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Is it time to rethink the private/public distinctions for museums?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 2:28
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(Before It's News)

Prologue

Back when I started writing about issues in scholarly publishing, I would sometimes write about the distinction between for-profit (bad) and non-profit (good) publishers. While I still recognise this as an issue, thinking it through over the last few years has made it clear that this distinction is largely orthogonal to the one that really matters — which is between open and non-open publishers.

In fact, all four quadrants exist:

 For-profit  Non-profit
 Open  PeerJ  PLOS
 Non-Open  Elsevier  ACS

ACS may be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and PeerJ may be a private company primarily owned by two individuals — but it’s PeerJ that’s pushing openness forward, and ACS doing quite the opposite.

Logue

img_4496

Beautifully preserved cervical vertebra of Barosaurus in the prep. lab at the North American Museum of Natural Life (NAML).

I’ve found myself thinking about this recently for two reasons.

The first is that, like anyone who works on sauropods, I’ve had involvement with specimens at the Sauriermuseum Aathal (SMA), a privately owned museum in Switzerland that holds some astonishingly beautiful and complete specimens, including the Kaatedocus holotype, SMA 0009. In particular, I’ve been invited a few times to peer-review manuscripts describing SMA specimens, and I’ve always felt conflicted about this because of the SVP’s strong position on privately held specimens.

The second thing that’s pushed me to rethink the private-public distinction has been working on Barosaurus. Our experiences with specimens have been varied. Yale University was very helpful when we went to see the holotype YPM 429, and BYU really couldn’t have done more for us on our recent visit. This is what we would hope for, of course. But what we didn’t particularly anticipate is how generous and helpful the people at the commercial fossil hunters Western Paleo Labs would be. When, visiting the North American Museum of Ancient Life, we gazed in awe through their prep. lab window at their several gorgeous Barosaurus cervicals (see photo above), they invited us in to play with them. (The vertebrae, not the people.)

And that made me think about our much less satisfactory experience trying to photograph the presacrals of AMNH 6341 at the American Museum of Natural History — they are entombed in a glass case surmounted by a not-really-transparent walkway:

amnh-presacrals

Which meant that, when trying to obtain dorsal-view photographs, I had to use this technique:

amnh-photography

With results like these:

amnh-dorsal-view

Now I want to be clear that everyone we dealt with at the AMNH was as helpful as they could be. No-one that we met there was in any way obstructive. Yet the fact remains, the crucially important presacral verterbrae of the most widely recognised Barosaurus in the world were essentially impossible to study.

Worse: papers that have been published about those specimens are now essentially irreproducible, because the specimens are not really available for re-study — much as though they’d been sold to Nicolas Cage to display over his mantelpiece.

Whereas the Barosaurus vertebrae at Western Paleo Labs do seem to be available for study.

Hmm.

Just as we were mistaken in focussing primarily on the for-profit/non-profit distinction between publishers when what we really cared about was the open/non-open distinction, could it be that we’ve been misfocussing on the public/private ownership distinction when what we really care about is availability of specimens?

Is there a way to be confident about which museums will and will not always make specifimens available for study? Here’s where my knowledge cuts out, but one would think this would be the key element in museum certification. But then no doubt museum certification is done differently in different jurisdictions. Knowing that a German museum is accredited may tell you something completely different from knowing that an America museum is accredited.

So perhaps what we need is some globally recognised statement that any museum in the world can sign up to: formally committing to keep its specimens available to researchers; and comitting never to sell them to any party that has not also signed up to the statement.

Epilogue

It’s worth noting the Sauriermuseum Aathal seems, as far as I’ve ever heard, to have conducted itself in every way as we would wish. They seem pretty unambiguously to be among the good guys. More: they seem to have unilaterally done more or less what I advocated above: their website declares:

Declaration Concern: Holotypes of the fossil-collection of the Sauriermuseum Aathal.

The Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (SMA), is being recognized more and more as valuable scientific institution. We hereby state publicly the SMA policy concerning holotype specimens. We recognize the importance of these reference specimens for science, and strongly agree that they have to be available for science in perpetuity. Therefore, we declare that all holotypes present at the Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (and all new holotypes that will be described in future), will always be publicly accessible to all bona fide researchers, and will never be allowed to be sold to any private collection.

Are they one step ahead of us? And if so, should we cast off our reservations about publishing on their specimens?

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