All at sea

Sauropod fans will probably be regular readers of SV-POW! and might have spotted the recent posts here and here on the sort-of-but-not-quite paper by a group working on some privately collected material. There are all kinds of issues about the rights and wrongs of collecting material like this and producing papers on material that is privately held and indeed a paper that is privately published and apparently un-reviewed. All of this aside (and not that it is not important) for me the real issue is the proposal in the manuscript that pretty much every sauropod in the Morrison (thinks like Amphicoelias, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and many others) are ALL just a single species.

Now this is perhaps silly at best, and what it does (if this paper gets published) is create as huge problem that simply should not exist. As I have said repeatedly on here, publishing a paper is about style and attitude, not qualifications. However, inevitably, those people without formal training (or a limited amount) in academia and palaeontology are more likely to make bigger mistakes.

Issues of all kinds, but especially taxonomic ones, can be a massive headache for mainstream research. Such problems are incredibly easy to create and very hard to fix. One solution (often adopted by those wishing to skirt around such papers) is to simply ignore it. Don’t refer to the work or cite it (or at least the problematic issues). I don’t like this as it is, I think, intellectually dishonest to ignore the work when you know it exists (however bad, or complex). The alternative is though, I admit, little better. To fix these problems can involve the creation of a long and difficult paper which will take a huge amount of time but achieve little other than restoring the status quo. Whichever person ends up taking on the responsibility will lose quality research time to get back to the status quo and produce something that few people will read or cite.

Take the example here, assuming it is published with the ideas as stated. One would have to establish that the new taxon is not synonymous with every other sauropod in the Morrison and  reestablish all the existing genera and demonstrate that these are genuine and not just the result of variation or sexual dimorphism or ontogeny. Obviously much of this has gone before, but restating it the context of a new taxon makes it awkward and it’s all utterly unnecessary.

This is not to pick on the paper in question (enough people are doing that) but to make a point. Science is there to make progress and create understanding. There are ways of doing this from dabbling in the shallows to diving deep where far from land. However, one should work from one to the other. Picking your spot and hurling yourself out into the unknown without the requisite experience or training means those that have it have to come and rescue you and one should not be surprised if they find the job onerous, unnecessary, tedious and annoying. They want to explore the depths of understanding, not try and drag your embarrassing mess back shore and throw it up on the beach so it can’t bother the others. It’s not their job, but they’ll do it. But you are wasting their time if they do save you, and cluttering the view with your rubbish if they just let it sink to the bottom.

The obvious solution? Don’t do it. Just because it looks fun and easy doesn’t mean that it is and learning that will make it better for everyone. Sadly I can cite a few examples of people whose only response to this kind of this is to jump back in even further out than last time but hopefully a few might learn the lessons of others and take the steps to get it right having seen this one flounder.

6 Responses to “All at sea”

  1. 1 Anonymous 09/10/2010 at 10:29 pm

    “dabbling in the shallows to diving deep where far from land”

    You realize you made a terrible, terrible pun here, right?

  2. 3 Bill Parker 10/10/2010 at 5:44 am

    Although the suggestion comes up quite often, ignoring work no matter how it is published is quite unethical. What makes this paper any different then the stuff that comes up in certain self-published, self-reviewed museum bulletins? The alternative is to treat the paper critically and test the hell out of it as should be done with all science. If you shortcut, don’t produce your best work, and circumvent proper peer review then you deserve direct criticism from your peers. Queston is…can you take it?

    • 4 David Hone 10/10/2010 at 8:05 am

      Well I don’t think it’s *that* unethical (and in the case where this stuff was unethically produced, I’m not sure it’s unethical at all) to ignore terrible work. I certainly don’t think it is good practice and it is not something I do myself, but I can see why people take that line.

      Like I say, I have nothing against going to the trouble of slating a bad paper. But it is generally a real pain and can be a lot of work for minimum reward when of course the damned thing should not exist in the first place.

      To play devil’s advocate, I could go and publish a ‘paper’ online or self-published and distributed to a few journals, where I split, oh I don’t know, every decent specimen of Pteranodon (a few hundred) into a new taxon, put pterosaurs and theropods into bird on the grounds that they have hollow bones, lumped all maniraptorans into just three genera and rediagnosed a bunch of sauropods based on limb lengths. I could write all of this in a few hours, but it would take days, perhaps weeks of work to fix in a reply paper *and* you’d be stuck forever more with a huge list of synonymys for Pteranodon every time you mentioned in in a systematic context. Would it really be in our best interests to tie up weeks of valuable work time of people working on dinosaurs, pterosaurs and birds, just to point out this is nonsense. When it was not even reviewed or fact checked (aside from it being wrong)?

  1. 1 Playing the game « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 10/10/2010 at 4:03 pm
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