Pssst – wanna be a palaeontologist?

My target audience on the Musings is, at least in my mind, are those people who are not experts in dinosaurs or even necessarily that interested in the past world but still find life (prehistoric and otherwise) of general interest but perhaps find the mainstream media too lightweight and full on technical papers and blogs too detailed. However, if you ever wanted to make the step up and actually, you know, be a scientist here’s your chance.

logo_big1Andy Farke, Matt Wedel and Mike Taylor have got together and perhaps insanely created the Open Dinosaur Project (which to me sounds like a veterinary issue). What is the wondrous concept I hear you ask? Well a lot of dinosaur research at the coalface simply revolves around collecting data – most notably measurements. How big each individual bone was in various dimensions can potentially tell you a huge amount about an animal: not just did it have long legs, but were they longer than it’s relatives, absolutely longer or proportionally longer, where they all longer or just the front legs, was this linked to their habitats or predators? This is great in theory but as I can testify, when you want to compare a few hundred animals, scattered in a few dozen collections worldwide and described in a thousand different journal articles it can take months of work to produce the data to make one graph that will support one paragraph in a published paper. It is, in short, labour intensive.

The solution? Open source palaeontology – if you have an hour to spare, pick up a scientific journal, get some data for them and enter it on their online database. And then, this is the good bit, not only will you be directly contributing to palaeontological research but they will invite you to be an author on the paper. Yes, you too can become a real published scientist with a real academic paper to your name. And the website contains ALL the information you need – it matters not if you have never read a paper before or don’t know your humeri from your femora, it’s all there. And don’t worry about access to the papers either – most of them are freely available online these days. All you need is a few *minutes*, an internet connection and a bit of motivation / interest in dinosaurs and if you are reading this blog you probably have all of them already. So head on over there and become a real researcher.


Since they have also asked me to try to generate a bit of discussion I will say this – I think they are going to run into some huge problems for all kinds of reasons and while I sincerely hope for the best and wish them well, I strongly suspect this may end in time consuming frustration. However (and this a ten storey ‘However’ with wall to wall carpeting throughout, chandeliers and a large sign outside says “This is a large ‘However’”) this would in itself be a good thing (the attempt, not the failure) – this kind of collaborative project whether between many academics or recruiting the public is likely to increase in science. More and more projects like this will appear (there are some like it on a much smaller scale) and learning how to do it, what the problems are and how to get past them will make the next attempt infinitely easier no matter how much of a failure this might be (and despite the pessimism above, they have a good shot at making this work). Good luck guys (you’ll probably need it).

And if you were wondering as I forgot to say so, their project is on ornithischian limb bones, hence the appearance of an iguanodontid in the middle of the text.

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6 Responses to “Pssst – wanna be a palaeontologist?”

  1. 1 220mya 09/09/2009 at 12:24 pm

    Why don’t you provide some specifics on the “huge” problems you see? That way people can start thinking about them and try to overcome them rather than get blind-sided later. You know – constructive criticism – its what science is all about!

    Honestly, I don’t see the challenges of this project to be an different or larger than those faced by any other meta-analysis (e.g., the Paleobiology Database). The ODP have already installed safe-guards to ensure the quality of data entry. Now, the quality of data itself is another matter – but this is something faced by all meta-analyses. There’s going to be error and bias in the dataset, but as long as this is fairly randomly distributed across the dataset, its not a problem in terms of detecting overall signal.

    The bottom line for me is if the Paleobiology database can result in over 100 publications, including papers in Nature, Science, and PNAS, there’s no reason why the ODP can’t succeed.

    • 2 David Hone 09/09/2009 at 12:49 pm

      Well I didn’t want to cover it for a variety of reasons:

      Some of them might arise as it were only if I announce them (or at least that’s a possibility).

      Most of them seem to have been raised already on other forums (so they are out there and can be discussed) and I don’t think adding another dispersed location for this is a good idea since it separates things out and duplicates issues.

      I’m already discussing them with the ODP team and I think it’s better to talk it through there before airing it in public. So in a sense they have been aired with the right people in the right way, I’ve just not stuck it up on here – there is constructive criticism, just not in public. Plus their tutorials are yet to be published which may yet explain / counter much of what I forsee as issues (in which case I’m guilty of unnecessary alarm / criticism).

      These are my friends and I already feel a bit bad about saying I think they might fail.

      As I say I *DO* think this is a very good idea and I’m glad they are doing it and it will be worthwhile no matter what happens – I’m probably being unduly negative, but it’s just my opinion.

  2. 3 Andy Farke 09/09/2009 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks for the post! Yes, Dave and I have already been in touch about some potential issues. . .(most of which have been discussed in several forums, such as VRTPALEO). Some issues are ones we (the ODP team) had thought about already, some are food for thought, and some are (in my opinion) probably not much to lose sleep over. I take no offense at Dave’s criticism (even if I think we have at least a fighting chance at success), even if I disagree on the level of concern on some points. 🙂

    Of course, any suggestions are much appreciated! The discussions on data entry, referencing, etc., over at the ODP blog have been very, very helpful, and we’ve been able to work towards revising some of our protocols in recognition of that.

  1. 1 Progress Report: Day 1 « The Open Dinosaur Project Trackback on 09/09/2009 at 1:11 pm
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