Ethics of Sampling
It is common for earth scientists to collect samples from a wide range of environments and settings as a
routine part of our work. Samples may include a range of earth and planetary materials such as rocks,
minerals, fossils, soils/sediments, meteorites, and natural fluids, and comprise the full range of sizes,
from large dinosaur bones to microscopic fossils. In our Anthropocene age of increasing world populations,
decreased accessibility to field sites, shrinking resources, more sensitivity to cultural Indigenous
areas, and unprecedented pressures on unique geoheritage sites, the ethics of sampling is important to all
geoscientists. The provenance of samples that support our research—where they came from, how they were
collected, terms of permission for access and use, and their ultimate fate in archives or disposal—really
do matter (e.g., Planavsky et al., 2020). As a discipline, we need to examine: What is our culture of
sampling? Do we, or should we, have established guidelines or standard sampling codes we abide by (e.g.,
Nature Geoscience, 2021)? Should we teach sampling ethics to our students as part of our training
of the next generations of geoscientists? Ethics examine the moral principles that affect both our
personal and professional behavior, and the ethics of sampling may reveal conflicting values with
personal, professional, environmental, and societal implications.
Over the past half century, the rising international geoconservation movement has recognized that special
geological features need to be protected and managed as part of our geoheritage. The Geological Society of
America (GSA) Position Statement on Geoheritage defines “sites or areas of geologic features with
significant scientific, educational, cultural, and/or aesthetic value,” which are key to advancing
knowledge and support the broad understanding of the environment, its geodiversity and biodiversity, and
the factors that influence climate change (see America’s Geoheritage II workshop proceedings [National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine et al., 2021]). Furthermore, there is a growing body of
literature and commentary on the broader field of geoethics (e.g., Di Capua et al., 2021) that embraces
our responsibility to protect our geoheritage.
The ethics of geological sampling is a long-standing issue because there is an increased international
awareness of the need to protect and preserve iconic geologic sites for future generations (e.g., through
geoheritage initiatives such as the UNESCO Global Geopark Network, the International Union of Geological
Sciences [IUGS] International Commission on Geoheritage, and the International Union for Conservation of
Nature [IUCN] World Commission on Protected Areas Geoheritage Specialist Group, to identify classical
geosites). Notwithstanding these international programs to identify and preserve classic geologic sites,
rock outcrops are being irreversibly damaged (Fig. 1) due to indiscriminate sampling in the name of
science (e.g., MacFadyen, 2010; Druguet et al, 2013; Butler, 2015; Chan and Kamola, 2017; Foss, 2019; Di
Capua et al., 2022). In addition, many geologic sites also hold significant cultural and spiritual value
for Indigenous people, landowners, and local communities, and there is a need to minimize the impacts of
sampling activities or marking outcrops. It is increasingly important for geoscientists to examine the
ethics of our communal sampling practices, and our personal responsibilities as scientists and citizens
for stewardship of Earth, its resources, and its people.
This pre-2017 example of geovandalism (sampling without a permit), shown by paleomagnetic drill holes (red
arrows), is a reminder of exceptionally poor judgement that left a scarred archaeological petroglyph site
on a Miocene tuff, Nevada, USA. What personal or professional values guided the decision to sample here?
What are the consequences? What information or training could have led to better decision-making? Image
credit: S. Foss.
GSA’s Role in Evaluating Ethics
Community input is needed to find a path forward for our professional societies to influence sampling
practices. Thus, the purpose of this short paper is to (1) raise awareness about the ethics of sampling,
and (2) offer the opportunity for the GSA membership, and geoscientists at-large, to provide input on our
current culture of sampling through two venues—an online survey to collect data about geoscientists’
attitudes and practices, and an interactive Noontime Lecture forum at GSA Connects 2022 in Denver,
Colorado, USA. We are soliciting the input of geoscientists from diverse backgrounds and experience, and
at all career stages from interested students to experienced professionals, to obtain the broadest
representation of perspectives and attitudes to evaluate the existing culture of geologic sampling. The
survey and interactive forum build on liaisons with the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Town Hall
on geological sampling convened at their 2021 Fall Meeting.
Survey—Open to All Geoscientists
We invite all GSA members as well as allied professional society members to participate in a
pre-meeting survey with the purpose of collecting information to better understand past and current
attitudes and practices of geologic sampling. Please help us start this conversation by participating in
the short survey (open until 15 Sept.: www.surveymonkey.com/r/geologic-sampling). The anonymous,
aggregated information will serve as a springboard for discussions at an interactive forum at GSA Connects
2022 and will also provide important baseline data to be considered in developing future recommendations
or guidelines or a possible GSA Position Statement on geologic sampling.
Invitation to the Lecture Forum
The 2022 GSA Connects meeting will highlight an informal one-hour Noontime Lecture forum titled
Culture and Ethics of Geologic Sampling, on Monday, 10 Oct. This forum will present some
of the survey results and will utilize small interest-group discussions to explore contemporary attitudes
and practices of the geoscience community about sampling natural sites, as well as review relevant
policies and guidelines that already exist from related professional societies. In particular, this
interactive forum will explore topics such as:
A. Experiences encompassing levels of priorities/needs for samples.
B. Alternatives to renewed or continuing sampling, such as multi-use purposes for
samples, openly shared databases for available samples and repositories, and sample exchanges.
C. Archiving and maintaining current sample collections.
D. Legal and liability issues involving permitting, permissions, and licenses. (Note:
What is legal is not necessarily ethical and sampling guidelines may differ internationally.)
E. Best practices for sampling on lands of Indigenous people and other culturally
sensitive areas, and possible repatriation.
F. Limits on sampling and a possible process for oversight, particularly for sensitive
G. Impacts and consequences of sampling (including unintended), including marking
Responsible sampling is relevant to protecting exemplary sites, being respectful of Indigenous cultures,
and other societal issues. Sampling is a global issue related to geodiversity and geoconservation and is
important to all geoscientists. It is also related to much larger issues of extractive industries, as well
as colonialism in the field and parachute science that can be intertwined with ethics of collecting
without input or participation by local Indigenous communities (e.g., Monarrez et al., 2021; Cisneros et
al., 2022; Raja et al., 2022).
Community responses via survey data and input from the Noontime Lecture forum will comprise a foundation
to formulate actionable recommendations for a future GSA Position Statement, potential ethical sample
guidelines for publishing in Society journals, as well as educational training materials for geoscience
curriculum. Although some guidelines exist in various societies (e.g., Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,
the Geological Society of London [see references]), GSA has yet to adopt any sampling guidelines or
requirements. Another desirable outcome is to encourage reduced needs for physical sampling through
alternatives that could involve better archiving of existing samples, infrastructure that is related to
preservation of samples, and more sample sharing or repurposing. Now is the time for GSA to have more open
communication and involvement on this relevant topic that affects teaching, research, and our geoheritage.
The GSA survey and Noontime Lecture forum on Culture and Ethics of Geologic Sampling are
co-sponsored by the U.S. National Committee on Geological Sciences (USNC-GS), AGU, the American
Geosciences Institute (AGI), the Mineralogical Society of America (MSA), the National Association of
Geoscience Teachers (NAGT), and the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG).
We gratefully acknowledge two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this manuscript, as well
as the input of Ester Sztein and support of the U.S. National Committee on Geological Sciences.
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conduct: Geology Today, v. 26, p. 146–151, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2451.2010.00761.x.
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Manuscript received 6 Apr. 2022.
Revised manuscript received 21 June 2022.
Manuscript accepted 24 June 2022.
Posted 18 Aug. 2022.
© 2022, The Geological Society of America. CC-BY-NC.