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Re: SVP Ethics statement
From: firstname.lastname@example.org [mailto:email@example.com] On Behalf
Of Scott, Eric
Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 3:36 PM
Subject: RE: SVP Ethics statement
"However if I collect a vertebrate fossil like SUE, spend 30,000 hours
digging and preparing it, and sell it to the highest bidder which
be a museum, I too should be not suitable for membership. Heck, a
individual could have gotten it during
the auction so what is the difference?"
Why would a "purebred educated paleontologist", interested in studying
the past and educating & exciting the general public, spend that amount
of time excavating and preparing a priceless fossil like Sue ... and
then opt only to "sell it to the highest bidder"?! What's the point?
There seems to be some disconnect there. You either want to preserve
your amazing find, in which case you're looking, not for the highest
bidder, but for the best & most secure repository -- or else you're
looking for ... er, what, exactly?
This is the last I will write on this in the DML. I appreciate all the
considerable support I have gotten off list on this touchy topic.
I didn't say that the producers of Sue were purebred at all. I
understand they were a commercial venture. I am glad they were there
because they did a reasonable job of extracting the girl. The avenues
that the land owner had were precisely because of the difficulty of
finding someone to deal with the issue. There aren't enough researches
to go around. How can you force a private land owner who owned Sue to
Of course you can't put a price on Sue but her discovery put a guy in
Jail, put partners against each other, and set the commercial fossil
world on it's ear for a while. There is no question that a
scientifically valuable fossil should be preserved for the future. The
bottom line here is that the disconnect is between the purebred
researchers and the commercial. I know that professional paleotypes
don't make the huge money (movie revenues aside). But everyone tries
to get the best salary they can. I know you try to get the most grant
for your request possible. If you write a better persuasive essay for
your grant, you might get better opportunities. Your job is to produce
research and opportunity for research. The job of the professional
collector (devil's advocate here) is to pay his bills (after the fact).
There is no grant money through the channels you have available to you
for the professional collector, only pay at the end of the collection,
preparation and marketing process. The professional collector wants to
have the best fossil possible in order to maximize his return on
investment also. Loosing information is part of the problem. It makes
more sense than to shut out the professional collector from your
private club to educate them by actively engaging them in a discourse.
If you teach (your job) the professional collector (collecting is
their job) to properly document and prepare, then no information will
be lost. You both will benefit but instead the decision has been made
to throw away the resource and shun them as some sort of lower cast.
Why start digging? I started digging as a child of 5 and I certainly
didn't have any resources at that time but pure self-indulging lust for
the unknown. It is the small things that private collectors work on.
Things that researchers which grants normally won't deal with. Only
occasionally do they find the wonderous stuff and thankfully then they
reach out for help from the very folks that essentially shun their ilk.
I don't get that. I do everything I can to educate the local kids to
scan the hillsides insearch of the elusive fossil. I am the only guy
working my area (except a commercial collector out of Belle Foursche
S.D.) and there is way too much ground to cover in my lifetime. There
are not enough academics in the world to cover every hill in this
country. We need the help of the private collector and commercial
collector. The guy in SD has donated several rare things BTW to his
financial loss. No all commercial guys are bad guys but the SVP lables
them as such. What gives?
Do you see the difference? I hope so. If one found a fossil of a size
& significance similar to Sue (to stick with your example), then --
wanting to ensure its preservation *for everyone* -- one would
presumably contact every available museum or university with the
resources to collect the remains.
(Why start digging yourself if you didn't have the resources, financial
or otherwise, to do the job completely? How would that be best for the
fossil?) If a single museum or university couldn't do it, presumably
several working together might. And private funding could be quickly
solicited through normal channels established by those institutions.
This could probably be done in fewer than 30,000 hours.
"Is there anyone out there wanting to do a statistical analysis of
broken tric spitter teeth from an upper Cretaceous microsite of
Montana??? What, no takers? I have wheelbarrows of predepositionally
broken fragmented bone from my bone bed, anyone want to fly out and
collect just the fragmented stuff???? Free lodging to any interested
The whole point of repositories is that the materials in question are
preserved long-term. (An earlier post argued that "permanent
are "pipe dreams", apparently arguing by implication that, if
repositories can't truly be permanent, then they're worthless. I
frankly don't buy that
argument.) Your teeth & fragmented bones may actually reveal whole
truckloads of data to taphonomists, but if there aren't any
interested right in the material right at this moment, that doesn't
that the fossils immediately lose all scientific significance.
Agreed that they have scientific significance, I have doubts that
anyone will take up my offer of free lodging on the Montana border to
study taphonomic effects of the swirling backwash in my bone bed making
every scrap important.
I understand that most repositories are full to the gills of vertebrate
fossils right now, and most cannot simply accept all incoming fossils
indiscriminately. And most researchers have awfully full plates, so
initiating new research projects doesn't usually happen at the drop of
fossil tooth. So one has to assess which fossils have the potential to
tell us the most, and spend time and effort on those. But it doesn't
then follow that, because some vertebrate fossils have *less*
significance, then they therefore have *no* significance. And it
*certainly* doesn't follow that, if researchers aren't presently
interested in your fossils, then the best treatment for those fossils
to sell them to the highest bidder.
So the finders should put them out in the garden waiting for an
available researcher? I choose not to sell my stuff but how does
dismissing individuals that do further the science by disuading
communication and interaction. I am saying teach the commercial
collector and work with them toward a common goal.
I also fail to see how your teeth and bone frags compare to Sue.
if the former are OK for sale, in your view, then the latter cannot
But where do you draw the line? It's been asked before; at what point
does an excavator face the issue of "this really belongs in a museum"
vs. "I could retire tomorrow on this baby"? Most well-heeled buyers
interested in the glory finds, not the scrap. But those same glory
finds are often hugely significant from a scientific standpoint. How
does one choose?
According the the SVP ethics policy, one places the scientific value of
the fossil first. Seems pretty simple. (And I should note that I
presenting my own opinions here, and am not in any way claiming to be
presenting the official interpretation of the SVP.)
I understand your position, your point and the quandary. There is a
continuous gradation from worthless scrap to valuable fossil
(scientific and monetary). The trick is not to make the
differentiation at all but to change the paradigm entirely. The facts
are there are only valuable fossils. The SVP makes rules that preclude
membership to individuals who place a monetary value over the
scientific value. By their definition, a fossil that there is a cubic
mile of, is important to keep out of private hands because
of......(what was your argument?) One the other end on the spectrum, I
might agree that Sue shouldn't be in private hands, but my argument
that if she was, how long before she ended up being donated as a tax
write off for an estate becomes valid. No second generation is going
to want to maintain such an article for personal use and the tax issues
are considerable in that bracket. In the real world, the dig was
funded and research was facilitated by the simple process of government
intervention with taxation and time. It is OK to wait 30 years if the
darn thing is saved from being destroyed by the elements. How is it
different to fund an expedition up front with a grant and salaries and
gas reimbursement instead of a sale on the back side. OK so a rich guy
gets the fossil for a while. Better than mother nature wasting it. I
have seen this happen many times. The early dino guys all got rewards
for the big museums and some private individuals. Some do it for glory
but heaven forbid doing it for proper renumeration for a huge amount of
"If I wait around for some purebred researcher to show up, the stuff
1: not be found, 2: not be collected and 3: not be available."
And so it follows, therefore, that it must be sold into private hands
upon collection? Why not get appropriate permission, collect the find,
and donate it to a repository? I'm still sensing a disconnect.
No disconnect. I just think that grant or university funded
researchers think that private collecting is for the birds. I ran into
the same issue from another former professor that discouraged his
student from collecting on their own but was happy to take into the
university collection a rare assemblage of starfish (ordovician) that I
found as a grad student while collecting on my own. The facts are that
if I had listened to him, that wonderful display sitting in Miami of
Ohio's geology museum right now would be destroyed by weather and lost
to the world. I happened to be a person motivated by the scientific
good and personally paid for all aspects of its preparation and
display. Some individuals are driven by similar motives but are
unwilling or unable to pay for the process them selves. Don't you get
it, they have the same bug that bit us when we were 5 but don't have
the academic position or the economic freedom to play our game the way
the elite club wants it played. It is a shame that the SVP shuns the
professional collector just because they fund their collecting by
selling what they find.
"How would trading or bartering that "scientifically valuable" material
for cash or other material (from anywhere) make a private collector
different than an academic that turned in his credit card bills to his
institutions to pay for gas?"
Academics have jobs. They are paid for their jobs. And when they
expenses as part of their jobs, they are reimbursed for those expenses.
Pretty standard. But when you trade or barter fossils for cash, it's
called selling, not reimbursement. And selling in our society usually
involves maximizing one's profit -- i.e., minimizing costs (e.g., why
collect all those pesky contextual data? Takes too much time; not
profitable) and then selling to the highest bidder. And that's the
American way, and that's legal, and that's free enterprise, but it is
putting the monetary value of a fossil above its scientific value. The
SVP, as a scientific society, has an ethics policy that emphasizes the
scientific value of fossils and attempts to de-emphasize their monetary
There is in our society no difference between art and science. The
difference is indistinguishable. One often leads to the other and back
again. I don't see how it is OK for a museum to pay for an expedition
up front but not OK for them to deal with a private collector after the
collection has already been done. If the private collector is not
doing his job right, the piece will not be valuable to the museum or
anyone else for that fact. Free market does reign in the country no
question. Fortunately, many private collectors donate important
material to museums. I am personally aware of agreements between the
government and quarry operators of Green River Fish quarries that
require "rare" fossils be turned over to science. This is part of the
business and is accepted by the private collectors and is a huge boom
to science who could not afford to do the work these professional do in
the quest of making a living. But because these guys sell fossils,
they barred from membership. Go figure. This doesn't even allow for
interaction through a common channel which could be very beneficial to
science. Let me say it again, teach them the right way don't legislate
to them. No private clubs please.
"Anything I collect will go to repository. Private clubs are by
Not sure what you mean here. Most museums and repositories I know
present displays of spectacular finds for public consumption,
encourage the general public to take "behind the scenes" tours to see
how repositories work, identify those priceless finds that visitors
bring in for viewing, and make some fossils available to local schools
and universities for educational purposes. Is that exclusive?
The exclusivity is at the SVP. They are stating in their by laws that
their way is right and commercial collecting is wrong. Therefore, it
is a private club that is in the right by maintaining that all fossils
should not be publically owned. Only researchers and museums should
have fossils. If I lived that way, science would suffer because I am
not a museum or doing serious technical research at the moment. I have
however, saved from oblivion by the elements, a large collection of
vertebrate fossils collected from private land (by law I own them) and
can do anything I want with them including sell them. If I choose to
do that, I could not join the SVP? Why don't they work with the
private collector instead of pushing them away?
But most repositories are also *putting the long-term preservation of
the fossils first*, which does often mean that not everyone gets to see
& touch & hold every fossil. And maybe that is exclusivity. But if
it is exclusivity with a purpose -- stewardship and long-term
preservation of those irreplaceable relics.
No problem here. There are some hack fossil collectors but I have also
known some hack researchers who worry more about their fame than their
Got to prove need to view and access permission is to be granted by the
repositories. No argument here.
Some on this board have complained that they have been denied access by
fossil repositories. I have to ask: what was the research? What
specific questions were being asked? What was the likelihood of the
questions being answered? What specific fossils needed to be viewed in
order to answer these questions? Would any potential damage to the
fossils in question be offset by the data acquired? Most repositories
want to know that visiting researchers have a specific research
I know that back when I was a volunteer and later a student, I was not
granted access to other museum collections until I'd written my
questions, designed my research, listed the fossils I wished to
and gotten the approval of a curator or a professor that my research
proposal had merit. Hoops to jump through, yes, but they did help me
refine my research goals *and* demonstrate to the repositories in
question that I had a real, valid research program.
"If it wasn't for private collectors (who can't always afford it like I
can) to take the time and money to collect and prepare fossils, much
would be lost to science."
"Without private collectors, the SVP would loose a valuable resource."
Agreed. But I prefer to distinguish between "private collectors" and
"for-profit commercial collectors". Paleontology is blessed by many
avocational, amateur, and volunteer collectors, many of them private,
who are truly and deeply interested in preserving fossils in the best
condition possible, with the best data possible, for as many people as
possible, for as long as possible. I suspect that many private
collectors also share these interests. But I also suspect that many
commercial collectors are less interested in those goals than in the
potential monetary profits from their discoveries. And again, that's
perfectly legal and above-board. But I wonder what SVP, with its focus
on the scientific value of fossils, has to offer those individuals.
There are bad apples in every basket but the guys I know who collect
commercially are pretty good guys who should be embraced by the science
not pushed away.
Eric Scott, Curator of Paleontology
Division of Geological Sciences
San Bernardino County Museum
2024 Orange Tree Lane
Redlands, CA 92374
United States of America
(909) 307-2669 x 241
(909) 307-0539 FAX