The public image of paleontologists as dusty and friendly academics can be rather due to an update. Scientists say the study of ancient life is a hotbed of unethical and unfair scientific practices rooted in colonialism, which strip poor countries of their fossil heritage, and devalue the contributions of local researchers.
Writing in the magazine Royal Society of Open Sciencean international team of paleontologists argue that there has been a continuous drain of plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, prehistoric spiders and other fossils from poor countries into foreign repositories or local private collections – despite laws and regulations that have been introduced to try to preserve their heritage.
For example, in the Ararib Basin in northeastern Brazil – an area famous for a huge collection of well-preserved prehistoric fossils, including giant winged pterosaurs – 88% of the fossils discovered are now in foreign museum collections.
Juan Carlos Cisneros of the Federal University of Piauí, Brazil, and colleagues examined the publications of fossils discovered in Brazil and Mexico over the past three decades. These countries contain large and relatively unexplored sedimentary basins that harbor a wealth of fossilized organisms, plants, and fungi.
Despite the introduction of strict permits to conduct scientific fieldwork or the export of fossils from Brazil, and a permanent ban on their export, declarations of permits were often missing from the specimens studied, and many studies were based on fossils found illegally in foreign collections—particularly in Germany and Japan – researchers found.
The exclusion of local experts was another common issue. For example, 59% of the publications about the Araripe excavations were led by foreign researchers, and more than half showed no evidence of collaboration with local Brazilian researchers – another legal requirement.
They argued that such practices amount to scientific colonization, with low-income countries primarily seen as data sources or samples for high-income countries, bypassing legal frameworks, and neglecting or neglecting the contributions of local researchers.
“Colonialism may not be what we think of, when we imagine 19th century ships sailing across the Atlantic, but it’s still a modern form of neocolonialism where we deal with extraction and exploitation for our own gain at the expense of low incomes,” said Emma Dunn, a paleobiologist at the University of Birmingham. and co-author of the paper.
The team added that doing so hinders local scientific development and depletes resources that could support long-term economic activities, such as tourism.
“I think we’re often seen as cute characters in Indiana Jones costumes, and they certainly can’t do any harm. But in fact, Indiana Jones is a really good example: One of his famous phrases was ‘This belongs in a museum’—but what he means is His museum, not a museum in the country he collects things from.
“We would like people to change the way they work, to really focus on creating true partnerships built on respect for local communities and their interests.”
The team also called for more strict journal guidelines and education about research ethics, increased enforcement of excavation laws, and sanctions against those involved in unethical practices. Finally, the fossils should be returned to those communities from which they were taken, they said.
“Devoted student. Bacon advocate. Beer scholar. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot. Typical coffee enthusiast.”