Initial Publication Date: May 28, 2014 | Reviewed: July 6, 2017

Ethics and Paleontology: Dinosaur Wars

Jim Schmitt, Montana State University-Bozeman


Dinosaur fossils capture the interest of students and the public, but their study, collection, and disposition often engender signficant highly-publicized controversy. As such, ethical dilemmas emerge around fossil discoveries in the realms of scientific research, including professional and personal conduct, educational and economic roles of museums, landowner rights, fossils as commodities in a capitalist economy, and science journalism. This project uses the controversy over a highly-publicized pair of dinosaur skeletons collected from private land to examine the myriad complexly intertwined ethical issues that arise from the attempt to sell these fossils at public auction for private financial benefit. Students planning careers in paleontology and geology need to be aware of these types of controversies and the ethical choices they will face.


Audience: Students enrolled in any paleontology or historical geology course; paleontology and geology majors. Could also be used in courses aimed at science educators or journalists.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students should know about the general nature of the fossil and sedimentary rock records and their relevance to Earth history.

How the activity is situated in the course
To be used as a two-part group learning and discussion module. It would best be used after some instruction in the significance of fossils and interpretation of sedimentary rocks and their features.




Content/concepts goals for this activity
Students will first learn the responsibilities they are expected to uphold by their scientific peers as professional paleontologists. They will then be exposed to a controversial case study that mirrors the ways in which those professional expectations and responsibilities may be challenged by scintific, economic, educational, peer, and media pressures.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
The ability to separate the ethical responsibilities of a scientist (paleontologist/geologist) from the tendency of society to grant validity to all sides of issues is key for understanding professional ethics in science. Students must be able to understand how various perspectives on issues develop without assigning moral validity to each.

Other skills goals for this activity
Ability to communicate orally individually and in a group setting is required. Students enhance these skills through their discussion participation.



Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise


Part I: Ethics of the Vertebrate Paleontologist as Scientist

The responsibilities of the paleontologist (or geologist) as scientist in the types of data collected in association with fossil excavation, submission of data and interpretation to peer review through the publication process, provision of long-term accessibility to fossil material to other workers, and communication of findings to the public through educational and media outlets.


Part II: Professional Ethical Issues Arising from Commercialization of Fossils

The ethical issues emerging from the selling of fossils in the realms of application of the scientific method in their study, fossil accessibility for future workers, generation of misinformation for economic reasons, propagation of misinformation through educational and media outlets, and the role of the paleontologist/geologist in these issues.


Description and Teaching Materials


For the first part of this exercise module, students access and read the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement and its Guidelines from the Ethics Committee document. The role of the vertebrate paleontologist in data collection, publication of research findings in peer-reviewed journals, disposition of fossil material and related data in accessible public institutions, and insurance of accessibility for future researchers are the primary foci for small-group discussions.






A case study centered on the controversial "Dueling Dinosaurs" of Montana is the focus of the second part of this exercise module. Students access the two articles published on-line in High Country News to obtain the content background of the fossil controversy. They will also watch four brief video interviews of the major persons involved in the controversy. This content serves as the background information for student involvement for group role definition and playing in the second part.


Case Study Scenario

Part I: Ethics of the Vertebrate Paleontologist as Scientist



Students are assigned reading of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) Member Bylaw on Ethics and Guidelines from the Ethics Committee statements to be completed before the first discussion class. In class, students are broken into groups of 3-4 focused on one of the following topical areas: collecting data, specimen and data disposition and accessibility, fossil commercialization, and personal and professional responsibility. Groups then report to the class whole on their specific assigned topics as elucidated in the SVP Code of Ethics (Article 12). At the end of the class discussion, the students should have a complete understanding of the professional expectations and responsibilities as members of SVP and the community of paleontologists more broadly. 

Part II: Professional Ethical Issues Arising from Commercialization of Fossils



Students are assigned readings and short videos to watch from High Country news focused on the "Dueling Dinosaurs" fossil specimens from Montana. At the beginning of class, students collectively define the different players involved in this controversy. The class is then broken into small (3-4 each) groups with each assigned a different player. Each small group is to discuss the position of their assigned player and subsequently to present it to the class as a whole. This allows students to take on different perspectives and articulate those views while not necessarily subscribing to them personally.

After this discussion, students are then presented with the hypothetical scenario that they have been hired as a paleontologist/geologist by a commercial collecting business that facilitates the excavation and selling fossils from private land. They are asked to ascertain the ways in which their employment could violate the SVP Code of Ethics and how this could impact their professional reputation in the realm of paleontology.


Teaching Notes and Tips


Rather than pre-defining the issues for the involved students, allow them to extract the content from their reading assignment.



For the discussion of professional ethics as outlined in the SVP Code of Ethis statements, it is important for paleontology students to realize that the SVP expects that both members and non-members adhere to ethical principles. It is important for students to realize that by becoming scientists, the greater community of scientific peers, in addition to professional societies, has community expectations of its members.



For the "Dueling Dinosaurs" component, students may not see the all of the controversial aspects of the issue as presented. For example, publication of research findings in scientific journals as well as the ability to secure future research funding may be partly positively correlated with one's working on highly exceptional fossils as opposed to less "interesting" specimens. In addition, it is important to point out that even public museums need to generate financial support through entrance fees and as such, may have a vested interest in displaying unusual or well-publicized fossils. The same is true of the various mass media, which also survive economically by selling copy or through web page "hits" and thus often overstate the paleontological significance of the fossils they are reporting on. All of these controversies should be mentioned in the context of the class discussion. Students may arrive at these more complex controversial aspects on their own, or may need to be led to them, depending upon their educational level and experience in paleontology.






Although a variety of different writing exercises could be developed around this module, I believe that given the high interest level of students in dinosaurs, their level of engagement is typically greater that usual. As such, the best assessment would be for them to write a short 1-2 paragraph summary of what they learned from the exercise and why it is important for their development as a scientist. From an instructional perspective, the success of this module is closely mirrored by the degree and depth of the student discussion participation.

References and Resources

SVP Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement:

SVP Guidelines from the Ethics Committee:

Dinosaur Wars:

Who's Who of Montana's Dinosaur Wars:

Paleontology Ethics-- a module written by Ewan Wolf, Dept. Earth Sciences, Montana State University for the Integrating Research and Education Module. 

Montana's Dueling Dinosaur fossils get no action at the auction: