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cornell strong-arm tactics?

I’ve been working on another post, but a related item has cropped up that I just can’t quite get out of my head, and I’m surprised that there has been relatively little buzz about it.

In the most recent (17 Aug) issue of Science (317:888-892), there is a staff-written piece, Gambling on a Ghost Bird. Birder’s World editor Chuck Hagner revealed an acutely distressing fact from this article:

It reveals that members of the Cornell team worked mighty hard behind the scenes to silence skeptics Jerry Jackson, Mark Robbins, and Rick Prum. … Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick [confronted] Jackson in
August 2006 … going so far as to offer him “co-authorship on a future paper” if he would withdraw a letter to The Auk. Jackson’s reply: “That’s not how I operate.”

Here is the excerpt from the Science piece:

…Fitzpatrick confronted Jackson during an August 2006 meeting in South Carolina and asked him not to publish[*]. Jackson recalls Fitzpatrick heatedly telling him, “You are going to be independently responsible for the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker because you are preventing me for raising money for conservation.” Shortly thereafter, Fitzpatrick contacted Jackson again and offered co-authorship on a future paper if Jackson would pull his letter. “That’s not how I operate,” Jackson told him.

Earlier, as rumors of Jackson, Robbins, and Prum’s paper surfaced, James Tate, then science advisor to former Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, called Jackson and told him to “back off.” That the Bush administration would try to suppress dissent doesn’t surprise me, but Tate is a former assistant director of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, brought into the fold early in the game by Fitzpatrick.

Ever since reading those words, I’ve been really disturbed.

Like many thousands of other people, I greatly admire what Cornell Lab of Ornithology has done for birds and citizen science. But if the above accusation is true — and I have heard from friends of Jackson that it is essentially accurate — it seems unethical at best, and certainly flies in the face of the spirit of fairness, balance, and objectivity of science. I’ve never been comfortable with Cornell’s, let’s say, overly optimistic interpretation of the results of their Arkansas search. This latest revelation just puts a fine point on it.

I’m already inclined to withdraw my financial support from Cornell. I have no interest in funding anything more to do with IBWOs, not only because I don’t believe they are still extant, but because I feel that Cornell violated my trust. Trying to suppress opposing viewpoints is a form of scientific fraud.

Yet I’d like to see their other work continue. What’s the solution here? That Cornell admits they oversold the whole affair? That Fitzpatrick resigns? I don’t know.

* – This is the letter Fitzpatrick did not want Jackson to submit:
Jackson, Jerome A. (2006): The public perception of science and reported confirmation of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas. Auk 123:1185-1189.

Filed in Science

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cyberthrush August 20, 2007, 9:36 pm

    Conflicts between several of the parties involved here far precedes the IBWO saga, and there's no branch of science that doesn't have such tensions behind the scenes. I have my own beefs with the way Cornell has handled things, but this particular story barely registers, it is so typical of the way things operate in the realm of publication. As far as supporting CLO financially, I think it's an instance of 'don't throw out the baby with the bathwater,' though others may feel differently. Every major bird research and conservation group out there could be flogged severely for some reason if analyzed with a fine-toothed comb, I suspect.

  • Dan August 20, 2007, 11:58 pm

    I'm with Cyberthrush on this one – conflicts among scientists and the politics of publishing is hardly news. So what if Fitz or anyone else acts in a less-than-perfect way to advance their own cause? He, and everyone else involved, are falliable, but that won't effect the outcome in the end.

    Only new data (or the absence of it) will effect the outcome when the dust has settled, and that will be settled whether it happens behind the scenes or out in the open.

  • John August 21, 2007, 7:56 am

    The article is behind a paywall, so that may explain the lack of discussion on blogs. I think previous IBWO articles have been more accessible.

    The most disturbing part of the accusations is the pressure from the Bush administration. Personal feuds are one thing – distasteful but probably to be expected. But government pressure comes with an implication (spoken or not) that publication could negatively affect future funding or contracts for his university. (Given the way the Bush administration operates, I don't think that is far-fetched.) If Fitzgerald used his government connections to suppress a paper, then he should resign.

  • Dan August 21, 2007, 8:26 am

    That's fine, of course Fitz would've been better off not pursuing such a path. But you asked whether that should change people's minds about the data – of course it shouldn't.

  • Anonymous August 21, 2007, 4:21 am

    Well, I think that conflicts among scientists and controversies over publishing certainly are newsworthy, especially when public funds and other resources are involved. (Political corruption is certainly commonplace, but does that mean it is "hardly news" when discovered? By that standard, Watergate was "hardly news". Likewise, the "cherry-picking" of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq is "hardly news", since such distortion of intelligence by politicians is commonplace.)

    Yes, political pressure is commonplace, though by no means universal, in scientific publishing. (That does not mean it's ethical.) Sometimes political influence leads to bad data being published, but eventually, the bad data is ferreted out. Perhaps the political and ethical background behind the bad data is discovered in the process. That most definitely IS news.

  • Cotinis August 21, 2007, 4:25 am

    Nuthatch et al.:
    The comments above "Well, I think that conflicts among scientists and controversies over publishing certainly are newsworthy, …" were written by me (Patrick Coin, a.k.a. Cotinis)–I signed into typekey but it does not appear to have written my signature to the discussion as it should.

    Best to all, even the politicians!

  • Nuthatch August 21, 2007, 5:54 am

    Since I'm in research academia myself, I'm aware of the politics and unsavory behavior involved. There are a few reasons I find this situation more troubling. First, this wasn't a paper reporting new data on the nesting behavior of white-thighed flapper-herons, it was the major ornithological discovery of modern times. If the discovery were true and undisputed, it meant a great deal of prestige and a place in history for the team. If approached with the caution the data warranted from the beginning, Cornell might just look like one more bunch of Bigfoot hunters. Second, a lot of money was involved. Note that Fitzpatrick's objection was that Jackson would prevent him (Fitz) from raising money. Finally, Cornell Lab of O. is responsible for a lot of regular folks getting involved in science. Americans today are confused and distrustful enough about science. I think Fitzpatrick has a special obligation to behave in an especially above-board manner.

    Is it okay to be unethical or a jerk because everybody else is? Jeez.

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