‘Trump’ vs. ‘Indiana Jones’: Paper reviving bitter quarrel over dino fossil pulled for murky reasons

Jeff Liston

Just four months after an allegedly stolen dinosaur fossil was returned from Germany to Brazil, a prominent European paleontologist published a paper bound to spark renewed controversy in an already-divided research community.

And so it did: Less than a month after the article, which criticized the online repatriation campaign, was published on October 2 in The Geological Curator, it vanished again. 

“This flawed corporatist rant, loaded with racist undertones, has been retracted,” Juan Carlos Cisneros of Universidade Federal do Piauí, in Teresina, Brazil, wrote on the social media platform X.

The reasons for the retraction are not entirely clear, but the journal may have faced external pressure, according to the paper’s author.

In the article, Jeff Liston, president of the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists, accused Cisneros and another researcher in Brazil of using “Trumpian dog whistles” in a campaign on social media that preceded the repatriation of the chicken-sized reptile, dubbed Ubirajara jubatus. During the campaign, the German museum housing the fossil became the target of hate speech on social media and reportedly received bomb and arson threats.

“This is a public science museum with school classes coming in,” Liston told Retraction Watch. “What I found most disappointing was there was no attempt by the people who were running the campaign to take responsibility for the more extreme aspects of it and disavow or disown them.”

“You’re seeing parallels with what Trump did on January 6,” Liston added. “I believe the buzzword used these days is ‘stochastic terrorism.’ And there’s that whole process where people are incited more and more to rage and anger.”

Liston also argued in the now-withdrawn paper against using the term “scientific colonialism,” frequently invoked by Cisneros and others, to describe the Ubirajara case.

Cisneros, who was singled out in Liston’s paper along with Aline Ghilardi of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, also in Brazil, said he and his colleagues were “overthrowing a paradigm.”

“The old generations … think they can work like Indiana Jones, because Indiana Jones never gets a permit to work in another country,” Cisneros told us. “He just goes there and takes very valuable stuff and puts it in a museum in the Global North.” 

“We found our voice on social media,” Cisneros said. “The fact is that we never had a voice. Each time we try to stop them stealing our fossils we are met with silence.”

“The case of the Ubirajara fossil is dividing our field because for the first time, we were able to say what these people have been doing for decades,” Cisneros said. “We published a study that shows that hundreds of fossils have been acquired without legal justification by European institutions, especially in Germany.”

Cisneros said the now-retracted paper felt “very personal” and included several claims that weren’t referenced and so couldn’t be vetted. He did not complain to the journal about the article himself, he said, but knew others who had, including a professional society. 

“I never read anything like that in my field,” Cisneros said, adding that he believed Liston was trying to push him and Ghilardi “out of academia.” 

Ghilardi did not respond to a request for comment.

Controversy has trailed the 110-million-year-old dinosaur since it was first named and described in 2020 by a team that did not include any researchers from Brazil. Many paleontologists – among them Cisneros and Ghilardi – argued the fossil was exported illegally, whereas the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, in Germany, which housed the specimen after purchasing it years earlier, claimed in a Facebook post that the German state of Baden-Württemberg was its “rightful owner.”

The legal and ethical questions swirling around the fossil eventually triggered a retraction of the 2020 paper, as Science reported in 2021, leaving the species without a valid scientific name.

Why Liston’s paper, “Crying Ubirajara: Bad faith actors & weaponizing outrage in post-Trump palaeontology,” was also retracted is not entirely clear. According to the retraction notice:

Following a review by the Geological Curators Group Committee, this article was withdrawn online on 27th October 2023, prior to publication in print. The peer review process used in the preparation of this article was found to be in contradiction of the journal’s policies and guidelines. The author has been invited to resubmit on this topic to a future issue of Geological Curator.

The journal’s editor, Duncan Murdock of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in the UK, told us:

Following the COPE retraction guidelines (https://publicationethics.org/retraction-guidelines) the article is “retracted” only as the most suitable status for what is actually a short-term situation. The author has been invited to resubmit a version of the article for a future issue of the journal, which is due for publication in the spring (Geological Curator, Volume 11, Number 9).

Murdock did not answer an email asking what specifically had led to the retraction. However, Liston, who was a guest editor of the special ethics issue in which his paper appeared, said he began receiving emails from the journal about his paper only a few weeks after it was published. The emails had “a note of panic,” according to Liston, and inquired about the identity of the reviewers.

“At that point, I thought, yeah, this feels like it’s a retraction in search of a pretext,” Liston said. “There seemed to be an external pressure on the organization to retract it.”  

According to Liston, he selected the two reviewers of his paper himself. 

“I think [the journal] wanted to say that the process of me suggesting the names of the reviewers and sending it to the reviewers was problematic, although both the chair [of the Geological Curators Group Committee] and the editor had been fully aware that that’s what was going on in the months leading up to the publication coming back.”

He added: “It only became an issue later on when there was a problem.”

Liston said he believed that although the journal asked him to resubmit his paper, “fundamentally, they’re not comfortable in publishing it.” He has had interest from other journals, he said, and “if nothing else, I could put it on a preprint server.” 

“I was always aware that no matter how far along this might go, at some point it might get pulled,” Liston said.

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3 thoughts on “‘Trump’ vs. ‘Indiana Jones’: Paper reviving bitter quarrel over dino fossil pulled for murky reasons”

  1. What a bizarre story. What a great way to shoot your own academic discipline in the foot because of an apparent anger management problem… First, an the attempt to repatriate of an fossil specimen to its rightful owners is derailed and then a peer-reviewed academic study of the fossil is usurped – depriving others in the field of learning about this important find. What has been gained out of this little episode except high blood pressure for all involved?

    1. And let’s not forget a guest editor editing his own paper that is a political in nature. Did he really not see the problem there?

  2. Dear editor

    Thanks for the quote in RW.

    I don’t understand the fuzz. If it is Brazilian and they want it back, then why not give it back. One can set up various mutual shows of the Dino in both countries. Musea can cooperate.

    What the f@ck is the problem?

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