by Bernard Wood
Consider this thought experiment. You spend many years of your life preparing to be the first person to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain. You reach the summit only to see clear evidence that someone has evidently been to the top before you, but presumably they perished on the descent. Do you descend the mountain and claim to be the first human being to reach the top, or do you accept credit for what you achieved, but also make sure that the anonymous summiteer gets recognition for being the first to scale the mountain.
One of the many reasons we cite references in research papers is to give credit to researchers who have addressed the same problem in times past. The reason I like to cite references in chronological rather than alphabetical order is that it provides the intellectual equivalent of a paper trail. Previous authors may not have approached the problem in the way you are doing, and you think their analyses may have been flawed in one respect or another, but they should still be given credit for having tried. We all have a responsibility to research our chosen topic diligently. We must be good scholars as well as good researchers.
I am writing about this because recently I failed to be a good scholar. This was not in connection with a research paper, but with a News and Views piece for Nature (Wood, 2013). My commission was to write about the results presented in a recent paper by Peter Lucas and colleagues (Lucas et al. 2013). They had used nanotechnology to find out what types of particles would actually wear, as opposed to mark, orangutan dental enamel. They concluded that damage to enamel was most likely due to exogenous grit rather than to the food itself.
Although their contribution provided compelling experimental evidence that this was the case, the notion that non-food items might be responsible for dental wear is not a novel idea. Among others, Pierre-François Puech made this suggestion back in the 1980s (Puech et al. 1980, etc.) and with the enormous benefit of hindsight I should have been sure to use one of the few citations you are allowed in a News and Views piece to make that point, but I failed to do so.
I have no excuse for not doing so. Pierre-François Puech has been assiduous over the years in sending me old-fashioned offprints of his papers, and I keep these, and my antediluvian file card system, in my office in DC. I wrote the News and Views piece while I was away from the office, so I had no access to those resources. But that is a lame excuse, because if you search on “microwear”, “hominid” and “Puech” in Google Scholar it recovers information about papers of his that would have led me to the relevant citation.
I have written to apologize to Pierre-François Puech, but that is a classic case of shutting stable doors after horses have bolted.
It was sloppy scholarship. I should have known better and I am not proud of it.
Lesson learned personally? I sincerely hope so.
Lucas, P.W. et al. (2013) ‘Mechanisms and causes of wear in tooth enamel: implications for hominin diets.’ J. R. Soc. Interface, 10(80) 20120923.
Puech, P.-F., Prone, A. and Kraatz, R. (1980) Microscopie de l’usure dentaire de l’homme fossile: bol alimantaire et environment. C. R. Acad. Sci., Paris, Series D, 290: 1413-1416.
Wood, B. (2013) ‘Gritting their teeth.’ Nature, 493: 486-7.