Feathers fly as pigeons take to the road

February 27, 2004

An Oxford University zoologist has been accused of academic misconduct over his work on the homing instincts of racing pigeons, the results of which are to be broadcast in a prime-time BBC TV show next month, writes Phil Baty.

Tim Guilford, reader in animal behaviour at Oxford's department of zoology, has been accused by a research team at Zurich University of passing off their discovery that pigeons use the road network to navigate as his own work without proper attribution.

Oxford has initiated a formal investigation under its policy on academic integrity in research.

Kurt Reimann, the secretary-general of Zurich, has backed his researchers.

He said: "The university supports Professor Lipp (Hans-Peter Lipp of Zurich's division of neuroanatomy and behaviour) and hopes the matter can be cleared up."

Dr Guilford's findings that pigeons do not travel "as the crow flies" but follow the road network were announced in a blaze of publicity this month.

The discovery, to be shown on BBC1 on March 17, was made using global-positioning technology. Dr Guilford was quoted as saying: "It really has knocked our research team sideways to find that pigeons appear to ignore their inbuilt directional instincts."

But Professor Lipp claims that the discovery was his. He says he first published preliminary evidence in 2000, and Dr Guilford contacted him to discuss collaboration after reading the manuscript. He claims the two teams worked in close cooperation.

Professor Lipp said he had agreed not to comment while the matter was under investigation.

Dr Guilford also declined to comment, but Oxford confirmed that it would "review the material brought to its attention by Professor Lipp". A spokesperson said: "The University of Oxford has been assured by Dr Guilford that while his research uses technology developed and supplied by Professor Lipp, the scientific findings are entirely the result of work carried out by Dr Guilford and his team."

The BBC said: "Dr Guilford was not credited for exclusive or peer-reviewed research, nor is any such claim made in the programme itself."

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