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How Our Story About A Child's Science Experiment Sparked Controversy

Two lionfish swim in an aquarium at the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla.
Suzette Laboy
Two lionfish swim in an aquarium at the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla.

A story that ran last Sunday on All Things Considered about a sixth-grader's science fair project has elicited not just criticism but controversy.

Since the student's project built on the work of scientists, she's been accused this week of being a "plagiarist" who "ripped off" earlier work.

We think those charges are not just overblown but inaccurate.

A bit of background. As our original story notes, Lauren Arrington, who is now 13, conducted an experiment that explored the levels of salinity of water in which lionfish could live.

That's an important question in Florida, where Lauren lives, because the ocean-dwelling fish is now invading inland waterways. The state has imposed a ban on imports of live lionfish that takes effect Aug. 1.

Lauren's project also received coverage from NBC and CBS, among other outlets. After our story aired, a researcher named Zack Jud complained on Facebook that his own discoveries about lionfish had been misattributed to Lauren in media coverage.

"My name has been intentionally left out of the stories, replaced by the name of the 12-year-old daughter of my former supervisor's best friend," he wrote. "The little girl did a science fair project based on my PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED DISCOVERY of lionfish living in low-salinity estuarine habitats."

His post was widely shared and picked up considerable media coverage on its own. We looked into the matter and decided that while our story and headline may have overplayed the impact of Lauren's project — as noted by our standards editor — she had in fact done original work. (We have updated the Web version of the All Things Considered story in ways that are noted on the page.)

There appears to be no question that Jud has not just conducted pathfinding research on lionfish in Florida but been a public advocate about the issue, giving numerous talks in public forums and speaking with media outlets about it.

So what did Lauren add to the discussion?

Jud's own work in 2011 notes, "There is no published record for salinity tolerance in lionfish." In other words, it wasn't clear whether the lionfish could live in water with much lower levels of salt than in the ocean, which was important for determining how far inland the species might go. "All lionfish were captured at [at least] 0.5 m in depth, suggesting that they may avoid lower-salinity surface waters," the paper states.

In a 2010 interview with the Palm Beach Post, Jud said that "our theory is that the water is saltier at the bottom" of the Loxahatchee River, where he found that the lionfish was living. In a 2012 paper, Jud and his coauthors say there might be more saline content upriver than expected, as they had found "a strong salt wedge" and the salinity at their study site was nearly as high as seawater.

Long story short: It appears that at that point, Jud and his colleagues still weren't sure whether the lionfish could survive in freshwater or had found sources of high-saline water well inland.

That's the question Lauren sought to address. According to her dad, Albrey Arrington — who is listed as a coauthor on Jud's 2011 study — Lauren read that study and attended a presentation given by Jud and his professor at Florida International University, Craig Layman. (Jud has completed his Ph.D. and Layman is now at North Carolina State University.)

Conducting an experiment to determine the lowest salinity lionfish can tolerate was Lauren's own idea, Albrey Arrington says.

In response to the media furor, Layman this past week posted a detailed timeline about lionfish research.

When Lauren presented her findings at her school's science fair in December 2012, Layman writes, "At this point, to my knowledge, there had been no published accounts of this salinity tolerance in lionfish. So Lauren had made a contribution to science. One can argue the magnitude of this finding, but a contribution regardless."

That contribution was acknowledged by Jud, Layman and a coauthor in their own recent study about the lionfish's salinity tolerance.

"Dr. Jud acknowledged Lauren," Albrey Arrington says. "To me, that is evidence alone that she didn't steal his idea."

It appears that Lauren picked up on a field of inquiry, and the scientists working in that field subsequently built on her findings. That's not intellectual theft, that's part of the scientific method — starting with an unanswered question and then answering it.

In short, scientists were not "shocked" by Lauren's findings, as our Web headline originally put it, but neither is she a plagiarist of their work.

NPR contacted Jud for comment. Through a spokeswoman, he objected to something Lauren said in our story: "Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," Lauren said. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?' "

Clearly, Jud and his colleagues had thought about the river already. But Lauren is 13 — you be the judge as to whether her statement represents an intentional or malicious error on her part. And bear in mind that her science fair project cited Jud and Layman.

It's a fact of life that, under the right circumstances, a child's science experiment can attract more media attention than work done over a period of years by academic researchers.

"Is it a surprise that the media hyped up a story about a 12-year-old that made a finding that was cited in a scientific paper?" Layman writes in his timeline. "I am more shocked by those who are shocked that the media would sensationalize such a story."

As for Jud's contention that NPR and other media outlets "intentionally" left his name out of the coverage about Lauren, it's simply not in the nature of journalism that all science stories would credit all the important work in the field, in the way a scientific study would do.

"At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable...if only my name was included in the stories," Jud wrote in his Facebook post.

His name is certainly out there now.

"I am glad tens of thousands of people now know about Zack's research and Lauren's project that never would have otherwise," Layman writes. "But it is unfortunate how it played out in such a manner over the last few weeks."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.

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