Lets say that I go to public talk by a colleague. My colleague presents a talk suggestive that there is a problem with the economic data used by the U.S. government Department of Treasury. Specifically there are some odd things going on in its data on unemployment in West Virginia and Texas. I then go home from the talk, go online and take a look at the data, and identify that there is indeed a problem and I see that some of the West Virginia data has been mistakenly placed into the Texas columns. I the contact the Treasury and notify them of the error. The Treasury puts a thank you notice on their website recognizing my efforts. Would there be any ethical problem with such behavior?

This is not a hypothetical example, but a caricature of real goings on with our friends over at Real Climate . . .

Due to an inadvertent release of information, NASA's Gavin Schmidt (a "real scientist" of the Real Climate blog) admits to stealing a scientific idea from his arch-nemesis, Steve McIntyre (not a "real scientist" of the Climate Audit blog) and then representing it as his own idea, and getting credit for it. (Details here.)

In his explanation why this is OK, Gavin explains that he did some work on his own after getting the idea from Steve's blog, and so it was OK to take full credit for the idea. I am sure that there are legions of graduate students and other scientific support staff who do a lot of work on a project, only to find their sponsor or advisor, who initially proposed the idea, as first author on the resulting paper, who might have empathy for Gavin's logic. And of course researchers in many fields try to keep their work secret lest an unscrupulous colleague steal the idea. You just don't get to see such things in action when you are outside of the academy. Well through the magic of the internet everyone can see the less than noble side of scientific practice.

But lets be clear, in science, the ethical thing to do is to give full credit to the origination of an idea, even if it comes from your arch-enemy. Gavin's outing is remarkable because it shows him not only stealing an idea, but stealing from someone who he and his colleagues routinely criticize as being wrong, corrupt, and a fraud. Does anyone wonder why skepticism flourishes? When evaluations of expertise hinge on trust, stealing someone's ideas and taking credit for them does not help.