How and why did the Scientific American editorial miss that story? It closely repeats allegations made in the 2009 trade book Lucy’s Legacy, co-authored by Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong (the latter is a member of Scientific American’s board of editors). It is of particular concern that Wong—who covers paleoanthropology for Scientific American—now claims to have done “most of the legwork on this particular editorial.” Journalistic standards were abandoned, as I was never consulted during Wong’s “legwork” or even afforded an opportunity to rebut the allegations. Nor does the editorial mention that these allegations were long ago shown to be baseless by multiple investigations (even though the complainants succeeded in persuading the National Science Foundation to impose a burdensome and inappropriate “data-sharing” requirement now detrimental to sustained paleoanthropological fieldwork).
The second focus of the editorial was the marketing of the original Lucy fossil for an American audience. It left unmentioned the fact that Ethiopian paleoanthropologists were uniformly opposed to the export and display of this original fossil. The Middle Awash project operates in full compliance with Ethiopian antiquities laws and regulations—policies of a sovereign nation that does not need to be lectured about “open-access practices” or “doing the right thing,” particularly when these are so often designed to benefit non-Ethiopian institutions and their inhabitants.
Human Evolution Research Center
University of California, Berkeley
MARIETTE DICHRISTINA, ACTING EDITOR IN CHIEF, REPLIES: We hold White’s work in high regard, but the editorial was published more than a month before the Science special issue. It mentioned that critics of limited access to specimens commonly point to the length of time it has taken for the complete evaluation of Ardipithecus ramidus; in including that information, the board simply cited the most frequently given example for this issue. Further, the editorial immediately acknowledged counterarguments—noting the reasons for limiting access. And although the essay called for limits in exclusivity for such access, it did not make any pronouncements on what is appropriate nor make any judgment about White’s work in particular.
The editorial board collaborates as a group on selecting the topic, reporting it and creating drafts of the text. Kate Wong’s having done “most of the legwork” is journalist’s lingo for “most of the reporting.” In other words, the editor who covers anthropology was primarily responsible for the fact-gathering for this essay, just as the editor who covers the energy beat would be responsible for information-gathering for an essay on related policies. But the essay as a whole is a group effort.