On professionalism in palaeontology

A couple of recent discussions on professionals vs amateurs in palaeontology have sprung up of late. I’ve long meant to stick my oar into this area and this therefore seems like a good opportunity. However, I’m not sure I’ll say much different to anyone else, so don’t expect any serious revelations.

Palaeo is one of the few scientific fields where it is relatively easy for someone completely outside the academic / research system to make meaningful contributions. You can find fossils and describe fossils and get access to specimens easily and cheaply in a way that’s not really possible with, say, particle physics. Few people have a collider on their doorstep and have 50 million dollars knocking around to run it for a year, most people can go see a dinosaur bone at the local museum for the price of a bus fare. Many of these people have a valid and useful, (even critical on occasion) role to play in palaeo research. (Note: and here I mean research in the sense of publishing papers, not all those other things like technical drawings, photography, preparation, excavation, etc. etc. which are important to research and are also contributed to by a wide variety of people, and nor am I including people who *don’t* publish, or try to).

The question then often seems to come as ‘is there some bias / elite / whatever against such amateurs’. And the answer there is a categorical ‘no’. I really don’t know of anyone who has any problem with amateur / non-accredited people publishing research. There are famous examples of people who make superb contributions to palaeo (Jack MacIntosh being an obvious example) and I and many of my colleagues have friends and collaborators in the ‘amateur’ community and use and respect their knowledge and abilities. However, it is not frivolous to examine what we mean by ‘professional’.

It seems, on occasion, to be used as a mark of separating out those employed academics (a ‘dictionary’ professional as it were) from the rest. But I think the term here really applies to *how* people work. No one thinks twice when they go to an amateur or high-school play and here the comment “that was really professional”. The point is not ‘were they paid?’ or even ‘how well did they do?’, but really ‘what standards did they aspire to?’. I worked as a volunteer (i.e. unpaid) at a couple of zoos for several years. I was an amateur, but what I aspired to and how I acted, was professionally. I turned up on time and properly dressed, I worked hard, I respected the chain of authority, I did what I was told to do how I was told to do it and on time and to the best of my ability. Aside from a lack of experience and my obvious youth I would have hoped that it would have been hard to tell me from other young members of staff. I was professional about my work, even if I occasionally made mistakes.

This then is the critical point. There are tenured professors who don’t review papers or do so badly, who write half-arsed manuscripts and slide them into unreviewed or pseudo-reviewed journals and books, and who make life difficult for colleagues though lack of general collegiality, communication or whatever. There are also unpaid but keen and talented people who write superb papers in their spare time, and get them into tough-reviewed high-end journals and share their data and ideas with their colleagues. One could all the former a professional and the latter an amateur but to do so would be inaccurate in both cases.

However, while obviously these are both ends of the spectrum and there is much in between, I would say that, *on average*, the ‘dictionary’ professional is a better researcher than the amateur. There is no need to have a degree or PhD (or hell, even a high-school education) to be a scientists and publish papers. But certainly it’s true that you will learn a lot from going through a Masters or Doctorate, and from working with excellent researchers and students and having access to methods, papers, and materials that others do not, and at least for part of the year, more time to work on things. That is, I hope, simple common sense, but not a bias – merely the benefit. Training and experience is likely to help one improve their skills and abilities, though it’s no guarantee of quality (and we can all list examples I’m sure!). Researchers and their research should be evaluated on their own merits and as such there is no bias against ‘amateurs’ of any description in science. If there is I have not seen it or even heard of it, and it should not be there. A degree or two helps, naturally, and it’s good to be paid to do things you like, but it does not make you a professional. Acting correctly and publishing good work does, irrespective of anything else.

6 Responses to “On professionalism in palaeontology”


  1. 1 Kentuckiana Mike 04/07/2010 at 12:11 am

    Nice posting.

    Did part of your text get cut off at the end?

    My browser is showing the last sentence as: “One could all the former a professional and the”

    • 2 David Hone 04/07/2010 at 9:10 am

      Err, yes, but not sure how. As noted I’ve been having real trouble with wordpress of late but i had though this had survived. Annoyingly, i don’t have the original text, but I’ll add the last two lines as best I can recall. thanks.

  2. 4 Steve 05/07/2010 at 6:47 am

    There’s a big middle ground; I’m a geologist by trade, but long since moved into IT. I still assist one of my mates who is still an academic geologist working with the paleo lads on some digs here in Australia. So I’m not a rank amateur but nor am I a dedicated professional paleontologist – I’m an ex-exploration geo who’s spent 10 years kicking over rocks in the Australian bush who loves the experience of spending a week or so a year in the the field, which here can be pretty remote. I’m of most assistance helping with the work to reconstruct paleo-environments, looking at the rocks themselves in and around the fossils.

    • 5 David Hone 05/07/2010 at 8:59 am

      I’m not pretending it’s black and white, but a spectrum (i.e. a lot of middle ground). There are all kinds of semi-lapsed and pseudo-lapsed researchers who make real contributions. I think many class these as ‘amateurs’ based on the infrequency of their work and the lack of formal affiliations with research institutes. As far as I’m concerned, if you are publishing (or assisiting in the publishing) of good work, however infrequently, whatever your background and training, then you are acting in a ‘professional’ manner and deserve to be treated as such in terms of the actions and approach of others.


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