Posts Tagged 'academia'

Academic ancestry

While looking through Don Henderson’ personal collection, I stumbled across this picture of my (and indeed Don’s) PhD supervisor, Mike Benton. It’s from a book of Mike’s (On the trail of the dinosaurs) from 1985 and shows him with a hadrosaur skull he found while in Alberta.


Don spotted immediately that it was a specimen in the Tyrrell collections, and indeed the cabinets are a bit of a give away too. In a moment of inspiration, Don suggested that as academic descendents of Mike, we could redo the photo with the specimen as it is now. A quick hunt in the collections turned up the skull, but it’s now in their special protected room and not on the normal shelves. As a result the background and position are of course imperfect, but we did our best with the available materials. Note that both Mike and I have different generation Tyrrell guest badges too which rather nicely links the two eras as well.



Just a bit of fun really, but this could be a great meme for those researchers who want to celebrate their mentors and supervisors. Go and recreate their famous appearances with discoveries or research photos.

And while I’m on the subject, Don has penned this lovely little piece on the superb Alberta ankylosaur that some will have seen presented at SVPCA a could of years back. Enjoy.

All my circuits papers

Regular Musings readers might have noticed that I do, technically, have a research page on Google. I set it up a few years ago more or less as something a bit more formal to hold records of what I’d published etc. in the days before Google Scholar metrics and which was more public than an profile and rather less blog-like that, well, this. I have updated it from time to time, but never found much use for it, and didn’t have the nous or time to turn it into a more ‘proper’ (and at least nice looking) site.

Doing an update the other day, I spotted a file upload option which I must have either overlooked or ignored previously. I have a for a while been looking out for a way to make my papers publicly available but really didn’t have the incentive to start yet another site just for that, and if I’d realised I could have done it on the Google pages I’d have done it years ago. Still, water under the bridge, they’re now all up.

So, if you go here and scroll to the bottom of the page you can download (nearly) all my papers. Some are still ‘in press’ so I don’t actually have anything I can upload, though as a bonus, there’s a couple of extended abstracts and unreviewed comment-type papers in there too. Hopefully it’s pretty clear what they all are, but regardless, the real issue is that they’re now accessible so go ahead and read ‘em.

Academics on Archosaurs: Peter Falkingham

Peter L. Falkingham, at Brown University, USA, and at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

Focusing on computer modelling of dinosaur tracks.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I’ve just had a run through past Academics on Archosaurs, and well, like pretty much everyone else I’ve been into palaeo (and not just dinosaurs) since I was, as my mother used to put it, “knee high to a grasshopper.” As to my specific field, dinosaur tracks, that came much later.  Like many other children tracks flew under my radar, with mounted skeletons and artistic reconstructions taking all my attention.  I have a fondness for computers though, and during my undergrad I started getting into the computer-based biomechanics research that was going on, and felt that would be a good way to go. I eventually got a PhD on the computer simulation of dinosaur tracks, and I’ve not looked back since.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

The yet-to-be-published stuff I’m working on now.  If you’d asked me that 3 years ago, I’d have said the same thing, and if you ask me again in 30 years I’ll probably still respond the same way – it’s one of the great things about being a scientist – finding out what’s just around the next bend!

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

Less of a discovery, and more of a general shift in understanding, track workers are really starting to get into the mechanics of how tracks are made, and what they can tell us about the animals that made them. There have been some really insightful experiments involving emus and elephants in the past few years.  There’s also the technology being applied; in just the last 5-10 years digitisation techniques have gone nuts, from laser scanning to photogrammetry.  Where previously larger studies based on published data pretty much just had outlines and photos to work from, we’re starting to see papers published which include topographic height maps, normal mapped images (making edges clearer), and even in some cases we’re seeing papers submitted to online journals such as PLoS 1 and Palaeo Electronica where the digital models serve as appendices. The implications for repeatable studies, data sharing, and general scientific progress in the field are staggering.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

Probably how much information is locked away in tracks.  How much can we learn from them? People have been really starting to look in a systematic way at how vertebrate tracks can vary in morphology according to substrate conditions, animal behaviour etc. I’m also a fan of the bigger picture that we can get from tracks – looking at evolutionary trends and so forth. Because tracks are always preserved in situ, they’re a really valuable resource – if they can be assigned and understood, which is where the first part of this answer comes into play.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

Just before I started my PhD, I had been volunteering at the Yorkshire Museum where a colleague said to me “If, when doing your PhD, you ever get up in the morning and wish you were doing something else, quit.” When I recount this to my present colleagues some agree, and some grumble and say there will always be somedays when you want to be somewhere else (usually paperwork days rather than research days). They are of course correct, but I think it’s the attitude that’s important.  With the same qualifications, you can get far higher paid work outside of academia. The perks of a research career are that you get to do what you love – it’s genuinely exciting, and that excitement breeds curiosity.  With excitement and curiosity, you’ll do the reading with ease, and you’ll work late on experiments/fieldwork.  Essentially if you keep loving research, you’ll work hard.

Academics on Archosaurs: John Hutchinson

Professor John R. Hutchinson, The Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Specialist in the evolutionary biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion, with a particular focus on body size influences on posture and movement.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I was passionate about reptiles from an early age; “dockadile” was one of my first words; so of course dinosaurs became a natural fixation, and I went through the usual palaeontologist cycle of forgetting about dinosaurs during puberty then falling back in love with them in college. What kickstarted my more intellectual love affair with dinosaurs in college was reading and later watching Jurassic Park, taking a bunch of classes in evolution and later palaeontology, and reading Greg Paul’s “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” book in my final undergrad year, while working as a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Geological Museum (helping w/nice mosasaur fossils). The vivid animations in Jurassic Park (the movie) and Paul’s book, along with a class I’d taken on functional morphology/biomechanics, got me really interested in dinosaur locomotion, and that led soon enough into my PhD at Berkeley. The rest is history (infamy?).

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

From my own work, I think my favourite paper is the paper that I recently published in Science on the evolution of false sixth toes (predigits) in elephants. We integrated data from dissections, imaging, histology, fossils, biomechanics and phylogeny in a way none of my prior studies had really achieved and went in a direction that was a novel step for my research, enabled by a great collaborative team. That was an incredibly fun project and came out of left field from just dabbling around with research, as I like to do, until I stumbled across a neat story. Yet I still have a fondness for my “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner” 2003 Nature paper, which more or less established my career and happened during a very challenging year in my life. That paper was basically what I set off to do when I started by PhD in 1995, so it was very satisfying to see the final payoff (and actually end up doing the same PhD project I originally aimed to do, which is uncommon in the USA).

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

My field encompasses both neontological and palaeontological research; I think the boundaries between these disciplines are very limiting for both; so the discoveries I value the most are those that transcend these traditional boundaries. It is hard to put a finger on just one favourite but off the cuff, I think the work that Larry Witmer’s team has done on reconstructing cranial anatomy in dinosaurs is the most important multidisciplinary work of our time – it shows how far you can get with good anatomy, and how rigorous the science can still be when reconstructing soft tissues. In a way, I’d put that ahead of the feather discoveries. In my related field of biomechanics, the way that dynamic models of the musculoskeletal system have matured into very rigorous computational tools is incredibly exciting and beginning to have massive payoffs that are bound to continue well beyond our lifetimes.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

I’ll be potentially controversial and say that dinosaur locomotion is almost worked out as far as we can get. The rest is just details. For now, anyway. I say “for now” because now we’re up against a fundamental lack of understanding of how living animals work, which impedes how far we can get with reconstructing extinct animals, leaving a serious danger of constructing a lot of houses-of-cards in this area. That is why I urge palaeontology-type researchers I work with to contribute both to our understanding of living animals, for their own sake, as well as to our inferences about extinct animals. For palaeontology to proceed much further, we need to push neontology forward, and unite these disciplines more strongly. I’m profoundly tired of “us vs. them” arguments in both fields, such as molecules “vs” morphology; the latter is an analogous example of how people waste time defending their disciplinary territory. There’s just one life science; one history of life on Earth; get over it and work together where necessary to find the one answer. Similarly, in biomechanics there’s a lot of guff about theoretical “vs” experimental methods and which is better science. The focus on questions often gets forgotten. So, unity is what I’m preaching, because it will lead to questions getting answered.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

A quick shopping list:

-Don’t trust your supervisor; after a year or so of your research you probably know more than them. Challenge their authority, objectively.

-Read the crappy science as well as the good science. It makes you a better critical thinker.

-Push yourself to be a questions-researcher, not just a methods-producer (or worse yet, just a user). Methods are ephemeral; answers can be eternal (if you’re lucky).

-Defy disciplinary boundaries. Never let someone tell you “don’t do that, you’re a palaeontologist.” Define your own identity as a researcher; scoff at labels. BUT…

-Know your limits; that’s what a young researcher is probing. Reach out to work with others that complement your skills, rather than try to do everything yourself.

-Push yourself to value scientific and professional integrity. I’m no saint either, but people do get known for being honest and fair in their scientific and professional lives.

-“Work-life balance” is nonsense. Practice work-life integration; boundaries can be fluid. Science is about an all-consuming passion for the natural world; it shouldn’t be contained within 9-5 working hours or it gets stale. Nor should it prevent you from having fun, including taking breaks to “refuel” when your Science-Fu levels are low. In these days of a terrible job market, the competition is insanely tough so you need to work efficiently and prioritize what is best for your career (which may be best for your life in a broader sense).

-Be incredibly ambitious, but with full recognition that your “5-year plan” will last your whole career, and everything in science takes immensely more time than almost anyone thinks it will.

Academics on Archosaurs: Robert Reisz

Prof. Rober R. Reisz, University of Toronto
Specialist in prosauropod dinosaurs, in addition to the study of Paleozoic tetrapods
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
A student wanted to take on a project on dinosaurs, and since I was working on a lot of Paleozoic amniotes from South Africa, I came across the very interesting project of the Early Jurassic prosauropod Massospondylus. I brought home material pertaining to this dinosaur, and became interested in the group.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
Working on the early theropod Coelophysis. This is a very exciting project because the quality of the materials makes it the best preserved early dinosaur.
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
Although prejudiced because it is my research, but the discovery of the Early Jurassic embryonic prosauropod dinosaurs, and of the nesting site where they have been found is one of the most exciting and important discoveries of the last decade.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Gigantism. How could the sauropods get so large? I think the answer lies in the embryonic data and the growth rates of these fascinating organisms.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
There is a tendency now to do quick and dirty projects for maximum impact. In my opinion, careful descriptive work, careful illustrations and reconstructions, all lead to strong phylogenetic analyses, and good paleobiological interpretations. First hand study and illustration of fossil specimens is fundamental to our field, and if we do not do it, we lose our advantage as historical biologists.
Much too often paleontologists do what I call pull the drawer out and code the specimen for analysis. This is not good science. Careful study, which includes preparation and illustrations of our unique treasures, the fossils, is fundamental to our field.

Academics on Archosaurs: David Fastovsky

David E. Fastovsky, University of Rhode Island
Mesozoic, terrestrial vertebrate-bearing paleoenvironments, vertebrate paleontology

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

Roy Chapman Andrews:  All About Dinosaurs (1953).

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

Overall, I loved working on fluxes of vertebrate extinctions at the K/T boundary; I also loved working on some very interesting vertebrate-bearing paleoenvironments in NE Mexico; the rocks were crazy; the fossils were weird; it just doesn’t get better than that!

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

Feathered non-avian dinosaurs; the extinctions at the K/T boundary.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

We’ve begun to move from individual specimens to ecosystems.  That kind of work should continue; that’s how to really capture the great rhythms of life through time.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

Be creative.

Academics on archosaurs

I have been delighted with the response to the (theoretically at least) ongoing series of palaeoart interviews. People seem to really enjoy them, and having a whole series with the same questions has enabled readers to cross compare ideas and see a little of the mechanics of the minds of the artists. Now while I do love good palaeoart, but I do want the focus of the Musings to be more about the science and recently I have started to wind down a bit. However, a solution to both issues popped into my head just the other day – to interview my colleagues about their research.

Now the obvious problem is that a good interview digs deep into the workings of a researcher’s field, how they work, how things intertwine, and can go back and fourth to develop ideas. That means a long and involved process and I’m no skilled interviewer and moreover, few people will want to take that kind of time and effort. My solution therefore is to pose just a few short and simple questions that will be quick and easy to answer and hopefully encourage people to take part and yet by focusing them on their own research themes, provide contrasting and expansive answers.

In short I hope to build up a body of these that will get a wide range of researchers to talk about their work and interests and provide a much broader picture of the state of archosaurian science than just reviews of papers and new discoveries, and to get a chance to hear from a lot more people than just those of us who blog or comment regularly. We’ll see how it goes of course, but I do already have a few lined up and a bunch of feelers out there. This will hopefully therefore become a frequent, if irregular, new theme on the Musings and so I’ve put up a new category to cover it.

The first proper interview will follow very shortly, stay tuned!

Google Scholar citations

A combination of a post by Andy Farke on the metrics of PLoS ONE and a comment thread over on SV-POW has turned me to looking at the citation metrics of Google Scholar for various articles and indeed, authors. I don’t think there’s any disagreement that Scholar gives rather higher values than do set-ups like Web of Knowledge, but what is behind this? (And yes, for the record I still don’t like ranking things in general, and nor do a lot of people).

The general answer is ‘blog posts get counted’ and while some certainly do sneak in, in my experience it’s not massive. I certainly have picked up a few hits from blog posts, but not many. What I have got rather more of though is hits from less well-known journals and indeed book chapters – things that don’t always flag up on WoK indices and the like.

This to me is a much more significant issue. While there are papers that are unreviewed papers out there in some (even good) journals, and some good and bad books (and indeed grey literature) there are plenty of good papers in minor journals and book chapters. While I think it would be reasonable that some things should be excluded from such metrics (unreviewed letters and comments and replies I don’t think should count), any paper has potentially good science in it and if it’s building on your work, you should be credited with it. (Essentially this is the approach now being pushed by the Wellcome Trust – it’s not the journal the paper is in but the paper that has the merit).

In short, while GS might well be overstating things, WoK and the like and also probably understating. I looked at a few of my papers in more detail to highlight a couple of things I found.

WoK gives my paper on the soft tissue of Jeholopterus just 10 citations, but GS some 23! That’s a massive difference. But looking over the latter in detail, it’s not massively overstated. There is a duplication in there (so the same paper appears twice for some reason), and one is from a student thesis, and one citation is from a review from the Chinese Academy of Sciences journal (so not really a formal paper, but at the same time not quite irrelevant either and are certainly not blog posts or media bits). So we can certainly remove two of these, and arguably another two. That drops it down to 19, but this is still almost double the 10 citations of WoK. All the other 9 ‘extra’ citations are in published, peer-reviewed journals (well, as far as I can tell). Oddly, WoK also has once citation GS doesn’t, from the little editorial review at comes at the front of the volume in which this paper appeared, which I would hardly count as a scientific use of the work.

Similarly the paper describing Shaochilong gets 11 vs 8 with the 3 extras in GS all coming from proper papers. The paper on sauropod necks is more of a problem – fully 3 of the 5 citations assigned to it by GS are from blog posts. But the others are from Lethaia and Biological Reviews – both well-known journals with proper Impact Factors and the rest. One papers is properly published and the other is ‘in press’ (but an accepted version, formatted etc. and with a DOI and has been out online for 6 months now) yet only 1 is picked up by WoK. Either it’s slow (not great but not the end of the world) or not counting ‘in press’ papers (which seems odd, and in the electronic age, a bit of a weak excuse) or it’s simply not counting them all.

Finally I also know I’m missing some citations even on GS (or at least by their standards). The Beijing Flugsaurier meeting had extended, reviewed, abstracts published in one of the normal Chinese journals – a far from major international journal and probably little known, but a bona fide research, reviewed journal. Even so, I have picked up a couple of citations from this volume of abstracts – but not all of the ones I should get (since it’s easy enough to flick through and check) and indeed one of my pieces in there isn’t even recorded on the list of things I have written. So clearly GS is recording some of the abstracts as papers and citations but not others.

In short, GS does indeed overcount a bit. But having had a good look through my records at least, not that much and yet I know I’m still ‘owed’ a few more which would compensate at least a little for this. And moreover WoK is so massively undercounting that in terms of what my ‘true’ citation record is, I think it’s likely closer to GC than WoK. Now obviously I still don’t like these ranks in general, and this is not an especially detailed look at only my own situation which could be very unrepresentative, but overall I don’t think either is especially good and I must say I can’t find much to really recommend WoK in any particular way over GS. It’s certainly more widely used and respected, but speaking for my record it doesn’t seem to be any more accurate or representative of how my work is being used and cited and in fact, probably less so.

New Insights into Asian Dinosaurs

The title of this post is also that of the latest issue of the Chinese journal Vertebrata PalAsiatica (Volume 50, Issue 2 for those who wanted to be exact). Guest edited by Corwin Sullivan and myself this is a collection of papers dedicated to the Asian dinosaurs though we have contributions from authors in the UK, US, Canada and Argentina as well as Japan, China and Mongolia.

There are only seven papers but there should be something for everyone. We have a new theropod named – the troodontid Philovenator curriei (nope, no clues as to how it got that name) and new information on theropod briancases. We have the ceratopsians covered with a lovely new specimen of Auroraceratops and the hadrosaurs get a look-in with a review of Wulagasaurus and while the sauropodomoprhs just sneak in there are there with some Lower Jurassic prosauropod material.

Editing volumes is no easy matter (not least when they have to fit into an existing journal’s scheduled publication patterns) but we are pleased with the outcome. There were inevitable hiccups and problems with delayed reviews and submissions and some promised papers never appeared but we now have a completed piece. On thing that will certainly delight many is that VPA is freely available online to all and can be freely downloaded from here. So go gets yourself some free dinosaur papers and enjoy them as Corwin and I get to lie back and enjoy not having to deal with the bloody volume any more.

Paulina Catabajal, A., Currie, P.J. 2012. New information on the braincase of Sinraptor dongi (Theropoda: Allosauroidea: ethmoidal region, endocranial anatomy, and pneumaticity.

Tsuihiji, T., Watabe, M., Tsogtbaatar, Barsbold, R., Suzuki, S. 2012. A tyrannosauroid frontal from the Upper Cretaceous (Cenomanian-Santonan) of the Gobi Desert, Mongolia.

Dececchi, T.A., Larsson, H.C.E., Hone, D.W.E. 2012. Yixianosaurus longimanus (Theropoda: Dinosauria) and its bearing on the evolution of Maniraptora and ecology of the Jehol fauna.

Xu, X., Zhao, Q., Sullivan, C., Tan, Q-W., Sander, M., MA, Q-Y. 2012. The taxonomy of the troodontid IVPP V 10597 reconsidered.

Barrett, P.M., Xu, X. 2012. The enigmatic reptile Pachysuchus imperfectus Young, 1951 from the Lower Lufeng Formation (Lower Jurassic) of Yunnan, China,

Xing, H., Prieto-Marquez, A., Gu, W., Yu, T-X. 2012. Re-evaluation and phylogenetic analysis of Wulagasaurus dongi, a hadrosaurine dinosaur from the Maastrichtian of northeast China.

You, H-L., Morschhauser, E., Dodson, P., Li, D-Q. 2012. Auroraceratops sp. (Dinosauria: Neoceratopsia) from the Early Cretaceous of the Mazongshan area in northwestern China.

Pigs, errr, I mean Dinosaurs in Spaaaaace

So I’ve had a look at the latest attempt of someone to write something odd about dinosaurs and it’s hard to fathom what on Earth is the motivation or intent. Now I don’t pretend to know much about amino acids or their handedness, and certainly don’t claim to follow much of the paper as a whole, but as dinosaurs are only mentioned in the last paragraph, I don’t feel there’s a huge problem with my commenting on it. Here is that final part in its entirety:

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α‐methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

Now there are lots of reasons this could have been written and it is hard to know another author’s mind (though oddly enough people often seem willing to guess what people were thinking). It may be a joke 9or at least supposed to be deliberately lighthearted), but if so, it’s not clear and it is written seriously and in a formal paper where there’s no hint of humour in the rest that I have picked up. If it’s just there to make the point that evolution might have proceeded differently on a different planet, well, duh. Does that really need to be made? Not least in the context of different amino acids? And in any case why invoke dinosaurs specifically? In short it’s hard not to assume that this is supposed to be a serious, if hypothetical, point.

The problem with it though is manifold. First off, it’s hypothetical in the extreme. So IF dinosaurs evolved on other worlds and IF they didn’t go extinct in a KT -like event then they MIGHT have carried on evolving into something special. Well yeah. And the first two of those are really quite contentious – would dinosaurs evolve on another world? Who knows? My guess is no. There’s too much chance, too much variation. What if there was no land, or it was too hot, or cold, or the gravity was too high, or reptiles never evolved, or fish never evolved or etc. etc. and forever. And extinction? Well it’s common. Normal even. Everything goes extinct sooner or later and while sure the stromatolites are still hanging on, it’s not like they’re numerous, diverse or widespread is it? And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that there are advanced dinosaurs out there – birds.

So basically this conclusion comes down to if dinosaurs existed elsewhere (and there’s no reason to think they did or ever would) and they didn’t go extinct, they might continue to evolve. Thanks. For. That.

More interestingly and insidiously, the press release opens with the line:

New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs – monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans – may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.

What was that I said the other day about things not being in the paper? Where does it talk about intelligence or cunning? Where does the research show this? It’s a hypothetical point in the conclusion, not part of the research at all. It talks about ‘advanced’ dinosaurs, but being bigger, or smaller, or faster or more feathered, would be more ‘advanced’. In short, this is PR that does not fit with what the paper claims. It invokes dinosaurs for no reason at all (why not amazing synapsids if they hadn’t gone extinct, or amazing gorgonopsids, or ammonites, or graptolites, or anomalocarids?). That is, at best, I would suggest really rather naughty.

It still doesn’t explain why on Earth these conclusions are in the paper in the first place other than, (and I am *trying* to be generous here, but it’s very hard), because it was thought it would have greater impact to invoke amazing space dinosaurs. What other obvious conclusion is there? There’s thousands of weird and wonderful lineages that have existed on this plant and are now all but gone or truly extinct that could have dominated if circumstances were different. Why invoke dinosaurs other than because they are the most famous, instantly recognisable, and the thing most likely to be picked up? Personally, I can’t think of anything.

Dinosaurs might simply be too media-friendly *not* to attract such attention, but when the press release is framed this way, on a paper that barely mentions them, and then in only the most hypothetical of rather trite manners, it’s hard not to take this as little more than a stunt. That does a disservice to palaeontologists and macroevolutionary biologists with all their work on dinosaurs, extinction, evolution and the like, but also to the very paper it’s supposed to be promoting by giving such a false impression of it’s conclusions (even if they are, at best, a bit silly) and the journal that houses it. In short, it’s a pretty poor show all round. There may be some simple and obvious explanation, but I’ll be damned if I can spot it or work it out.


Breslow, R. (In press). Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Referee selection roulette

The other day I had a little Twitter exchange with Andy Farke (of the Open Source Paleontologist) about the issues of finding referees for papers as an editor. Andy noted that there was not only a high refusal rate (people not wanting to review papers) and some referees being repeatedly nominated as choice targets by the authors of papers. I’ve not done that much as an editor and that’s probably why I’ve not seen as much of this as he has, but I can certainly see how it can be an issue.

Either as an author suggesting referees or referees picking one, there are lots of people to try and avoid. Clearly you’re not supposed to go for close collaborators or former students of the authors as they might be biased, and equally avoid people with an axe to grind (oddly many researchers don’t like you publishing papers that take down their pet hypotheses). You also need to try and pick people who provide good, fair, reviews and on time. I’ve catalogued so of my own travails with late referees before and it’s not a lot of fun to wait months and months for a reply only to get a few lines worth of comment.

Of course the referee also needs to be an expert in the area(s) concerned. It’s perhaps not a big surprise that this can prove tricky. By the time you’ve eliminated the referees that can’t or won’t review something, the ones that are always late, the nemesis of the lead author, his former students and best friends, and the ones you have asked 10 times already this year you can imagine the pool runs very shallow indeed. If that starting pool is small enough or has a lot of antagonists (he said while totally not thinking about pterosaurs at all) then it’s perhaps not a surprise that editors can struggle.

While the pool can’t easily be expanded it would appear that some people do need to be more willing to review at all, or on time if they do. I do know that some editors will keep a list of good and bad referees, but I wonder if any journals / editors offer feedback to referees (if they do I’ve never had any or heard of it). It’s odd, we go to a lot of trouble for authors to reply to and comment on the feedback they get from referees and argue things through, but why is less attention paid to the referees themselves? The can be every bit as influential on the work, and certainly I’ve come across reviews that paint the referee in far from a good light. Is it time to start handling and even reviewing the referee’s performances?

On publications

 It can’t have escaped the notice of most readers that there is currently a rather major rumble going on in the world of scientific publishing. Huge numbers of blog posts, editorials, tweets, and more are going on about quite what researchers should and shouldn’t do with their work and with regards to their interactions with various publishing houses and the knock-on effects of access to research for the reader.

If you’ve not been keeping up or are not familiar with the general set-up for publishing papers I’ll try and give this the briefest of introductions. In short as a researcher once you have completed your work, you’ll need to get it published in a journal if people are going to read it. That means submitting it to a journal where an editor will read it and select referees. They’ll report back to the editor who’ll sift the results and send them to you. You’ll make corrections and send it back and hopefully it’ll go to publication if it’s deemed good enough for the journal.

So much so simple (well, over simplified). What is causing the stir is that in most cases when you give your work to the journal, they aren’t just publishing it for you, but you sign the copyright of the work over to them. In short, you do all the work and they then sell the papers onto people who want to read it, potentially including the university or museum you’re already working for… This to many doesn’t seem right or fair and in the internet age researchers are in a position to complain and organise and do something about it.

The battle, such as it is, is ongoing. I’ve not been drawn on this before as, while I do have some strong opinions, it’s largely not the kind of thing I want to blog about on here. What is relevant to this blog however is the process involved from the perspective of the academic. While I have written a couple of posts before about the mechanics of writing and reviewing papers, I wanted to provide more of a summary of everything that a researcher can end up doing in the chain to publication.

Obviously I’ve published my fair share of papers both as a lead or sole author and co-author across a variety of platforms. I’ve also been an editor for volumes of papers produced by museum journals, and I’m an editor for a ‘mainstream’ palaeo journal with one of the big publishers. I’ve also reviewed dozens of papers over the years for all kinds of books and journals, at least 50 or so and probably much more though I’ve never kept a close count. In short, I’ve seen things from all sides a good few times each. What I’m putting down here is purely from my own experiences and while it therefore certainly anecdotal, I don’t think it’s anything other than entirely normal. I’m not complaining or criticising it, just saying what I have done and experienced. I think that’s worth adding to the mix.

As a researcher I come up with the ideas for papers. I do the research. At the moment that includes doing things on my own time and money, though before it’s been (mostly but not always) covered by a grant or my employers. I do the work, write the paper, format it, create the figures and the rest. I don’t get any help with any of this from the journal at any point. Indeed oddly enough quite a lot of effort can go into formatting and arranging things to the very exacting specifics they require, even if the paper is later rejected or even if the journal itself doesn’t print things in that format (yes, really, they make you format things to a standard for them to read them but which they will change later if they ever do print it). The odd journal still requires you to submit multiple hardcopies which are not necessarily cheap to print or post. I get no pay for this and typically (but no, not always) hand over the copyright of the work. One journal did send me free issues for a year for publishing with them, but in a lot of cases I don’t even get access to my own paper at the journal and in more than a few cases I’ve never even gotten a free PDF of my own work. Rarely am I even informed if something has been printed, and on more than one occasion things have been done against my express wishes (e.g. publication of advanced un-proofed copies of papers).

As an editor I take papers submitted, read them, check them and pick referees. I send the papers to the referees and ask for their comments, hassling them where necessary. When the reviews are back I collate them and make a decision and send them comments out to the authors. There may be further dialogue with the authors, referees or other editors. When the corrections come back I need to check them again against the referee’s comments before making a decision. Speaking for myself, I don’t get paid for any of this, and nor have I had any training or received any benefit from doing the job (like access to other journals in the care of the publishers) or copies of the journal itself.

As a referee I take on papers to read and review. Some can be very long, or complex or just badly written and require a lot of time devoted to them (one I recently reviewed twice was about 150 manuscript pages with about 50 figures as well). I might even have to read other papers too and check analyses etc. in addition to writing the actual report. I don’t get paid for this. I don’t get free copies of the paper when it comes out or (most of the time) even notification it’s been published.

Those are all the things I do with regards to publishing a paper and are therefore in the main what I think happens to a typical palaeontology paper with regards to the input from academics. The main thing the journal does is actually format and arrange the words and images into their own format and to proofread it. Don’t forget though that I’ve already formatted much of the manuscript (titles, numbered headings, reference formatting) and scaled images etc. according to their layouts and I often have to correct errors introduced by the journal (generic names have a nasty habit of becoming un-italicised). Oh yeah, and they will eventually publish it and of course send it out to subscribing libraries, museums, universities, societies and individuals and sticking it up online so people can find it.

So what do I generally get out of this? Well as an author, a paper in a journal, hopefully a good one that will (theoretically at least) enhance my reputation, and with luck a free PDF. As a referee, I get to see things in advance of publication (assuming the get published of course) and I know I’m doing a job of helping keep science on an even keel (however small the role). As an editor I see what’s going on and can generally get access to these and other papers in the journal, and hopefully influence and improve the devlopment of the journal. That is, however, about it. Certainly a good paper in a good journal will help my profile and can count for things in research reviews and the like and it can be worth a lot, but it’s still no guarantee that the people who need to see my paper will or even can.

The trade off does therefore vary enormously from journal to journal with the prestige of the journal, the access it grants to others, the promotion it gets, and the ease and help that can accompany the submission and review process (some are far more tortuous than others, some are blessed with excellent editors, others cursed). However, I think most would note that for many journals it does seem like they get an awful lot (all my time, efforts, the actual science itself since I give them the copyright) for not a huge amount in return (it gets published and many, but not all people can see it). Of course how this affects individuals and institutes can only really be talked about in a case-by-case basis (what is this paper worth in this journal?) but based on my own experiences I can’t help thinking that in the future I should be more selective about what I do with my work once it is finished and before I formally hand it over. In my mind the trade off is certainly worth it in some cases, but far from all.

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