the Italian authorities saw fit to prosecute six earth scientists and a public official for multiple manslaughter.  Because they provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about what might have been the aftermath of tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 earthquake, a regional court sentenced all of them to six years in prison – two years more than even the prosecution demanded – and they are to pay the equivalent of £6.7 million in compensation. This was not a jury verdict, but the decision of a single judge, Marco Billi. No scientist, even one poring over data from the Large Hadron Collider in search of the Higgs boson, would every claim that what they report is perfectly accurate, complete and incontrovertible. The L’Aquila Seven never said they were certain that no earthquake would ensue, and the city’s people were well aware of what risk they faced in much the same way that Neapolitans living on the slopes of Vesuvius know that one day they may be incinerated.

This is a travesty of justice so bizarre that one must look to the famous adage of Roman Law: qui bono? Certainly not the victims and their mourners, and definitely not science because any sensible Italian geophysicist will in future simply play dumb. There is already a huge world wide outcry, not just from outraged scientists.

Added 25 October 2012: The 12 October issue of Science carried a lengthy summary of proceedings early in the trial (Cartlidge, E. 2012. Aftershocks in the courtroom. Science, v. 338, p. 185-188). Read Nature‘s editorial on the L’ Aquila verdict here and further comment.

Is there misconduct in geoscientific research?

English: The City of Dreaming Spires from Boar...
Dreaming Spires (credit: Steve Daniels via Wikipedia)

Brian Deer, the British investigative journalist who exposed Andrew Wakefield’s methods that implicated the MMR vaccine as a cause of autism, has broadened his scope to research misconduct throughout science (Deer, B. 2011. Doctoring the evidence: what the scientific establishment doesn’t want you to know. The Sunday Times, 12 August 2012, p. 16). His article comes in the wake of several related articles in leading scientific journals (Enserink, M. 2012. Fraud-detection tool could shake up psychology. Science, 6 July 2012, p. 21-22. Macilwain, C. 2012. The time is right to confront misconduct. Nature, 2 August 2012, p. 7. Godlee, F.  2012.Helping institutions tackle research misconduct. The British Medical Journal, 10 August 2012). The focus has shifted in the last decade from a major campaign against plagiarism by students tempted by the information largesse of Wikipedia, Google and other electronic treasure troves to unwholesome behaviour among university academics. In an age when redundancy at universities has become an issue for the first time in nine centuries, many academics – frenzied by looming cuts – are engaged in a Gaderene rush for promotion and funding. The now obligatory stream of ‘learned’ papers seeks to justify their own puff and, equally as important, the puff of their departments, faculties and institutions trying to blag their corporate way through funding shortages. Misconduct is the child of education-as-commodity.

There are three mortal sins of academic fraudulence: plagiarism, including self-plagiarism (see Self-plagiarism, 6 January 2011); data falsification, including fiddling with those of other people (see Sabotage in Science, 4 November 2010), and fabrication of data, such as starting with a made-up graph and then using it to create plausible values in a table. Venial sins include publishing much the same data and interpretations again and again. The last highlights one of the reasons why miscreants get away with their chicanery and benefit from it; sloppy academic editing and even sloppier peer review.

Deer observes that ‘The science establishment’s consensus is that there is no need for outside scrutiny because … science is above that kind of misconduct that has tainted the Roman Catholic church, politics, the press and, of course, the banks.’ But, as in these notorious cases, the lid is coming off scientific misconduct, largely through the bravery of ‘whistle-blowers’ within the system. Yet the offenders who have been unmasked were unfortunate enough to work in institutions that have appropriate investigative mechanisms and the will at high office to use them. That determination to maintain the highest ethical standards is perhaps not as widespread as it once was.

Geoscientists have yet to figure much in the rogues’ gallery of malfeasants, except for the odd light-fingered palaeontologist. That may have something to do with the vagueness of much of their scope, epitomised by the trajectory of a lithological boundary on a geological map of poorly exposed ground. Indeed, virtually every aspect of the science is open to many interpretations, and errors of omission are perhaps more common than those of commission – any field worker knows that they will inevitably have missed something. But there are quantitative, laboratory-based aspects of the science, such as radiometric dating, that are more readily scrutinised for malpractice. In the early days of using radioactive isotopes and their daughter products to work out an age for an igneous or metamorphic event a common analytical tool was the isochron plot, as in the Rb-Sr method. A ‘good’ age was signified by all the data points falling on or very close to the line of best fit from which an age was calculated. Consequently, there may well have been cases where errant data were conveniently ‘lost’, but there was no way of telling.

That it did happen emerged from the honesty of those isotope geochemists who openly admitted that some mass-spectrometry runs had been omitted because the samples showed some signs of ‘contamination’ or ‘open-system behaviour’. For that they were merely taken to task by those who disagreed with their findings, but excused by those whose ideas the results supported: ethically honest. But how many Rb-Sr runs never made it to a published data table? Things are now a great deal more sophisticated than the days of punched tape and IBM cards in the geochemistry lab, geophysical software and that used for the growing cottage industry of process modelling. So much data and such a wealth of corrections that vast spreadsheets develop in the course of analysis, correction and calculation: few peer reviewers are going to go through data-processing steps with a fine-tooth comb, even if they have been lodged in public data repositories. Such settings provide ample scope for data invention, ‘fiddling’, ‘fudging’ and, in labs with a cavalier attitude to security, stealing but little way of pinning down any malpractice: that is, unless a culprit is either carelessly overconfident or a serial offender. A simple test that any peer reviewer might apply, most usefully at random, is to ask for a copy of laboratory notes associated with a manuscript. If one is not forthcoming, then suspicions will arise naturally.

A measure of just how much dodgy behaviour may go on is a survey conducted by Daniele Fanelli of the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology & Innovation, at the University of Edinburgh (Fanelli, D. 2009. How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE, 4, e5738 In it he found that up to a third of all researchers admit – anonymously – to engaging in shoddy practices, while around 2% admitted to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once. When asked off the record about colleagues, 85% of researchers reported suspicious behaviour known to them, 14% for data falsification.

English: Ivory Towers Now owned by King's Coll...
Ivory Towers, Chancery Lane, London. (credit: Colin Smith via Wikipedia)

Time cannot be far off when the red laser-beam spot moves across geoscience labs and individual geoscientists. Are they audited by disinterested peers and in such a small tightly-knit discipline are there such individuals? Do managing academics scrupulously keep records themselves and demand that their research fellows do likewise? Are there victims or witnesses brave enough to blow the whistle on any spite, fraud or slovenly methods, or will our science remain in its habitual state of bliss?

Self plagiarism

Some scientists have enormous publication records, a notorious case being one who claimed personal discovery of the HIV virus. During the 1980s, this person managed to figure as an author in up to 90 papers a year, despite mainly travelling back and forth to conferences. If the same name appears again and again in publications – it makes little difference where it figures in the list of authors – it is that name that is remembered as an “authority”. In some cases such an accolade is deserved, in others it is engineered by a variety of devices: the same data can be used over and over (most blatantly if those data are ‘engineered in the first place); a place in an authors’ list can result from being a ‘guest’, in the manner of a faded star, ‘down on their luck’, who pops up with a one-line cameo in a film (I rule out Alfred Hithcock’s appearance as a bystander in every film that he made); by nicking the ideas and words of others; through the device of self plagiarism. The last is an especially cunning ploy, as it also saves time crafting text. The italicized sentence above is an example self-plagiarised from the March 2002 issue of EPN (Credit where credit is due?), but as a blogger I can do that with a clear conscience; Earth Pages News is highly unlikely to get me into the ‘Professoriat’, especially my inability to resist occasional items such as this! Having provided the original source reference, I am safe from universal condemnation.

Potentially the game is up for plagiarists and pot-boilers in peer-reviewed journals through scanning software (e.g. Turnitin) that checks text against web-available journals. Self-plagiarism may well be an oxymoron, but it serves as CV fodder as well as creating academic redundancy. It hit the news (Reich, E.S. 2010. Self-plagiarism case prompts calls for agencies to tighten rules. Nature, v. 468, p. 745) because of a case in Canada where an author’s peer-reviewed portfolio was found to contain 20 instances. No academic censure ensued, but three of his papers were retracted. Using the Déjà Vu facility to check biomedical literature has resulted in 79 thousand cases of duplicated wording in abstracts and titles alone, and the eventual retraction of almost 100 articles. Seemingly, journal editors are allowing repeated use of text in the ‘methods’ sections of papers, so a geochemist minor co-author, who gets a ride for a small contribution based on use of a particular piece of equipment might be safe in that regard, there being safety in numbers. Yet as the use of anti-plagiarism software spreads into the wider on-line literature its original targets, undergraduate and graduate students, may decide that the biter ought to be bit and turn the cyber searchlight on their ‘betters’…