An ugly science spat


About a year ago, there was some sensational science news: the approximate time of year that the big dinosaur killing cataclysm occurred was determined. It was in the Northern hemisphere spring. That’s kind of cool.

Paleontologist Robert DePalma speaks about the fossil evidence discovered which support the impact event believed to have wiped out most of the dinosaurs almost 66 million years ago at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Bldg 28.

Now a small scandal has sprung up, one that doesn’t change the conclusion at all, but does highlight the fact that some scientists can be colossal jerks. It seems that one paleontologist, Melanie During, came up with the evidence to support that conclusion, and talked about it with a colleague, Robert DePalma, who quickly threw together a sloppy paper to scoop her.

In June 2021, paleontologist Melanie During submitted a manuscript to Nature that she suspected might create a minor scientific sensation. Based on the chemical isotope signatures and bone growth patterns found in fossilized fish collected at Tanis, a renowned fossil site in North Dakota, During had concluded the asteroid that ended the dinosaur era 65 million years ago struck Earth when it was spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

But During, a Ph.D. candidate at Uppsala University (UU), received a shock of her own in December 2021, while her paper was still under review. Her former collaborator Robert DePalma, whom she had listed as second author on the study, published a paper of his own in Scientific Reports reaching essentially the same conclusion, based on an entirely separate data set. During, whose paper was accepted by Nature shortly afterward and published in February, suspects that DePalma, eager to claim credit for the finding, wanted to scoop her—and made up the data to stake his claim.

Well, yuck…but on the bright side, independent corroboration of the conclusion is a good thing, right? Not so fast.

After trying to discuss the matter with editors at Scientific Reports for nearly a year, During recently decided to make her suspicions public. She and her supervisor, UU paleontologist Per Ahlberg, have shared their concerns with Science, and on 3 December, During posted a statement on the journal feedback website PubPeer claiming, “we are compelled to ask whether the data [in the DePalma et al. paper] may be fabricated, created to fit an already known conclusion.” (She also posted the statement on the OSF Preprints server today.)

The plotted line graphs and figures in DePalma’s paper contain numerous irregularities, During and Ahlberg claim—including missing and duplicated data points and nonsensical error bars—suggesting they were manually constructed, rather than produced by data analysis software. DePalma has not made public the raw, machine-produced data underlying his analyses. During and Ahlberg, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, question whether they exist.

DePalma refuses to release the raw data, which is a big red flag. Also another big problem: DePalma literally owns the site with all the fossil data!

DePalma holds the lease to the Tanis site, which sits on private land, and controls access to it.

I find that disturbing. He bought up the lease and controls who has access to the specimens and data? I can’t be the only one who finds that troubling. Maybe he’s a hero who snatched it up to protect it, and lets anyone who asks do research there, but then…uh-oh, another ugly revelation. Someone who knew him well for many years has come out to say that he’s a creep.

DePalma has a different perspective on the whole affair, but the timing of publication and the fact that the paper has many errors and that the raw data is hidden away leaves me suspicious. Also that he is trying to turn the tables and claim that During stole his ideas.

DePalma characterizes their interactions differently. He says his team came up with the idea of using fossils’ isotopic signals to hunt for evidence of the asteroid impact’s season long ago, and During adopted it after learning about it during her Tanis visit—a notion During rejects. After his team learned about During’s plan to submit a paper, DePalma says, one of his colleagues “strongly advised” During that the paper must “at minimum” acknowledge the team’s earlier work and include DePalma’s name as a co-author. DePalma says his team also invited During’s team to join DePalma’s ongoing study. “During the long process of discussing these options … they decided to submit their paper,” he says.

Collaboration and open communication are an essential part of the scientific process. This whole conflict would go away if the data, and the field site, were shared openly, but someone seems to be hoarding all that. It’s a shame, too, that such interesting work and such a spectacular fossil site are being tainted by this ugly possessiveness and grubbing for priority.

Comments

  1. williamhyde says

    Everything old is new again:

    Wolfe, J. A. Palaeobotanical evidence for a June ‘impact winter’ at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. Nature 352, 420–423 (1991).

    As I recall it, Wolfe found evidence of aquatic plants which had died from frost damage in a state of growth consistent with June. He also found two distinct layers of impact debris (IIRC the Munson crater was identified as a secondary impact) followed by a long period of great warmth.

  2. raven says

    Tanis (fossil site)
    Wikipedia

    Photograph of the site taken in 2019
    Tanis is a site of paleontological interest in southwestern North Dakota, United States. Tanis is part of the heavily studied Hell Creek Formation, a group of rocks spanning four states in North America renowned for many significant fossil discoveries from the Upper Cretaceous and lower Paleocene. Tanis is a significant site because it appears to record the events from the first minutes until a few hours after the impact of the giant Chicxulub asteroid in extreme detail. This impact, which struck the Gulf of Mexico 66.043 million years ago, wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and many other species (the so-called “K-Pg” or “K-T” extinction). The extinction event caused by this impact began the Cenozoic, in which mammals – including humans – would eventually come to dominate life on Earth.

    I can’t really say anything about the dispute.

    But Tanis the site has a good Wikipedia writeup and it is indeed unique.
    It seems to be part of a river delta near the salt water Inland sea of the time. It was covered by a single event, a large flood that might have been caused by the Chicxulub asteroid.

    “… its association with the K-Pg boundary event and associated fossil discoveries, including the presence of glass spherules from the Chicxulub impact clustered in the gill rakers of acipenciform fishes and also found in amber.[3]”

  3. imback says

    Paleontologist Robert DePalma speaks about the fossil evidence discovered which support the impact event believed to have wiped out most of the dinosaurs almost 66 million years ago at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Bldg 28.

    I thought that impact event occurred near the Yucatan and am surprised they’ve narrowed it down to Building 28.

  4. Matt G says

    Man, it seems like when scientists go bad, they go all the way bad. Yeah, I know – innocent until proven guilty. There were just a few stories about minority researchers and racism, and also about members of the LGBTQ+ community in the science news.

  5. Larry says

    @5
    If movies teach us anything, it’s that scientists can be categorized into exactly 2 types: the good (Alan Grant, Ellie Satler, Emmet Brown) and the bad (Dr. No, Walter White, Dr. Evil). In truth, they’re one and the same, the only difference being their back stories.

  6. monad says

    @6: Movies also have a medium type. Like Indiana Jones…a less shadowy reflection of Belloq, terrible as an archaeologist but still someone who punches nazis.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    Monad @ 7
    Martin Rundkvist, archaeologist with the skeptic blog Aardvarchaeology probably belongs to the good scientists, but he might be plotting world domination for Swedish archaeologists when I am not looking.

  8. robro says

    Almost everything known about the Tanis site seems to be from DePalma’s reports. I wonder if this raises questions about those reports.

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