Our understanding of the history of life on Earth is biased towards wealthier countries, warns a study of the fossil record. The analysis reveals that a whopping 97% of palaeontological data come from scientists in high- and upper-middle-income countries such as the United States, Germany and China1.
“I knew it was going to be high, but I didn’t think it was going to be this high. It was astonishing,” says Nussaïbah Raja, a palaeontologist at the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen–Nuremberg in Erlangen, Germany, who co-led the study. The bias in the fossil record towards rich countries could skew researchers’ understanding of the history of life, she and her colleagues warn. The paper was published on 30 December 2021 in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Raja worked with study co-leader Emma Dunne, a palaeobiologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, and their colleagues to analyse data from the Paleobiology Database (PBDB), a widely used repository that contains more than 1.5 million fossil records drawn from nearly 80,000 publications. The team examined the authorship of 29,039 papers indexed in the PBDB that were published between 1990 and 2020.
More than one-third of these records included authors based in the United States; the rest of the top five consisted of Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Canada (see ‘Global imbalance’). The analysis included fossils found either in the researchers’ country of study or abroad. Whereas US-based researchers worked roughly equally on domestic and international fossil finds, those from European countries disproportionately studied fossils found abroad. For example, 86% of the PBDB-indexed papers authored by scientists based in Switzerland were based on fossils discovered elsewhere.
The analysis also found that colonial ties shed decades ago are still affecting palaeontology. One-quarter of palaeontological research in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria — former French colonies — was done by scientists based in France. Furthermore, 10% of papers describing fossils in South Africa and Egypt included UK-based researchers, and scientists based in Germany contributed 17% of papers on fossils from Tanzania.
In many cases, such efforts did not involve local collaborators — a practice known as parachute science. Raja and Dunne’s team developed a ‘parachute index’ that measures the proportion of a country’s palaeontological data contributed by foreign teams without local scientists as co-authors. This proportion was the highest for Myanmar and the Dominican Republic (see ‘Parachute science’). Highly coveted amber-encased fossils from both of these countries have made them especially vulnerable to parachute science.
The outsize influence of rich countries on palaeontology could lead to a warped view of life’s history, the researchers say. Researchers studying large-scale trends in palaeontology using resources such as the PBDB are keenly aware that the fossil record is biased in myriad ways, including the age and type of rock in which fossils survive. But little consideration is given to the biases of the collectors themselves, says Raja. “We talk about physical factors affecting the fossil record, but not a lot of people talk about human factors.”
The study’s conclusions are important, but unfortunately not a surprise, says Mark Uhen, a vertebrate palaeontologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and chair of the PBDB’s executive committee. “Being aware of a problem is the first step to trying to solve it,” he says.
Pedro Godoy, a palaeontologist at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, Brazil, says that quantifying the field’s bias towards high- and upper-middle-income countries is important, because it can reveal unexpected patterns, such as the sheer scale of parachute palaeontology. “Scientific knowledge should not be restricted to small parts of the planet, and should not be produced by researchers in a handful of countries,” he adds. “Science certainly loses quality by being so restrictive.”
It’s not just palaeontology that suffers as a result of parachute science, says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a palaeontologist at the Federal University of Piauí in Teresina, Brazil. Fossil discoveries can support local economies — for instance, by attracting tourists to museums. Such benefits are lost if foreign scientists relocate the fossils, he adds.