Archive for the 'Science Basics' Category

Books to read to become a palaeontologist

Despite (or because of) writing a long piece on ‘how to become a palaeontologist’, I still get loads of questions from people who want help and advice about getting into this field. While I encouraged people to read a lot, I didn’t get too specific since everyone has different backgrounds and areas they want to get into, and books (especially on dinosaurs) come out in a huge flurry and tend to date quickly. However, a recent query and some pondering led me to realise that actually there’s a core group of books I would recommend which is likely to be a useful starting point years or even decades from now (and indeed, many of the books are already decades old).

What may surprise people is that basically there’s no dinosaurs on the list and not really any palaeontology. This is because people who want to learn about palaeontology, whether just because they are interested, or because they have an active plan to becomes one, tend to get really obsessed with facts. Learning lists of formations and dates and faunal lists and how many teeth a species have are useful, but this use is limited. This stuff constantly changes and gets out of date and if you don’t know it or forget it, you can always look up the answer. What is infinitely more useful, is understanding – a knowledge of the principles at play and the fundamental basis of how organisms and systems work, and how we obtain and apply that knowledge.

In other words, reading dinosaurs books is a poor way to learn about palaeontology (in some ways, I’m obviously not suggesting someone who wants to work on dinosaurs shouldn’t read books on dinosaurs or learn about them). So with that in mind, here’s my list of ten books to read to get into palaeontology. I should stress that this is very far from exhaustive and it’s skewed to books in areas that I am interested in, and as a result there’s not a lot of geology in there. Still, at least ¾ of this list will be useful for anyone wanting to embark on a palaeontological career or just getting a better understanding of the field, or for that matter almost any are of biology.

These are presented in a rough order in which to read them where I think they would most benefit and build on each other, though equally that is far from important and it wouldn’t really be an issue to read them in a random order.


  1. Charles Darwin – Origin of Species

If I’m honest, it’s pretty tedious and repetitive as a book to read (the Victorian style of popular science writing doesn’t necessarily hold up too well 150 years later) but it can hardly be avoided. It’s so fundamental to the basis of modern evolutionary theory as well as being so important historically that even if it’s a slog to get through, any wannabe biologist of any stripe should read it.

  1. Richard Dawkins – Selfish Gene

A modern classic and important to understand the role and important of genetics in evolution. As such it’s an important successor to The Origin and is also something of a period piece for the state of biology and evolution when it was written.

  1. Carl Zimmer – Evolution

A few years old now, but an excellent introduction to modern evolutionary theory and its foundations and a very good place to start for anyone wanting to learn anything in depth about biology.

  1. Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

For me the best ever popular science book. This is a brilliant grounding in both the basics of science (geology, physics, chemistry and biology) as told through the history of those fields with input from a huge number of respected authorities in their fields. I reread it every year or so.

  1. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner – Freakonomics

Something of a wildcard this, it’s not without issues, but it’s a very entertaining read and it shows well that with careful thought you can make the most of almost any dataset to say something meaningful about a subject. With data at a real premium in palaeontology, a book on creative analysis (which is also a lot of fun) from limited informationis something rather useful.

  1. Ben Goldacre – Bad Science

All the examples might be medical, but this really is an exemplary book on how experiments should be set up and how things should be analysed. It’s a wonderfully easy read and while it’s not about statistics per se, it does really get to the root of preparing and planning your work and understanding what you can and cannot grasp from data, as well as how people mishandle and misinterpret results.

  1. Armand Marie Leroi – Mutants

An absolute favourite of mine and the book that got me to be interested in, and understand, development. A wonderfully written book and deeply engrossing and linking together human biology, development, genetics and history.

  1. Paul Colinvaux – Why Big, Fierce Animals are Rare

This book is slowly aging but as an introduction to population ecology it’s still excellent and provides an excellent foundation for understanding so much of the pressures that influence organisms.

  1. Matt Ridley – The Red Queen

A brilliant and perennially popular book on sex and sexual selection and its importance in shaping evolution, diversity anatomy and behaviours. A must read if you want to understand a selective driver than can be even more powerful than natural selection.

  1. Neil Shubin – Your Inner Fish

The closes this list probably comes to palaeontology, this book explores the world of EvoDevo and the increasingly important role palaeontology plays in other branches of biology to understand evolution and deep time. It also covers some major palaeontological discoveries and advancements in the field so is rather a 2 for 1 in that sense.


And an extra bonus number 11 that is actually (a bit) on dinosaurs

  1. Deborah Cadbury – The Dinosaur Hunters

Wonderfully written book on the story of the origins of palaeontology as a science and featuring Owen, Mantell, Buckland, Anning and plenty of others. This is pretty much a historical book, but having an appreciation for the origins of the field and science of the time is important and useful to know and this is a very compelling read.

How do I become a palaeontologist?

This question comes round and round again online and I regularly get e-mails asking exactly this from people who are interested in becoming palaeontologists. There is plenty of good advice out there in various formus and answers to questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really long and detailed answer and as much as anything, having something like this will hopefully serve as a one-stop shop for people who have this question.

For anyone who has come to this blog because of this post and doesn’t know me, I am a palaeontologist working on dinosaur behaviour and have been for over a decade (I got my PhD back in 2005). Though I’m British and based in the UK, I’ve had palaeo jobs in Ireland, Germany and China and I’ve got numerous colleagues in the US, Canada, all over Europe and in places like Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and South Africa that I have talked to about working there, so I have a decent picture of what issues are relevant wherever you are from and where you want to be. There will of course be things I don’t cover below or that vary significantly (e.g. the duration of various degree programs and what they specialise in etc.) but this should cover the basics.

Hopefully this will help answer the major questions, and clear up some big misunderstandings and offer some advice to get into palaeontology. There are also some harsh truths here but I’m trying to be open and honest about the realities of trying to make a career of this competitive branch of science. So, with that in mind…

What do you think a palaeontologist does?

A lot of people asking about getting into the field seem to be seduced by the apparent image of the field as a glamorous science. There’s fieldwork in exciting places, media coverage (you can be on TV, in movies!), new discoveries, naming new species and generally being a bit cooler than the average biochemist or experimental physicist. But if this is what you think, it’s actually pretty misleading. You are only seeing the very top people and most of us don’t get much time in the field or travelling in a given year, and spend most of their time in an office and while that might include writing papers, there’s plenty of grant writing, admin and less exciting stuff. I rarely get into the field and probably >90% of my time is spent teaching and doing admin work for my university. A fair chunk of my research and outreach output is done in my own time taking up evenings and weekend and even vacations. I don’t get to sit around and play with fossils all day and there are very, very few people with senior enough research positions who get perhaps even 50% of their time to do real research and fieldwork – there will always be paperwork and admin that needs doing and even writing research papers or planning a field season can be really quite tedious at times. Real joy comes from discoveries in the field or in research but these are moments you work for, there’s not a constant stream of them.

So it’s worth making sure you have a realistic impression of real life as a palaeontologist and ask yourself if you have realistic expectations of what the job might entail and where you may end up. That said…

Do you know what jobs are available?

Palaeontology tends to be thought of as people digging up fossils and then maybe researching on them and / or teaching about them. Palaeontologists are scientists and they work in museums or maybe universities. That’s not wrong, but it masks a pretty wide range of careers and employers. It goes back to my point above, there are lots of jobs for palaeontologists or people working in the field of palaeontology and in addition to researchers and lecturers, there are science educators, museum curators and managers, exhibition designers, specimen preparators, photographers, science writers, palaeoartists and consultants of various kinds. People can work for media outlets, national parks and other government bodies, companies that mount or mould specimens, that monitor building sites and roads for uncovered fossils, and others. One of these might be more what you are interested in – you don’t have to end up as the senior researcher in your national museum to have ‘made it’ and similarly, that can mean you have a very different set of requirements to get a different kind of job. You pretty much have to have a PhD to teach at a university, but you can potentially get a job working preparing fossils with little more than a good high school education. Experience and engagement with the field can always lead to you changing paths and I know of people who started out in science without a degree that are now full professors or have some senior palaeontological position.

There are also lots of opportunities in various places to be a volunteer and you certainly don’t need a PhD or even a degree to get involved in scientific research and i know of high scoolers who have managed to publish papers – some drive and knoweldge can go a long way. There are opportunities to engage in the science without actually holding a professorship at a big university. If some of the information coming up is a bit daunting, there are options and alternatives.

Do you know what the job market is like?

Despite the above listed variety of jobs out there, there are still not a huge number of jobs in palaeo, and fewer still for academic positions. Worse, there a lot of people who want them. If you are desperate to get into an especially sexy area like dinosaurs or carnivorans then it’s even worse. For every academic job there are likely to be 10 well qualified candidates (and quite possibly 20 or more) and these are all people who have held at least one postdoctoral position (maybe 1 available for every 5 people) and have a PhD (maybe 1 available for every 20 or 30 people who want to do it). It’s very common for people for slowly drift out of the field simply because they cannot find a job even after years and years of training and experience and a good record of research. I know of colleagues who did their PhD around the same time I did and have yet to find a permanent position. Others are stuck in jobs they would rather not be in, hoping for something better and, sadly, when finances are tight, palaeontology is often a field which suffers cuts more than other sciences. As with the point above, I’m not saying this to put people off (though I’m sure it does) but it is worth knowing the reality of the situation. Getting on a degree program, even coming top of the class will in no way ensure you get on a doctorate program, let alone in the field you want to study, let alone a job at the end of it.

Do you know what the career trajectory is?

As noted above this can vary enormously depending on what you may want to try and do, but I’ll focus here on academic positions since that’s what most people do want to do, and it’s generally the longest and most involved pathway. First off you will need an undergraduate degree, increasingly this tends to be in the biological sciences though there are lots of people with a background in geology. You’ll need to know at least some of each but it’s perfectly possible to forge a palaeontology career (depending on what you do) with a very heavily biased knowledge in favour of one or the other. Most people don’t specialise seriously until later so don’t worry about doing one and assuming it’s a problem, and don’t get hung up on doing a palaeontology degree – there simply aren’t many of them about and it’s not a deal at all if you have not done one. With a good degree you can get onto a Masters program which will obviously increase your knowledge further and improve your skills, and then onto a doctorate which will be anything from 3-6 years depening where you do it. It could take a year or two to get onto this programs if there is something specific you want or of course you may need to work to get the funds necessary for tuition fees etc. Most people will also then go on a take one or two positions as a postdoctoral researcher or similar before finding a job. Some of these are short term (a year or so) and some can be much longer (5 year special research fellowships are rare and great if you can get them, a one or two year contract is more common). You may end up taking some short-term jobs (parental leave cover, or for a sabbatical etc.) and can bounce around on contracts for a while before landing a permanent position/ All told, it’s likely to be at least 10 years and could easily be 15 or 20 between starting at university and a first year undergraduate and having a permanent position at a university as an academic. This can also involve moving round the country or between countries (and continents) to find a job. Again. if you are dead set on working on taxon group X at university Y, be aware that it’s likely to be a very, very long shot or needs to be a very long-term career goal.

How do you start?

So assuming that this is still something you think you want to go for, how do you actually start on the road to becoming a palaeontologist? Well, the short version is go to university and do well. That’s what I did, at least in part because I wasn’t any more interested in palaeo than some other fields in biology and I kinda drifted this way (this is really common, even people who start absolutely dedicated to working on one particular area get sidetracked by new interests or simply the available opportunities). Of course with so much more information out there now online there are much better ways to get started and to learn something about possible careers, universities, current research, museums to go to, etc. etc. You may be surprised to find that a what of what you know is not that relevant or important for getting into the field. Knowing a whole bunch of facts isn’t a bad thing, but understanding principles, being good at absorbing knowledge and interpreting things and coming up with ideas and testing them are more important. You can always look up a fact if you forgot it or don’t know it, but if you can’t effectively come up woith ideas to test, collect good data and organise your thoughts then it’s obviously hard to do good science. Learning things like names of species and times and places they are from is obviously a good start, but don’t think it’s a massive head start on potential peers. Obviously you’ll want to focus on palaeontology, but biology and geo sources are important too, a wider knowledge base will be better than a narrow one. So, in sort of an order that will lead to you learning and understanding more and getting better:

  • Read online. There are tons of good sources out there – follow people on Twitter, join Facebook groups, listen to podcasts, read blogs etc. etc. Absorb information on biology, geology, current research trends, the history of the subject and the fundamentals of science. Engage and discuss things with people.
  • Read books. Build up your knowledge base with some good popular science books and then if you can access them, get hold of some university level books that are introductory for subjects you want to engage in. There are good books out there on palaeontology generally and various branches like invertebrate palaeo, mammals, human origins etc. Public libraries can often get even very technical works in for free and there are others online. Some books can be very cheap second hand.
  • Get more practical experience and engage with the field and fossils if you can. Visit museums and go fossil hunting. If you can, volunteer at a museum and get some experience and training no matter what form it might be.
  • Read papers. Large chunks of the scientific literature are online and available. You won’t get everything you want, but you will be able to see a lot of things. Learn from them, not just the science being done, but look at patterns and trends and look at how papers are written and delivered, how hypotheses are produced and tested. See what makes a good argument and a good peice of work.
  • Get to a scientific conference if you can. As with reading papers, it may be hard to dig into technical material given by experts aimed at other experts but you will learn something from it and get to see scientific discourse in action and meet people. Speak to students about how they got started in the field and speak to academics about their programs and what finding or positions may be available.
  • Try to get involved in scientific research if you can. Offer your services to academics with whatever your current skills and knowledge you have and see if you can help. It might be very peripheral sorting out specimens, or merely collating data or drawing things for a figure and it might not end up in authorship on a paper, but it would get you actively engaged and see the process of research up close. I have had people assist me from Germany and Australia so you don’t need to be physically in the smae building to collaborate and get valuable experience and training.

Any, though in particular all, of these will give you a huge advantage when it comes to getting started for real on a degree or with a new palaeontology job or internship. The best students know what they know and what they don’t, and have the initiative and drive to seek out opportunities to learn and get experience and are not put off by setbacks. You may not be able to get to a conference or find an academic looking for help, but you really should be able to start at least reading papers and developing your knowledge and understanding. That will massively appeal to people looking to recruit to positions or studentships and can make a big difference.


Palaeontology is a hard field to break into, most don’t make it even if they are hard-working and talented and deserve it. But if it’s what you really want to do, then be aware of the risks and go into it open eyed but also hopefully armed with a bit of knowledge and advice as to what you can do to stand a better chance. Be prepared to have to move, be prepared to have to sacrifice a great deal, be prepared to end up somewhere very different to what you might have expected or planned, but also be prepared for the possibility of a fantastic job. All of it is of course up to you, but I wish you the best of luck and I hope this is some useful advice.


To finish off, here’s a bunch of links to other related resources I’ve generated over time on getting along in research and getting hold of papers etc. etc. that should be useful:



Advice to students writing science essays and answering exams

I’ve just come off the back of marking a quite sizeable pile of exams and coursework for my job. While I have done bits in the past (and earlier this year) this was the first time I had to deal with a large and concerted mass of the two and it allowed me to spot a series of things that irked me. While I am easily irked, the issue is not trivial, good clear writing is essential to communicate your ideas and if you are not doing that right, then this is a problem. It matters not that this is zoology or even biology, in any job or field, precise communication is critical. And not just accuracy but ease of reading – the information can be 100% accurate but if it’s buried in waffle or phrased badly it makes it hard to follow.

I know that I have a fair few regular student readers on here and others find me on occasion so I hope this will be useful. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to think of this before the last round of exams or this might have been posted in a rather more timely occasion. So, here’s a few things I kept seeing that I’d quite happily never see again. They are all stylistic and people would probably not mark you down for using them, but they are at best, clumsy and inelegant and you want your work to appear astute and well produced. Helping someone to follow the thread of your work and ideas when they are reading their 37th five page long essay on the subject will help your cause.

–       Long and flowery introductions. There is noting wrong at all with a bit of craft to your writing (indeed, it is a good thing) and a little (a little) hyperbole can be good. But having to read a whole half a page before we get anywhere with actual detail is pointless and especially so in an exam. I don’t want, nor need to be told about how magnificent birds are and how they being joy to all who behold them. Write about them.

–       Repeating the question. It if helps you to focus, then feel free to write out the question before answering it. But if the question is “Define the 4 features of X and why their function is important”, don’t write “X has 4 main features, and their functions are important. These are…”. I know there are 4 and they are important, it’s the damned question!

–       The I’s have it. Science is really supposed to be about dispassionate reporting. Don’t talk about yourself. “I think”, “I am saying”, “I will show that”. Even when a question says something like “What do you interpret Smith et al.’s 2004 paper to mean….” you can avoid the first person. Say “It can be shown” or “This can be interpreted to mean”. It’s obviously your interpretation, you are writing it.

–       Don’t describe what you are describing. This seems to go hand-in-hand with the point above. I read far too many things that went “I will now describe the following features of X”. This sentence is pretty much absolutely redundant. Just describe X.

–       An alternative version of this is repeating information in reverse. Where it is pertinent, there’s nothing wrong with reminding the reader of a key point later in the answer. But writing “There are four feature of X” describing them and finishing with “…and these are the four features of X” at the end of the same 2 or 3 sentence paragraph is nonsense. I even saw it done in the same sentence a few times.

–       Try to avoid repetition of phrases. I lost count of people who needing to make similar points over a number of paragraphs would start each section with “Another point / idea / function is…”. About the 4th time you read that it gets very, very boring. Just add a smidge of style. “A further function is”, “The next function to be considered is”, “X is another key function, “In addition, function X”, “Furthermore, X” and so on.

–       Avoid ‘believe’ like the plague. Ideas can be supported, though of, understood to be, have a consensus behind, be agreed upon and others, but not believed. Yes, the vernacular use is one of genera “I accept that” but it really should be kept out of science. It’s even worse when you say it about other people “Smith et al. believe that X…”. Not they don’t, on the balance of the evidence, that’s the hypothesis they support.

–       Unsuitable anthropomorphism or odd terms. Something like an ankylosaur was slow, and heavy, and didn’t move very fast. But to call it ‘ponderous’, ‘clumsy’ or ‘lumbering’ is to give it something close to emotive or descriptive characters that just aren’t suitable for animals.

And finally, on a related note, answer the question. That one really seems to have gone past far too many people.

Problems with advanced publication

Now that the last of the Zhuchangtyrannus stuff is behind me, it’s worth returning to an issue that has in a way affected every aspect of the blogging and media side of things – the fact that what is actually available right now is an uncorrected proof. For those who don’t know, the basic procedure of getting a scientific paper published is that you submit your work to a journal, this goes for review, if it’s seemed suitable the reviews come back to you to make corrections based on them, this is returned to the journal editor and if deemed satisfactory are turned into a ‘proof’ version (i.e. formatted for publication), these come back to you to check and make final tweaks and then go back to the journal for final publication.

In the old days (and by this I mean as little and 5 or so years ago) unless you sent round copies to your colleagues, in general no one would see the paper until it was actually published – physically in paper form in a journal. The gap between returning your proofs and publication was generally weeks and was often months and occasionally years. As such journals soon realised that they were missing out on citations and credit for papers that were basically done and could be viewed as published and with the digital world in full flow, they could put these up in advance.

I see this as generally a good thing. It keeps things moving along and cuts down on the waiting time on work to appear and especially work that everyone already knows about and wants to cite but can’t because the journal is slow. However, many journals have now gone a step further and started putting up the proofs themselves. This is a very bad thing.

First off the more frivolous reasons, it’s annoying. I want the final version, not some pre-version. Journals still charge for these, so there’s a risk you could end up forking out twice for what is essentially the same paper. Similarly, the authors may have reasons for this not appearing before the final version for whatever reason and there’s generally no opt-out. It also makes doing media work hard (like here for me) because the paper kinda is published and kinda isn’t. It’s also a time waster – I fielded a number of e-mails from people asking for apparently ‘missing’ data in the paper which was absent only because of a formatting error, and it was, frankly, a pain as I had to keep trotting out the same reply to lots of people to give them what they wanted and suggest that I wasn’t a complete fool and did put it in there honestly.

More seriously there are taxonomic issues. I think the world’s taxonomists are just ignoring this issue from a practical point of view (which is probably for the best) but I doubt they’re happy. Zhuchengtyrannus is, right now, technically not properly published. The ICZN still require paper copies of papers to make names valid (see the PLoS One discussions of recent years). While I didn’t publish in an online only open-source journal, so far there are no paper copies of this article in libraries so they name doesn’t count. This is stupid and of course genuinely risks that some nefarious person will one day attempt to gazump a real piece of research by simply copying the diagnosis and specimen number, and self publishing a couple of pages of notes and stick them in a few locations and try to steal the name. No one wants this and it does offer unnecessary confusion.

Finally there is the real issue here. Proofs are not really, real. They can be subject to change and these can be profound. I really don’t know of anyone who hasn’t spotted a mistake in a paper they have published and most people would probably tell you there’s an error in most paper they’ve published one way or the other. It can be a simple as a missing comma, a spelling mistake or a mis-citation (I meant Smith et al. 1998 not 1999). I know of people who have spelled major things wrong (including the word ‘Cretaceous’ in the title once). Proofs are your last chance to catch these things and of course add in last minute changes (as I have to do with this one for example). Recently a co-author spotted we had a ‘not’ missing from a sentence in a paper which of course rather changed the meaning of the paragraph at hand!

While some of these (minor and major) will slip through, the vast majority won’t. That’s pretty much the point of the proofs. But if the proofs are already out there, people will see them and might think they are intended. They won’t know you went back and added in a ‘not’: Hey, Smith et al. said this IS true! Surely it’s not true!!!

Now that these are free game and not just seen by authors and editors the cat gets out of the bag in the wrong way. People will read them and cite them. But they will be reading and even citing things you might not officially have said. In the medium and long term the only record will be the real, actual, paper. A colleague told me that some time ago this almost happened to him, someone basically published a paper and in it, refereed to my colleague’s in press work (at the time a proof) and pointed out a significant anomaly in there. In the meantime, said colleague had seen it himself and fixed it. So you now have the bizarre situation that person A has a paper pointing out an error in a paper by person B. Only that error is not in the paper, and actually both papers agree on the point absolutely. This means that if you read both, A looks like a fool and if you only read A’s paper then you think B is. The situation was saved because A was polite and sensible enough to check before he went ahead.

Even so, it seems to me only a matter of time before some major eruption occurs because of these. Someone will get a major roasting in the literature for something they never officially said, or someone will leap on a point to prove their case only to see that data point vanish when the paper is properly published, or someone will be very unscrupulous with a new name or something similar. As such, I utterly hate advanced proofs and I’d love to see them return to whence the came.

Playing the game

I’d been thinking of writing this post when I discovered that the theme I had intended to expand upon was rumbling on itself over on SV-POW. That theme is on amateurs publishing in palaeontology. Yesterday I moaned about poor papers and the effect they can have by generating huge amounts of awkward work for researchers to set the record straight. Here I want to make the point about why, or perhaps how, this happens.

Science and scientific research is open to everyone. It is supposed to be open to everyone, if you have an idea or some research and can back it up with evidence, you should be able to demonstrate it in some form of public forum. Now researchers prefer peer-reviwed journals as this does result in some basic weeding out of poor practice (mistakes in methods, data collection etc. etc.) and ensures that people are likely to find your work and able to publish replies and so on. However, any book, magazine or journal should be OK in theory.

In practice it is another matter of course, because of this very openness. By opening ourselves to any work of any form then we risk the presence of poor work: inclusiveness at the expense of quality control. The simple fact is that we want everyone to participate in the game of research we really don’t set rules and simply expect (or perhaps rather, hope) that people follow the protocols that most of us do. It is those who want to play the game, and indeed are joining in, that have not bothered to learn the rules, or don’t know they are there, or deliberately snub them, that cause the problem. Since we don’t enforce those rules by say deliberately setting prescedent that only peer-review counts, or can’t in the private games outside of peer-reviewed journals, then all manner of problems surface and are allowed to surface.

Ignorance can always be forgiven, but it generally takes at least some decent form of basic knowledge of the process of both science and scientific publication to even try. Thus one cannot help but suspect that in many cases, perhaps most, or even the great majority, the reason the rules are circumvented is a combination of laziness, overconfidence or deceit. Such poor papers are being produced by those who want to take part in the game, to be seen to be taking part in the game, but are simply not playing by the rules.

Unless science makes a concerted effort to shift the rules or enforce them in a different way (and I think it neither will, nor should) we will have to put up with these issues. But it would help a great deal if these people would both realise what they are doing and the problems they are causing. The game would be more enjoyable and go faster without these intrusions and that should be possible. It is great that anyone, everyone, can get involved in real science, but there is a significant difference between doing it right, and just doing it. Sadly there are far too many people who seem not to get this, but one hopes things will improve.

And while we are on the subject…

While I’m wimbling about science reporting, here’s, for me, an encapsulation of two key issues. First go and read this. Now I’m all in favour of people selling science and being cool and an opportunity to sell the merits of footprints is great. But the piece has got it all backwards.

“The Polish discovery reveals that the ancestors of all birds were small, light and four-footed”. No. We knew that already. If we didn’t know that already we would not be abel to work out what the footprints belonged to. This merely shows that these animals were present at the time these tracks dat from. This is a pretty big misstep – the sun does not come up because it gets light in the morning, but the other way round.

This should be pretty obvious from the paper and, well, common sense. You need the skeleton to match to the footprint or an odd print is just an odd print.

The second problem is the fact that this is an editorial in the Guardian. These, if any, are the best of the Uk newspapers for science reporting (home as they are to George Moinbot, Bad Science, the Lay Scientist) and others. I would hope for and expect better of them. If they can’t even run their own pieces past their own experts for error then one must wonder a little at how luck rather than intent might have played a part in getting as good a team as they have assembled. No one is perfect of course, but such simple errors belie the amount of work there is still to do to even the best up to scratch on some basics.


The science network

A good scientist knows what he knows and knows what he does not know. He has a good idea of his strengths and weaknesses and his areas of expertise and ignorance.

I know I know pterosaurs and theropods quite well, sauropods less well, ornithischians much less well and so on. I have a good handle on systematics and taxonomy and behaviour, but not on taphonomy or morphometrics. However, crucially, I also know people who are good at the things I’m not good at and are not good at the things I am good at. There are also people who are real specialists and can use a method or know a group better than almost anyone else alive, or generalists (which I’m certainly closer to) who can do a fair range of things quite well and link the other stuff together. Together we have breadth and depth.

This is important for two different reasons. Firstly it allows us to cover both a wide range of fields and get deep into them, without us all tripping over each other’s work. People can specialise or generalise and science will move forward as a result. More importantly though, it allows us to cross check and revise our collective work and have confidence in what we are doing across the whole of science, even, or perhaps particularly, when we have little or no understanding of that field individually.

I really do not know very much about astrophysics (big surprise). But I know a couple of people who do. I know the training they go through, I know the colleagues they have who check and review their work (peer review) and examine their ideas in the literature (through papers). I also know that those people are also cross-examined and checked by still other people and so on. It would be enormously time consuming, but I bet I can find a chain of co-authors and collaborators that links me to my collegiate astrophysicists. I have collaborators in geology and biology and some of them will have collaborators who are chemists and biochemists and physicists right up to guys working on star formation. At every point each person will have anywhere from a handful to dozens or even hundreds of collaborators, and dozens or hundreds or even thousands more who are reading and reviewing and replying to their papers. They have enough expertise to analyse each link in the chain, and perhaps one or two links either side of it, even if they can’t begin to handle either end.

Sure, there’s no-one out there (I suspect) who knows as much as I do about a couple of specimens I’ve worked on, but there are people who know nearly as much, and who know more about other close specimens, and know more about the methods I used to test them. This constant cross checking and evaluation means that we can have real confidence in our results and methods. I may not know how the stats package on my computer runs an analysis I want to use, but I do know that the mechanics have been written and tested by software engineers, I know the stats concepts have been produced by mathematicians and the methods have been verified by others. There are biologists with enough maths background to check the principles behind it and the appropriateness of the methods and the correctness of the results and so on. I know the taxonomy of the group at hand is right because enough taxonomists have checked the principles used to erect the species and specialists on the clade have looked at the anatomy and ecology and confirmed the species are distinct and so on. They may not know each other or even recognise each other’s work (I suspect you could really confuse a mathematician with a graptolite and some whale baleen), but it all fits together.

In this sense then, scientists are not so much a group of individuals as a cohesive whole. There are, obviously, errors made (occasionally profound ones) but this colossal network of research ideas and analysis does produce a singular, and generally very reliable, whole. I may not understand astrophysics, but I recognise and trust the methods used to generate the data, the analyses and the people behind it. So can you.

A good article on science…

in a national newspaper. Makes a nice change, though of course, it is written by a scientist, so perhaps it’s less of a surprise.

Still, this is well worth a read on the subject of scepticism and self-correction in science.

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The complete ‘how to’ guide for young researchers (so far)

It seems that recently some of my various ‘how to’ posts have been found by various search engines and readers and since I don’t have much to write about today and that these are, I think, some of the most important and beast things I have written, it seemed a pertinent time to resurrect them under a single banner for any more recent followers who have yet to0 find them. For those who have missed out, I wrote an extended series of posts covering all the basic skills of research such as writing and reviewing papers, giving talks, editing work and so on. These I hope have been and will continue to be of use to students and young graduates trying to break into science or generally improve their skills during their education, so here I have bundled them all up into one single slot to make it more accessible and easier to link to as well as hopefully bring this to the attention of new Musings readers.

Basic advice to young researchers

How to complete a PhD

How to get hold of papers

How to write a paper (and get it published)

How to contribute to a paper

How to review a paper

How to edit a volume of papers

How to write a conference abstract

Things to do at a meeting

How to give a talk

How to make a scientific poster

How to arrange a meeting

A ‘how to’ summary (contains various updates and links to other sites)

And finally don’t forget the ‘science basics‘ section on here which contains all of these and more.

Do make use of these and feel free to pass them on to your colleagues / friends / students and do add comments to help keep them thorough and up-to-date. The feedback I have had on these has been very good, so I’m happy to be confident that they are doing some good.

More advice

Mike Taylor has a great write-up over at SV-POW! on chosing where to publish your academic research papers. It’s worth a good read through when you have time and covers a lot of ground that I never did when writing about how to get a paper published as part of my ‘famous’ and ‘successful’ how-to series.

Avoiding abstracts

imgp2670As most, if not all, of you will know scientific meeting abstracts can make up an important part of scientific research. For those that are unaware, well formal scientific meetings, researchers who are attending send off short abstracts of their work that they will present at the meeting (if you have not seen one before a quick google will give you a good idea). Usually this is just a couple of hundred words describing the very basics of the work, though occasionally you get longer ones with reference lists and even figures. This means that in advance of the meeting and the talk itself you have an idea of what is being discussed which helps understand the presentation itself. If it’s a big meeting where you can’t attend every talk, then the abstract can help you decide which talks you want to see (or avoid) and afterwards you have a record of who said what about what subject. In theroy at least, and that is the problem.
Continue reading ‘Avoiding abstracts’

Getting hold of papers

Over at the Open Source Paleontologist there is an excellent article about getting hold of research papers (primarily PDFs, but also other sources). It’s well worth a read as he lists various sources for PDFs and ways of searching for them online. There are a few on there I didn’t know about so it’s well worth a look.

Two quick things I will add here (which I also left in a comment on the site) are quite important to this area of scientific research (both for amateurs and professionals). First off, while Andy mentions them, there are increasing numbers of ‘PDF collections’ online, with indices of whole rafts of papers based around subjects (ones for theropods, pterosaurs and ankylosaurs are out there) or people (Marsh is done and Cope I believe is in progress) and more and more researchers are making their papers availbale online on homepages and lab pages (Mike Benton for example has most of his papers, going back to the 70’s, available to download). In other words, in addition to open source journals and google there are huge stores of research inforamtion available online to anyone with a computer and two minutes worth of ‘googling’. Which brings me to my second point.

Why must I (and plenty of other people) put up with the endless requests for papers from people? If you want a copy of *my* papers, then fine, I’ll more than happily send on a PDF or hardcopy if I can. I want people to read my research and cite my papers. That’s a fundamental part of my job and all to the good. What I don’t like is the constant barrage of requests made by people all over the web for every single paper that comes out. This is especially seen on blogs where someone reports on a paper and instantly half a dozen people request copies of the PDF (and this is the same on mailing lists too, with constant requests for papers followed up by loads of other guys asking for a copy once the cry has gone up). It is probably freely available online and if not, the authors will happily send you a copy if you e-mail them.

It is, I feel, discourteous to expect researchers to spend their time randomly e-mailing copies of papers to anyone who asks when they have nothing to do with the paper. Yes it is their chocie to blog about it and spead the news in the first place, but that is in itself a service, and asking for all kinds of ‘extras’ constantly is an unfair use of their time. It will take you as long to e-mail the original author and ask for a copy of the paper as it will to put in a comment on the blog asking for someone to mail the paper to you, who has nothing to do with the work, and is already giving up his time to tell you about it in the first place. It’s especially true of the non-professionals who understandably don’t necessarily have access to all the journals etc. but enough professionals are guilty of the same thing and that’s not an excuse to harry people for reprints and PDFs.

I know some people are good about going this extra mile for service, and yes obviously not every paper is easily available online, or for that matter the contact details of the author (though increasingly that is less and less of an excuse) but it IS a pain. I feel mean when I don’t dig them out myself and send them on because, well, I am a nice guy, but it is (in my opinion) unthinking and unnecessary to expect people to just send out these things when they have real work to do. The act of unthinkingly asking (or even demanding) papers becuase you want to read them is not right. So if you are one of those “I must have it now, please send it to me” types, do stop and think for a minute. You have google. You have online archives. You can contact the authors. You can, and this may be shock, wait a few days before you read it, it won’t kill you – so calm down and look properly online first. If you must contact someone, contact a close research assocaite of the author who is likely to have a copy (a common co-author, his students, or someone who works in a simialr field) who is likely to have it. Send them a short and polite e-mail asking for a copy. Don’t just bang down a bunch of comments on blog threads or e-mail half the palaeo community asking for it.

This is something that rarely affects me personally I admit (apart from when I have my inbox filled with people requesting some new fish paper via the Vert Pal mailing list) and I am not sure how much it bothers others but is I think an important piece of netiquette that people need to think about. Do your own work, and don’t expect others to do it for you. And if you have to ask, ask nicely and ask the right people. Authors are delighted to know people are interested in and reading their papers and it helps them keep track of who is doing what and how their work is recieved, so just ask them.

@Dave_Hone on Twitter


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