Ethics: “A reappraisal of the cranial and mandibular osteology of the spinosaurid Irritator challengeri (Dinosauria: Theropoda)
Article number: 26.3.1E
In June of 2023, Palaeontologia Electronica (PE) published “A reappraisal of the cranial and mandibular osteology of the spinosaurid Irritator challengeri (Dinosauria: Theropoda)” by [authors]. Soon thereafter, the editorial committee of PE was made aware of the questionable status of the Irritator challengeri type material. It was claimed that the fossil had been exported from Brazil illegally, and that the acquisition by the institution curating it today, the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart (SMNS – State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart) was equally illegal. The authors of the study and the PE editorial committee were accused of misconduct.
This led to many discussions about the status of this material and the disputed nature thereof. The situation is complex. Therefore, we have below summarized the steps taken, as a means of highlighting possible future directions for working with material of complex origins.
1. In immediate response to these accusations, the PE editorial board placed an embargo on the publication while assessing the circumstances. Note that this step was not a retraction of the publication, but just a pause of access while the Board assessed the circumstances.
2. The Board discussed the accusations with the authors and the SMNS, focusing especially on the information regarding acquisition and curation of the specimen and permission to access and use. Both parties were forthcoming with all information the Board required. Note that some information was provided in confidence, the reasons for which the Board assessed and found justified.
3. We also discussed this with lawyers who have dealt with topics in the repatriation of fossil material to their original countries.
4. We found that the publication of currently properly curated specimens is separate from their past legal status.
5. Data provided by the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart (SMNS) showed that the acquisition of the specimen in 1991 by the museum was legal in Germany at that time, as the fossil was imported before a 1990 change in laws.
6. At this time PE also published an ethics statement to make clear for future authors what the stance of PE is.
Through this review, we found no evidence of misconduct by the authors.
The specimen, as it stands, is curated at SMNS, such that it has been assigned an accession number, stored securely, and access to the specimen has been given to any researchers who requested it. As a result, several publications have been presented explicitly considering the specimen, as well as many with other focuses that include information on the specimen. Given this context, we concluded that introducing a moratorium on the publication in PE would be a disservice to important science and would amount to censorship. Therefore, we returned the publication to its published and free-to-access status.
Importantly, we support the repatriation of illegally exported fossils and highlight that this topic needs to be front and centre to the on-going discussion and process of returning fossil material to their countries of origin.
We also wish to support continuing community-wide discussion of topics that are important in the world of palaeontology. To that service PE will be adding an open forum for topics of discussion later this year.