13 September 2005

Scientific Etiquette

In addition to operating by the Scienfitic Method or a variant thereof, scientists also follow an unwritten but well-known code of ethics. Some aspects of this code are familiar to all (the Hippocratic Oath, that doctors should help their patients), some are legally codified (human participants in studies have to be adequately informed of all risks), and there's even some borderline or as-yet-undecided ethics cases / topics that are policed by citizen watchgroups (animal testing, stem cell research).

One aspect of the scientific ethos is that of proprietary rights to data, especially important when related to pharmaceuticals and private funding. If one research group (under the auspices of an individual called the PI, principal1 investigator) is working on a certain drug, their data is private and no one else can legally access it without express written permission. Another group may be working on the same project independently, but the two are likely not allowed to collaborate, and thus it is simply a race against time to see whose work pays out, and who just wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work.

In astronomy, the best telescopes are majority-owned/-funded by the (US) government, and so the rules are different. Anything produced by our government or government funded is public domain -- eventually. Typically the researchers are granted proprietary rights ("ownership") to the data for a year, giving them a significant head start in analyzing the data and therefore publication. If they choose to publish sooner, as often happens, I believe only the things they put in the paper are publicly usable. After the year deadline has passed, any US citizen (and in practice, anyone in the world with computer access) may freely download and use the data as they see fit. This is why high resolution gorgeous Hubble Space Telescope images are freely available on the web. The data (images) were originally taken for some other purpose, but after the year was up, the HST publicity team cleaned them up and put them out there for anyone to see.

BUT, as your high school English teacher taught you, proper credit must always been given. The worst breach of etiquette physically possible is plagiarism, which can be anything ranging from unintentionally forgetting to list an author in your bibliography, to misleading others into thinking you did work that someone else did, to hacking into someone's computer and stealing their data.

As Dr. Michael Brown (Caltech) is accusing Dr. Jose-Luis Ortiz (Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, Granada), according to the New York Times. Ortiz's group is currently credited with discovering the outer solar system body known as 2003 EL61. (The object's fame was eclipsed by that of so-called "Xena," which actually is bigger than Pluto, so don't be surprised that you haven't heard of it.) Brown's group claims their three-month earlier discovery was digitally snooped on by Ortiz's group -- computers belonging to Ortiz, et al., surfed the web to a page listing where the Caltech telescope was pointed at on the key nights.

The accusation is that Ortiz (or his grad student) looked at those records of where Brown (or his grad student) had been looking, then Ortiz looked at his telescope's records and found images of the appropriate region of the sky in its history. Knowing that something special was there, and knowing that Brown worked on minor planet discoveries, Ortiz/grad student found the same object in their own images, but only because of the head's up from Brown's observations. 24 hours later Ortiz announces he's found the object now known as 2003 EL61. Soon after, Brown accuses Ortiz of failure to cite sources and demands he be stripped of discoverer status, and it be rightfully granted to Brown.

Ortiz counters with his own accusation of academic dishonesty by Brown. In the minor-planet-discovering community, there is a well known protocol for when you spot something new: you inform the International Astronomical Union's (IAU's) Minor Planet Center (MPC).

The MPC is the worldwide clearinghouse for planets, asteroids, comets, Kuiper Belt objects, Trans-Neptunian objects, Oort Cloud objects, 10th planets, and Planet X-es. If it's up there, in our Solar System, it isn't the Sun or man-made, and someone discovers it, the MPC is who you should tell. This is especially important for what's known as NEAs or NEOs: Near Earth Asteroids / Objects. Those are asteroids and other stuff that *might* *someday* have a chance of smacking the Earth, or (much more likely) having a near miss. This is one thing that Deep Impact got relatively right.

Say an astronomer discovers a new asteroid, comet, minor planet, whatever. Call that Night 1. He (or sometimes she) reports it to the MPC, along with details of when he saw it where. This can happen anywhere from Night 1 to Night 30 if he's lazy. I'll call it Night 2. By the end of the day, or sometimes the hour, the MPC calculates a rough orbit for it, and determines where it should be visible in the sky in the future. When they calculate the rough orbit, red flags go up if it's an NEA. In this case, emails IMMEDIATELY go out to major observatories and astronomers (both professional and amateur) who've elected to be on the list. This also happens if it's not an NEA, but without the red flags. Night 3 dozens to hundreds of telescopes point to the expected location in the sky, and the media catches wind of the story and it runs on front pages. Day 3 - Night 4, resulting data is sent back to the MPC. Sometimes it was a bogus detection of an object and nothing is found Night 3, and the search is called off. More often, the MPC refines its calculations and repeats the request for observations. By the end of Night 5 someone has found archived images from five or ten years ago that had the object in it, but no one realized at the time. Around a week after the initial detection, the orbit has been refined enough to know that the asteroid isn't going to hit the earth in 3 weeks, or a million years, whatever the original worry was. Papers are published by a few astronomers within a few months.

Brown didn't do this. He didn't send the initial detection to the MPC because he didn't want some other group scooping his story. Which happened anyway. But if he had told the MPC, then Ortiz wouldn't've had a leg to stand on. But if Brown had then anyone could've published on it by now. But it's Brown's tendency to be secretive that prompted Ortiz to commit the information theft. If he did. Or his grad student.

1) Bad blood begets more bad blood.
2) Shit, I thought astro was free of this sorta crap.

1 The "P" in PI refers to the individual doing the investigation, not the idea being investigated. Therefore the word is "principal," not "principle." It's one of my pet-peeve-phrases. "Affect" vs. "effect" is another.

1 comment:

kmyers said...

Great article. I like the way you use words. Thanks for blogging it.