PS Ethics Committee Report

The Paleontological Society Ethics Committee is pleased to present its second annual report to Society members about its activities and investigations conducted in association with the PS Policy on Non-Discrimination and Member Code of Conduct.

Development of a Reciprocity Agreement with GSA

In the summer of 2019, PS made a request to GSA to ban a PS member who was previously found to have violated the PS Code of Conduct from attending GSA meetings for a period of one year, including the 2019 GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix AZ. We had hoped that GSA would be able to make an expeditious decision based on the weight and evidence of our findings in the case, but GSA instead sought to revisit the case, based partly on its concerns about due process for this individual, who is also a member of GSA. This, in turn, led us to withdraw the request. In the end, the violator chose not to attend the Phoenix GSA meeting, so the safety and well-being of other meeting attendees was not compromised. At the same time, PS remained dissatisfied with how the initial request was handled by GSA, and we raised the issue as a discussion point at a meeting in Phoenix of representatives from multiple societies who attended the semi-annual GSA/AGI associated societies business meeting and, again, during a follow-up discussion at the next meeting, which took place electronically in Spring 2020.

In the meantime, the views of GSA and its Ethics Officer, Nan Stout, have evolved, based in part on experiences and observations at the Phoenix GSA. This has led to a series of ongoing discussions with Ms. Stout about the establishment of a reciprocity agreement between the PS and GSA. At the Fall 2020 meeting of GSA’s Governing Council, Ms. Stout received a general endorsement to move forward with development of a PS/GSA agreement focused on meetings, and, after additional discussions, we now have a draft agreement that will soon be presented to PS Council for its consideration. The agreement has two main facets related to participation in GSA meetings:

  1. Provisions for GSA to be able to ban someone from attending its meetings for up to one year in response to a request from PS, without first conducting its own full ethics investigation.
  2. Mechanisms for joint investigations of allegations arising from possible violations of either of our Codes at GSA meetings, with PS taking the lead in investigations of alleged violations that take place at PS-sponsored events at GSA meetings (contingent on the submission of an allegation report to PS).

The joint investigations envisioned in relation to item #2 will require revisions to the PS Code of Conduct, since there are no current provisions in the Code for collaboration with other professional societies. We also recognize the need to address Code violations that take place in venues other than meetings. We believe, however, that the initial agreement will be an important step in the right direction, given that our primary intersection with GSA relates to activities at meetings, and successful implementation will bolster confidence and expertise to move forward with additional dimensions.

Development of an “Escrow” System to Hold Confidential Information Prior to Possible Submission of a Formal Allegation

During Spring 2020, Ethics Committee Co-Chairs Arnie Miller and Dena Smith-Nufio exchanged a series of emails and had conversations with an anonymous PS member who was the victim of sexual harassment in an earlier case that did not involve the PS. The anonymous correspondent conveyed the important concern that many, if not most, student and early-career members might hesitate—or chose not— to file allegations because of power differentials and fears of retaliation. As an alternative to submitting an allegation—at least initially—the correspondent advocated the development of an “escrow” system through which a victim could file a confidential report of a violation, where it would remain sealed unless and until the victim chose to move forward with an allegation(s), perhaps because the person filing the escrow report became aware that someone else had also filed an escrow report about the same alleged violator. Development of an escrow system would be very valuable in that it would provide an avenue for the preservation of vital information on a confidential platform at the same time that it would not force someone to file an allegation unless and until they are comfortable doing so.

The PS does not have the capability to develop and maintain its own secure cyberinfrastructure for such a system, but we became aware of a product called Vault Platform (VP) that may suit our needs well. A central feature of VP, called GoTogether, can allow the correspondent to elevate reports to the formal allegation stage if two or more confidential reports are filed about the same person. Over the past months, we’ve had discussions with a VP representative, who provided a brief demonstration of VP at the 2021 PS Midyear Council meeting, and we are currently exploring development of an agreement with VP that, among other things, would provide access to VP for all PS members via an app that can be accessed from a smartphone or computer.

New Procedure for Self-Reporting

In Fall 2020, following a recommendation from the Ethics Committee, the PS Council voted to revise procedures for Self-Reporting of Professional Conduct. Whereas all nominees for PS offices, committees, and awards were previously required to fill out self-reporting forms, as were applicants for grants and authors of papers in PS publications, the new procedure calls for single, annual reporting by all PS members as part of member onboarding or renewal. Non-members, mainly applicants for Sepkoski/PALSIRP grants and some authors of manuscripts, are still required to complete an individual self-reporting form with each application or manuscript submission.

The new procedure was implemented with the beginning of member renewal/onboarding for 2021. Changes were made to the appropriate webpages and to the relevant section of the Code of Conduct to reflect the new procedures, and the self-reporting form now automatically appears as part of the online process that members use to renew or enroll.

Allegations and Self-Reports

Since our previous blog in early 2020, the PS has received two allegations of violations of the PS Code of Conduct. In addition, three authors of manuscripts submitted to PS journals and one PS member who was renewing for 2021 checked the “Yes” box on the PS professional conduct self-reporting form, indicating that they were the subject of an investigation or had some other concern in the ethics arena that the Ethics Committee needed to address. Finally, we received information from GSA about a PS student member that necessitated action by the Ethics Committee and the PS Executive Committee.


In early September 2020, we received a multifaceted allegation report submitted by a PS student member involving several possible violations alleged to have taken place over a one-year period, with three people accused of violating the PS Code of Conduct. Because of the case’s complexity, the PS Council authorized us to engage a lawyer, Paula Brantner, who has been working with us on the investigation. As of this writing, we have interviewed five individuals concerning this case, and a sixth interview is planned for late April. Within the next month, we hope to draft our findings and recommendations for Council’s review and consideration. Relevant details will be provided in our next report to PS members.

The second allegation, received in mid-September 2020, was submitted by a student and involved a possible violation of the code of conduct by a professional paleontologist with whom they were communicating electronically. We determined that neither the accuser nor the accused is a member of the PS, but are likely both members of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). We therefore contacted SVP for a discussion, and it appears that a similar complaint may have also been submitted to SVP. We followed up with the accuser to encourage them to work with SVP on the case, if they were not doing so already.

Actions Related to Self-Reporting Forms

In all of the cases where someone clicked the “Yes” box on the self-reporting form, we reached out directly to the individuals for a conversation. Following each conversation, the Ethics Committee made a decision that was reported back to the individual.

In one case, the author, who is a faculty member at a university outside of the United States, reported that they were the subject of an ongoing investigation into accusations of misconduct that would clearly violate our code, but which they contend are false and are the byproducts of intradepartmental rivalries amidst the politically-charged atmosphere currently engulfing their university and country. The author noted that the onset of the COVID pandemic put the investigation on hold, but is hoping that the case will be resolved soon. In the meantime, because the first author on the paper is a graduate student in the respondent’s lab, and given the uncertainty about the case, we allowed this paper to move forward with review and possible publication, with the proviso that no additional papers submitted by this author would be considered until the university makes a final determination that is reported back to us.

In a second case, an author of a submitted paper reported that they had previously been among a group of authors charged with plagiarism on an unrelated 2016 paper co-written with an entirely different set of authors. Several investigations at different institutions had concluded that the accusations were entirely unfounded, but the author reported this information to us nonetheless, because the investigations had, after all, taken place. The ethics committee determined that there was no reason to hold up the current paper, and, furthermore, that the author need not click the “Yes” box in the future in relation to this specific case.

In a third case, the individual clicked “Yes'' because they had been the subject of a PS investigation and finding in summer, 2019. In that investigation, it was determined that they had, indeed, violated the PS Code of Conduct, and several sanctions were communicated to this individual in association with our findings. However, because the sanctions did not include a proscription from publishing in PS journals, the individual was permitted to move forward with submission of their manuscript. That said, in addition to clicking the “Yes” box, the individual took the liberty of writing remarks directly on the form implying that they had been absolved of the 2019 allegations. Since this was clearly not the case, the individual was warned to avoid any future mischaracterizations of the outcome of the 2019 investigation, which, themselves, might constitute new violations of the PS Code of Conduct.

Finally, a member onboarding for 2021 clicked the “Yes” box because they had become caught up inadvertently in a case in 2007 involving possible unauthorized collection of fossil material while traveling in another country. During a conversation about the case and through investigation of media reports written at the time and in the years since, it became clear that the person was not at fault, and the Ethics Committee agreed that no action was needed on the part of the PS. We conveyed our findings back to the individual, as well as our thanks for bringing the issue to our attention.

Review of Ethics Policies and Procedures

As mandated in the Code of Conduct, the President of the PS, Bill DiMichele, has appointed a committee of three individuals to conduct the inaugural, annual review of PS Ethics policies and procedures. Once completed, the committee’s findings, and any resulting changes to the Code of Conduct, and/or its enforcement, will be conveyed to PS members.

Concluding Remarks

A list of current members of the PS Ethics Committee is available here. Please feel free to reach out to a member(s) of the Committee if you have any questions or concerns about items in this report or about any other aspects of the Society’s Ethics portfolio.

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