Scientific collaboration – genesis of the wrists

Those who know me well enough (or have been bored enough to read my publications list) will know that I am a frequent, if not nearly constant, collaborator. (Those who have also published a few papers themselves will know that there are lies, damned lies, and authorship lists). Nevertheless, I do collaborate a lot and the two main reasons I would give for this are increased expertise and increased originality in the work.

The former is rather obvious – colleagues with specialist knowledge (especially if from well outside your normal fields of interest) can provide lots of information and knowledge that you won’t have to hand, and might take a very long time to acquire. This is both a time saver and a paper-improver so it’s easy to see why people will want to club together on a project. Less obvious, but potentially more important, is that outsiders genuinely do often see things from a very different perspective that can take your work in new directions. It sounds like a cliche but I also find that it’s true.

A good recent example is the paper on dinosaurian wrist articulation that I wrote with Corwin Sullivan and colleagues. Corwin had been thinking about wrist joints in birds and dinosaurs and what he might describe how the joint had evolved. Having spotted that birds had a strongly abducted wrists and basal theropods a straight one, the change had to occur somewhere in maniraptorans. On the other side, I’d been thinking about the position and extent of various feather groups in theropods, but had not though of any good way that I could investigate the implications of the changing lengths of these feathers.

Ultimately the two came together as Corwin realised that there should be ostological features in the wrist that could be used to determine the flexibility of the wrist, but while of course this would be interesting in its own right, he thought there was likely more could be done and asked me what I thought of the idea. It immediately occurred to me that this was the kind of thing I’d been lacking – a possible correlate for the long arm feathers that I had been looking for and one that had the potential to explain, or at least examine, their evolution. The paper as it stands now really did largely come from the relatively short conversation that afternoon. We now had a couple of relatively concrete ideas about what we wanted to examine and how and what we might be able to tell from the results.

In the time since then, we have of course talked over the project quite a bit, but we have also discussed this ‘genesis’. Both of us are quite confident that there was little or no chance of us having produced the paper we did without the other. I’m not enough of an anatomist to have been able to sit down and work through the wrist anatomy of the theropods to work out how I might determine their flexibility (and it probably would not have even occurred to me to look there in the first place). Equally though, Corwin was working on how and when the wrist transition had occurred, but was stuck as to what might have caused this or what the selective advantage might have been.

Serendipitous perhaps, but it does demonstrate the value of working with colleagues with specialist knowledge, and with different ideas and takes on subjects than you have yourself. Of course this happens constantly simply when people read others’ research and make a connection to their own work or thoughts, but that does not detract from the gains that can be made by sharing ideas and working together.

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