Archive for July, 2010

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.

A quick break from tradition

I’m overworked and have a terrible cold right now which is not helping my mood. I am about to break with my normal approach to blogging – namely not dealing with ‘fringe’ issues and not dealing with problems openly online. However, it has come to my attention that several people are simply not playing fair and they are doing so based on my work / goodwill and thus I don’t think it unreasonable to call them on it.

First off, it appears that some people are using my photos / images without my permission. I’m all in favour of open source and science communication. However, I am also aware that things are often misused and I have a responsibility to try and keep the information accurate and in some cases, protect the rights of the museums or owners of the fossils or photographs. I am generally willing and able to let people use images on my site but I want to be asked first. That’s neither difficult nor unreasonable. I make it quite clear on the ‘about’ page:

“I should point out that all opinions on here are my own and are not endorsed by my current (or any previous) institution. Unless otherwise stated, all images are my own or specifically loaned with permission to use – please ask if you want to use them or link to them.”

and it turns up in various places on some specific pages too. I don’t have the time or facility to add watermarks etc. so I rely on the goodwill of people reading the site to do what I ask, or those who spot my images being used inappropriately or without permission to ask questions about them on my behalf or alert me to them. Some people who have been using this site for a long time are using things without permission. Please don’t.

Even more annoyingly, one little ‘scamp’* has decided to try and jack the credibility of myself and my colleagues to promote his nonsense. Regular readers will know about the awesome ‘‘ as set up by myself, Darren Naish, Mark Witton, Lorna Steel, Dino Frey, Ross Elgin, Mike Habib and John Conway (with contributions from Helmut Tishclinger and Luis Rey). It is neither arrogant nor unreasonable to point out that this is one hell of a collection of pterosaurs researchers and, despite some inevitable quibbles. this is about as accurate and expert set of information as you can get on these animals. We also set up a blog, called, unsurprisingly “” to carry on our information flow outside of the static mainsite. This started late last year.

It is then most annoying to see someone calling themselves ‘Dr Pterosaur’ set up “” to write about pterosaurs and, wait for it, how birds evolved from them. This is, quite clearly, an attempt to use our name to gain credibility and our internet traffic. This is wrong. Even the creationists haven’t set up TalkOrigin, and there’s no Palaeoerrata blog or I can hardly ask him to take it down. But I can publicly point out just how transparent this is and how underhand it is. You are taking our name and trying to take our credibility with it while pedaling non-science rubbish and all from the pseudo-safety of anonyminity (though I know who they are since they have traipsed over here several times and left behind their e-mail address and IP).

Right I’ll leave it there. In short, please play nice boys and girls. I can disagree with what you say to my heart’s content and you can say what you want. But don’t do it with my work (words or pictures) or my credibility. If you want to be taken seriously (and I can only assume you do), things like this do the exact opposite of what you intend to achieve. You are hurting yourselves as much as you are me.

*much worse words were used when I found out.

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