Posts Tagged 'review'

Sexual selection in the fossil record

Regular readers will know that for the last few years I’ve been slowly building a research profile concentrating on the behaviour and ecology of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. While the various papers on feeding behaviour, stomach contents, predation and niche partitioning in theropods has been the more high profile, I think the work on sexual selection is arguably more important as it potentially has profound implications for how we interpret all manner of fossils and how they may (or may not) relate to one another. After all, there’s a major ecological and taxonomic difference between identifying two species of a clade, and one species that exhibits major sexual dimorphism.

My colleagues and I have already looked at the idea that sauropod necks were driven by sexual selection, and after much strife, finally got a paper published discussing mutual sexual selection and the implications that has for diagnosing taxa in the fossil record and what it might mean for parental care and other aspects of behaviour. There’s more to come in these areas as I have further work planned and am involved in some other areas linked to this, so the area is growing rapidly and, I hope, ripe for a general revisit in the literature. However, while these papers have in large part being about drawing out some false assumptions in the literature and providing new hypotheses about sexual selection that could be looked at in the fossil record, they were a bit short on how this could be done, and were if anything, narrow in focus (not that Ornithodira is a small group, but its got nothing on Animalia).

So then to a paper in TREE that came out yesterday online. Led by entomologist Rob Knell, it also includes  Darren Naish and myself and attempts to provide a review of the entire question of sexual selection in the fossil record. We look at ways in which this could be diagnosed, some false dichotomies and assumptions that have been put forwards in the past, try to identify some key features that may help diagnose sexual selection and look at some of the more convincing cases for this that have been put together to date. Clearly there’s a limit to what we can get into under 10 pages for what is supposed to be a review, but I think there’s some nice synthesis in there and a bit more “we can try doing this”-type stuff, that just covering what has been said before. Anyway it’s out and available (though behind a paywall, sorry) so go take a look.

Knell, R., Naish, D., Tompkins, J.L. & Hone, D.W.E. Sexual selection in prehistoric animals: detection and implications. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, in press.

Book review: When Dinos Dawned….

I would have put the full title of the book in the title of of the post, but frankly I thought it might end up filling the whole page. “When Dinos Dawned, Mammals got Munched & Pterosaurs took Flight: a Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic” is probably one of the longest titles going, but this is perhaps the only real criticism I can have of this book.

This entry is the latest in a series for National Geographic by author / artist Hannah Bonner. It’s aimed at children quite clearly, but I think there’s enough depth to be of interest to adults and bring a little enlightenment to even knowledgeable readers. The science is basically perfect, and the material is presented in a fun and accessible manner. The drawings are simple in style, but extremely accurate in terms of anatomy and settings and nicely executed – there are ‘cartoon’ style animals for various panels, but the majority of the content is more like the cover shown here.

The Triassic is of course a time when lots of interesting things were happening. While perhaps understandably most books like this would focus on dinosaurs and by extension the Jurassic and Cretaceous, there is a lot more to the Mesozoic than just dinosaurs and the Triassic has most of that covered. Odd crocs, aetosaurs, phytosaurs, the first pterosaurs, the first icthyosaurs, prolacertiforms and the weirdness that is things like Longisquama. A lot of these are unlikely to be on the radar of a young dinosaur enthusiast, so this really helps fill in the picture of what was going on in terms of evolution and the changing faunas.

Obviously the reptiles get to dominate this, but mammals, insects and even plants get a decent look-in and are put in context of what was going on. It was also good to see lots of more obscure things get a look in – even books that do cover aetosaurs or the like will often include a token animal – I certainly can’t think of any previous effort that covered three (count them!) drepanosaurs. When the rhynchosaurs, Panphagia, Lotosaurus, Odontochelys and Proterosuchus also get a mention and are illustrated, well it’s just lovely.

At this point I should probably note that I’m reviewing this because I was lucky enough to be sent a preview copy. My colleague Corwin Sullivan played a major role as a consultant on this book given his work on various Triassic critters and Hannah also contacted me during her research (but I don’t recall even giving her any specific help in the end). Still, she was kind enough to arrange for me to get a free copy and I’ll gladly cover it here (especially after I spotted a reference to the Musings in a list of useful websites in the back). Certainly the accuracy is to Corwin’s credit for his advice and to Hannah’s for taking it, and the book certainly benefits as a result.

Overall though this is an excellent effort with much to recommend about it – good science, nice art, a great theme and well written. While I’d imagine the market is a little limited, this is going to go down very will with all kinds of kids who like their dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties but want to know more and have more than enough books discussing Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus. Great stuff.

On review papers

Papers that act as summaries, syntheses of data, or basic, outright reviews are both important and successful parts of science. The prominence and importance of journals like the Quarterly Reviews in Biology and especially Trends in Ecology and Evolution shows their relevance, and let’s not forget that classic academic texts like The Dinosauria or Romer’s Osteology of Reptiles are more or less reviews of the existing literature. Yes of course there are new interpretations tacked onto these and corrections made to taxonomies, anatomy and the rest, but mostly they are a compilation of the most important and significant papers on the subject and present a consensus view of the current scientific positions.

Reviews are really useful. After all, it’s impossible or at least exceedingly hard to dive into a new subject (or even keep up to date effectively, or simply refresh your memory) from scratch. This is true of course for academics, but also for students of all levels, technicians and the general public – we all have to start somewhere. Review papers (in general) provide a foundation on a subject, giving the first principles of the issues at hand and the outline of what is known and how and what it means. It is not an end in itself, anyone with serious pretensions to work in that subject should be reading much further and wider, but this will be the place to start and of course provides a great resource for a given topic.

However, oddly it seems an awful lot of journals don’t really like publishing them. While there are dedicated review journals out there, my recent experiences with them is that they are overflowing with submissions or requests by people to produce submissions, so clearly lots of people are writing them or want to write them. The huge interest in things like TREE and the massive citations accrued by papers in them or something like the Dinosauria shows people are using them. However, a great many journals simply say that they will not publish reviews, or review-like manuscripts (or similarly useful things like catalogues of specimens, lists of localities or whatever). We seem to be in the odd position where people want to write something, readers recognise their value, they are widely used and cited, but the journals don’t want them.

Moreover, even the review journals can be difficult when it comes to reviews! A paper of mine was ultimately rejected from QRB because one referee demanded that we include new primary data and an analysis of this. I don’t disagree that a review can still contain new data and new ideas, but really? A review paper in a review journal has to contain new work and analyses? Even those that do publish seem to go in for either the tiny (TREE papers are just a few pages) or the monolithic (Annual Reviews in Earth Sciences) with little scope for something say in the 10 page range.

A few more journals willing to accept such manuscripts or even a couple more journals dedicated to reviews would seem to benefit all and sundry and I for one hope this can be encouraged.

Archosaur Musings 2011 roundup

Well as it’s the end of the year it’s time for my annual roundup of the last year’s trials and tribulations of my research and palaeolife. I’ve been generally ticking along well this year in terms of post numbers, at least in part because I’ve had a few major trips that have yielded much new material to blog about and I’ve been in the field less than previous years. As such I’ve been able to maintain nearly a post a day for the whole year which I’m rather proud of. Sticking with generalities, this year saw the Musings hit 500 000 visitors (and now closer to a million than that figure) and I passed a thousand posts too. The palaeoart interviews really took off this year and the guest posts continue to trickle in, most notably the second half on Darren Tanke’s superb Gorgosaurs series. Finally in just the last week I’ve signed up to Twitter which I hope will boost my outreach still further (like I really need that).

Moving on, as per usual I’m moving month-by-month, if mostly because it’s the easiest way of trawling though a whole years worth of posts to see what happened when and what’s worth commenting on. As usual, this is a personal list and deals really with things I did or that happened to me rather than

January saw the description of the little alvarezsaur Linhenykus. Notable for having just a single finger on each hand this was a great little thing to see described. While I can take fully no credit at all for it’s discovery, this was a paper that I was involved in from start to finish and was pleased to see it go through.

February saw the publication of a paper on science communication and my Ask A Biologist site (this is available here on Open Access for the next few days at least for those who are interested). AAB was started really because I wanted to do it and thought it would be useful, and it has grown enormously in the last few years. As such it was nice to get something more tangible personally from it by publishing a paper on the successes and failures of the site and to try and encourage other academics into committing themselves to outreach projects. This month also saw my first trip of the year to China, effectively to sign-off the formalities of my three years there and complete the necessary paperwork and interviews to ‘graduate’ with a formal postgraduate qualification from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (though I’m still waiting for the certificate).

Little happened in March until the last day of the month when I was finally able to bring the world Zhuchengtyrannus, an event that ran through much of April. Obviously this was incredibly popular as this was a new, large tyrannosaurine. For me though, it was the first dinosaur I’d named as the lead author and well, what a taxon to start with – there’s not to many of them out there. In hindsight it’s also a bit odd given the extensive training in taxonomy and systematics I’d had as a student and the work I’d done on pterosaurs and dinosaurs that I’ve yet to name any pterosaur and it took half a dozen taxa before I got my own dinosaur (as it were).

May saw the publication of my collaboration with the SV-POW crew on the alleged sexual selection of sauropod necks. It was a long process to get it there and after years of working on both it was somewhat annoying and frustrating for it came out just a few months before my most recent paper such that Darren Naish and I had to gazump our own paper and slip some mutual sexual selection commentary into this one. More importantly though it was good to really dig into sexual selection and try and get to grips with the subject and its importance to animal ecology.

I returned to China in June, this time for most of the summer and so June and July saw me in Dublin, London, Beijing, Zhucheng, Urumqi, Osaka, Okayama and Toyko. That meant that I was seeing dozens of specimens, carrying out my first fieldwork in Xinjiang, seeing major exhibits in museums and more. It has produced ammunition for a ton of posts and more importantly, a number of papers, at least a couple of which I hope will be out in 2012.

September was a very mixed month. On the upside, it was my first SVPCA in far too many years and as usual it was a superb meeting and I had the opportunity to catch up with a number of old friends and colleagues and get some important projects moving forwards. On the downside, it marked the end of my contract in Dublin, and for those who didn’t know or missed the hints, I am now unemployed. I realise economics are a bad time for all, but well, academia and especially science in the UK has been hit hard so it’s a terrible time to be job hunting. I’m not out of the game yet, but after 15 years of training, you would kinda hope to have a career at the end of it.

Being back in London did allow me to finally get out to Crystal Palace though and October saw my first ever trip to the historic creations in the park and see them. It was genuinely exciting and they were impressive and interesting in their own right, regardless of their obvious importance to the way dinosaurs were first brought to the public.

November brought another major first, my trip to the US and more specifically the Carnegie in Pittsburgh. I have Mike Habib to thank for his generous hospitality and in supporting my trip out there. This was a great opportunity for me to catch up with Mike and also Matt Lamanna, as well as indulging in the superb exhibition halls and getting down with their pterosaur collections. It was truly a superb week.

And so finally to December. Obviously things calm down here normally, though the appearance of my paper on mutual sexual selection in dinosaurs and pterosaurs was a great way to round of 2011. Started back in 2007 (or even 6 perhaps, I can’t really remember anymore) it’s finally come to fruition and for me it’s a very important piece of work and I’m delighted to have seen it through. Now to get the rest of my unpublished papers published. There’s only a few dozen things need finishing off in 2012….

The joys of reviews

I’ve written many times about the tortuous nature of peer-review but it does have a side that can be truly memorable for the right and wrong reasons. Some referees and editors clearly find it liberating not to have to couch everything in science-ese and let their literary side shine through. This can be quite warming and nice, or quite brutal. I’ve submitted the odd little aside to an author or editor that goes beyond ‘normal’ criticism or praise, but the journal of Environmental Microbiology has seen fit to publish some of those that they have been sent. I hope in at least a few cases that the authors never got to see them. Here though, are a choice few:

- This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author’s email ID so they can’t use the online system in future.

- Very much enjoyed reading this one, and do not have any significant comments. Wish I had thought of this one.

- Season’s Greetings! I apologise for my slow response but a roast goose prevented me from answering emails for a few days.

- I started to review this but could not get much past the abstract.

- Ken, I would suggest that EM is setting up a fund that pays for the red wine reviewers may need to digest manuscripts like this one. (Ed.: this excellent suggestion was duly proposed to the Publisher. However, given the logistical difficulties of problem-solving within narrow time frames, combined with the known deleterious effect of transport on good wine, a modification of the remedy was adopted, namely that Editors would act as proxies for reviewers with said digestive complaints.)

- I agreed to review this Ms whilst answering e-mails in the golden glow of a balmy evening on the terrace of our holiday hotel on Lake Como. Back in the harsh light of reality in Belfast I realize that it’s just on the limit of my comfort zone and that it would probably have been better not to have volunteered.

Hat tip to Charles Q. Choi for putting me onto this.
Referee’s quotes. 2010. Environmental Microbiology Volume 12, Issue 12, pages 3303–3304

Problems with peer review

There have been a number of posts both here and elsewhere on the mechanism of peer review (how papers are refereed before publication) and various comments coming through on the subject. Based on these and my own discussions with various colleagues as well as my experiences as a referee, editor and author, it seems to me that there are significant problems with the system. (I could have just been unlucky, or it might be really bad for dinosaur papers or palaeo ones, but discussions with colleagues in other disciplines suggest otherwise). However, I would argue that some of them could be alleviated or even fixed with a few relatively simple measures and others could be improved dramatically. Ultimately the real problem I suspect is simply a lack of time and or / funds to do things better and this quite possibly will never change. However, if sufficient people make sufficient noise about a problem, change can happen. This post therefore is going to consist of me putting forward what I think are serious problems with peer review, and ways that these can be improved. Everything is hypothetical (I can hardly be sure they will work, even if they are ever tried) but I think reasonable. I’d be very interested to hear what other professionals think of peer review as it stands and what could or should be done to improve the situation. Obviously in principle, the idea is fine, and many papers are reviewed and refereed properly and correctly, but this is not always the case (indeed could be argued is rarely the case) and this *is* a problem.

Continue reading ‘Problems with peer review’

Bad Science

If you look over the list of links on this site there is one that pretty much sticks out as being the only non-palaeontolgoy website on there and that is the imperious ‘bad science’. However, as I have barely mentioned it at all in the past, and the author Dr Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor and lecturer) now has a book out of the same title that I have just finished reading, there was never a better opportunity. The site (and newspaper column and book for that matter) are pretty much unique on the web in that they tackle science communication, and the media especially, head-on. So that’s an actual, real, practicing scientist, writing in a national newspaper, and primarily complaining about the poor way in which the media treats scientists. It really is a very pleasant concept indeed.

bad-science-bookBoth his website and columns in the Guardian deal with a mixture of media savaging and addressing bad science at its core – poor research papers. It appears that the medical community have to put up with far worse than the rest of us when it comes to poor research being published, with all kinds of issues over reviews and referees before we even start on the drugs companies and questions of ethics and controls in human experimentation. Of course the issues are so much more important when two extra factors have to be taken into consideration, the first is that fully half or more of all media reports on science are about health (so it gets far more attention than other fields) and secondly that of course the people at the front line of this (practicing doctors) do not have the time to wade through all the new papers and research and much of their training is well away from this kind of core academia, making them more vulnerable to poor science as they may not pick it up. The front end of both of these problems is lives – manipulate the results of a drug test and tens of thousands of people will be taking a drug that has a serious side effect and will ultimately kill people. I’m incredibly glad I’m not in the field of medicine.

So onto the book itself.
Continue reading ‘Bad Science’

Museo de las Aves

I have not really gone in for ‘reviews’ on this blog (of books, papers, abstracts or anything else) with just the odd one slipping in. However, my travels in Mexico have thrown up a couple of things that are worthy of further discussion for various reasons, and the above museum is well worth it. For the few of you whose Spanish is less accomplished than mine, it is the “Museum of Birds”.

Continue reading ‘Museo de las Aves’


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