Ten years in the making of Luchibang

Some research papers can take a long time to finish and delays for all kinds of reasons can put projects on hold indefinitely or even kill them eventually. Luchibang has a particularly long lead up time but the history of this description and naming take in a whole bunch of issues over publication which are informative and important.

To begin at the beginning, way back sometime around 2010 (or possibly even 2009) while I was doing my postdoc at the IVPP, Xu Xing came to my office and asked me to look at a pterosaur specimen. A colleague of his was looking to acquire it for a museum and had been assured it was a new taxon but wanted confirmation. It was, of course, what has become the holotype of Luchibang, and it was immediately obvious that this was unusual and new with the large legs and somewhat odd tooth arrangement and so after a few minutes of checking various details and cross referencing with a few papers, the curator left happy.

A few months later the specimen was back as I’d been invited to describe it. I really hadn’t expected the opportunity and was delighted to do so and so set about the task of doing a full description. I didn’t include a phylogenetic analysis for a number of reasons, but notably as the specimen was so clearly an istiodactylid and their own relationships were rather unresolved, adding what was obviously a juvenile into the mix would have been a fair bit of work to not actually add any real information.

Looking through my files this was submitted sometime in late 2010 or early 2011. The paper came back from review after a time when I had left China and was now in Ireland, with one referee liking it a lot, but with the other review came a bombshell. They through the specimen might be a composite.

This was obviously a huge problem because first, I was worried it genuinely was and I’d somehow missed this and second because now I was back in Europe the specimen was hardly easy to access, and proving it was genuine was going to be tough. The referee pointed to the unusual hindlimbs and what they thought were unusually long cervical vertebrae and suggested this was an azhdarchid body on an istiodactylid head. My lack of phylogeny had also come back to haunt me as they suggested an analysis where the head and body were coded separately should reveal what respective animals they might come from. It then took me about three years to be able to begin to resolve this issue. Eventually I did get back to see the specimen and was able to do the most important thing to show it was genuine – to reprepare bits of it myself by hand.

The matrix and even the bone vary quite a lot in the specimen and that’s quite common in various specimens from Liaoning so this itself was no concern. It was suggested UV photographs might reveal any shenanigans, but work Helmut Tischlinger and I had done on several specimens at the IVPP showed that even those collected and prepared by the museum could show dramatically variable reflectance on single slabs and this would be unreliable in this situation (not that Helmut was around at the time either!). So instead I set to the specimen with some picks and carefully chipped away at the matrix at various points on the specimen where the head met the body. There was no glue, no cracks, no joins, no restoration, only natural and original sediments. Checking the margins of the slab also showed no cracks or joins where a piece could have been incised into the rest of the specimen and again, no traces of glue or other tampering at the margins. The very tip of the snout also is broken off at the margin of the specimen which helps trace the bones to the very edges. Critically, if you look closely it’s also clear that every part of the main skeleton is in direct contact to another part. The bones of the skull actually touch those of the neck, which contact those of the wings and chest, which contact the legs. If the head had been added to the specimen, it has been done to make the bones touch each other and even merge with each other (this happens on flattened specimens) and with no joins between them under preparation. In short, this must be genuine.

I have seen plenty of faked, and otherwise ‘improved’ specimens at various times and they are never even close to looking convincing once you study them in detail (and most are not convincing at all) and there’s some other circumstantial evidence to support his being genuine. Despite the odd loss of the back of the head, we’d expect in such a juvenile animal that the skull bones would not be fused together and so the ontogenetic status of the head does match the body and the proportions are about right too. It seems unlikely that not only were people able to insert a skull perfectly onto a postcranium but did so with an animal of the right size and growth stage (and why would they not put in a complete skull at that?). Minor points compared to the lack of evidence for any tampering, but all suggesting a genuine specimen.

Despite the lack of a phylogeny, I now wrote to the editor of the journal and pointed out that I was now able to confirm that the specimen was genuine. I’d been able to show that some of the alleged azhdarchid traits were actually shared with some ornithocherids too reducing that side of the equation, and I had even had a PhD student who was in China at the time do some prep themselves and confirm my observations and was able to have them send a supporting letter to support this. To my dismay, despite having previously agreed this would be sufficient, the editor now said they didn’t think it was enough to support publication of the specimen and they wanted to see some systematics.

I no longer had access to my systematics programs and while a couple of times I approached potential coauthors to help me run some phylogenetics, no one with the expertise I needed had the time. With my career now changing and my having less and less time for such work and the frustration of the delays the whole project fell to one side. I couldn’t convince the editor and didn’t have the time to do the new analyses and couldn’t get help with it. I didn’t abandon it, but nor did I think it was ever going to get done. I also had doubts about being about to convince any other referees or journals about the specimen so didn’t want to invest time and just have the paper bounce from journal to journal.

Then came the most recent Flugsaurier conference in LA and this coincided with my having a bit of free time. I decided this would be a great opportunity for a test case – I could present the specimen to a whole raft of researchers and lay out everything as I’ve done here and see what people said. After all, various experts on istiodactylids, ornithocheirds and azhdarchids would be there and the collective knowledge in the room would be greater than mine and a couple of coauthors and referees. In creating the talk, I was also able to delve back into the pterosaurian literature and with many years of new papers and in particular phylogenies meaning there were lots of new traits described and defined that could be used to support various taxonomic affinities. This really helped as I could now also find more traits in both the vertebrae and even the long legs that were clearly ornothocheiroid in nature and not azhdarchoid.

To my delight the audience was very receptive to the idea and only one person flagged a single trait that they thought might compromise my diagnosis as it should be present but didn’t appear to be. Talking to them more about it afterward and going through some photos we were able to establish that this was there as well and the apparent last of the questions over the possibility of any fakery were removed. Still though, a phylogeny would be nice and at this meeting I met Adam Fitch who was playing with pterosaur phylogenetics and had the time to get involved. We ran analyses to show that both the head and postcranium independently clustered with other ornithocheirids and I wrote a section to provide the evidence that the specimen was genuine. So the paper was dragged out into the light, got updated and revised and had a new phylogeny added that Adam and I produced. And so, submission and plain sailing to publication.

If only.

The first journal we sent it to rejected it with a long review pointing out that we really shouldn’t have included a lot of information showing the specimen was genuine. If there was any question about it, it shouldn’t be published at all, so we should take that information out. So the paper was revised, the material relegated to the supplementary information and onto the next journal.

This time it got rejected with the referee noting that the specimen either was actually a weird toothed azhdarchid or might not be genuine and we should include a clear explanation as to why we thought it was. They clearly hadn’t read the supplementary info with several pages of material on this exact subject or considered that maybe the long list of traits that we showed were homologies of ornithocheirids and istiodactylids. To make it worse, that same person then phoned me a couple of months later to say they’d seen a very similar specimen in another lab in China. So not only is there allegedly another one out there (making this seem more likely to be genuine) but now after all this time we might get eaten to the punch by another lab while we were being rejected for publication based on the review of a person now telling me they thought it was genuine.

So, we submitted to Palaeontological Electronica. It meant we could include lots of colour images and come out with an OA publication and importantly they require a four week turn around for reviews. Of course the paper then sat with the journal for nearly four months and several e-mails went ignored by an editor which only added to the frustration. During this time a new istiodactylid was published from China and then a near-complete specimen of the very closely related Mimodactylus meaning the paper managed to get out of date more in 3 months in review than it had in a 10-year hiatus. Eventually the reviews came back and the only substantive comments from the referees were that we should include the taxa which had just come out while our paper was in review. That meant redoing the phylogenetic analysis which wasn’t trivial (and it yielded effectively identical results), but we were able to return the paper fairly swiftly and now it’s finally out.

Hopefully this goes a very long way to explaining the various dips and delays in taking this specimen from first penning a description a decade ago to coming out now. Self-imposed breaks, unavoidable delays in accessing the specimen while on the wrong side of the world, other commitments, and recalcitrant referees and editors have all played a part. Establishing that the specimen is genuine was obviously important once the spectre had been raised, and it clearly improved the paper by forcing me to refine my arguments and make more detailed comparisons with various other taxa and by delving deeper into their anatomies. That said, it was a huge issue I could have done without and the timing could not have been worse as I’d just left China. This is though, the end of the tale now that the specimen is published, but there’s still more blog to come on the wonderful (and rather late) Luchibang.

5 Responses to “Ten years in the making of Luchibang”


  1. 1 Mickey Mortimer 10/03/2020 at 5:13 pm

    Heh, after my experience with Lori I can relate.

    “The first journal we sent it to rejected it with a long review pointing out that we really shouldn’t have included a lot of information showing the specimen was genuine. If there was any question about it, it shouldn’t be published at all, so we should take that information out.”

    Wow, what a terrible philosophy. More information’s always better.

  2. 2 Christophe Hendrickx 10/03/2020 at 10:44 pm

    Yeah, I also related to that experience. My paper on the distribution of dental features in theropods (https://palaeo-electronica.org/content/2019/2806-dental-features-in-theropods) took me almost eight years from the moment I started writing something to the moment it was published. Lot’s of frustration but, like you, it’s out (in PE as well) and I’m now so happy I don’t have to work on this project anymore!!! More on the process of publication in here: https://sites.google.com/site/hendrickxchristophe/dental-features-in-theropods

    Christophe

  3. 3 kestrelart 12/03/2020 at 9:47 pm

    Congratulations on your perseverance. I wonder what’s driving these negative reviews.


  1. 1 A little more Luchibang | Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 11/03/2020 at 11:06 am
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