Posts Tagged 'research'

The Archosaur Musings 2014 awards

Time for another end-of year summary and roundup, though this year I’ve modified the format a little. With my changing habits and responsibilities, I don’t keep up with and get involved to the same degree with some areas of outreach and research that I used to, so I thought to keep things running I should adjust the setup a bit to better reflect what I’m up to and interested in.

Other than talking about my papers and research generally, I don’t tend to talk much on here about my career, however it’s been both an odd and important year for me. I had a brief secondment back in Bristol for the five months in the middle of the year and then had a big event in being offered a permanent position at Queen Mary. I am well aware of how lucky I am t have had this opportunity when so many other very talented and able colleagues have, and continue to, struggle for employment and there is still a very long way to go (I’ve still got to pass my academic probation for starters) but 10 years after I finished my PhD and after chasing postdocs and short-term contracts round the world, as far as I’m concerned it’s about time.

With all the to-ing and fro-ing between cities and jobs and the new dinosaur course, it’s been a hectic time but my research has rather fallen behind of late. Happily however, several long-term projects are coming to fruition now and so I do hope the next 18 months will see a good increase in submissions and publications. One of the things I’ve been keeping relatively quiet is that I’m writing a book on tyrannosaurs which is provisionally scheduled to come out in the summer of 2015. It will very much be a popular science book and not too technical, though there should be some nice photos and Scott Hartman will be providing skeletals for it, so the illustrations at least should be accurate.

Right enough of the generalist stuff, let’s get onto some specifics.


Most important new archosaur discovery

Although Kulindadromeus is an obvious and very cool candidate here and does bring some new data and ideas to the feather-holomology party, with my pterosaur hat on, the two (yes two!) new bonebeds full of pterosaur material is really big news. Apart from Pteranodon and Rhamphorhynchus (both tending to be too flat) we don’t have major datasets for pterosaurs, so lots of basic things like growth series, dimorphism and intraspecific variation are really hard to look at with much confidence. These discoveries should really chance this and with eggs and young juveniles clearly present at one site too, there’s plenty more scope on both basic biology and also ecology.


Best newly discovered archosaur specimen

It is rather inevitable, but yeah, I’m delighted to see the new Deinocheirus too and unlike some other sail-based theropods, the two specimens here actually have lots of elements and articulated bits so there’s no arguing about the detailed anatomy. It’s big, it’s cool, it’s really, really odd.


Best named new archosaur

No one seemed to like Dreadnaughtus much and while it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the etymology behind it is really neat. Still, I do like the short and snappy and so I’ll plump for Anzu which just sounds neat to me.


Worst named new archosaur

Rhinorex should be a cool name indeed it IS a cool name, but really, that’s not much of a horn or nasal expansion for this to really be the animal with the king nose. It just doesn’t fit right for me.


The ‘Similicaudipteryx’ award for least original archosaur name

This is probably one I’ll drop in future years, as pretty much every year I plump for yet another Placenameraptor or Placenamevenator. Yeah, not every name needs to be super original and clever and yes, having consistent names for various clades does help you remember them, but there are still too many Placenameasaurus things out there.


 Favourite palaeoart piece this year

The standards of palaeoart seem to go up and up with new animals, new techniques and new information getting around more easily online with people sharing ideas and data making a huge difference. It’s also way easier to find new artists and images and so it’s great to see so much appearing online and seeing things develop. Despite the wealth of cool stuff though, I simply have to go for Julius Csotonyi’s amazing sauropods with a fish-eye view. Not only did it win a Lazendorf this year, but it really does combine some nice behaviour, multiple species in a realisitic ecosystem, and superb accuracy but it adds a level of artistic brilliance with an approach I don’t think has ever been taken before and that I know has really caught the imagination of plenty of people. Great job.


The website I’ve been most getting into this year

A new entry but a worthwhile one. These days I do tend to read more of fewer sites, but I occasionally stumble across ones I’d not seen before, or have only ever seen occasionally, and then start reading more heavily and they become a regular part of my browsing. Heavily featuring this year is Why Evolution is True. There’s lots on there that I’m not a huge fan of and tend to skip over, but much I can devour and so do drop in every few days and see what’s been posted.


Best personal achosaur-related moment of 2014

Aside from the obvious delight of having of a job and finally getting a decent website up, there’s been a few highlights this year. First of all, my Protoceratops paper came out which included not only some magnificent specimens but some extended discussions on dinosaur social behaviour. As with my previous big papers on behaviour (bone use in feeding and the mutual sexual selection papers) this went through some torture over various submissions and extended periods of writing so I’m pleased to finally have it out. The best thing however was taking a group of undergrads out to Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta to go prospecting for dinosaurs. A number of friends and colleagues turned out to join in the fun and it was incredibly rewarding and the feedback from the students was superb, and I’ll be doing it all again this year too, and hopefully for many years to come.


Long time no see award

I’d not seen Jonah Choiniere since my later days in China, and then combined with his move to South Africa didn’t think I’d run into him again anytime soon, but happily he was going through London on the way to SVP so we were able to catch up a bit which was very nice.


The ‘about time’ award for slow publication

Well the Hadrosaurs volume is out a full year after all the manuscripts were finalised and proofed, though my copy hasn’t even arrived yet, so I won’t get to see it till 2015 now. I know some of these volumes take forever, but a full year delay from the publishers end after the great work but the editorial team to have it all done to a good deadline was not welcome.


Ridiculous prediction for 2015

Ending as ever on a note of improbability, here’s something I would love to appear next year but probably won’t. At various places online people have discussed the fact that plenty of animals that we would consider dedicated herbivores occasionally consume small animals and it’s fair to assume dinosaurs were no different. So my prediction is for something like a hadrosaur or sauropod to turn up with stomach contents of some nicely chewed bones.


Academic ancestry

While looking through Don Henderson’ personal collection, I stumbled across this picture of my (and indeed Don’s) PhD supervisor, Mike Benton. It’s from a book of Mike’s (On the trail of the dinosaurs) from 1985 and shows him with a hadrosaur skull he found while in Alberta.


Don spotted immediately that it was a specimen in the Tyrrell collections, and indeed the cabinets are a bit of a give away too. In a moment of inspiration, Don suggested that as academic descendents of Mike, we could redo the photo with the specimen as it is now. A quick hunt in the collections turned up the skull, but it’s now in their special protected room and not on the normal shelves. As a result the background and position are of course imperfect, but we did our best with the available materials. Note that both Mike and I have different generation Tyrrell guest badges too which rather nicely links the two eras as well.



Just a bit of fun really, but this could be a great meme for those researchers who want to celebrate their mentors and supervisors. Go and recreate their famous appearances with discoveries or research photos.

And while I’m on the subject, Don has penned this lovely little piece on the superb Alberta ankylosaur that some will have seen presented at SVPCA a could of years back. Enjoy.

All my circuits papers

Regular Musings readers might have noticed that I do, technically, have a research page on Google. I set it up a few years ago more or less as something a bit more formal to hold records of what I’d published etc. in the days before Google Scholar metrics and which was more public than an profile and rather less blog-like that, well, this. I have updated it from time to time, but never found much use for it, and didn’t have the nous or time to turn it into a more ‘proper’ (and at least nice looking) site.

Doing an update the other day, I spotted a file upload option which I must have either overlooked or ignored previously. I have a for a while been looking out for a way to make my papers publicly available but really didn’t have the incentive to start yet another site just for that, and if I’d realised I could have done it on the Google pages I’d have done it years ago. Still, water under the bridge, they’re now all up.

So, if you go here and scroll to the bottom of the page you can download (nearly) all my papers. Some are still ‘in press’ so I don’t actually have anything I can upload, though as a bonus, there’s a couple of extended abstracts and unreviewed comment-type papers in there too. Hopefully it’s pretty clear what they all are, but regardless, the real issue is that they’re now accessible so go ahead and read ’em.

Academics on Archosaurs: Peter Falkingham

Peter L. Falkingham, at Brown University, USA, and at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

Focusing on computer modelling of dinosaur tracks.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I’ve just had a run through past Academics on Archosaurs, and well, like pretty much everyone else I’ve been into palaeo (and not just dinosaurs) since I was, as my mother used to put it, “knee high to a grasshopper.” As to my specific field, dinosaur tracks, that came much later.  Like many other children tracks flew under my radar, with mounted skeletons and artistic reconstructions taking all my attention.  I have a fondness for computers though, and during my undergrad I started getting into the computer-based biomechanics research that was going on, and felt that would be a good way to go. I eventually got a PhD on the computer simulation of dinosaur tracks, and I’ve not looked back since.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

The yet-to-be-published stuff I’m working on now.  If you’d asked me that 3 years ago, I’d have said the same thing, and if you ask me again in 30 years I’ll probably still respond the same way – it’s one of the great things about being a scientist – finding out what’s just around the next bend!

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

Less of a discovery, and more of a general shift in understanding, track workers are really starting to get into the mechanics of how tracks are made, and what they can tell us about the animals that made them. There have been some really insightful experiments involving emus and elephants in the past few years.  There’s also the technology being applied; in just the last 5-10 years digitisation techniques have gone nuts, from laser scanning to photogrammetry.  Where previously larger studies based on published data pretty much just had outlines and photos to work from, we’re starting to see papers published which include topographic height maps, normal mapped images (making edges clearer), and even in some cases we’re seeing papers submitted to online journals such as PLoS 1 and Palaeo Electronica where the digital models serve as appendices. The implications for repeatable studies, data sharing, and general scientific progress in the field are staggering.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

Probably how much information is locked away in tracks.  How much can we learn from them? People have been really starting to look in a systematic way at how vertebrate tracks can vary in morphology according to substrate conditions, animal behaviour etc. I’m also a fan of the bigger picture that we can get from tracks – looking at evolutionary trends and so forth. Because tracks are always preserved in situ, they’re a really valuable resource – if they can be assigned and understood, which is where the first part of this answer comes into play.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

Just before I started my PhD, I had been volunteering at the Yorkshire Museum where a colleague said to me “If, when doing your PhD, you ever get up in the morning and wish you were doing something else, quit.” When I recount this to my present colleagues some agree, and some grumble and say there will always be somedays when you want to be somewhere else (usually paperwork days rather than research days). They are of course correct, but I think it’s the attitude that’s important.  With the same qualifications, you can get far higher paid work outside of academia. The perks of a research career are that you get to do what you love – it’s genuinely exciting, and that excitement breeds curiosity.  With excitement and curiosity, you’ll do the reading with ease, and you’ll work late on experiments/fieldwork.  Essentially if you keep loving research, you’ll work hard.

Academics on Archosaurs: John Hutchinson

Professor John R. Hutchinson, The Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Specialist in the evolutionary biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion, with a particular focus on body size influences on posture and movement.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I was passionate about reptiles from an early age; “dockadile” was one of my first words; so of course dinosaurs became a natural fixation, and I went through the usual palaeontologist cycle of forgetting about dinosaurs during puberty then falling back in love with them in college. What kickstarted my more intellectual love affair with dinosaurs in college was reading and later watching Jurassic Park, taking a bunch of classes in evolution and later palaeontology, and reading Greg Paul’s “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” book in my final undergrad year, while working as a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Geological Museum (helping w/nice mosasaur fossils). The vivid animations in Jurassic Park (the movie) and Paul’s book, along with a class I’d taken on functional morphology/biomechanics, got me really interested in dinosaur locomotion, and that led soon enough into my PhD at Berkeley. The rest is history (infamy?).

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

From my own work, I think my favourite paper is the paper that I recently published in Science on the evolution of false sixth toes (predigits) in elephants. We integrated data from dissections, imaging, histology, fossils, biomechanics and phylogeny in a way none of my prior studies had really achieved and went in a direction that was a novel step for my research, enabled by a great collaborative team. That was an incredibly fun project and came out of left field from just dabbling around with research, as I like to do, until I stumbled across a neat story. Yet I still have a fondness for my “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner” 2003 Nature paper, which more or less established my career and happened during a very challenging year in my life. That paper was basically what I set off to do when I started by PhD in 1995, so it was very satisfying to see the final payoff (and actually end up doing the same PhD project I originally aimed to do, which is uncommon in the USA).

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

My field encompasses both neontological and palaeontological research; I think the boundaries between these disciplines are very limiting for both; so the discoveries I value the most are those that transcend these traditional boundaries. It is hard to put a finger on just one favourite but off the cuff, I think the work that Larry Witmer’s team has done on reconstructing cranial anatomy in dinosaurs is the most important multidisciplinary work of our time – it shows how far you can get with good anatomy, and how rigorous the science can still be when reconstructing soft tissues. In a way, I’d put that ahead of the feather discoveries. In my related field of biomechanics, the way that dynamic models of the musculoskeletal system have matured into very rigorous computational tools is incredibly exciting and beginning to have massive payoffs that are bound to continue well beyond our lifetimes.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

I’ll be potentially controversial and say that dinosaur locomotion is almost worked out as far as we can get. The rest is just details. For now, anyway. I say “for now” because now we’re up against a fundamental lack of understanding of how living animals work, which impedes how far we can get with reconstructing extinct animals, leaving a serious danger of constructing a lot of houses-of-cards in this area. That is why I urge palaeontology-type researchers I work with to contribute both to our understanding of living animals, for their own sake, as well as to our inferences about extinct animals. For palaeontology to proceed much further, we need to push neontology forward, and unite these disciplines more strongly. I’m profoundly tired of “us vs. them” arguments in both fields, such as molecules “vs” morphology; the latter is an analogous example of how people waste time defending their disciplinary territory. There’s just one life science; one history of life on Earth; get over it and work together where necessary to find the one answer. Similarly, in biomechanics there’s a lot of guff about theoretical “vs” experimental methods and which is better science. The focus on questions often gets forgotten. So, unity is what I’m preaching, because it will lead to questions getting answered.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

A quick shopping list:

-Don’t trust your supervisor; after a year or so of your research you probably know more than them. Challenge their authority, objectively.

-Read the crappy science as well as the good science. It makes you a better critical thinker.

-Push yourself to be a questions-researcher, not just a methods-producer (or worse yet, just a user). Methods are ephemeral; answers can be eternal (if you’re lucky).

-Defy disciplinary boundaries. Never let someone tell you “don’t do that, you’re a palaeontologist.” Define your own identity as a researcher; scoff at labels. BUT…

-Know your limits; that’s what a young researcher is probing. Reach out to work with others that complement your skills, rather than try to do everything yourself.

-Push yourself to value scientific and professional integrity. I’m no saint either, but people do get known for being honest and fair in their scientific and professional lives.

-“Work-life balance” is nonsense. Practice work-life integration; boundaries can be fluid. Science is about an all-consuming passion for the natural world; it shouldn’t be contained within 9-5 working hours or it gets stale. Nor should it prevent you from having fun, including taking breaks to “refuel” when your Science-Fu levels are low. In these days of a terrible job market, the competition is insanely tough so you need to work efficiently and prioritize what is best for your career (which may be best for your life in a broader sense).

-Be incredibly ambitious, but with full recognition that your “5-year plan” will last your whole career, and everything in science takes immensely more time than almost anyone thinks it will.

Academics on Archosaurs: Matt Carrano

Dr Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosauria, Smithsonian Institution
Specialist in predatory dinosaur evolution, dinosaur functional morphology, and the dinosaur fossil record.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

I first got interested in dinosaurs in the second grade, after reading the (1970s version) National Geographic Book, “Dinosaurs,” with its wonderful illustrations by Jay Matternes. Dinosaurs and paleontology became a lifelong interest after that, through college and into graduate school. My research interests developed in college at Brown University, working with my advisor Christine Janis (functional morphology), and in graduate school at the University of Chicago, working with a large cohort of fellow students with enormously wide interests of their own.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

I think my favorite piece of research is still a study I did as part of my dissertation work, where I found that dinosaurs and mammals had almost identically proportioned limbs, quite unlike birds or other reptiles. I did some experimental work that allowed me to suggest that dinosaurs and mammals may therefore have had very broadly similar locomotor styles. I remember the “aha!” moment when it all came together for me, and it was quite gratifying to hear people in the audience say the same thing when I delivered a talk on it at SVP in 1997.

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

I think that the most important general development in dinosaur paleontology has been the increasing interest in trying to use the dinosaur fossil record to answer questions of broader paleontological interest. It’s not always successful, and many times we overreach, but I think it’s been a very healthy development in the field and a real change in direction. More specifically, in my own areas of research, I think the most important new discoveries in recent years are all the new taxa from new areas of the world (such as Concavenator in Spain or Ichthyovenator in Laos). These have provided important new data for both evolutionary studies and filled in big temporal and geographic gaps in the fossil record.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

I think the biggest unanswered question in my field is exactly how good the dinosaur fossil record really is, and what sorts of scientific questions it can (and cannot) be fruitfully employed toward. We are working hard on this problem, but it is quite difficult and parts of it might be intractable, but the availability of more powerful databases and more people with this research interest give me hope that significant progress is not far away.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

I’d give a few key pieces of advice to students regarding their research (some of which will no doubt be at odds with advice given by some of my colleagues). First, get used to reading actual research papers, thinking about them thoroughly, and waiting to respond to them. Be careful and thorough, publish your results when they’re ready, and don’t worry about how many papers you have under your belt. The number of papers published annually in paleontology has increased substantially in the last few years, but in my opinion the number of good, lasting, and intellectually robust papers has not. We need more wheat, not more chaff.

Academics on Archosaurs: Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson, University of Michigan
I’m interested in sauropod dinosaurs, the fossil reptiles of the Indian Subcontinent, and ichnofossils.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I was never interested in dinosaurs (or fossils, for that matter) as a child. I’m still not crazy about them. I loved anatomy from an early age, which manifested itself in unsupervised frog dissections and me following around my uncle, a surgeon, in hopes of getting into the operating room (which I did). This interest in anatomy led me to believe I should be a doctor, and so I took the MCAT and worked for a year as a surgical technician – only to find that I didn’t like the clinical atmosphere or dealing with patients. I didn’t really know what to do with myself at that point. I ran into my advisor at Kalamazoo College, Paul Sotherland, who recommended Gould’s book ‘Wonderful Life’ to me. That book changed everything. It brought together anatomy, evolution, history, and adventure in a way that I hadn’t thought about before. I wondered who could be doing that sort of work nearby and eventually wrote Paul Sereno, who in 1992 was fresh from his second trip to Ischigualasto. I drove down to Chicago to visit him, and he showed me the skull of Herrerasaurus, which was mysterious to me. I don’t remember much about what Paul and I talked about, but after a couple of weeks he called to invite me to spend three months in the Sahara excavating a sauropod graveyard. I remember him telling me we were driving there from London. I said yes.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?
I will take a ‘pass’ on this question, but I will say that the most fun I ever had working on a manuscript was when Matt Carrano and I put together the ‘response to reviewers’ for our 1999 paper on wide-gauge sauropod trackmakers. We were graduate students then, and we were reviewed by the formidable R. McNeill Alexander, Martin Lockley and Tony Thulborn. Thulborn alone had 80+ marginal annotations specifically about word choice and composition. He was so charming in the way he flayed the paper, one had to laugh. Example: we used the word “freer” in the original to refer to titanosaur vertebral articulations, to which he wrote something like (from memory, not a direct quote), “Gentlemen, there is no ‘freer’ ? one is either free or not, just like one cannot be ‘partially pregnant’ or ‘somewhat dead’.” Ha! There’s more to the story, but I’ll end here.

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
I really admire some recent work on saurischian dinosaurs, but it is difficult to pick one discovery. Perhaps I’ll go with a technique. I was really blown away by Steve Gatesy’s recent SVP talk on 3-D motion analysis in birds.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Sample sizes are typically quite low for sauropod dinosaur species, many of which are represented by a single exemplar. We have become habituated to describing all (or most) morphological variation in our exemplars as differentiating species or genera, often without entertaining the possibility of within-individual, within-population, and within-species variation. Discriminating among these sources of variation is to me one of the most important questions facing us.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Philip Gingerich wrote this nice paper ‘George Gaylord Simpson: Empirical Theoretician’ in which he examined and categorized the nearly 13,000 pages of Simpson’s primary output. Although he was thought of as a ‘theoretician’, much of Simpson’s work, especially his early work, was empirical. I think that collecting careful, quality empirical data is important, and I would encourage students build their datasets with a question in mind. Bigger is not necessarily better; the dataset should be small enough that it can be managed and mastered.

Academics on Archosaurs: Robert Reisz

Prof. Rober R. Reisz, University of Toronto
Specialist in prosauropod dinosaurs, in addition to the study of Paleozoic tetrapods
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
A student wanted to take on a project on dinosaurs, and since I was working on a lot of Paleozoic amniotes from South Africa, I came across the very interesting project of the Early Jurassic prosauropod Massospondylus. I brought home material pertaining to this dinosaur, and became interested in the group.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
Working on the early theropod Coelophysis. This is a very exciting project because the quality of the materials makes it the best preserved early dinosaur.
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
Although prejudiced because it is my research, but the discovery of the Early Jurassic embryonic prosauropod dinosaurs, and of the nesting site where they have been found is one of the most exciting and important discoveries of the last decade.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Gigantism. How could the sauropods get so large? I think the answer lies in the embryonic data and the growth rates of these fascinating organisms.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
There is a tendency now to do quick and dirty projects for maximum impact. In my opinion, careful descriptive work, careful illustrations and reconstructions, all lead to strong phylogenetic analyses, and good paleobiological interpretations. First hand study and illustration of fossil specimens is fundamental to our field, and if we do not do it, we lose our advantage as historical biologists.
Much too often paleontologists do what I call pull the drawer out and code the specimen for analysis. This is not good science. Careful study, which includes preparation and illustrations of our unique treasures, the fossils, is fundamental to our field.

Academics on Archosaurs: Scott Sampson

Scott D. Sampson

Specialist in ceratopsid and theropod dinosaurs, with a strong interest in the ecology and evolution of Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

Dinosaurs and paleontology have been a lifelong interest, beginning about age 4. It’s fair to say that I was geek from Day 1, with “paleontology” being one of the first words I learned how to spell. I blame it all on my mother, who initiated and encouraged this dino-obsession.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

I was fortunate enough to find the first skull of Majungasaurus, a mid-sized theropod dinosaur known only from the island of Madagascar. This discovery demonstrated that a “domed” theropod — rather than a pachycephalosaur, as previously thought — lived on Madagascar. And Majungasaurus has been pivotal in range of subsequent studies, from details of dinosaur head anatomy to the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana.

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
For me, the most interesting discovery is the presence of dinosaur “provinces” on the isolated landmass of Laramidia (western North America) during the Late Cretaceous (Campanian). The occurrence of distinct communities of coeval dinosaurs on a diminutive landmass suggests that the ecology and evolution of large-bodied dinosaurs may have differed in fundamental ways from that of more recent big-bodied mammals. How were dinosaurs able to fit so many giant species on such a small piece of real estate? The answer may point to differences in dinosaur physiology and/or ecological dynamics in a hothouse world. Either way, profound discoveries are likely to emanate from this discovery.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

Of course there are many big questions that remain unanswered. For example, no one can yet state with confidence how dinosaurs were able to achieve sizes that were often well in excess of land animals before or since. In short, we’ve only just begun to understand the world of dinosaurs. To my mind, however, the biggest, most pressing question is this: How do ecology and evolution function in a hothouse world? Thanks to the recent acceleration in human greenhouse gas emissions, we’re heading toward a much warmer global climate, with global effects that will impact the entire biosphere, including us. Yet our firsthand experience as a species is restricted to icehouse climates. By examining Mesozoic and early Cenozoic hothouse worlds, together with their constituent floras and faunas, we will undoubtedly make major insights that will inform our future.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

The best advice I can give students of paleontology can be summed in a single word: diversity. Learn as much as you can about as many different paleo-related fields as possible: the list includes stratigraphy, sedimentology, anatomy, phylogeny, ecology, evolution, climate, and isotopic studies. Also learn early how to collaborate with researchers in other specialties (not as intuitive as you might think). Whatever you end up doing, you will benefit from the ability to juggle and intermingle big ideas, and to work with others in testing those ideas. A diverse skillset will also put you in a stronger position to get a job, and to make major contributions to the field.

On publications

 It can’t have escaped the notice of most readers that there is currently a rather major rumble going on in the world of scientific publishing. Huge numbers of blog posts, editorials, tweets, and more are going on about quite what researchers should and shouldn’t do with their work and with regards to their interactions with various publishing houses and the knock-on effects of access to research for the reader.

If you’ve not been keeping up or are not familiar with the general set-up for publishing papers I’ll try and give this the briefest of introductions. In short as a researcher once you have completed your work, you’ll need to get it published in a journal if people are going to read it. That means submitting it to a journal where an editor will read it and select referees. They’ll report back to the editor who’ll sift the results and send them to you. You’ll make corrections and send it back and hopefully it’ll go to publication if it’s deemed good enough for the journal.

So much so simple (well, over simplified). What is causing the stir is that in most cases when you give your work to the journal, they aren’t just publishing it for you, but you sign the copyright of the work over to them. In short, you do all the work and they then sell the papers onto people who want to read it, potentially including the university or museum you’re already working for… This to many doesn’t seem right or fair and in the internet age researchers are in a position to complain and organise and do something about it.

The battle, such as it is, is ongoing. I’ve not been drawn on this before as, while I do have some strong opinions, it’s largely not the kind of thing I want to blog about on here. What is relevant to this blog however is the process involved from the perspective of the academic. While I have written a couple of posts before about the mechanics of writing and reviewing papers, I wanted to provide more of a summary of everything that a researcher can end up doing in the chain to publication.

Obviously I’ve published my fair share of papers both as a lead or sole author and co-author across a variety of platforms. I’ve also been an editor for volumes of papers produced by museum journals, and I’m an editor for a ‘mainstream’ palaeo journal with one of the big publishers. I’ve also reviewed dozens of papers over the years for all kinds of books and journals, at least 50 or so and probably much more though I’ve never kept a close count. In short, I’ve seen things from all sides a good few times each. What I’m putting down here is purely from my own experiences and while it therefore certainly anecdotal, I don’t think it’s anything other than entirely normal. I’m not complaining or criticising it, just saying what I have done and experienced. I think that’s worth adding to the mix.

As a researcher I come up with the ideas for papers. I do the research. At the moment that includes doing things on my own time and money, though before it’s been (mostly but not always) covered by a grant or my employers. I do the work, write the paper, format it, create the figures and the rest. I don’t get any help with any of this from the journal at any point. Indeed oddly enough quite a lot of effort can go into formatting and arranging things to the very exacting specifics they require, even if the paper is later rejected or even if the journal itself doesn’t print things in that format (yes, really, they make you format things to a standard for them to read them but which they will change later if they ever do print it). The odd journal still requires you to submit multiple hardcopies which are not necessarily cheap to print or post. I get no pay for this and typically (but no, not always) hand over the copyright of the work. One journal did send me free issues for a year for publishing with them, but in a lot of cases I don’t even get access to my own paper at the journal and in more than a few cases I’ve never even gotten a free PDF of my own work. Rarely am I even informed if something has been printed, and on more than one occasion things have been done against my express wishes (e.g. publication of advanced un-proofed copies of papers).

As an editor I take papers submitted, read them, check them and pick referees. I send the papers to the referees and ask for their comments, hassling them where necessary. When the reviews are back I collate them and make a decision and send them comments out to the authors. There may be further dialogue with the authors, referees or other editors. When the corrections come back I need to check them again against the referee’s comments before making a decision. Speaking for myself, I don’t get paid for any of this, and nor have I had any training or received any benefit from doing the job (like access to other journals in the care of the publishers) or copies of the journal itself.

As a referee I take on papers to read and review. Some can be very long, or complex or just badly written and require a lot of time devoted to them (one I recently reviewed twice was about 150 manuscript pages with about 50 figures as well). I might even have to read other papers too and check analyses etc. in addition to writing the actual report. I don’t get paid for this. I don’t get free copies of the paper when it comes out or (most of the time) even notification it’s been published.

Those are all the things I do with regards to publishing a paper and are therefore in the main what I think happens to a typical palaeontology paper with regards to the input from academics. The main thing the journal does is actually format and arrange the words and images into their own format and to proofread it. Don’t forget though that I’ve already formatted much of the manuscript (titles, numbered headings, reference formatting) and scaled images etc. according to their layouts and I often have to correct errors introduced by the journal (generic names have a nasty habit of becoming un-italicised). Oh yeah, and they will eventually publish it and of course send it out to subscribing libraries, museums, universities, societies and individuals and sticking it up online so people can find it.

So what do I generally get out of this? Well as an author, a paper in a journal, hopefully a good one that will (theoretically at least) enhance my reputation, and with luck a free PDF. As a referee, I get to see things in advance of publication (assuming the get published of course) and I know I’m doing a job of helping keep science on an even keel (however small the role). As an editor I see what’s going on and can generally get access to these and other papers in the journal, and hopefully influence and improve the devlopment of the journal. That is, however, about it. Certainly a good paper in a good journal will help my profile and can count for things in research reviews and the like and it can be worth a lot, but it’s still no guarantee that the people who need to see my paper will or even can.

The trade off does therefore vary enormously from journal to journal with the prestige of the journal, the access it grants to others, the promotion it gets, and the ease and help that can accompany the submission and review process (some are far more tortuous than others, some are blessed with excellent editors, others cursed). However, I think most would note that for many journals it does seem like they get an awful lot (all my time, efforts, the actual science itself since I give them the copyright) for not a huge amount in return (it gets published and many, but not all people can see it). Of course how this affects individuals and institutes can only really be talked about in a case-by-case basis (what is this paper worth in this journal?) but based on my own experiences I can’t help thinking that in the future I should be more selective about what I do with my work once it is finished and before I formally hand it over. In my mind the trade off is certainly worth it in some cases, but far from all.

What’s in John’s freezer?

Most people interested in dinosaurs will be aware of the research done by John Hutchinson and his group on tyrannosaurs and other Mesozoic critters with regards to their anatomy and biomechanics. But feeding into this research John does a lot of work on big extant animals (like elephants, crocs, rhinos and ostriches) both alive and in various pieces.

It’s this latter aspect of his work which has now made the leap into cyberspace and John has taken the plunge and started blogging. The title (as for that of this post) is ‘What’s in John’s freezer?’ to represent the odd and occasionally gruesome collection of animal parts he has in his walk-in freezers at the Royal Vet College in London.

Unlike most new blogs, John already has more than a token ‘here’s my new blog’ post up, so head on over there to see his first efforts looking at scanning giraffe legs. Enjoy!


The incredible links across science

A few days ago I discovered that the paper on the flexion of theropod wrists in the ancestors of birds I contributed to has been cited in a journal I would never have expected. Namely ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ and then intriguingly title paper “Sea Slugs, Subliminal Pictures, and Vegetative State Patients: Boundaries of Consciousness in Classical Conditioning”. The paper appears to be open access so you can read it here if you so wish. Naturally this is quite cool and odd, but it does make the point about just how connected very disparate bits of science can be. When we wrote the paper we were thinking purely in terms of bird anatomy, evolution and behaviour and no thought ever passed that this would be linked to sea slugs let alone psychology.

I’ve been asked enough times (generally in a friendly, rather than confrontational manner) why we should fund palaeontology etc. with no apparent applications to mankind. Three are two stock answers to this. First that knowledge should be cherished in its own right and we should try and learn about or world and it’s past, present and future. The second, which I think is more intriguing, is that it’s hard, even impossible, to see how some bits of science might fit together. I’d never have predicted our work would be used to make a point in a psychology paper.

This does show just how interlinked very different branches of science can be and how they can interrelate. Ultimately all science is linked of course, but it need not be just by the obvious slight overlaps between say dinosaurs and fossil birds to living birds to flight to biomechanics to aerodynamics to physics etc. but that huge leaps across the science network are possible, even if they’re not that common.



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