Late last year, researchers reported the discovery of an unusual dinosaur fossil called Ubirajara in Brazil. It had strange filaments, and feathers growing from its shoulders. But now, the finding has stirred controversy and the paper reporting it was retracted from the journal Cretaceous Research. German paleontologists had published the paper with colleagues, but neglected to include any Brazilian researchers. Now, the Brazilian scientific community is asking for the return of the fossil from Germany.
There is long and unethical tradition of foreign researchers arriving in a developing nation and conducting scientific research that primarily benefits the scientists, who then leave. Sometimes, they take things with them.
Fossils cannot be taken out of Brazil without the permission of both the National Mining Agency (ANM) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation according to a 1942 Brazilian law, which also states that foreign researchers have to work with a Brazilian institution during their study.
Science reported that the fossil is part of the collection of the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK) in Germany. The study co-authors wrote in their paper that the fossil had made its way to Germany from Brazil along with other fossils in 1995, and that an exportation permit has been granted that year. Science viewed the permit and reported that the individual who signed it, now-retired José Betimar Melo Filgueira, told a Brazilian news agency that the researchers still needed permission from the Science Ministry.
The Science Ministry has disputed that account entirely, and told Science that a private company imported the fossil into Germany in 2006, and that SMNK acquired it from them in 2009. No further clarification from the Cretaceous Research study authors was available at this time.
A social media campaign may have influenced the journal to temporarily withdraw the paper last year, but the Baden-Württemberg ministry has supported SMNK. They said the fossil was legally acquired, and that all the specimens held by SMNK are "the property of the State of Baden-Württemberg.”
The journal has updated its requirements; they will no longer accept papers that examine specimens that were illegally obtained, in private collections, or of unclear origins. Other journals have also adopted similar policies in recent years.
The Baden-Württemberg science ministry of Germany has told Science they will reexamine the processed by which the specimen was obtained, and is open to negotiating with Brazil to reach a solution.
An analysis of paleontology papers has recently found that French, British, and German researchers and institutions have each carried out over 10 percent of studies, but 88 percent of the studies were published with fossils from other countries. In over half of the German papers, no local authors were included on the manuscripts.
Now that scientists have become more aware of this problem, some attempts are being made to correct it. Other than updated journal standards, some museums have repatriated fossils, such as the University of Kansas’s Natural History Museum, which is repatriating 35 specimens to Brazil.
It's unclear what will come of the Ubirajara finding now.