Xing Lida: Harvesting Amber, Papers and Controversies

  Reporter/Peng Danni

  Published in the 960th issue of China News Weekly on August 17, 2020

  The remote paleontology community has brought out the popular paleontologist Xing Lida.

  In 2018, a self-media article with a passage like this was widely circulated: Can publish nearly a hundred papers on SCI, even many old professors who have been doing it for 50 or 60 years can't do it... Even more incredible is that in the UK China University of Geosciences (Beijing) rose to the 12th place in the 2016 ranking of schools in Mainland China published by "Times Higher Education"... Later, everyone found out that it was because Dr. Xing Lida graduated that year and stayed in school. The article was reposted on the official Weibo of China University of Geosciences where Xing Lida worked. Since then, among the many statements about Xing Lida, a well-known "stem" is "one's own power"-to improve the ranking of the University of China with one's own power.

  As early as 1998, Xing Lida, who was in high school, founded the first dinosaur website in mainland China. He has translated and published nearly a hundred ancient biology science books, as many as dozens of science lectures and daily social media every year. Countless relevant popular science information has made him a "dinosaur master" and "dinosaur hunter" in the hearts of the public.

  Xing Lida, who is active on social media, is an Internet celebrity scientist. His academic stories and achievements have been simplified into some jokes or tags. In addition to the famous "one's own power", there is also "selling a house. "Scientific research", "found a prehistoric zoo in amber", "the lucky "humanoid koi" Dr. Xing" and so on.

  "He has contributed to the popularization of dinosaur science and promoted the public's understanding of paleontology." A paleontologist said, however, on July 22, an article he was the first author of was published in Nature 4 months after the publication. The manuscript was retracted, allowing his identity as a scholar to be re-examined and reviewed.

A top issue

Why became "the target of public criticism"

  On March 12, 2020, "Nature" magazine published a cover article entitled "Dinosaur the size of a hummingbird from the Cretaceous Period in Myanmar". The first author is Xing Lida, an associate professor at China University of Geosciences (Beijing). The article reported on a skull of less than 2 cm wrapped in amber. The authors identified the skull as a bird, and it was a brand new species named "eye-toothed bird". In paleontology, the eye-toothed bird is not only the "smallest bird in the world", but also the "smallest dinosaur in history." Taking this as a breaking point, the paper immediately triggered a large number of mainstream media reports.

  But the next day, things reversed. An article written by six vertebrate researchers was published on the new scientific media account "Returning Pu", with the title "The Smallest Dinosaur in History" in Amber. Maybe It’s the Biggest Oolong in History. The article lists a total of 10 doubts. Based on doubts about the characteristics of the eye-toothed bird in this specimen, such as the large number of teeth, the extremely small size, and the lack of bird feathers, the researchers believe that this specimen is more likely to be a lizard.

  In the early morning of March 19, this question was published on the preprint website bioRxiv in the form of an academic review article with the title "Is the eye-tooth bird a bird or even the main dragon?" "The so-called main dragon is the recent common ancestor of modern birds and crocodiles and all their descendants, including the extinct non-avian dinosaurs and pterosaurs; the opposite concept is scale dragons, which include lizards, snakes, and earthworms. Wait.

  One of the scholars involved in the questioning, Wang Wei, a postdoctoral fellow from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, pointed out to China News Weekly that the skull shapes of dinosaurs and lizards are worlds apart. You don’t need paleontologists, you only need to have gone to common animals. Undergraduates studying courses can be distinguished. In this research on Amber, it is incredible that dinosaur experts regard lizards as dinosaurs.

  Xu Xing, deputy director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, is an academic star in the industry. In a report in the "China Science Daily", Xu Xing commented on the matter that when researchers found fossils, they would first have a basic prediction. Starting from the field of their own research, they thought it might be birds. This is not wrong. But "the key is that the author's presupposition is too strong... the author never even tried to rigorously prove that this is a bird, nor did he further explore the possibility of lizards." According to the aforementioned report, Deng Tao, the director of the institution, pointed out that due to the uniqueness of fossil specimens, some collaborators are often sought, and the recipients of the specimens may not have sufficient academic level, and the lack of academic judgment ability will cause mistakes.

  On the evening of July 22, this controversial paper was officially retracted. However, many scholars have a lot of dissatisfaction with the performance of the author team in the withdrawal. The most important point is that the author team did not directly admit their mistakes, but repeatedly emphasized that the findings of the new specimens corrected this inaccuracy. The retraction statement states that although the description of the eye-toothed bird is still accurate, the author's team discovered that a new specimen from the same place of origin has been more fully preserved and has made research progress, which made the team realize that the "eye-toothed bird" The specimen is likely to also belong to the squamosaurus, which is different from the initial conclusion.

  But in fact, as early as January 22, 2020, that is, after the paper was confirmed to be accepted by Nature, the research team saw the new specimens mentioned in the statement and obtained new specimens before and after the paper was published on March 12. The important CT scan data of the specimen further supports the hypothesis that Amber is a lizard.

  Fang Han is a professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He told China News Weekly that it is normal to do wrong in the field of paleontology, but the most important thing is to correct it if you know it. You can't know your mistakes and don't correct them, or even if you're wrong, you'll be wrong. A specimen is placed there, how to recognize it is a problem, but if it is known that it is not a dinosaur, but no action such as withdrawal has been taken, this is wrong.

Prolific Paleontologist

  In early December 2016, Xing Lida's research on dinosaurs caused a sensation due to the discovery of a hairy dinosaur tailbone in amber. Based on the themes of his published papers, Xing Lida's main research area is firstly the footprints of dinosaurs, and secondly is amber.

  Ricardo Melchor, an associate professor at the National University of La Pampa, Argentina, is an expert on dinosaur footprints. He told China News Weekly that Xing Lida is undoubtedly a highly productive scientist in this regard, mainly due to his cooperation with American and European counterparts and the discovery of China Many footprints that have not been noticed before. But as far as the documents he read, none of Xing Lida's articles are very inspiring. He pointed out that Xing Lida has published 193 papers so far, but the "high citation count" is only 23, which is not high.

  Fang Han believes that Xing Lida has worked very hard on the research of dinosaur footprints. In this field where few domestic scholars have studied, Xing Lida’s contribution is very significant, which has greatly promoted the progress in this area, but the problem is that there are too many low-level repeated studies. . "If you just find the footprints and carry out simple morphological descriptions, this is an entry-level, good footprint research, which can reflect the biological diversity, biological evolution and other systematic and vivid knowledge at that time."

  Xing Lida's high yield is well known in the paleobiosphere. For example, Fang Han, even if a professor like him has accumulated five or six articles in a year after accumulating for so many years, he feels that he is already amazing. Of course, if he adds those articles he participated in, there may be about ten articles. However, the number of Xing Lida is much higher. Taking 2019 as an example, Xing Lida published 22 papers, of which 16 were the first author or corresponding author.

  In response, Xing Lida responded to China News Weekly that the knowledge, technology, and analysis methods involved in dinosaur footprints are relatively simple compared to dinosaur skeletons. After he is very familiar with this field, his scientific research work is relatively procedural and the period for completing descriptive papers is short, so he has a large number of papers in this area.

  Fang Han said that Xing Lida took the materials to cooperate with foreign scholars, which is equivalent to the role of "comrador", but many of his articles are signed by the first author. In fact, everyone doubts how much he contributed to the team.

  Many researchers who have had long-term cooperation with Xing Lida mentioned his coordinating role in the research. Xing Lida's former master classmates Scott Pearson and Xing published a paper at the end of 2016. He recalled that after graduating from Philip Curry at the University of Alberta in Canada, Xing Lida returned to China to study Ph.D., and he followed his tutor to continue his studies. A few years ago, Xing Lida contacted him and showed him a photo of a wonderful amber specimen and invited him to join the study. The part responsible was to explain the skeletal anatomy of the tail in the specimen, and to try to determine which dinosaur it came from, and some Conventional explanation. Xing Lida, as the first author, directs the entire operation. Pearson believes that Xing's signature as the first author is appropriate because this is a global collaboration involving a lot of communication.

  Ryan McKeller, curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Royal Museum of Saskatchewan, Canada, has collaborated with Lida Xing on 17 papers in the past five years, in which Lida Xing is the first author. Ryan McKeller said in a reply to the email from China News Weekly that Xing Lida usually provides fossil specimens and designs the research. He emphasized, "Without Xing's leadership and hard work, research would not come out."

  Some scholars pointed out that, generally speaking, in paleontology, the first author should be the author who completed most of the work and played the most important role in presenting the most important results and interpretation of the paper. Among the five representative papers on Xing Lida's personal homepage, when these articles describe the authors' contributions, Xing Lida's work as the first author basically revolves around specimen provision, project designer, and leadership, and some include manuscript writing.

  In the retracted paper that received the most attention, Xing Lida told China News Weekly that the corresponding author of this article Zou Jingmei and the director of the Institute of Dinosaurs at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, Louis Chap, have a wealth of ancient bird research. An experienced scholar; Li Gang, a researcher at the Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, has many years of experience in scanning and reconstructing specimens; Ryan McKeller has rich experience in amber burial and soft tissue preservation.

  "Fossil discovery is the basis of paleontological research. As the discoverer of specimens, I can say that I have made a key contribution to this project." Xing Lida said that his other specific tasks include organizing teams, designing research, and participating in specimen scanning and reconstruction. And wrote part of the content. Zou Jingmei pointed out to the media that Xing Lida wrote information about the source of amber, its weight and size.

  This division of labor has deepened some colleagues' suspicion of Xing Lida's improper signature. "As the first author, you must have an understanding of the whole thing, be responsible for the article, just provide fossil specimens to cooperate with others. Generally speaking, this is unacceptable, because scientists are recognized by others on their academic level, not Resources or other abilities." Fang Han said.

  Improper signatures are not only about achievements and honors, but are often regarded as academic misconduct. Many scholars pointed out that the limited academic ability and the use of fossil materials to publish papers to enjoy the benefits of university faculty, awards, scientific research fund applications, etc., has become an increasingly impetuous manifestation of the paleontology community. "Objectively speaking, Xing Lida's papers on dinosaur footprints were at least obtained from his hard work in the field and measuring data. Everyone should pay more attention to the hidden and worse vested interests." Fang Han said.

Seize the opportunity

  Dong Wei, a researcher at the Institute of Palaeospine, Chinese Academy of Sciences, introduced to China News Weekly that to engage in paleontological research, you first need to learn a lot of paleontological knowledge. This process may be tedious and the threshold is not high. In order to come up with brilliant results, two capabilities are needed-one is to collect specimens that can explain hot issues, to have fossil clues, to obtain excavation permits, to deal with many people, to generate and establish interest relationships; On the one hand, once the paper is written, influential journals must be willing to publish the article. Journal editors and reviewers need to approve the author's work.

  Fang Han emphasized that there are two points in paleontological research: popular fields (that is, important scientific issues) and appropriate materials. By catching the hot spots, you can vote for good magazines, and one of the areas where ancient vertebrates has been popular is dinosaurs. Xing Lida also said frankly that paleontology is a discipline of fossil materials, and scholars have been competing for fossil materials for a long time.

  In the industry, a typical case is Zheng Xiaoting, a folk scientist who turned from a "mine boss" to a paleontologist. From 2009 to 2013, as the curator of Tianyu Museum, "the largest dinosaur museum in the world", Zheng Xiaoting published 6 papers on the top issue. Zheng Xiaoting said, "Science" and "Nature" magazines require new discoveries for articles. Compared with other disciplines, paleontology is easier to observe and innovate based on fossil materials, so he never graduated from a junior high school. It is not impossible for people to publish articles in these magazines.

  Xing Lida undoubtedly has the "secret" for rapid success in this field.

  After 2011, as the civil war in Myanmar slowed down, amber began to enter the markets of China and other countries as a supplement to jewelry and jade. As one of the sources of specimens for studying Cretaceous biota, some paleontologists such as Fang Han have also begun to notice Burmese amber and feel that scientific research is of high value. However, Burmese amber comes from abroad, and many of them are in private hands, and the academic community requires that the source of specimens and the preservation of the specimens should be clarified; on the other hand, amber is between jewelry and fossils, can be bought and sold, and the price is very expensive, so most domestic Scholars did not participate.

  “Fossils used for academic research should be legally excavated, and original information such as horizon and place of origin should be recorded.” Fang Han explained, and since the most direct peer examination in paleontology is to observe the original specimens, fossil collections There needs to be a proper location, which is not reliable in private hands because it is not known when it will be sold. This is why professional paleontologists are reluctant to study private collections.

  But Xing Lida's attitude is much more positive. He started contacting Burmese amber in 2013. He loves to talk to the media about his two trips to the warring Burmese amber mining area, but more often he goes to the amber trading markets in Tengchong, Yunnan and Myitkyina, Burma.

  According to a report in "Science" magazine last year, in 2014, Xing Lida started to establish a buyer network in Myitkyina, teaching them to discover Cretaceous bird wings in amber, or to judge whether a foot came from a lizard or a dinosaur based on the paw. Once he gets clues, Xing will send photos to relevant experts to further figure out whether amber has scientific value, and then decide whether to buy it.

  "Burmese amber has been mined for hundreds of years, but we did not know the true range of vertebrates preserved in this mine until five years ago. This is because most of the materials have become jewels or private collections. Xing Lida established The Internet has ensured that some of the materials in these Burmese ambers eventually become museum collections, which is one of the main reasons for the recent surge of papers on new discoveries of paleontology.” Ryan McKay, curator of Invertebrate Paleontology, Royal Museum of Saskatchewan, Canada Le said.

  Fang Han said that the most domestic research on Burmese amber is the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, but mainly insects and other invertebrates and plants. The amber research on ancient vertebrates is mainly Xing Lida. Fang's Institute of Paleospine, Chinese Academy of Sciences Researchers mainly cooperate with Xing Lida to carry out research.

  Because of the numerous fruits of Myanmar Amber Taobao, according to incomplete statistics, since 2016, Xing Lida has published 17 papers related to Myanmar amber specimens, and his first publication in this field is the retracted paper. This "Nature" paper.

  "From the end of 2013 to 2016, I think I have gained an opportunity to discover and describe a group of vertebrates in amber earlier in the world. Since then, more and more universities and research institutes have participated in the research of Burma. Everyone has made some interesting discoveries one after another." Xing Lida said.

Burmese amber:

A zone where ethics, interests, and science intersect

  But the academic circles' attitude towards Burmese amber has quietly changed.

  In May 2019, the cover of "Science" was titled "Treasure in Trouble", reporting on the scientific research value of Burmese amber, military conflicts, illegal labor and other moral conflicts surrounding it. Researchers represented by Xing Lida are here " The story of "treasure hunting" is also interspersed. Until then, many spine paleontologists, especially scholars in the West, did not notice this problem. As the discussion continued, the North American Vertebrate Paleontological Society, composed of scientists, students, artists, writers and scholars from all over the world ( SVP) decided to express his attitude on this issue.

  In response to an interview with China News Weekly, SVP management member and former chairman David Polly stated that more and more paleontologists are calling not to study Myanmar amber fossils because they are worried that these studies will increase the commercial value of amber. This unknowingly contributed to the violent conflict in Myanmar; on the other hand, when scientists buy amber from local traffickers, it is sometimes difficult to trace the original geological information when the specimen was mined.

  Xing Lida said in an interview with Pear Video that the specimen they found "the smallest dinosaur in the world" was collected from Myanmar in 2016 by the curator of a local Amber Pavilion museum in Tengchong, Yunnan and his mother-in-law.

  In a statement issued in April this year, SVP discouraged members from studying Burmese amber collected or unearthed after July 2017 until the local situation improves, and wrote to academic journals in this field, hoping that the other party would not accept and publish it for the time being This kind of research.

  Xing Lida pointed out that amber scientific research has its own particularities. Official institutions (museums, universities, etc.) in various countries may not have enough resources to obtain all important specimens. The participation of private museums will be an important part of it. China’s private museums have developed rapidly and are gradually improving in all aspects. He and some of his colleagues are actively helping these private collectors to establish museums.

  "It is not a problem to study Burmese amber or to study amber from private collections. The question is whether to use research to increase the price of amber in order to gain commercial benefits? Will the amber used as a research sample continue to be bought and sold? Can colleagues easily observe It, these are the concerns of the academic community, and the above problems seem to be not optimistic at present." said Wang Wei, a bird researcher at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

  According to the aforementioned "Science" report, scientists know that once birds are found in an amber, the price will rise to tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wang Bo, a researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology who "taobao" with Xing Lida said, "(Amber dealers) will use the research of scientists to make money."

  A Weibo authenticated user "What is Russia worth buying?" who profiled "General Manager of Shenzhen Rose Jewelry" once posted a Weibo: Every time Mr. Xing Lida posts an amber paper, the insect amber in my lockbox will increase in value a little bit. On Weibo, you can see Xing Lida interacted with him.

  In a Taobao shop called "Longyin Tiger Soul", the front page impressively stated that Dr. Xing Lida was the chief scientific consultant. Xing Lida wrote on his top Weibo: Good quality and low price directly anchor Myanmar suppliers, providing a one-stop shopping experience for the little cuties. The store name of a certain treasure is "Longyinhupu". Tianyan Check shows that in this company with a registered capital of 1 million yuan, Xing Lida’s wife Wang Shenna holds 49% of the shares. The major shareholder Jia Xiao is Xing Lida’s partner and a wealthy amber collector.

  Although SVP's position is not accepted by all scientists—some scholars criticize this attitude as being too harsh and unrealistic, Fang Han said that research on Burmese amber will inevitably be affected. Half of a collaborative research in their institute was done, but due to the SVP's statement, I stopped doing it because this type of research is not easy to publish.

  According to the Atlantic Monthly, at the 8th International Conference on Ancient Insects, Arthropods and Amber in 2019, paleontologists participating in the conference have begun to discuss the ethical costs of studying Burmese amber. At that time, Xing Lida said that he was not worried about his research because the Burmese amber specimens he had were enough to support years of analysis.

  But the fate of these papers' results will be a big question mark. Xing Lida told China News Weekly that his follow-up research on Burmese amber will continue within the framework proposed by SVP, and hopes that SVP can propose more specific guidance plans in the near future.

  Fang Han's evaluation of Xing Lida is "smart". In his opinion, these controversial people are very smart, "all capable people", but not very practical.

  "If I can go back to the past, I hope to walk more steadily." In 2017, Xing Lida once said.

  (At the request of the interviewee, the Chinese side of the text is a pseudonym.)

  China News Weekly, Issue 30, 2020

Statement: The publication of "China News Weekly" manuscript is authorized in writing