Some months ago I wrote a post about the proliferation of scientific literature and how hard it is to keep up, even with a relatively specialised field. Regular readers will also be aware of my paper on theropod feeding behaviour where I explicitly talk about and review the evidence for gut contents in large bodied theropod dinosaurs.
Not surprisingly there are not many papers out there on the contents of predatory dinosaur stomachs. I read what I knew about. I check those papers that had cited classic works that looked relevant. I read the papers cited in those classic works that looked relevant. I read reviews and check their citations. I spoke to other colleagues about the project and showed them the manuscript, and still other people read the paper during review and I’ve had numerous discussions about it since.
A couple of days ago in a conversation about this, Hans Larsson directed me to a paper on tyrannosaur gut contents. It’s by a well known theropod worker, in a well known palaeontological journal and deal with exactly the right subject. It was a record of tyrannosaur specimen with the bones of another chewed-up animal in it’s stomach. Yet, not only had I not cited this paper in my project, but I had not read it and indeed was not even aware of it. (OK, I might have forgotten, but the tile is clear and unambiguous and was exactly what I was looking for, it’s unlikely).
This brings home to me, stronger than even I had realised, how easy it is to miss things. I went looking for this kind of thing and everything about this paper meant I should have found it and indeed found it very quickly, yet it slipped through the gaps of my net, and it seems, quite a few others. Not that I am blaming my co-author or colleagues, but no-one else seemed to notice that this was missing or suggested that I include it, suggesting that at least some of them didn’t know about it either. There is a ton of literature out there and even when searching for something specialised, in a fairly systematic way on a subject where the material should be relatively easily available, it can be overlooked, even by a number of people.
If you’re looking for a kind of resolution to this, there isn’t one really. I wish I’d spotted this and I wish I’d found the paper and been able to include it. It would have strengthened my position in the paper and now it won’t, for me personally that’s a shame, but I suspect it might also be for the original author. He really should have got some credit for this from me and hasn’t, nor (in the literature) can he. Still, it might make me more lenient in the future when I try to puzzle how something has reached the literature without citing some of my work that appears (to my eye) to be essential to the proposition. I hope it might also reach the ears of a few referees who can be more lenient themselves when castigating authors for having missed key papers. It can, and does, happen.