Can amateurs publish in palaeontology?
October 10, 2010
As for the paper itself, it does point out something that may become a future problem for paleontologists. I know of several amateur and commercial paleontologists who believe they aren’t allowed to write peer-reviewed papers to be published in journals because they aren’t professional paleontologists or work at a university (in fact, this even applies to a couple museum paleontologists who work at non-university public museums).
I started to write a reply to this, then realised it was important enough to merit its own post — so here it is.
The amateur and commercial palaeontologists alluded to in the comment are wrong, plainly and simply. Anyone can submit a manuscript to any journal[*]. And the evaluation of submitted manuscripts is supposed to be done strictly on the basis of the scientific content of the manuscript itself, not on the reviewers’ opinions of the individuals involved. [I'm not saying that ad hominem reviews never happen -- I've had one myself, when my very first submission was rejected in part because I had no publication track-record, which introduces an obvious chicken-and-egg problem. But this is very, very much the exception rather than the rule, and in fact in 40 or so reviews that I've had up to this point, I think that was the only example of this happening.]
So the commenter’s amateur friends should just go right ahead and start participating in the world of professional palaeontology. They’re welcome, so long as their stuff is good. Thing is, “participating in the world of professional palaeontology” entails things like copy-editing the careless mistakes out of your manuscript, getting your citations and references to match, reading and understanding the existing literature to recognise where your work fits in and what actual evidence supports the position you’re setting out to overturn, submitting the manuscript to a recognised journal, and putting it through peer-review. The brontodiplodocus manuscript is being dismissed by the professional community because it didn’t do any of these things — not because the authors aren’t professionals.
The anonymous comment continues:
Or that if they donate their specimens to a public institution so they can be publicly available they will be barred from studying the specimens and/or they will go to someone else to name. It doesn’t help that some paleontologists actively cultivate this view towards amateur and commercial paleontologists.
Who does? I have never heard of a professional palaeontologist denigrating an amateur or commercial for donating their scientifically significant specimens to a public institution. Never.
If an amateur or commercial paleontologist dots all their i’s and cross their t’s, subject their papers out to peer review, and place the holotype fossils in a publicly available institution, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to publish stuff?
They are allowed.
I don’t want to keep bashing on and on with the obvious example here, but I myself am an amateur: in the seven years since I started to work seriously on palaeo, I’ve been generated a total palaeontology income of £215, for an annual income of £30 p.a. (That’s a £40 interview fee and a 200 Euro travel grant.) I do all my work in my spare time, fitted in around a demanding day-job. I am in fact the very model of an “amateur”, i.e. one who does it for love rather than for money. That’s not stopped me from getting my work published — some of it in very good venues. It needn’t stop anyone else, either, if they’re prepared to do the work.
A better example, and one that Matt mentioned last time, is the man who is arguably the most respected in the whole field of sauropod palaeontology: Jack McIntosh, whose careful, detailed work over the last few decades has all been done in his spare time, and which constitutes a legacy of important papers that are still much referred to today.
The bottom line in the professional-vs.-amateur dichotomy is not in fact whether you get paid for what you do; it’s whether you conduct yourself according to your discipline’s professional standards or not. And that is a choice that everyone in the field (whether paid or not) makes for themselves. I know of people who are paid to do palaeo and who do not conduct themselves like professionals (though, thankfully, not many of them); and I know of unpaid people who are functional as professionals.
For this reason, I actually think that professional/amateur is unhelpful nomenclature when discussing these matters. But we’re stuck with it, and I’m not going to try to change the world. Just remember, everyone: in the field of palaeontology, you’ll be considered professional if and only if you conduct yourself as a professional.
That is all.
[*] OK, “Anyone can submit a manuscript to any journal” is a very slight oversimplification. There are a few journals that don’t accept unsolicited submissions, or that only accept them from members of a specific society, or what have you. But these area vanishingly small proportion of the whole journal-space, and no-one should be put off from submitting to the other 99% of journals because of the existence of this 1%.