Buried Treasure – Mike Taylor

So kicking off the first in the series of favourite / underappreciated papers is Mike Taylor of SV-POW. Here’s his thoughts on one of his own works:

The paper I look on most fondly is Taylor and Wedel (2013) on “Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks”. I like the snarky title, of course — when I give talks about this subject, I just use the second half — and the subject matter is dear to my heart. But it’s how this paper came together that makes me love it the most.

It started out on a car journey in 2008. All three Wedels were staying with us that summer, as Vicki had a leprosy conference in Bradford. Matt and I visited several museums while they were around. I think it was as we were driving back from Oxford that we started listing the ways that sauropod necks didn’t make mechanical sense to us. Since I was the one driving, Matt took out his notepad and started making lists. “What the hell is going on?”, we asked — and so the embryonic project was dubbed WTH, for “what the hell”.

More than any of our other papers, this one went through really significant revisions. The earliest “complete” version was rather formless: it contained a lot of good stuff, but there was no structure to it. We revised it into an unconventional form with three main sections: “Facts”, “Interpretation” and “Speculation”. At this point, the title was still “What the hell is wrong with you? Mechanical design flaws in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”.

This was also the basic shape of the version we finally submitted to a journal, though by then it had the more sober (and boring) title “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”. We had a very bad review experience at that journal, which I won’t go over here; but suffice to say that the result was that, having thoroughly reworked it into a form resembling the one we know today, we sent it to a different journal rather than back to the first one. We were bullish about this submission, and pleased to think we were giving a good paper to a journal that could probably use it. So we were rather shocked to find it rejected with reviews that we couldn’t sympathise with — especially one that said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript”, which we feel is praise though it was intended as criticism.

We made some revisions in response to those reviews, but by the time we’d done that PeerJ was on the horizon so we sent it there — and after very quick and genuinely helpful reviews, it was published as part of that journal’s first batch: https://peerj.com/articles/36/

We’re really happy with the “story-like” final form of the paper. Our goal was to make something that was not only informative but also fun to read. I hope the progression of the argument makes sense — Introduction, Long Necks in Different Taxa (finishing with sauropods), Factors Enabling Long Necks, Architecture of Sauropod Necks — and that readers always have a solid sense of where they are in the progressing argument. We’re also really happy with the illustrations in this paper: PeerJ, being an online-only open-access journal, imposes no limits, so this is a lavishly illustrated paper with some comparative illustrations (Figs 1, 3 and 7 particularly) that we’re really proud of: https://peerj.com/articles/36/#fig-3

Finally, I won’t deny it’s satisfying that a paper which was (wrongly, we feel) rejected by two palaeo journals has gone on to be viewed 23,000 times by 17,000 different visitors, and has been downloaded 3,000 times. We very much hoped that that paper would reach a non-specialist audience as well as other researchers, and those numbers suggest that’s happening.

 

Finally, Mike has a pick for an underappreciated paper by someone else is:

Hokkanen, J. E. I. 1986. The size of the largest land animal. Journal of Theoretical Biology 188: 491-499.


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