April 3, 2013
Gah! No time, no time. I am overdue on some things, so this is a short pointer post, not the thorough breakdown this paper deserves. The short, short version: Schachner et al. (2013) is out in PeerJ, describing airflow in the lungs of Nile crocs, and showing how surprisingly birdlike croc lungs actually are. If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the papers by Colleen Farmer and Kent Sanders a couple of years ago describing unidirectional airflow in alligator lungs. Hang on to your hat, because this new work is even more surprising.
I care about this not only because dinosaurian respiration is near and dear to my heart but also because I was a reviewer on this paper, and I am extremely happy to say that Schachner et al. elected to publish the review history alongside the finished paper. I am also pleasantly surprised, because as you’ll see when you read the reviews and responses, the process was a little…tense. But it all worked out well in the end, with a beautiful, solid paper by Schachner et al., and a totally transparent review process available for the world to see. Kudos to Emma, John, and Colleen on a fantastic, important paper, and for opting for maximal transparency in publishing!
UPDATE the next morning: Today’s PeerJ Blog post is an interview with lead author Emma Schachner, where it emerges that open review was one of the major selling points of PeerJ for her:
Once I was made aware of the transparent peer review process, along with the fact that the journal is both open access and very inexpensive to publish in, I was completely sold. [...] The review process was fantastic. It was transparent and fast. The open review system allowed for direct communication between the authors and reviewers, generating a more refined final manuscript. I think that having open reviews is a great first step towards fixing the peer review system.
That post also links to this one, so now the link cycle is complete.
Schachner, E.R., Hutchinson, J.R., and Farmer, C.G. 2013. Pulmonary anatomy in the Nile crocodile and the evolution of unidirectional airflow in Archosauria. PeerJ 1:e60 http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.60
December 12, 2012
It’s an oddity to me that when publishers try to justify their existence with long lists of the valuable services they provide, they usually skip lightly over one of the few really big ones. For example, Kent Anderson’s exhausting 60-element list omitted it, and it had to be pointed out in a comment by Carol Anne Meyer:
One to add: Enhanced content linking, including CrossREF DOI reference linking, author name linking cited-by linking, related content linking, updates and corrections linking.
(Anderson’s list sidles up to this issue in his #28, “XML generation and DTD migration” and #29, “Tagging”, but doesn’t come right out and say it.)
Although there are a few journals whose PDFs just contain references formatted as in the manuscript — as we did for our arXiv PDF — nearly all mainstream publishers go through a more elaborate process that yields more information and enables the linking that Meyer is talking about. (This is true of the new kids on the block as well as the legacy publishers.)
The reference-formatting pipeline
When I submit a manuscript with formatted reference like:
Taylor, M.P., Hone, D.W.E., Wedel, M.J. and Naish, D. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285(2):150–161. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x
(as indeed I did in that arXiv paper), the publisher will take that reference and break it down into structured data describing the specific paper I was referring to. It does this for various reasons: among them, it needs to provide this information for services like the Web Of Knowledge.
Once it has this structured representation of the reference, the publication process plays it out in whatever format the journal prefers: for example, had our paper appeared in JVP, Taylor and Francis’s publication pipeline would have rendered it:
Taylor, M. P., D. W. E. Hone, M. J. Wedel, and D. Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285:150–161.
(With spaces between multiple initials, initials preceding surnames for all authors except the first, an “Oxford comma” before the last author, no italics for the journal name, no bold for the volume number, the issue number omitted altogether, and the DOI inexplicably removed.)
What’s needed in a submitted reference
Here’s the key point: so long as all the relevant information is included in some format (authors, year, article title, journal title, volume, page-range), it makes no difference how it’s formatted. Because the publication process involves breaking the reference down into its component fields, thus losing all the formatting, before reassembling it in the preferred format.
And this leads us the key question: why do journals insist that authors format their references in journal style at all? All the work that authors do to achieve this is thrown away anyway, when the reference is broken down into fields, so why do it?
And the answer of course is “there is no good reason”. Which is why several journals, including PeerJ, eLife, PLOS ONE and certain Elsevier journals have abandoned the requirement completely. (At the other end of the scale, JVP has been known to reject papers without review for such offences as using the wrong kind of dash in a page-range.)
Like so much of how we do things in scholarly publishing, requiring journal-style formatting at the submission stage is a relic of how things used to be done and makes no sense whatsoever in 2012. Before we had citation databases, the publication pipeline was much more straight-through, and the author’s references could be used “as is” in the final publication. Not any more.
How far can we go?
All of this leads me to wonder how far we can go in cutting down the author burden of referencing. Do we actually need to give all the author/title/etc. information for each reference?
In the case of references that have a DOI, I think not (though I’ve not yet discussed this with any publishers). I think that it suffices to give only the DOI. Because once you have a DOI, you can look up all the reference data. Go try it yourself: go to http://www.crossref.org/guestquery/ and paste my DOI “10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x” into the DOI Query box at the bottom of the page. Select the “unixref” radio button and hit the Search button. Scroll down to the bottom of the results page, and voila! — an XML document containing everything you could wish to know about the referenced paper.
And the data in that structured document is of course what the publication process uses to render out the reference in the journal’s preferred style.
Am I missing something? Or is this really all we need?
December 8, 2012
I just saw this tweet from palaeohistologist Sarah Werning, and it summed up what science is all about so well that I wanted to give it wider and more permanent coverage:
The second best part of science is knowing, just for a little while, something nobody else knows. The best part is sharing it with someone.—
Sarah Werning (@sarahwerning) December 08, 2012
This is exactly right. Kudos to Sarah for saying it so beautifully.
(Sarah’s work can most recently be seen in Nesbitt et al.’s (2012) paper on a newly recognised ancient dinosaur or near dinosaur relative, and especially in the high-resolution supplementary images that she deposited at MorphoBank.)
October 1, 2012
In a third “open letter to the mathematics community”, Elsevier have announced that, for “the primary mathematics journals”, they now offer free access to all articles over four years old. The details page shows that 53 journals are involved.
I like to give credit where it’s due, and this is a significant move. It’s much more important than the initiatives we hear of from time to time when access to various journals is offered for a limited window: it means there is a substantial body of work that will now be freely and permanently available.
In a comment on John Baez’s Google+ post, Joerg Fliege comments:
One should also mention that opening up access to a handful of older issues of math journals will not affect the bottom line of Elsevier’s revenue much. They are giving something away that, in the greater scheme of things, has essentially a business value near 0.
How kind of them.
But I think this is unnecessarily cynical and negative. A move like this should be judged not on what it costs Elsevier to do, but on the benefit that it gives the research community. If they can find things to do that cost them little or nothing but provide a real benefit, then that’s all to the good — as I argued in the How Elsevier Can Save Itself posts [part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3]. They should not be criticised for that!
That said, Baez does raise a crucial question in that Google+ post:
Why just math journals? Because we’re the ones who are making the most noise! Folks from many other sciences have joined the boycott – but you need some leaders in your field to get aggressive if you want to get Elsevier to do you a favor like this.
An important challenge for Elsevier right now is to prove that they are really making an effort to contribute to the progress of research across the board, rather then just trying to buy off the mathematical community which has caused them the most irritation up to this point.
Can they meet that challenge?
As you’ll know from all the recent AMNH basement (and YPM gallery) photos, Matt and I spent last week in New York (with a day-trip to New Haven). The week immediately before that, I spent in Boston with Index Data, my day-job employers. Both weeks were fantastic — lots of fun and very productive. But they did mean that between the scheduled activities and getting a big manuscript finally submitted, I’ve been very much out of touch, and I’m only now catching up with what’s happened in The Rest Of The World while I’ve been sequestered in various basements photographing sauropod vertebrae.
The two big events in the Open Access world while I was away were the launch of PeerJ and the release of the Finch Report. I’ll write about PeerJ in future, but today I want to say a few words on the Finch Report. I’ve deliberately not read anyone else’s coverage of the report yet, in the hope of forming an uninfluenced perspective. I’ll be very interested, once I’ve finished writing this, to see what people like Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry and Peter Murray-Rust have said about it.
What is the Finch Report, you may ask? The introduction explains:
The report recommends actions which can be taken in the UK which would help to promote much greater and faster access, while recognising that research and publications are international. It envisages that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, but recommends a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for open access publishing.
So the first point to make is that it’s very good news about the overall direction. In fact, it would be easy to overlook this. The swing that’s happened over the last six months has been slow enough to miss, but the cumulative effect of myriad small shifts has been enormous: where there used to be a lot of skepticsm about open access, pretty much everyone is now accepting that it’s inevitable. (See this compilation of quotes from US congressmen, UK government ministers, publishers, editors and professors.) The questions now are about what form ubiquitous open access will take, not whether it’s coming. It is.
But there’s an oddity in that introduction which is a harbinger of something that’s going to be a recurring theme in the report:
[Open access publishing] means that publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.
People who have been following closely will recognise this as the definition of Gold Open Access — the scheme where the author (or her institution) pays a one-time publication fee in exchange for the publisher making the result open to the world. The other road, known as Green OA, is where an author publishes in a subscription journal but deposits a copy of the paper in a repository, where it becomes freely available after an embargo period, typically six to twelve months. That Green OA is not mentioned at this point is arguably fair enough; but that OA is tacitly equated with Gold only feels much more significant. It’s as though Green is being written out of history.
More on this point later.
The actual report is 140 pages long, and I don’t expect it to be widely read. But The executive summary is published as a separate document, and at 11 pages is much more digestible. And its heart is in the right place, as this key quote from p4 tells us:
The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.
Amen. Of course, that is the bedrock. But more practically, on page 3, we read:
Our aim has been to identify key goals and guiding principles in a period of transition towards wider access. We have sought ways both to accelerate that transition and also to sustain what is valuable in a complex ecology with many different agents and stakeholders.
I do want to acknowledge that this is a hard task indeed. It’s easy to pontificate on how things ought to be (I do it all the time on this blog); but it’s much harder to figure out how to get there from here. I’m impressed that the Finch group set out to answer this much harder question.
But I am not quite so impressed at their success in doing so. And here’s why. In the foreword (on page 2) we read this:
This report … is the product of a year’s work by a committed and knowledgeable group of individuals drawn from academia, research funders and publishing. … Members of the group represented different constituencies who have legitimately different interests and different priorities, in relation to the publication of research and its subsequent use.
My most fundamental issue with the report, and with the group that released it, is this. I don’t understand why barrier-based publishers were included in the process. The report contains much language about co-operation and shared goals, but the truth as we all know is that publishers’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, and indeed of everyone else. Who does the Finch Group represent? I assumed the UK Government, and therefore the citizens of the UK — but if it’s trying to represent all the groups involved in academic activity, there’s a conflict of interests that by its nature must prevent everyone else from clearly stating what they want from publishers.
This isn’t an idle speculation: the report itself contains various places where is suddenly says something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit, or is in conflict with the general message. It’s hard not to imagine these as having been forced into the report by the publishers at the table (according to the membership list, Bob Campbell, senior publisher at Wiley Blackwell; Steve Hall, managing director of IoP Publishing; and Wim van del Stelt, executive VP of corporate strategy at Springer). And I just don’t understand why the publishers were given a seat at the table.
And so we find statements like this, from p5:
The pace of the transition to open access has not been as rapid as many had hoped, for a number of reasons. First, there are tensions between the interests of key stakeholders in the research communications system. Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.
This is very tactfully put, if I might say so. Distilled to its essence, the is saying that while the UK government, universities, libraries, hospitals and citizens want open access, publishers want to keep the walls that give them their big profits. The bit about “high-quality services” is just a fig-leaf, and a rather transparent one at that. Reading on, still in p5:
There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers.
Those all sounds like risks to the same group: publishers. And again, there is no reason I can see why these need be our problem. We know that publishing will survive in a form that’s useful to academia — the success of BioMed Central and PLoS, and the birth of ventures like eLife and PeerJ show us that — so why would it be the any part of our responsibility to make sure that the old, slow, expensive, barrier-based publishers continue to thrive?
Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes.
I don’t understand this at all. What support? Something that publishers provide? I just don’t get what point is being made here, and can only assume that this “intricate ecology” section is one of the passages that the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly unconvincing.
And so we come to the actual recommendations of the report. There are ten of these altogether, on pages 6-7, and they begin as follows:
We therefore recommend that:
i. a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;
So there it is: The Finch Report says that Gold Open Access is the way forward.
And despite my carping about publishers’ involvement in the process, and their dilution of the output, I’m pretty happy with that recommendation. Of course, there are a hundred questions about who will pay for OA (though they will be considerably less pressing in a world where $99 buy you all the publishing you can eat at PeerJ). Lots of details to be ironed out. But the bottom line is that paying at publication time is a sensible approach. It gives us what we want (freedom to use research), and provides publishers with a realistic revenue stream that, unlike subscriptions, is subject to market forces. (I will enlarge on this point in a subsequent post.)
To briefly summarise the ten recommendations:
i. Overall policy should be to move to Gold OA.
ii. Funders should provide money for Gold OA charges.
iii. Re-use rights, especially non-commercial, should be provided.
iv. Funding of subscriptions should continue during transition.
v. Walk-in access should be “pursued with vigour”
vi. We must work together to negotiate and fund licences.
vii. Subscription price negotiations should take into account the forthcoming transition to OA.
viii. Experimentation is needed on OA monographs.
ix. Repositories should be developed in “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.
x. Funders should be careful about mandating short embargo limits.
Mostly good stuff. I’m not happy about the emphasis on non-commercial forms of re-use in (iii), and of course walk-in access (v) is spectacularly dumb. (vi) seems a bit vacuous, but harmless I suppose — I’m not sure what point it’s trying to make. (ix) is quietly sinister in its drive-by relegation of repositories to a subsidiary role, and of course (x) is pure publisher-food. Still, even with these caveats, the overall thrust is good.
Well, this has already gone on much longer than I intended, so I will leave further analysis for next time. For now, I am inclined to award the Finch Report a solid B+. I’ll be interested to see how that assessment stands up when I’ve read some other people’s analysis.
March 12, 2012
I was searching for some information — what proportion of Elsevier’s revenue is from journal subscriptions. So far, I’ve been unsuccessful with that (can anyone help?), but along the way I stumbled across Elsevier’s Annual Reports and Financial Statements for 2011.
And it makes happy reading. In these times when people are constantly moaning and whining and complaining about shrinking library budgets, it’s good to see that if you just pull your socks up and work hard, you can still do well for yourself! Check it out:
As you can see, whereas in 2010 Elsevier were only able to generate an operating profit of £724M/£2026M = 35.7%, by sheer hard work and gumption they were able in 2011 to bring this up to £768M/£2058M = 37.3%. This continues a fine trend of five successive years of increasing profits — not just increasing in absolute amount (although that’s true, too), but increasing as a proportion of all revenue.
So hats off to Elsevier, and to the valiant shareholders whose self-sacrifice allows us all to obtain more than adequate typesetting for our papers! Pay no attention to the moaning Minnies — this is an all-American success story!
February 3, 2012
I’m very aware that I’ve been whining incessantly on this blog recently: RWA this, Elsevier that, moan whine complain. So I’m delighted to be able to bring some good news. Mike Keesey’s site PhyloPic.org is back up, in new and improved form, and providing free silhouettes of organisms extincts and extant. To quote the site’s FAQ:
PhyloPic‘s database stores reusable silhouette images of organisms. Each image is associated with one or more taxonomic names and indicates roughly what the ancestral member(s) of each taxon looked like.
PhyloPic also stores a phylogenetic taxonomy of all organisms. This means that you can perform phylogenetic searches. For example, if you need an image for a certain taxon, but there is no exact match in the database, you can easily search that taxon’s supertaxa, subtaxa, and related taxa for an image that may work as well.
For example, there is a page about Giraffatitan brancai, which includes a link to a silhouette by Scott Hartman; and a page about Brachiosaurus altithorax, which has two silhouettes — one by Scott and one by me.
More interestingly, for each taxon, you can ask for an illustrated lineage. For example, the illustrated lineage of Giraffatitan brancai starts with that animal, then works its way up via images for Brachiosauridae, Titanosauriformes, Camarasauromorpha, and continues up through a total of 36 images, finishing up with Holozoa, Cytota and Panbiota.
Better still, because all the images are available to re-use (subject to some restrictions which I’ll discuss below), you’re free to use them to make collages like this one, which Mike Keesey did for our friend Giraffatitan brancai:
One of the great things about this site is that it’s a community effort: Mike built the site and has prepared a good chunk of the artwork so far, but PhyloPic is open to submissions from anyone who cares to register (or to login via Google, Twitter, etc.)
Mike has allowed some latitude in the licences that can be used when images are added. You can currently choose from any of:
- Public Domain Mark 1.0 [for declaring that an image is already PD]
- Public Domain Dedication 1.0 [for putting an image into the PD]
- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
- Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported
- Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
- Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
That choice is nice for contributing artists, but makes life a bit more awkward for users because any composite artwork has to be licenced under the most restrictive combination of the licences of its parts. In the case of the collage above, because Scott’s Giraffatitan brancai was uploaded as CC-BY-NC-SA, that’s how the whole image ends up, too. This means that if, say, you want to make T-shirts on Cafe Press with this image on them, you’ll have a bit of nightmare figuring out exactly who you need to get permission from.
Mike has to walk a fine line with this. The images would be most useful to the world if they were all public domain and could be remixed, reused and reproduced with no restrictions whatsoever; but you can’t blame artists for wanting to put some limits on this. Yet even when the most permissive non-public domain licence is used (CC-BY), the light requirement that the image must be credited ends up as a heavy requirement when, as with the collage above, you use thirty images that all need to be acknowledged.
Anyway, these are wrinkles. The point is: free, re-usable art! Go and use it; and add to it!
January 19, 2012
Although I’m on record of being no fan of the tabloids, there’s no doubt that they are hugely influential. So it has to be good news to find that in the last few hours, both Nature and Science have publicly come out against the Research Works Act.
The Nature Publishing Group (with publishes Nature), writing jointly with Digital Science, published this statement:
Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and Digital Science note the concern amongst the scientific and library communities about the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699), currently under consideration by the U.S. federal government, and wish to clarify our position.
NPG and Digital Science do not support the Research Works Act.
And within the last couple of hours, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science), has followed suit with its own statement:
The nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, today reaffirmed its support for the current public access policy of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Contrary to recent news reports, AAAS does not endorse the Research Works Act, which would prevent the NIH from requiring its grantees to make biomedical research findings freely available via the National Library of Medicine’s Web site.
This is excellent and very welcome news. I have written to the NPG and AAAS to express my thanks for their statements.
I hope and expect to see other publishers following their example: this page on the Harvard cyber-law site is maintaining a list of AAP-member publishers who have done so.
And remember — it’s not too late for you to make a difference to the RWA’s success or failure. See the Alliance for Taxpayer Action’s page, Call to action: Oppose H.R. 3699, a bill to block public access to publicly funded research.
September 23, 2011
With our baby’s appearance in National Geographic this week, she’s now been in four mainstream magazines:
That’s National Geographic at top left, Macleans next to it; The Scientist at bottom left, and National Geographic Kids next to that. (The articles in the first three of these are available online here, here and here, but I can’t find anything on the NG Kids web-site.)
There is a point to this post, beyond
gloating celebrating Brontomerus: it’s that diligent preparation improves a study’s chance of getting good coverage. A few people have asked us to write a bit about what we did, so at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, here it is.
Most of Brontomerus‘s visibility is due to the hard work of the UCL Publicity team, and especially the excellent and widely-reproduced video that they made in the Grant Museum. But we made it easy for UCL to take an interest by preparing a bunch of materials ahead of time, before they even knew that there was a paper coming out. We called it the Brontomerus press pack, and made sure it contained everything anyone could need for writing and illustrating stories about our animal:
- The basic story
- Background on what a sauropod is
- Two variations of a life restoration
- A video of a rotating 3d model of the animal
- A photo of all the bones; detailed photo of the important ilium
- A skeletal reconstruction
- A photo of the three co-authors with the material
- Explicit credits, copyrights and permissions for the images and video
- Link to the proof PDF of the paper itself
- A fact sheet, noting common errors to avoid
In short, we tried to give journalists, and radio and TV researchers, everything they needed to put together a story aimed at their own audience. More than that — we tried to make it easy for them. They have plenty going on, after all: Brontomerus came out on the day that the Libyan protests really took off, so it’s not as though news editors were short of material to fill their slots. I suspect that if we’d not got all the ducks in such a neat row, Brontomerus would have disappeared from the news schedule in double-quick time.
Another important thing you can do to make news editors’ jobs easier: make sure that the images you provide are in high resolution, so they don’t pixellate when they’re blown up to fill a screen; and be explicit about image/video credit, copyright and permissions. Let them know what they can use and under what conditions. If you make them hunt for that information, or even chase you for it, they’ll probably lose interest and do a different piece instead. And we really wanted the artist who’d done the Brontomerus work to be credited: Paco Gasco did a fantastic job, and deserved to be known for it.
Equally important, by getting as much material as possible ready before even contacting the university publicity people, we made their job easier. Once they were on board, we were able to extend the page with extras like an official press release and the video, but the framework was all in place ahead of time.
In short, there is a whole load that you can do to prepare a study for media coverage. Not much of it is rocket-science. It’s basically just about getting the work done. And it is work, plenty of it.
Still. It’s worth it.
And another thing …
You should all get across to Heinrich Mallison’s new blog and check it out. Lots of excellent palaeo-photography, even if today’s post is about a stinkin’ mammal.
Addendum (from Matt)
First, some credit where it’s due. We didn’t figure all of this out on our own. For Brontomerus in particular, we took a lot of cues from the fact sheet that Irmis et al. put together for their 2007 “rise of dinosaurs” paper that made the cover of Science.
Second, we did figure some of it out on our own, but not all at once. If you look at Mike’s unofficial online press packs for Xenoposeidon (2007), our neck posture paper (2009), and Brontomerus (2011), you’ll see that each one is better than the one before.
Finally, you may be saying to yourself, “Okay, I understand that I’m supposed to make things easy for journalists and have a bunch of stuff queued up for them. But where do I put it?”
Well, online, obviously. If you don’t already have a blog, WordPress and Blogger and probably a zillion other services give them out for free, and you can make an ad hoc, one-shot blog for every press-release-worthy paper, as Mark Witton and Darren did for their azhdarchid paleobiology paper in PLoS ONE.
But let me wax preachy for a minute. If you’re a young researcher and you’re trying to make an impact, why aren’t you blogging? It’s not an intolerable commitment. Sure, regular posting brings more readers, but irregular posting brings more readers than not having a blog at all.
We started SV-POW! as a joke, and continued it during the actually-posting-weekly-about-sauropod-vertebrae phase (which lasted for 2.5 years) because it was fun and challenging, and maintain it now because it’s fun, we enjoy the wacky discussions that get going from time to time in the comments, and, frankly, we’re addicted to having a soapbox where we can say pretty much whatever we want. We didn’t explicitly plan it as a way to funnel readers to our scientific work, but that has been one of its great exaptive benefits. I’d be shocked if the same isn’t true for other researchers who blog.
So, moral of the story: if you’re a researcher and you’re not blogging, you’re missing out. Your work is reaching fewer people than it might. Come out and play. Join the conversation. Interact. Your future self will thank you.
August 18, 2011
It’s an anniversary of sorts. Not today, nor any particular day this year, but this year, 2011, marks my 15th year doing research. The last time I blogged about this was the 10th anniversary, back in 2006. Back then I was in my fifth year as a PhD student in Kevin Padian’s lab at Berkeley. I knew I’d have to finish and get a job, but I had no idea how either of those things was going to happen. And although I talk a big game about seeking out new experiences, I was flatly terrified. But things have worked out. I have a tenure-track job doing what I love, research is still rolling along, and life continues to change in unexpected ways. Time’s arrow flies on.
If that paragraph seemed insufferably self-absorbed, don’t worry. This isn’t my story anymore.
I’m taking on my first graduate student this semester: Vanessa Graff, who is pursuing a master’s degree through the Graduate College of Biomedical Sciences here at WesternU. Vanessa’s going to be a doctor someday, but for the immediate future she’s signed on as a sauropod paleobiologist in training.
My feelings about this are complex. I am acutely aware of exactly how nowhere I’d be without the generosity and guidance of Rich Cifelli, Kevin Padian, Bill Clemens, and the host of people who showed up in my life at the right time and said the right words to steer me to where I am now. Fifteen years ago I had a conversation with Trish Schwagmeyer that literally changed the course of my life. It started with her reviewing my less-than-mediocre grades, looking me in the eye, and saying, “You’re blowing it”, and ended with her recommending that I find a faculty sponsor for an independent study (ultimately, this). I have been walking around with that debt for my entire adult life (if I’d been an adult in 1996, we wouldn’t have needed to have that talk). And although I have thanked Trish and told her how pivotal that conversation turned out to be, I can’t ever pay that back. Or any of the rest, that I owe to more people than I can readily count.
But now, unexpectedly, I have a chance to start–just start–paying it all forward. I don’t have any delusions that I will do so perfectly. Rich, Kevin, and Bill were all seasoned pros when they took me on. Whereas I…well, let’s acknowledge that I’m no Rich Cifelli and leave it at that, shall we? So as a first-time advisor I oscillate between exhilaration and sheer terror–come to think of it, pretty much the same as I did as a PhD candidate at Berkeley, and as an undergrad at OU. Plus ça change…
I closed the Acknowledgments of my dissertation with, “Everything they ever taught me has paid off. I have tried to make my career an act of thanks.” At the time I was writing about my parents, but now I have the perspective to see that I was actually writing about my advisors as well. Four years out of the nest, and once again I find myself following their example as I attempt something I’ve never done before. Like everything I do as a professional, my actions will be imperfect imitations of theirs, somewhere on the spectrum between homage and pastiche.
But like I said, it’s not my story anymore. It’s Vanessa’s. And in the brief time that we’ve been working together she has shown more grit and maturity than I had at her age, and just as much enthusiasm. I am confident that her surpluses in those areas will carry her through my inevitable fumbles. She is rolling, and there is the familiar sense of a snowball at the top of a mountain, at the moment where motion goes from potential to perceptible to inevitable.
Where will that motion take her? Beats me. We’ll find out as we go–just like I did with Rich and Kevin and Bill. That will be Vanessa’s story to tell, in conference presentations and papers and whatever other venues she chooses. I’ll help her all I can, and hope for the good sense to know when to nudge and when to get out of the way.
Rich, Kevin, Bill–you left me some damn big shoes to fill. I will not succeed, not completely. But I will strive to make my advising an act of thanks.