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Re: SVP Ethics statement

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-vrtpaleo@usc.edu [mailto:owner-vrtpaleo@usc.edu] On Behalf
Of Scott, Eric
Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 3:36 PM
To: 'vrtpaleo@usc.edu'
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
happens to
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 donate her.

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.

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.

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?

"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 researcher."

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 taphonomists
interested right in the material right at this moment, that doesn't mean
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 a
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 is
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. Surely
if the former are OK for sale, in your view, then the latter cannot have
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 are
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 labor.

"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 incur
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
definition, exclusive."

Not sure what you mean here. Most museums and repositories I know often
present displays of spectacular finds for public consumption, frequently
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 so,
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 research.

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 program.
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 observe,
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.
Got to prove need to view and access permission is to be granted by the repositories. No argument here.

"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.
Frank Bliss
MS Biostratigraphy
Weston Wyoming

--Eric ______ 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 mailto:escott@sbcm.sbcounty.gov