Category Archives: Museums

Authorship for Museum Collections?

A recent paper in Zootaxa by Rouhan and colleagues (here, though paywalled) advocates that collections make such important contributions to published science that they should be recognized as coauthors. The paper is entitled “The time has come for Natural History Collections to claim co-authorship of research articles.” When I began reading their article, I was opposed to the idea. I give credit to the authors, though, for by the time I was finished, I was at least open to the concept. Importantly, they are not advocating for individual museum staff to be coauthors, but rather that an institution or group name for the collection should be used. That was a key distinction for me: I would not want to see collections’ contributions get confused with those of their associated staff. From another perspective, however, when I write a paper that uses many different collections, I would not want to appear as a scientific minion among a small forest of institutions that I happened to use in pursuing my questions. (Imagine the institution shopping that human authors would use!)

The problem Rouhan et al. (2017) are addressing is that museum collections make huge contributions to published science, but those contributions are often unrecognized and difficult to track. Here at the University of Alaska Museum Bird Collection we’ve attempted to solve this in a different way (here), in which we keep track of publications that used our collection in a Google Scholar profile (we published on this here). We were careful not to use the term “author,” however (e.g.,“as if the collection were an author”), and we do not advocate a change to that status for collections. We believe our method serves the purpose quite well without unduly abusing the already contentious issue of authorship.

That said, I do think that museum staff should be authors more often on projects when they make substantial contributions, and that this would happen more often with careful consideration of widely accepted authorship criteria (e.g., here).

But as I noted, my mind is open to the concept of collections as authors if a consensus were to develop that these other two solutions under the present framework were inadequate. It is very uncommon to see institutions or consortia listed as authors, although it is becoming more common in large-scale genomics research.

The Growing Power of the Ranks of the Dead

Every animal dies. Starvation, predation, disease, old age—whatever the means, eventually the end comes. We humans have a heightened morality about death, and this is good. But at times this morality is not well directed. Uproars over individual animal deaths often overlook larger and more important issues. Recently it was an eruption over a kingfisher killed in the Solomon Islands. Last year it was about a spider. Both animals were euthanized by scientists to preserve the bodies as scientific specimens to be added to research collections (which I facetiously call the ranks of the dead in the title). And in both cases there were international outcries because a scientist had killed an animal.

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Trends in positions in research collections

In the research museum business, especially in the biological sciences, we’ve long been seeing declines in the number of positions being filled. This is something to be worried about because a) we have a lot to learn about biodiversity still, b) we’re losing said biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, and c) collections need to continue growing because they document so many important aspects of the environments we humans depend on. It’s not like other disciplines in research museums are getting fat at the expense of those disciplines losing positions; it seems to be an industry-wide phenomenon. Vicki Funk of the Smithsonian Institution recently posted an article outlining the dire situation in botany at a global scale.

On the other hand, the rising U.S. economy seems to have opened up a number of new vacancies, leading Michael Ivie of Montana State University to write an email to TAXACOM entitled “What A Great Time to be a Young Systematist”, using his observations of openings in entomology. I agree with Mike from an ornithological perspective: there are a relatively high number of positions opening up this year. Mike’s message has generated a long discussion, however, probably because we recognize that the numbers, while relatively high, are still very small in relation to the magnitude of the issues. In short, a long-declining trend is showing a brief halt and upward bump — and we all hope that collectively at least we see the decline stop and that perhaps we even regain some of those historic losses. There certainly is plenty of work to do, both in traditional biodiversity pursuits and in the new ways that collections are being used to study changes in diseases, contaminants, populations, and environmental and climatic changes.