An update to our policy on reporting requirements for geological and palaeontological materials aims to tackle ethical issues surrounding the collection, traceability and archiving of field samples.
Reproducibility matters in science, but so does replicability1. The latter depends, in part, on the ability to trace samples and studied materials back to their origin, and to do so in a clear and consistent manner for others to repeat experimentally. At Nature Geoscience, we have always required clear provenance information to be included with primary research articles. However, there is growing awareness that a continuation of colonialist principles can lead to problematic extraction and exploitation of economic as well as scientific resources, as touched on recently in a Comment by Dowey et al. A specific example of related problems is reflected in the controversies surrounding the use of illegally traded amber from Myanmar in palaeontological research — sometimes termed ‘blood amber’ due to the human cost of lives lost during mining — discussed in a selection of pieces in Nature Ecology & Evolution. In the interest of strengthening our commitment to ethically sound research in light of these and similar issues, the Nature Portfolio of journals has recently updated their policies on sample reporting.
This change in editorial policy at Nature Geoscience is incredibly important. Requiring that authors specify the source of samples and permissions obtained, will not only assist with ensuring reproducibility, it will highlight whether the samples were obtained in an ethical manner. This is important for justice and respect considerations. We would not only like to see this policy reproduced at other journal/publishers, but feel that the same approach should be taken when a piece of work relates to human biospecimens. It should also assist with the identification of fraud in research outputs.
Although it’s tempting to believe that the sort of exploitation described above is a legacy of the past, recent examples such as the destruction of Aboriginal rock shelters in Australia by the mining company Rio Tinto are a sobering reminder that these practises still exist, and may even be legal in some instances. Although this action was widely condemned across the geoscience and archaeology communities, it highlights how challenging it often is for researchers to navigate the complex legality of protections. More recently, in only the past few weeks a researcher from the California Institute of Technology was also found to have damaged a sacred Native American petroglyph site under protection of the US Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
Environmental sciences, Ethics, Scientific community
Provenance matters. Nature Geoscience. 14, 537 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00814-0