Darwinius: Science, Showbiz, and Conflicts of Interest

By Carl Zimmer | June 10, 2009 2:37 pm

The story of Darwinius masilae continues…

In our previous chapter, we noted that the scientists who described this fossil claimed “no competing interests exist,” ignoring the fact that the fossil was the center of a spectacular media circus that included a heavily financed TV documentary. I contacted Peter Binfield of PLOS One, where the paper was published, and asked for a comment. He said he was contacting the authors and would get back to me.

He has.

The paper is going to be formally corrected, and in the interim the following statement has been posted to the comment section on the paper’s website:

“The authors wish to declare, for the avoidance of any misunderstanding concerning competing interests, that a production company (Atlantic Productions), several television channels (History Channel, BBC1, ZDF, NRK) and a book publisher (Little Brown and co) were involved in discussions regarding this paper in advance of publication. However, to clarify, none of the authors received any financial benefit from any of these associations and these organizations had no influence over the publication of this paper or the science contained within it. The Natural History museum in Oslo will receive some royalty from sales of the book, but no revenue accrues to any of the scientists. In addition, the Natural History Museum of Oslo purchased the fossil that is examined in this paper, however, this purchase in no way influenced the publication of this paper or the science contained within it, and in no way benefited the individual authors.”

I’m no expert in the ethics of fossils and museums, and so I’ll need to ponder this statement a while before commenting. In the meantime, let me throw this one out to those in the know. What do you think? Is this kosher?


Comments (11)

  1. Greg Peterson

    I think at the very least it’s fair to say that the way this was handled creates an appearance of potential conflict. My complaint about the whole episode is that it reminds me too much of how Intelligent Design marketers try to promote their stuff…sidestepping a serious scientific process that has emerged to protect us all from hasty conclusions and avoidable errors. Whatever the actual case of the matter might be, this level of media involvement at a pre-publication stage…no, not a bacon cheeseburger, maybe, but pretty far from kosher.

  2. Matt B

    I like how that statements plays up the impoverished scientists angle. By the end, I was actually pulling for them to get some kind of inappropriate compensation. I mean, damn, the Museum, the fossil owner, why not the scientists?

  3. While there may not be any direct conflict of interest the whole affair is very troubling and I believe a strong stand needs to take place to prevent such actions in the future. Consider the following:

    “Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

    This is unacceptable. Scientists do NOT need to follow the marketing savvy of pop bands or pro athletes. This is what is desired by conglomerates like NBC Universal (the parent company of A&E which is, in turn, the parent company of The History Channel). To start thinking like a pop star is to start being commodified, packaged and exploited like a pop star. Science is interested in posterity for the ages, not increasing market share for the next quarter.

  4. I don’t see an ethical problem here. We’re not talking drug testing here, where revenues from possible patents may skew collection and/or interpretation of trial results. You and I both know, Carl, that from a journalist’s perspective the story is too sexy to wait years or decades for all the skeptics in the paleontological community to be shouted down.

    How would the possibility of book and documentary contracts affect the interpretation of these results? Sure, it might encourage the scientists involved to make extravagant claims — so what? Others are going to look at the data and, if they find problems with the initial interpretations, will publish accordingly — leading to the usual self-correction that the scientific process encourages, and (just as important) to the usual damage to one’s scientific credibility and reputation that such big, overblown, claims usually inflict.

    I would be concerned if any media blitz stifled scientific debate, but in one of the most comparable examples, media attention hasn’t scuttled debate over whether Homo floresiensis is a separate hominid species — in fact, it may have encouraged it, which leads to further testing and, ultimately, sounder conclusions.

    Besides, Carl, what would you have the scientists do? Stop talking to the media? That would put both of us out of work, and harm rather than help the public’s understanding of science.


  5. Ryan

    This is not OK because this statement only asserts that the authors have not received any money, yet. Favors are traded, careers are boosted, and money is made. It is certainly worth noting the authors of the paper did not directly profit from all this pre-publication deal making. However, it is far more important to note this is not how good science works. There is too little transparency and too much money here.

  6. DagoRed

    Let’s see —
    The best case: the media blitz had no effect on the academics and we get equally good science out of it all.

    the worst case: the scientific process is entirely corrupted

    My bottom line is, how does this strategy possibly lead to better science if it is allowed to become commonplace? Perhaps, in this case, we got lucky and, as this disclaimer stated, the science was not compromised in this particular case…but that is not what one would expect if this strategy were to be adopted as a common practice. This mere need for this kind of disclaimer foreshadows the obvious negative implications here. It was wrong and everyone needs to say that loudly so it doesn’t become the norm.

  7. AdamRutherford

    Hats off to Carl here and Brian at Laelaps for their excellent digging work (ironic that, given how the fossil was acquired).
    I’m pretty confident that this practice will not become commonplace: it occured because the TV crew serendipitously were present when the fossil was acquired. This is incredibly rare. I suspect nothing much will change.

    The sad thing is that no-one involved comes out of this clean. what could’ve been a wonderful celebration for science has been mired by clumsy handling, and a lack of perspicuity.

    I say this in full, drolling admiration of her beauty as a specimen, but it’s a good job that Ida doesn’t appear to be a very important fossil. So it goes, as Kilgore Trout once said.

  8. Chris

    I guess my concern is whether prior discussion about media strategy would cause the authors to slant their conclusions towards a more radical interpretation of the evidence than might otherwise have been the case. I’d have to go back an re-read the PloS paper, but my recollection is that the conclusions were a lot less sweeping than the promotional material generated by the History Channel et al. Also, the peer review system should be able to correct for this.

    Commercial support of academic research may seem distasteful to some people, but it is a fact of life in many fields and it may be inevitable that the practice spreads to paleontology. The most critical thing is that appropriate safeguards are put in place to ensure that scientific integrity isn’t compromised. Full disclosure of support is an important part of this and that’s why the statement from the authors should be welcomed. The appearance of impropriety can be almost as damaging as actual impropriety…

  9. I personally think that the issue of conflicts of interest, and publicity affecting science is being a bit overblown in this story. That being said, openness is ALWAYS better and this is why it is best to declare all potential conflicts of interest as best as one can. Scientists and MDs are really not used to doing this but need to do it more and be more thorough about it. In addition, I see nothing at all wrong with bloggers and reporters digging around for more of the story. I still remember when Nicholas Wade at the Times wrote a story about a paper on which I was a co-author in which we criticized the “public” human genome paper about a claim about lateral gene transfer. In his story, Wade reported that one of my other co-authors happened to be a co-author on Venter’s human genome paper and that all of us worked at TIGR which had been started by Venter. My co-authors were pissed off about this since they felt they were being objective and that we were not part of the fight between Venter and the public effort. But to me it was completely fair for Wade to mention this, even if it did not affect our work. Possible conflicts should be declared and then others can decide if they think it matters.

  10. David B. Benson
  11. AMH

    So long as any potential conflicts are disclosed upfront, then there is really no problem here. But that was not done right away so we can only be suspicious. Full disclosure = less suspicious lay people.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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