For anyone who doesn’t already know, Palaeontologia Electronica is an on-line, open-access palaeontology journal — the only one in the world (unless you count Acta Pal Pol, which is freely available online and also published on paper.) PE is sponsored by the Palaeontological Association, the Paleontological Society and the Society of Vertebrtate Paleontology, the big three professional associations, so you can see that it’s a serious journal, not just some glorified blog. Among much else, it has published important sauropod papers such as Gomani (2005), Schwarz et al. (2005) and Rose (2007).  PE is A Good Thing.

The new issue 13(3) of PE came out yesterday and was introduced by a post on the newish PE blog.  In response I was moved to post a comment on that blog post.  But because the blog is pretty new, it doesn’t seem to have attracted many readers yet, at least judging by the low number of comments, so I realised that what I’d said needed saying in a more widely read venue.  Hence this SV-POW! article.

I am absolutely in awe of the Boltovskoy et al. World Atlas — my hat is off to everyone who worked on it, and it’s great that a reference work this comprehensive is freely available to the world.

But PE‘s tiny images are becoming more and more of an embarrassment: something has got to be done about this. It’s true that the maps in the PDFs are pretty high resolution (I can’t see exactly how high because my usual extract-images-from-PDF program isn’t working on these files for some reason). But the versions of the figures on the web-site are really inadequate — see for example Figure 6, which is a feeble 711×358 pixels — 1/4 Mp.

Compare that with, for example, Figure 10 (dorsal vertebrae) of the paper published in PLoS ONE today on new American iguanodonts. That image is 2067×2776 pixels — 5+3/4 Mp, or 22 times the size of the PE image.

Folks, I love PE and I really want it to succeed. But the PLoS journals, among others have raised the game. Hosting large images is so cheap now that it’s hard even to measure the cost: there is no excuse for PE to continue providing its figures only in what amounts to a thumbnail. Why shouldn’t the original image files submitted by the author be made available?

For me, and I am sure many other people, this is a deal-breaker. I simply can’t and won’t send any descriptive papers to PE, because when I prepare a 4100×3966 pixel figure like the one above [cervical rib "X1" of the Archbishop -- click through that images for the full-size version], I can’t tolerate having it shrunk to 711×688 to fit PE’s 711-pixel width limit — a 33-fold drop from 16 Mp to 1/2 Mp.

Please, PE. Fix this. Surely it can’t be hard?


Just noticed this over on ScienceBlogs:

Tetrapod Zoology conquers the world!

SV-POW!sketeer Darren’s Naish’s other blog Tetrapod Zoology has — rightly — often featured strongly in the Readers’ Picks sidebar; but this is the first time I’ve seen it, or indeed any blog, completely monopolise the list.

ScienceBlogs has other blogs that get more hits and more comments than Tet Zoo — mostly because they consist of flamebait — but when you want solid chunks of meaty, scientific nourishment, Tet Zoo now seems to be pretty well established as king of the hill.  On the slight chance that any SV-POW! readers aren’t already regulars at Tet Zoo, let me recommend it in the strongest terms: I know of no other blog that does such a good job of presenting hardcore science in a readable, approachable manner.

So congratulations to Darren, and long may it continue!


Last time around, I referred in passing, rather flippantly, to what I called Tutorial n: how to become a palaeontologist.  Since then, I realised that actually I could write a tutorial on this, and that it could be surprisingly short and sweet — much shorter than it would have needed to be even a few years ago.

So here it is: how to be a published palaeontologist.

Step 1. Publish papers about palaeontology

… and you’re done.


If this sounds frivolous or facetious, it’s not meant to.  It is the absolute, solid truth about how to be a published palaeontologist.  It is a fact that the difference between published palaeontologists and other people is that only the former have published papers about palaeontology.  If you want to move from the latter group into the former, then, that’s what you have to do.

I’m talking about proper publication in peer-reviewed journals, by the way: not just blogging (valuable though that is), not self-publication, not vanity publication.  Making a genuine contribution to the science of palaeontology through peer-reviewed articles.

But Mike, it’s not that simple!

Yes, it is.  It really is.

At times like this, I always remember Tom Clancy’s advice to would-be novelists.  I used to be on a mailing list for writers, and the administrator, Greg Gunther, once posted this anecdote:

I was on an [email] list with Tom Clancy once.  Mr. Clancy’s contribution to the list was, ‘Write the damn book’.

That’s the finest advice I know on the subject, and it applies to palaeontology papers as well as to novels.  If that doesn’t convince you, here is a post from noted science-fiction author Frederik Pohl, 87 years old at the time of writing, on the subject of establishing yourself as a short-story writer:

How do you get to be a writer?

  1. You sit down and write something.
  2. Finish what you write. Pensées don’t count. Neither do short stories without an ending.
  3. If the next morning you think it’s any good send it to some editor who might buy it.
  4. Repeat as needed.

Terse as this advice may seem, you could condense the whole thing to point 1.  Sit down and write something.  Heck, you don’t even need to sit down if you prefer to write standing up.  In which case the advice reduces to write something.

If you, dear reader, are not yourself a published palaeontologist, then you are probably thinking of all kinds of objections now.  Dismiss them: just start doing the work.  To help you out, let me smack a few common objections down for you.

Objection 1. But I’m not a professional!

What do you mean by that?  Do you mean that you don’t get paid to work on palaeontology?  No-one cares about that: journal editors and reviewers will neither know nor care.  For whatever it’s worth, both Darren and I are amateurs in this sense.

What matters — what journal editors and reviewers do care about — is whether you conduct yourself as a professional.  And that’s up to you.  Be courteous.  Write clearly.  Don’t be excessively critical of others’ work, especially if there’s a chance that you’ve misunderstood it.  Submit to peer review.  Turn your manuscripts around quickly.  These are the aspects of “professionalism” that actually matter, and they are just as available to amateurs as to professionals.

Objection 2. But I don’t have a Ph.D!

Doesn’t matter.  Lots of published palaeontologists don’t have Ph.Ds.  My own first five papers came out before I got my Ph.D.  Heck, John McIntosh, the undisputed king of sauropod science, never earned a Ph.D in palaeontology (though he has one in his day-job field of physics).

Really, what does a Ph.D get you?  Only the right to sign your submission letters Dr. Simeon Halibutwrangler instead of just plain Simeon Halibutwrangler.  Otherwise it has no effect whatsoever on the publication process.  I mean it.  Look at some papers: note how the authors’ names don’t include titles or credentials?  Journal editors and reviewers probably don’t even know whether you have a Ph.D or not, and they certainly don’t care.  What they care about is whether your manuscript is any good.

To be clear, I’m not saying a Ph.D is worthless.  For one thing, it’s a necessity if you’re looking for a job in academia.  But in terms of its effect on your ability to actually, you know, do science, it’s way overrated.

Objection 3. But I don’t have an academic affiliation!

Doesn’t matter.  Greg Paul isn’t affiliated with a university: his recent papers in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Paleobiology and, oh, yes, Science, give a street address rather than an institutional address.

Again, what does the affiliation really get you?  I would say three things: access to papers (see below), access to specimens (see below) and the right to put the name of a university on your papers.  If you can work around the first two things — and you can — the lack of the third is not truly such a great hardship.

Obejction 4. But I don’t have access to papers!

Yes you do.  This is a solved problem.  We’re living in the Shiny Digital Future now.

Seriously.  The rankest amateur living in 2010 has better access to the literature than the most hallowed professional of twenty years ago ever had.

Here’s a strange thing: although I’ve been affiliated with UCL for eighteen months now, I’ve never got around to setting up my off-campus institutional access to paywalled publishers like Elsevier and Blackwell.  Now partly this is just plain laziness, which I’m not proud of.  But I do think it goes to show how very much that kind of access is, these days, a pleasant luxury rather than a necessity.  Because everything is open.

Objection 5. But I don’t have access to specimens!

Finally, we come to a real objection.  Fossil specimens are held by museums, and museums are rightly careful about who they allow to play with their irreplaceable stuff.  In general, it’s easier to get access to specimens as you become better known — either through the shortcut of an academic affiliation, or through publishing papers.  But how can you publish papers if you don’t have access to specimens?  You can’t, right?  It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, right?

Well, wrong actually.

Obviously you can’t write descriptive papers without seeing the material you’re describing.  But that is only one kind of paper.  Reviewing my own output so far, I was rather shocked to find that only two of eleven papers (the Xenoposeidon description and Brachiosaurus revision) are descriptive, specimen-based work.  Of the others, three were taxonomic (Diplodocoid PN, pre-PhyloCode PN and Cetiosaurus petition); one was statistical (dinosaur diversity survey), one was palaeobiological inference (sauropod neck posture); three were about the Shiny Digital Future (electronic publication of names, sharing data, ODP report); and one is basically a literature review (history of sauropod studies).

What this means is that I could have written 81.8% of my papers without ever looking at an actual specimen.  So: write 81.8% of your papers, get them published, then when museum collection managers know who you are, go and look at their fossils and write the other 18.2%.

Objection 6. But what if my paper is rejected?

Reformat for a different journal and send it straight back out.  This happens to everyone.  It’s just part of the process.  My very first paper was rejected; we just sent it back out.  The Xenoposeidon paper was rejected without even being reviewed; we just sent it back out.  Our neck-posture paper was rejected without review twice; we just sent it back out.  As I write this, Matt and I are busy revising two papers that we co-wrote, both of which were rejected.  Any day now, we’re going to send them back out. [Update, March 2014: those two papers became Taylor and Wedel (2013a) on sauropod neck anatomy and Wedel and Taylor (2013b) on caudal pneumaticity.]

Objection 7. But I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to put in the work!

Oh.  Well, there you have me.  That really is a problem.

So what’s stopping you?

I know a whole bunch of people who should be published palaeontologists but aren’t.  Some of them know far, far more about extinct animals than I do, and I am frankly bewildered that they have somehow never made it into print: I assume they are letting themselves be defeated by some kind of psychological barrier.

Others are just feeling their way into this field, in many cases by blogging.  They have more excuse for hestitancy, but no real reason for it.  As a success story, I could cite Brian Switek of the blog Laelaps, who took a while to warm up to the idea of academic publishing but recently placed his first major paper (“Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition“) in the dinosaur history volume.

Well.  I could say more about the nuts and bolts of writing and submitting papers, and I will do so in Tutorial 14.  But for now, I am leaving this here.  Because the single, simple point that this article makes is such an important one.  Write papers.

There’s recently been a rash of requests for PDFs on the VRTPALEO mailing list.  Or maybe “plague” would be a better word.  What invariably happens is that a new paper comes out, and someone emails the list saying “Please can someone send me a PDF of this?”; then another half-dozen or so people all reply to the list saying “I’d like a copy, too”.  (The situation is exacerbated by the VRTPALEO list’s utterly advanced policy of forcing all replies to go to the whole list instead of just to the person being replied to, but that’s a whole nother rant.)

The result is of course that several thousand people get half a dozen spams.  Yes, it’s true that it only takes a couple of seconds to recognise and delete such messages.  But when two thousand people each take two seconds to delete a message, that’s 4000 seconds of time that could have been used for something useful.  In other words, to save yourself a couple of minutes’ work, you’ve wasted more than an hour of other people’s time.

Folks, this has to stop.

So what should you do when you want to get hold of a paper?  It’s a simple three-stage process.  And before you ask, yes, this is good for hobbyists as well as professionals.

Step 1: Google

Just search for the title of the paper.  You’d be surprised how often it just turns up.  Sometimes  it’s in an open-access journal, such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palaeontologia Electronica or PLoS ONE.  Sometimes the author has posted a copy, as for example I do with all my stuff and Matt does with his.  Sometimes, there just happens to be a copy lying around somewhere — for example, because a lecturer made it available to his students.

Often, though, the paper you want is out there, but paywalled.  So go on to …

Step 2: ask the author

Nine times out of ten, the abstract pages that the big commercial publishers put up include the author’s email address.  So just drop him or her a line asking for a copy.

Dear Dr. Haddockwhittler,

I was interested to see the abstract of your new paper on eroded non-diagnostic ornithopod pedal phalanges in the Journal Of Small Boring Fossils. I would be very grateful if you would send me a PDF. Many thanks.

And you’ll almost always get the PDF back within a day or two.  Sometimes authors don’t respond at all — most likely because they’ve not seen the message; and very occasionally they don’t have the PDF themselves.  But these are very rare situations.  And I have never, ever, known an author to just flatly refuse to send out a PDF.

I’ve had a few people telling me that they’re nervous about cold-contacting an Actual Credentialled Professional, and that they fear getting the brush-off because of their own amateur status.  Put this foolish idea out of your mind. Every professional is always delighted when anyone, professional or not, is interested in their work.

SPECIAL BONUS FRINGE BENEFIT: every now and then, you may find that as a by-product of such a request, you strike up a conversation with the author.  If you and they are interested in the same stuff, you sometimes find that you each have light to shed on the others’ thoughts.  As a matter of fact, this is precisely how I met and became friends with Matt (which in turn is how I became a palaeontologist — a story that I must tell some time in Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist).  Usually this won’t happen: you’ll just have a brief, courteous exchange, and move on.  But sometimes it might.

But suppose you can’t find the author’s email address?  (This is much more common with older papers.)  Or suppose it’s a really old one — a classic Janensch paper or something — and the author is dead?  Or suppose you send an email, but the author never responds?  Then on to …

Step 3: ask a friend

If you know someone who’s at an institution that has good access to subscription resources, drop them a line as ask whether they’d mind pushing a copy your way.  If you’re friends already it’s probably because you’re interested in the same stuff, which means that they’ve likely already downloaded the paper in question — or, if not, they’ll be grateful to you for the heads-up.  Even if not, you’re only wasting one person’s time instead of two thousand.

And if all else fails …

… then fall back to the original: email the list and ask whether anyone can help.  Sure, there’s a place for this: it’s part of what the list is there for, and it can be absolutely invaluable when you’re trying but failing to track down an obscure old paper.

If you do this, then please use a meaningful subject for your email.  If you just write “PDF request” than I will delete it without even opening it, and I bet most other people will, too.  Do yourself a favour and write something terse but informative, like “Looking for PDF of Haddockwhittler 2010 on ornithopod phalanges”.

Another situation where mailing the list with a PDF request is appropriate: when you don’t know exactly what it is that you’re looking for, and you need expert guidance.  For example, I did this when looking for an ostrich osteology: I didn’t know of a good one (and hadn’t been able to discover the existence of one using Google), so I asked.  Not a problem.

But, people, this should be the last resort, not the first.

(There are those that say Inter-Library Loan should be on the List Of Things To Do Before Spamming VRTPALEO, but that’s not usually an option for amateurs with no formal affiliation.)

Well, I hope that’s helpful.  Now go forth and obtain papers!

This post is an expanded version of an email that I have written many, many times to individuals.  I got bored of writing it over and over, and figured that it would be quicker and easier to post this, and then be able to point people to it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 346 other followers