September 28, 2012
Over on Facebook, where Darren posted a note about our new paper, most of the discussion has not been about its content but about where it was published. We’re not too surprised by that, even though we’d love to be talking about the science. We did choose arXiv with our eyes open, knowing that there’s no tradition of palaeontology being published there, and wanting to start a new tradition of palaeontology being routinely published there. Having now made the step for the first time, I see no reason ever to not post a paper on arXiv, as soon as it’s ready, before — or maybe even instead of — submitting it to a journal.
(Instead of? Maybe. We’ll discuss that below.)
The key issue is this: science isn’t really science until it’s out there where it can be used. We wrote the bulk of the neck-anatomy paper back in 2008 — the year that we first submitted it to a journal. In the four years since then, all the observations and deductions that it contains have been unavailable to the world. And that is stupid. The work might just as well never have been done. Now that it’s on arXiv, that’s over. I was delighted to get an email less than 24 hours after the paper was published, from an author working on a related issue, thanking us for posting the paper, saying that he will now revise his own in-prep manucript in light of its findings, and cite our paper. Which of course is the whole point: to get our science out there where it can do some damage.
Because the alternative is horrible, really. Horribly wasteful, horribly dispiriting, horribly retarding for science. For example, a couple of weeks ago in his SVPCA talk, David Norman was lamenting again that he never got around to publishing the iguanodont systematic work that was in his dissertation, I-don’t-know-how-many-years-ago. The result of that interminable delay is that others have done other, conflicting iguanodont systematic work, and Norman is now trying belatedly to undo that and bring his own perspective. A terrible an unnecessary slowing of ornithopod science, and a waste of duplicated effort. (Thankfully it’s only ornithopods.)
And of course David Norman is very far from being alone. Pretty much any palaeontologist you talk to will tell you of a handful of papers — many more in some cases — that were finished many years previously but have never seen the light of day. (I still have a couple myself, but there is no point in resurrecting them now because progress has overtaken them.) I wonder what proportion of all Ph.D work ever sees the light of day? Half? Less? It’s crazy.
Publish now, publish later
So, please folks: we all need to be posting our work on preprint servers as soon as we consider it finished. It doesn’t mean that the posted versions can’t subsequently be obsoleted by improved versions that have gone through peer-review and been published in conventional journals. But it does mean that the world can know about the work, and build on it, and get the benefit of it, as soon as it’s done.
You see, we have a very fundamental problem in academia: publishing fulfils two completely separate roles. Its primary role (or at least the role that should be primary) is to make work available to the community; the secondary role is to provide a means of keeping score — something that can be used when making decisions about who to appoint to jobs, when to promote, who gets grants, who gets tenure and so on. I am not going to argue that the latter shouldn’t happen at all — clearly a functioning community needs some way to infer the standing of its participants. But I do think it’s ridiculous when the bean-counting function of publication trumps the actual publication role of publication. Yet we’ve all been in a position where we have essentially complete work that could easily go on a blog, or in the PalAss newsletter, or in a minor journal, or somewhere — but we hang onto it because we want to get it into a Big Journal.
Let me say again that I do realise how unusual and privileged my own position is: that a lot of my colleagues do need to play the Publication Prestige game for career reasons (though it terrifies my how much time some colleagues waste squeezing their papers into two-and-a-half-page format in the futile hope of rolling three sixes on the Science ‘n’ Nature 3D6). Let’s admit right now that most palaeontologists do need to try to get their work into Proc B, or Paleobiology, or what have you. Fair enough. They should feel free. But the crucial point is this: that is no reason not to post pre-prints so we can all get on with actually benefitting from your work in the mean time.
Actually, I feel pretty stupid that it’s taken me this long to realise that all my work should go up on arXiv.
So are there any special cases? Any kinds of papers that we should keep dry until they make it into actual journals? I can think of two classes that you could argue for — one of them convincingly, the other not.
First, the unconvincing one. When I discussed this with Matt (and half the fun of doing that is that usually neither of us really knows what we think about this stuff until we’re done arguing it through), he suggested to me that we couldn’t have put the Brontomerus paper on arXiv, because that would have leaked the name, creating a nomen nudum. My initial reaction was to agree with him that this is an exception. But when I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s actually no compelling reason not to post such a paper on arXiv. So you create a nomen nudum? So what? Really: what is the negative consequence of that? I can’t think of one. OK, the name will appear on Wikipedia and mailing lists before the ICZN recognises it — but who does that hurt? No-one that I can think of. The only real argument against posting is that it could invite scooping. But is that a real threat? I doubt it. I can’t think of anyone who would be barefaced enough to scoop a taxon that had already been published on arXiv — and if they did, the whole world would know unambiguously exactly what had happened.
So what is the one real reason not to post a preprint? I think that might be a legitimate choice when publicity needs to be co-ordinated. So while nomenclatural issues should not have stopped us from arXiving the Brontomerus paper, publicity should. In preparation for that paper’s publication day, we did a lot of careful work with the UCL publicity team: writing non-specialist summaries, press-releases and FAQs, soliciting and preparing illustrations and videos, circulating materials under embargo, and so on. In general, mainsteam media are only interested in a story if it’s news, and that means you need to make sure it’s new when they first hear about it. Posting the article in advance on a publicly accessible archive would mess that up, and probably damage the work’s coverage in the press, TV and radio.
Publication venues are a continuum
It’s become apparent to us only gradually that there’s really no clear cut-off where a paper becomes “properly published”. There’s a continuum that runs from least to most formal and exclusive:
SV-POW! — arXiv — PLOS ONE — JVP — Nature
1. On SV-POW!, we write what we want and publish it when we want. We can promise you that it won’t go away, but you only have our word for it. But some of what we write here is still science, and has been cited in papers published in more formal venues — though, as far as I know, only by Matt and me so far.
2. On arXiv, there is a bit more of a barrier to clear: you have to get an existing arXiv user to endorse your membership application, and each article you submit is given a cursory check by staff to ensure that it really is a piece of scientific research rather than a diary entry, movie review or spam. Once it’s posted, the paper is guaranteed to remain at the same URL, unchanged, so long as arXiv endures (and it’s supported by Cornell). Crucially, the maths, physics and computer science communities that use arXiv uncontroversially consider this degree of filtering and permanence sufficient to constitute a published, citeable source.
3. At PLOS ONE, your paper only gets published if it’s been through peer-review — but the reviewing criteria pertain only to scientific soundness and do not attempt to evaluate likely impact or importance.
4. At JVP and other conventional journals, your paper has to make it through a two-pronged peer-review process: it has to be judged both sound scientifically (as at PLOS ONE) and also sufficiently on-topic and important to merit appearing in the journal.
5. Finally, at Nature and Science, your paper has to be sound and be judged sexy — someone has to guess that it’s going to prove important and popular.
Where along this continuum does the formal scientific record begin? We could make a case that all of it counts, provided that measures are taken to make the SV-POW! posts permanent and immutable. (This can be done submitting them to WebCite or to a service such as Nature Precedings used to provide.) But whether or not you accept that, it seems clear that arXiv and upwards is permanent, scientific and citeable.
This raises an interesting question: do we actually need to go ahead and publish our neck-anatomy paper in a more conventional venue? I’m honestly not sure at the moment, and I’d be interested to hear arguments in either direction. In terms of the progress of science, probably not: our actual work is out there, now, for the world to use as it sees fit. But from a career perspective, it’s probably still worth our while to get it into a journal, just so it can sit more neatly on our publication lists and help Matt’s tenure case more. And yet I don’t honestly expect any eventual journal-published version to be better in any meaningful way than the one on arXiv. After all, it’s already benefitted from two rounds of peer-review, three if you count the comments of my dissertation examiners. More likely, a journal will be less useful, as we have to cut length, eliminate illustrations, and so on.
So it seems to me that we have a hard choice ahead of us now. Call that paper done and more onto making more science? Or spend more time and effort on re-publishing it in exchange for prestige? I really don’t know.
For what it’s worth, it seems that standard practice in maths, physics and computer science is to republish arXiv articles in journals. But there are some scientists who routinely do not do this, instead allowing the arXiv version to stand as the only version of record. Perhaps that is a route best left to tenured greybeards rather than bright young things like Matt.
Citing papers in arXiv
Finally, a practicality: since it’ll likely be a year or more before any journal-published version of our neck-anatomy paper comes out, people wanting to use it in their own work will need to know how to cite a paper in arXiv. Standard procedure seems to be just to use authors, year, title and arXiv ID. But in a conventional-journal citation, I like the way that the page-range gives you a sense of how long the paper is. So I think it’s worth appending page-count to the citations. And while you’re at it, you may as well throw in the figure and table counts, too, yielding the version that we’ve been using:
- Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2012. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. arXiv:1209.5439. 39 pages, 11 figures, 3 tables.
September 26, 2012
Today sees the publication, on arXiv (more on that choice in a separate post), of Mike and Matt’s new paper on sauropod neck anatomy. In this paper, we try to figure out why it is that sauropods evolved necks six times longer than that of the world-record giraffe — as shown in Figure 3 from the paper (with a small version of Figure 1 included as a cameo to the same scale):
This paper started life as a late-night discussion over a couple of beers, while Matt was over in England for SVPCA back in (I think) 2008. It was originally going to be a short note in PaleoBios, just noting some of the oddities of sauropod cervical architecture — such as the way that cervical ribs, ventral to the centra, elongate posteriorly but their dorsal counterparts the epipophyses do not.
As so often, the tale grew in the telling, so that a paper we’d initially imagined as a two-or-three-page note became Chapter 5 of my dissertation under the sober title of “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”, weighing in at 41 1.5-spaced pages. By now the manuscript had metastatised into a comparison between the necks of sauropods and other animals and an analysis of the factors that enabled sauropods to achieve so much more than mammals, birds, other theropods and pterosaurs.
(At this point we had one of our less satisfactory reviewing experiences. We sent the manuscript to a respected journal, where it wasn’t even sent out to reviewers until more than a month had passed. We then had to repeatedly prod the editor before anything else happened. Eventually, two reviews came back: one of them careful and detailed; but the other, which we’d waited five months for, dismissed our 53-page manuscript in 108 words. So two words per page, or about 2/3 of a word per day of review time. But let’s not dwell on that.)
This work made its next appearance as my talk at SVPCA 2010 in Cambridge, under the title Why giraffes have such short necks. For the talk, I radically restructured the material into a form that had a stronger narrative – a process that involved a lot of back and forth with Matt, dry-running the talk, and workshopping the order in which ideas were presented. The talk seemed to go down well, and we liked the new structure so much more than the old that we reworked the manuscript into a form that more closely resembled the talk.
That’s the version of the manuscript that we perfected in New York when we should have been at all-you-can-eat sushi places. It’s the version that we submitted on the train from New York to New Haven as we went to visit the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. And it’s the version that was cursorily rejected from mid-to-low ranked palaeo journal because a reviewer said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript” — which was of course precisely what we’d intended.
Needless to say, it was deeply disheartening to have had what we were convinced was a good paper rejected twice from journals, at a cost of three years’ delay, on the basis of these reviews. One option would have been to put the manuscript back into the conventional “scientific paper” straitjacket for the second journal’s benefit. But no. We were not going to invest more work to make the paper less good. We decided to keep it in its current, more readable, form and to find a journal that likes it on that basis.
At the moment, the plan is to send it to PeerJ when that opens to submissions. (Both Matt and I are already members.) But that three-years-and-rolling delay really rankles, and we both felt that it wasn’t serving science to keep the paper locked up until it finally makes it into a journal — hence the deposition in arXiv which we plan to talk about more next time.
In the paper, we review seven characteristics of sauropod anatomy that facilitated the evolution of long necks: absolutely large body size; quadrupedal stance; proportionally small, light head; large number of cervical vertebrae; elongation of cervical vertebrae; air-sac system; and vertebral pneumaticity. And we show that giraffes have only two of these seven features. (Ostriches do the next best, with five, but they are defeated by their feeble absolute size.)
The paper incorporates some material from SV-POW! posts, including Sauropods were corn-on-the-cob, not shish kebabs. In fact, come to think of it, we should have cited that post as a source. Oh well. We do cite one SV-POW! post: Darren’s Invading the postzyg, which at the time of writing is the only published-in-any-sense source for pneumaticity invading cervical postzygapogyses from the medial surface.
As for the non-extended epipophyses that kicked the whole project off: we did illustrate how they could look, and discussed why they would seem to make mechanical sense:
But we found and explained some good reasons why this apparently appealing arrangement would not work. You’ll need to read the paper for details.
Sadly, we were not able to include this slide from the talk illustrating the consequences:
Anyway, go and read the paper! It’s freely available, of course, like all arXiv depositions, and in particular uses the permissive Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. We have assembled related information over on this page, including full-resolution versions of all the figures.
In the fields of maths, physics and computer science, where deposition in arXiv is ubiquitous, standard practice is to go right ahead and cite works in arXiv as soon as they’re available, rather than waiting for them to appear in journals. We will be happy for the same to happen with our paper: if it contains information that’s of value to you, then feel free to cite the arXiv version.
April 17, 2012
Item 1: With his new piece at the Guardian, “Persistent myths about open access scientific publishing”, Mike continues to be a thorn in the side of exploitative commercial publishers, who just can’t seem to keep their facts straight. This time Mike unravels some choice bits of nonsense that keep getting circulated about open access publishing: that OA publishing must necessarily cost as much as barrier-based publishing, that the peer review process is expensive for publishers, and that authors who can’t pay OA publication fees will be left out in the cold. It’s cleanly and compellingly argued–go read for yourself.
Item 2: The Yates et al. prosauropod pneumaticity paper is officially published in the latest issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and I have updated the citation and links accordingly. This may not seem like big news, in that the accepted manuscript has been available online for 13 months, and the final published version does not differ materially from that version other than being pretty. But it’s an opportunity to talk about something that we haven’t really addressed here before, which is the potential for prompt publication to accelerate research.
A bit of background: standard practice at APP is to post accepted manuscripts as soon as they’re, well, accepted, unless the authors ask otherwise (for example, because the paper contains taxonomic acts and the first public version needs to be the version of record). Not everyone likes this policy–I know Darren objects, and I’m sure there are others. The chief complaint is that it muddies the waters around when the paper is published. Is a paper published when a manuscript is posted to a preprint server like arXiv, or when the accepted manuscript is made freely available by a journal, or when the official, formatted version is published online, or when it arrives in printed hardcopy?
Now, this is an interesting question to ponder, but I think it’s only interesting from the standpoint of rules (e.g., codes governing nomenclature) and how we’re going to decide what counts. From the standpoint of moving science forward, the paper is published as soon as it is available for other researchers to use openly–i.e., not just to use in private in their own research, but also to cite. And since that’s the axis I care most about, I prefer to see accepted manuscripts made widely available as soon as possible, and I support APP’s policy. In the case of Yates et al. (2012), having the accepted manuscript online for the past year meant that it was available for Butler et al. (2012) to use, and cite, in their broad reassessment of pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs. If our manuscript has not been published, that might not have been the case; Adam gave a talk on our project at the 2009 SVP in Bristol, but Butler et al. might have been loathe to cite an abstract, and some journals explicitly forbid it.
So I say bring it on. Let’s really accelerate research, by letting people see the content as early as possible. Making other researchers wait just so they can see a prettier version of the same information seems to me to be a triumph of style over science.
- Butler, R.J., Barrett, P.M., and Gower, D.J. 2012. Reassessment of the evidence for postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs, and the early evolution of the avian respiratory system. PLoS ONE 7(3): e34094. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034094
- Yates, A.M., Wedel, M.J., and Bonnan, M.F. 2012. The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(1):85-100. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4202/app.2010.0075
April 2, 2012
The story so far …
Nature Precedings is, or was, a preprint server, somewhat in the spirit of an arXiv for biology. It describes, or described, itself as “a permanent, citable archive for pre-publication research and preliminary findings”.
This is a very useful thing. In our recentish paper on how sauropod necks were not sexually selected (Taylor et al. 2011), we wanted to mention in passing (as part of a much more involved argument about sauropod feeding ecology) that the DinoMorph results should not be taken as face value because “assumptions about the mobility of intervertebral joints are probably incorrect”. The obvious thing to cite for this is an old SV-POW! post (Taylor 2009) and so we did. (It’s gratifying to see an SV-POW! post sitting cheerfully in the bibliography of a conventionally published paper. There have been a few of these now.)
But what happens if SV-POW! goes away? What if Matt, Darren and I are all simultaneously run over by buses, and WordPress cancel the blog after a period of inactivity? For that matter, what if WordPress goes bust and shuts down its servers, or starts charging for hosting so that we decided to go elsewhere? Anyone trying to follow the reference in our necks-for-sex paper would by stymied. It seemed to me that the professional thing to do was to post a copy somewhere more permanent.
The answer is, or was, Nature Precedings. So a couple of months ago I made up an PDF containing the same text and images as the blog post, and submitted it to Precedings, where it can be found now (Taylor 2012). Matt and I were talking about doing the same for all the SV-POW! posts we know of that have been cited in formal literature, and perhaps getting into the habit of repositing PDFs of all such articles whenever we want to cite them, and then citing the Precedings version instead.
Not so fast!
I got an email three days ago from Precedings:
Subject: Nature Precedings change in service
As you are an active user of Nature Precedings, we want to let you know about some upcoming changes to this service. As of April 3rd 2012, we will cease to accept submissions to Nature Precedings. Submitted documents will be processed as usual and hosted provided they are uploaded by midnight on April 3rd. Nature Precedings will then be archived, and the archive will be maintained by NPG, while all hosted content will remain freely accessible to all.
Be assured that Nature and the Nature research journals continue to permit the posting of preprints and there is no change to this policy, which is detailed here.
Nature Precedings was launched in 2007 as NPG’s preprint server, primarily for the Life Science community. Since that date, we have learned a great deal from you about what types of content are valued as preprints, and which segments of the research community most embrace this form of publication. While a great experiment, technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved since 2007 to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived.
Looking forward, NPG remains committed to exploring ways to help researchers, funders, and institutions manage data and best practices in data management, and we plan to introduce new services in this area. We have truly valued your contributions as authors and users to Nature Precedings and hope that you will actively participate in this research and development with us.
Nature Publishing Group
Well, let’s pick this apart.
- “Change in service” means “end of service”. A really pointless and insulting euphemism. Come on, NPG, give it to us straight! We can take it!
- We have a promise that “the archive will be maintained by NPG, while all hosted content will remain freely accessible to all”.
- The reason given for shutting down is that “technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved since 2007 to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived”. I can’t start to understand what, if anything, that means.
- What to make of “we plan to introduce new services in this area”? What kind of new service can there be in this area that isn’t a preprint server?
Now I don’t want to be too harsh here, just because NPG have withdrawn a service that was free in the first place. They were under no obligation to keep providing it, of course. And the most important thing is that the papers already reposited there will live on.
But it’s just sad that this is going away. We need it, or something like it.
The number one question is, will the archived documents really stay around? I want to trust that they will, but it’s harder to keep trusting a no-longer-live system than one that has blood circulating. It would be ironic indeed if the original SV-POW! post turns out to be more durable than the Precedings version!
But going forward, the question is where to reposit future citation-worthy SV-POW! posts? What are the alternative services to Precedings?
It’s at times like these that we biologists suffer from Physics envy. They have arXiv, which does this right and has been doing it right since forever. We really need an arXiv for biology. Or better still, we need arXiv to expand to cover our field.
Taylor, Michael P. 2009. Range of motion in intervertebral joints: why we don’t trust DinoMorph. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, 30 May 2009. Available at http://svpow.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/range-of-motion-in-intervertebral-joints-why-we-dont-trust-dinomorph/
Taylor, Michael P., David W. E. Hone, Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285:150-161. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x
December 14, 2011
This year, I missed The Paleo Paper Challenge over on Archosaur Musings — it was one of hundreds of blog posts I missed while I was in Cancun with my day-job and then in Bonn for the 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism. That means I missed out on my annual tradition of promising to get the looong-overdue Archbishop description done by the end of the year.
But this year, Matt and I are going to have our own private Palaeo Paper Challenge. And to make sure we heap on maximum pressure to get the work done, we’re announcing it here.
Here’s the deal. We have two manuscripts — one of them Taylor and Wedel, the other Wedel and Taylor — which have been sitting in limbo for a stupidly long time. Both are complete, and have in fact been submitted once and gone through review. We just need to get them sorted out, turned around, and resubmitted.
(The Taylor and Wedel one is on the anatomy of sauropod cervicals and the evolution of their long necks. It’s based on the last remaining unpublished chapter of my dissertation, and turned up in a modified form as my SVPCA 2010 talk, Why Giraffes Have Such Short Necks. The Wedel and Taylor one is on the occurrence and implications of intermittent pneumaticity in the tails of sauropods, and turned up as his SVPCA 2010 talk, Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus.)
We’re going to be realistic: we both have far too much going in (incuding, you know, families) to get these done by the end of 2011. But we have relatively clear Januaries, so our commitment is that we will submit by the end of January 2012. If either of us fails, you all have permission to be ruthlessly derisive of that person.
… and in other news …
Some time while we were all in Bonn, the SV-POW! hit-counter rolled over the One Million mark. Thanks to all of your for reading!
October 31, 2011
Back when Darren and I did the Xenoposeidon description, we were young and foolish, and only illustrated the holotype vertebra NHM R2095 in four aspects: left and right lateral, anterior and posterior. No dorsal or ventral views.
Also, because the figure was intended for Palaeontology, which prints only in greyscale, I stupidly prepared the figure in greyscale, rather than preparing it in colour and then flattening it down at the last moment. (Happily I’d learned that lesson by the time we did our neck-posture paper: although it was destined for Acta Palaeontologia Polonica, which also prints in greyscale, and though the PDF uses greyscale figures, the online full-resolution figures are in colour.)
As if that wasn’t dumb enough, I also composited the four featured views such that the two lateral views were adjacent, and above the anterior and posterior views — so it wasn’t easy to match up features on the sides and front/back between the views. Since then, I have landed on a better way of presenting multi-view figures, as in my much-admire’d turkey cervical and pig skull images.
So, putting it all together, here is how we should have illustrated illustrated Xenoposeidon back in 2007 (click through for high resolution):
(Top row: dorsal view, with anterior facing left; middle row, from left to right: anterior, left lateral, posterior, right lateral; bottom row, ventral view, with anterior facing left. As always with images of NHM-owned material, this is copyright the NHM.)
Of course, if we’d published in PLoS ONE, then this high-resolution (4775 x 4095), full colour image could have been the published one rather than an afterthought on a blog somewhere. But we didn’t: back then, we weren’t so aware of the opportunities available to us now that we live in the Shiny Digital Future.
In other news, the boys and I all registered Xbox Live accounts a few days ago. I chose the name “Xenoposeidon”, only to find to my amazement that someone else had already registered it. But “Brontomerus” was free, so I used that instead.
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.
July 6, 2011
Matt recently told us how to get ideas for papers, but if you’ve not previously published, you may be wondering how you get from idea to actual manuscript. I’ve written about twenty palaeontology papers now, not counting trivial ones like encyclopaedia entries and corrections (plus a few in computer science). So while there are plenty of people out there with much bigger CVs than mine, I’ve accumulated enough different experiences over the last six or seven years that hopefully I can shed a bit of light on the process. DISCLAIMER: this means I am going to be citing myself like crazy, and will look like a complete egomaniac. That really is not the point of this exercise.
Before I plough in, a digression: you may legitimately wonder why, if I’ve written 20 papers, my publications page lists only fourteen. A couple are in press but not yet out: my work on those is done, I just have to wait for the wheels to grind exceeding fine. A few more are in review. Others, though once completed, are now in the process of being revised, either in response to reviewers’ comments or because they were rejected outright and need retooling for submission to another journal. Maybe the most interesting category, though, is that I have two or three papers that I think are dead: they’ve been submitted and rejected, and I think I will probably never resubmit them. In two cases — dinosaur diversity surveys — the manuscripts have aged badly, because the rapid rate of new dinosaurs being named is rendering them more and more obsolete. To bring these up to publishable standard again would involve rebuilding the database and redoing the stats, and I just can’t summon up enthusiasm for that work when I have other projects going on that are so much more fun.
Anyway, we’re not here to talk about how to abandon finished manuscripts — we’re here to talk about how to get them finished in the first place.
In my projects, I have used three broad approaches. Let’s look at them in turn.
Approach 1. Gather notes first
If you take this approach, you’ll begin by gathering all your thoughts on the subject of the manuscript-to-be into one place — these days, most likely a single file or folder on your computer, but in the old days it might well have been a physical notebook. Don’t think about the structure of the manuscript, or about narrative flow, at this stage. Don’t worry about what to include and what to exclude: just gather everything you can, pour it into a pot, and stir it. You can think about the other stuff later.
The idea here is to separate “left-brain” and “right-brain” activity, so you can concentrate on one of them at a time. During the gathering phase, you’re being creative, an artist playing with ideas. When you’re done, you switch into engineer mode, and your task becomes to synthesise some or all those ideas into a coherent argument. It’s easier to think about one of these things at a time than both at once, so the theory goes.
Handy household hint: you don’t have to put all your ideas into a single paper. Find a set of thoughts that fit together into a narrative, and build the paper around that. The other ideas will find homes in subsequent papers, they’re not lost.
The right-brain-then-left-brain approach sounds good; but in practice, I’ve found this doesn’t work well for me. In fact, looking back over my submissions, it looks like I’ve only done it twice, and both times it’s resulted in a huge amount of work. Those two papers are the Taylor et al. (2009) paper on habitual sauropod neck posture and Taylor et al. (2011) on sexual selection of sauropod necks. These were three- and four-way collaborations between myself, Matt, Darren, and for the latter David Hone. And for such short papers (eight and twelve pages respectively) they took an amazingly long time to put together. They went through long sequence of revisions and rewrites before reaching their final forms, and lead authorship swapped hands many times along the way — we all held it at one time or another on both papers.
So what was the problem? Only this: that “synthesise all those ideas into a coherent argument” sounds like a straightforward mechanical process, but it’s not. It’s an art in itself — it requires taste, judgement, and most of all a lot of hard work. (And of course, this is especially true when working with the team, when everyone has different ideas.) When you start the composition process using a big ol’ bucket full of observations, it’s hard to tie them all together in a sequence that makes sense; and sure enough, we didn’t. Early “complete” drafts of the neck-posture paper contained all the same information as the published version, but they were incoherent and repetitive. One moment you’d be reading about some assertion that Stevens and Parrish had made about ONP being habitual, then next you’d be reading something about semi-circular canal orientation, then it would be be some observation on extant animal behaviour, then it would be back to DinoMorph, and so on. Reading it felt like being batted around inside a pinball machine.
We probably could have submitted it in that form, and found a venue for it. But we didn’t, because we wanted our paper not just to contain a bunch of relevant facts, but to lay our an argument, a connected sequence of observations and deductions, that would tell a story, make a compelling case. We wanted our paper to convince. And doing that is an art — hence the many, many, revisions and rewrites. We got there in the end, and all three of us are happy with how the paper came out, but it was a real hack to get there, and it left me wondering whether we’d gone about it the wrong way.
On the other hand, what other way is there to write a genuinely three- or four-cornered collaborative paper? Most of the other collaborative papers I’ve been involved with have had a very clear lead author who contributed the bulk of the prose, with the remaining authors contributing specific passages of text – and of course other input, just as important, such as the discussions that gave rise to the project in the first place. The genesis of the neck-posture project was that we each contributed a stack of notes — some about what has previously been written on the subject, some about the flaws in those assertions, some about the behaviour of extant animals — and I just don’t see a significantly better way of melding all those into a coherent narrative than the multiple-pass approach that we adopted.
So anyway, what I’ve mostly done instead is:
Approach 2. Just write a manuscript
There is something enormously empowering about firing up OpenOffice (or MS-Word, if you must), choosing File -> New, looking at that brand new white page, and typing a title. Once you’ve done that, you’re up and running. You’re really doing it. It gets much harder to procrastinate. Even if you end up changing that title half a dozen times, and rejigging the order of the manuscript, and rewriting the conclusions, and retaking the photos and doing the figures again, and reworking the statistical analysis because new data has come in, none of that changes the fact that once you’ve started a manuscript, you’ve started. It doesn’t matter if it gets three new heads and five new shafts along the way, it’s still the axe the George Washington used to chop down the cherry tree.
So with this approach, the idea is that after accumulating information and internalising it, you just sit down and start writing — telling the story in an order that makes sense and draws the reader in. The liberating thing is not trying to use any of the actual wording of your notes, not feeling obliged to work them all into the manuscript, just writing.
A technique that people often recommend at this stage — and one that in theory at least I endorse — is not to bother with your citations and references at this stage, or even with boring typographical details like italicising your genus and species names. You don’t want to let yourself get sucked into any of that detailed clerical work — it will break the flow of your thoughts, and prevent you from getting them all down in a sequence that makes sense. You want to be writing in the same spirit that you would explain the ideas to an intelligent friend in a pub, after maybe the second pint, waving your hands wildly to get you through the difficult bits, but not worrying about that because the point is to get your idea across — or rather, your sequence of ideas, that gets the listener from A to B. You can go back in fill in the references later.
Like I said, in theory I endorse this technique. In practice, I don’t seem to be able to do it: when I start to write, the citations just thrust themselves into my mind and I’m not able to write a perfectly simple sentence like “the humeri of brachiosaurids are the longest known in any sauropods, exceeding 2 m in length” without shoving in a “(Janensch 1961)”, and nine times out of ten going and re-checking that paper so I can specifically cite the table on page 187. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I couldn’t say — maybe if I could discipline myself not to do this, I’d save myself the pain later in the writing process of having to shuffle the text to get it into an order that tells the right story.
A digression on story-telling
I’ve used the metaphor of story-telling a couple of times, and I think it’s absolutely central here. You want to draw your reader through the paper.
Of course, what we mean by “story” is very different from one paper to another. For example, in my short paper surveying dinosaur diversity (Taylor 2006), the story could hardly have been different from how it turns out: here’s where the data was from, here’s what I did with it, here are the results, and then end with some discussion. By contrast, there were lots of different ways I could have structured my plea to the ICZN to recognise electronic publication (Taylor 2009b), but I went for an approach where the section headings outlined the core argument even if you didn’t read the actual text: 1. Background: the availability of the name Darwinius masillae; 2. The Code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance; 3. Paper journals are going away; 4. The time to act is now; 5. Electronic documents are different from electronic media; 6. We must come to terms with the ubiquity of PDF; 7. The current rules are too hard to get right (and finally a Conclusion).
For a fairly hardcore descriptive paper like the Xenoposeidon description (Taylor and Naish 2007, natch), you’re more limited in how much of a story you can tell, and pretty much constrained by the usual Introduction, Systematic Palaeontology, Description, Systematics, Discussion structure. But even there, we laid out what I think is a fairly compelling story by splitting the “description” section into two parts: one that was purely descriptive, and a subsequent one containing all the comparisons. Only after those two sections did we progress to the phylogenetic analysis that weakly corroborated our inferences.
For my Brachiosaurus/Giraffatitan paper (Taylor 2009a), though, I subverted the usual structure by postponing the Systematic Palaeontology until after I’d done all the necessary descriptive work to support the generic separation, rather than presenting the systematic conclusion up front and then going back and justifying it. I also gave that paper a very, very short introduction (116 words incuding citations and taxonomic authorities), pushing the rest of what would normally be considered introductory material back into a separate Historical Background section. Why? Because that way I could put the end-of-introduction subsections on Anatomical Nomenclature, Anatomical Abbreviations and Institutional Abbreviations up front on the first page where they belong, rather than buried on the sixth page as they would otherwise have been.
Well, it seems that I have have drifted a bit from what I intended to talk about, and got onto the subject of how to structure a paper; but since that’s sort of relevant, I won’t let it spoil my day.
Anyway, the two approaches I’ve discussed so far really bracket the range of ways to put a manuscript together, and most projects will fall somewhere on the continuum between them. But every now and then an opportunity comes up to use a third way:
Approach 3. Convert from another medium
I already mentioned my paper on electronic publication (Taylor 2009b), but long-time SV-POW! readers will remember that much of the material in this paper was cannibalised from a sequence of SV-POW! posts (notably Non-Open Academic Publishing Is Dead) as well as a few comments that I’d left on relevant posts on other people’s blogs. On paper, you’d say this is a lot like approach 1, in that while I had much of material to hand, it needed sorting, integrating and rewriting. In fact, it went much more smoothly than the neck-posture paper’s editing process, perhaps because all the the source material was my own rather than having come from several different authors; and perhaps because the posts and comments were already in a chronological order which reflected the way my thoughts had arrived at the position where they eventually landed.
But a more interesting example of this route is the survey of the history of sauropod studies (Taylor 2010). This started life as a slideshow, the accompaniment for my talk the the conference Dinosaurs: A Historical Perspective. (Yes, the very same talk which Fiona fell asleep in, when I rehearsed it on her.) To put together a talk, you already have to have your story together — the sequence in which things happen, the sections that you chop it all up into, the references forward to things you’re going to say, and back to things you’ve said. So transcribing that all down into a manuscript is surprisingly straightforward — at least, it was for me, for this project. It really was, almost literally, as case of taking each slide in turn, writing a little essay about what it depicted, and moving on.
So I kind of recommend that. In fact, I’d go further: do not ever give a conference talk without immediately transcribing your slides into a manuscript. If you do, you’re throwing away a super-easy publication: you’ve already done all the hard work.
(I didn’t know I was going to say that, just as I didn’t know I was going to digress onto story-telling earlier. Turns out that this is an essay in the literal French sense of “an attempt”, something that you only figure out as you’re writing it. Now that I’ve said you should always turn your slideshows into papers, I find myself wondering whether I’ve taken my own advice … Hmm, quick check of the old publications list and I see that, hmm, I have roughly three sets of unconverted slides. So that gives me something to do in the evenings, then.)
I only have two things to say about this, and they have both been said better by other people (computer scientists, as it happens):
Say what you mean, simply and directly.
– Brian W. Kernighan and P. J. Plauger
Present to inform, not to impress; if you inform, you will impress.
– Frederick P. Brooks
In short, do not write “the taxon under consideration exhibits a tendency towards velocitous aerial locomotion” when you could write “it flies fast”.
A final thought
All I’ve done here is list and discuss what’s worked for me (and some of the things that haven’t). If these things don’t work for you, don’t do them. If you find a way that works better, then by all means use that.
But if you’re struggling to find a way to get started, then follow Approach 2 above. Just start writing, and keep going until you’re finished.
Hope that’s helpful.
[Once more, I'm sorry that the reference list is so me-centric, but I had to use my own papers as examples because I don't know the genesis of anyone else's.]
- Taylor, Michael P. 2006. Dinosaur diversity analysed by clade, age, place and year of description. pp. 134-138 in Paul M. Barrett and Susan E. Evans (eds.), Ninth international symposium on Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems and biota, Manchester, UK. Cambridge Publications. Natural History Museum, London, UK. 187 pp.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2009a. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrae Paleontology 29(3):787-806.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2009b. Electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable, and will be accepted by the taxonomic community with or without the endorsement of the Code. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 66(3):205-214.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2010. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review. pp. 361-386 in: Richard T. J. Moody, Eric Buffetaut, Darren Naish and David M. Martill (eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: a Historical Perspective. Geological Society of London, Special Publication 343. doi: 10.1144/SP343.22
- Taylor, Michael P., and Darren Naish. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50(6):1547-1564. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2007.00728.x
- Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2):213-230.
I’m pleased to announce that Darren has a new paper out (Naish and Sweetman 2011) in which he and fellow Portsmouth researcher Steve Sweetman describe a maniraptoran theropod from the Wealden Supergroup of southern England. It’s represented only by a single cervical vertebra:
This vertebra is described in seven and a bit pages, which means that it’s had nearly three times as much total coverage as Jobaria (Cf. Sereno et al. 1999).
Still, we can hope that Darren and Steve will return to their specimen some time and monograph it properly.
In the mean time, read all about it over on Tetrapod Zoology.
- Naish, Darren, and Steven C. Sweetman. 2011. A tiny maniraptoran dinosaur in the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Group: evidence from a new vertebrate-bearing locality in south-east England. Cretaceous Research 32:464:471. doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2011.03.001
- Sereno, Paul C., Allison L. Beck, Didier. B. Dutheil, Hans C. E. Larsson, Gabrielle. H. Lyon, Bourahima Moussa, Rudyard W. Sadleir, Christian A. Sidor, David J. Varricchio, Gregory P. Wilson and Jeffrey A. Wilson. 1999. Cretaceous Sauropods from the Sahara and the Uneven Rate of Skeletal Evolution Among Dinosaurs. Science 282:1342-1347.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Internet …
On Tuesday morning, a rather nice article about our recent sauropod-necks-were-not-sexually-selected paper appeared on the BBC web-site. At the time of writing, it’s just topped 100 comments (athough fifteen of those are by me — I wanted to respond to the questions that people were asking).
Here it is, for those who are interested (maybe more in the Q-and-A’s than in the actual article): Evolution, sex and dinosaur necks
I have a new paper out:
Update June 6, 2012: the final version was formally published yesterday, so the rest of this paragraph is of historical interest only. Like Yates et al. on prosauropod pneumaticity, it is “out” in the sense that the manuscript has been through peer review, has been accepted for publication, and is freely available online at Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Technically it is “in press” and not published yet, but all that formal publication will change is to make a prettier version of the paper available. All of the content is available now, and the paper doesn’t include any of those pesky nomenclatural acts, and so, as with the prosauropod pneumaticity paper, I don’t see any reason to pretend it doesn’t exist. Think of the accepted manuscript as the caterpillar to the published version’s butterfly: different look, but same genome.
This one came about because last summer I read a review of Richard Dawkins’s book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The review mentioned that the book includes a lengthy discussion of the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) in the giraffe, which is a spectacularly dumb piece of engineering and therefore great evidence against intelligent design creationism. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the RLN, of course. It’s one of the touchstones of both human anatomy and evolutionary biology; anatomy because of its clinical importance in thyroid surgery, known for more than two millennia, and evolutionary biology because it is such a great example of a developmental constraint. (Dawkins’s coverage of all of this is great, BTW, and you should read the book.)
No, the reason the book review inspired me to write the paper was not because the RLN was new to me, but because it was overly familiar. It is a cool piece of anatomy, and its fame is justly deserved–but I am sick and tired of seeing the stinkin’ giraffe trotted out as the ultimate example of dumb design. My beloved sauropods were way dumber, and it’s time they got some credit.
But first, let’s talk about that nerve, and how it got to be there.
No necks for sex? How about no necks for anybody!
Embryos are weird. When you were just a month old (counting from fertilization), you had a set of pharyngeal arches that didn’t look radically different from those of a primitive fish. These started out quite small, tucked up underneath your comparatively immense brain, and each pharyngeal arch was served by a loop of artery called an aortic arch. What we call the arch of the aorta in an adult human is a remnant of just one of these embryonic aortic arches, and as you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s down in your chest, not tucked up next to your brain. When you were in the embryonic stages I’m talking about, you didn’t yet have a neck, so your brain, pharyngeal arches, aortic arches, and the upper parts of your digestive system were all smooshed together at your front end.
One thing you did have at that stage was a reasonably complete peripheral nervous system. The nerve cell bodies in and near your central nervous system sent out axons into the rest of your body, including your extremities. Many of these axons did not persist; they failed to find innervation targets and their parent neurons died. Imagine your embryonic central nervous system sending out a starburst of axons in all directions, and some of those axons finding targets and persisting, and others failing and dying back. So the architecture of your nervous system is the result of a process of selection in which only some cells were successful.
Crucially, this radiation and die-off of axons happened very early in development, when a lot of what would become your guts was still hanging under your proportionally immense brain like the gondola on a blimp. This brings us to the recurrent laryngeal nerve.
Going back the way we came
The fates of your embryonic pharyngeal arches are complex and I’m not going to do a comprehensive review here (go here for more information). Suffice it to say that the first three arches give rise to your jaws and hyoid apparatus, the fourth and sixth form your larynx (voicebox), and fifth is entirely resorbed during development. Update: I made a pharyngeal arch cheat sheet.
There are two major nerves to the larynx, each of which is bilaterally paired. The nerve of the fourth pharyngeal arch becomes the superior laryngeal nerve, and it passes cranial to the fourth aortic arch. The nerve of the sixth pharyngeal arch becomes the inferior or recurrent laryngeal nerve, and it passes caudal to the sixth aortic arch. At the time that they form, both of these nerves take essentially straight courses from the brainstem to their targets, because you’re still in the blimp-gondola stage.
If you were a shark, the story would be over. The more posterior pharyngeal arches would persist as arches instead of forming a larynx, each arch would hold on to its artery, and the nerves would all maintain their direct courses to their targets.
But you’re not a shark, you’re a tetrapod. Which means that you have, among other things, a neck separating your head and your body. And the formation of your neck shoved your heart and its associated great vessels down into your chest, away from the pharyngeal arches. This was no problem for the superior laryngeal nerve, which passed in front of the fourth aortic arch and could therefore stay put. But the inferior laryngeal nerve passed behind the sixth aortic arch, so when the heart and the fourth and sixth aortic arches descended into the chest, the inferior laryngeal nerve went with them. Because it was still hooked up to the brainstem and the larynx, it had to grow in length to compensate.
As you sit reading this, your inferior laryngeal nerves run down your neck into your chest, loop around the vessels derived from the fourth and sixth aortic arches (the subclavian artery on the right, and the arch of the aorta and ductus arteriosus on the left) and run back up your neck to your larynx. Because they do this U-turn in your chest and go back the way they came, the inferior laryngeal nerves are said to ‘recur’ to the larynx and are therefore more commonly referred to as the recurrent laryngeal nerves (RLNs).
An enlightening diversion
The RLN is the poster child for “unintelligent design” because it is pretty dumb. Your RLNs travel a heck of a lot farther to reach your larynx than they ought to, if they’d been designed. Surely an intelligent designer would have them take the same direct course as the superior laryngeal nerve. But evolution didn’t have that option. Tetrapod embryos could not be built from the ground up but had to be modified from the existing “sharkitecture” of ancestral vertebrates. The rules of development could not be rewritten to accommodate a shorter RLN. Hence Dawkins’s love affair with the RLN, which gets 7 pages in The Greatest Show on Earth. He also appeared on the giraffe episode of Inside Nature’s Giants, in which the RLN was dug out of the neck and the continuity of its ridiculous path was demonstrated–probably the most smack-you-in-the-face evidence for evolution that has ever been shown on television (said the rabid fan of large-tetrapod dissections).
Incidentally, the existence and importance of the RLN has been known since classical times. The RLN innervates the muscles responsible for speech, and on either side it passes right behind the thyroid gland, which is subject to goiters and tumors and other grotesque maladies. So a careless thyroidectomy can damage one or both of the RLNs; if one gets snipped, the subject will be hoarse for the rest of his or her life; if both are cut, the subject will be rendered mute. The Roman physician Galen memorably demonstrated this by dissecting the neck of an immobilized but unanesthetized pig and isolating the RLNs (Kaplan et al. 2009). One moment the poor pig was squealing its head off–as any of us would be if someone dug out our RLNs without anesthesia–and the next moment Galen severed the RLNs and the animal abruptly fell silent, still in unbelievable pain but now without a mechanism to vocally express its discomfort.
The name of the nerve also goes back to Galen, who wrote:
I call these two nerves the recurrent nerves (or reversivi) and those that come upward and backward on account of a special characteristic of theirs which is not shared by any of the other nerves that descend from the brain.
Like at least some modern surgeons, Galen does not seem to have been overly burdened by humility:
All these wonderful things, which have now become common property, I was the first of all to discover, no anatomist before me ever saw one of these nerves, and so all of them before me missed the mark in their anatomical description of the larynx.
Both of those quotes are from Kaplan et al. (2009), which is a fascinating paper that traces the knowledge of the recurrent laryngeal nerve from classical times to the early 20th century. If you’d like a copy and can’t get hold of one any other way, let me know and I’ll hook you up.
Share and share alike
By now you can see where this is going: all tetrapods have larynges, all tetrapods have necks, and all tetrapods have recurrent laryngeal nerves. Including giraffes, much to the delight of Richard Dawkins. And also including sauropods, much to the delight of yours truly.
Now, I cannot show you the RLN in a living sauropod, nor can I imagine a scenario in which such a delicate structure would be recognizably preserved as a fossil. But as tetrapods, sauropods were bound to the same unbreakable rules of development as everything else. The inference that sauropods had really long, really dumb RLNs is as secure as the inference that they had brainstems, hearts, and larynges.
Giraffes have necks up to 2.4 meters long (Toon and Toon 2003), so the neurons that make up their RLNs approach 5 meters in the largest indiividuals. But the longest-necked sauropods had necks 14 meters long, or maybe even longer, so they must have had individual neurons at least 28 meters long. The larynx of even the largest sauropod was probably less than 1 meter away from the brainstem, so the “extra” length imposed on the RLN by its recurrent course was something like 27 meters in a large individual of Supersaurus. Take that, Giraffa.
One way or another
It is possible to have a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve–on one side, anyway. If you haven’t had the opportunity to dissect many cadavers, it may come as a surprise to learn that muscles, nerves, and blood vessels are fairly variable. Every fall in Gross Anatomy at WesternU, we have about 40 cadavers, and out of those 40 people we usually have two or three with variant muscles, a handful with unusual branching patterns of nerves, and usually half a dozen or so with some wackiness in their major blood vessels. Variations of this sort are common enough that the better anatomy atlases illustrate not just one layout for, say, the branching of the femoral artery, but 6-10 of the most common patterns. Also, these variations are almost always asymptomatic, meaning that they never cause any problems and the people who have them usually never know (ask Mike about his lonely kidney sometime). You–yes, you, gentle reader!–could be a serious weirdo and have no idea.
Variations in the blood vessels seem to be particularly common, possibly because the vessels develop in situ with apparently very little in the way of genetic control. Most parts of the body are served by more than one artery and vein, so if the usual vessel isn’t there or takes an unusual course, it’s often no big deal, as long as the blood gets there somehow. To wit: occasionally a person does not have a right subclavian artery. This does not mean that their right shoulder and arm receive no blood and wither away; usually it means that one of the segmental arteries branching off the descending aorta–which normally serve the ribs and their associated muscles and other soft tissues–is expanded and elongated to compensate, and looks for all the world like a normal subclavian artery with an abnormal connection to the aorta. But if the major artery that serves the forelimb comes from the descending aorta, and the 4th aortic arch on the right is completely resorbed during development, then there is nothing left on the right side to drag the inferior laryngeal nerve down into the torso. A person with this setup will have an inferior laryngeal nerve on the right that looks intelligently designed, and the usual dumb RLN on the left.
Can people have a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve on the left? Sure, if they’ve got situs inversus, in which the normal bilateral asymmetry of the internal organs is swapped left to right. Situs inversus is pretty darned rare in the general population, occurring in fewer than 1 in 10,000 people. It is much more prevalent in television shows and movies, where the hero or villain may survive a seemingly mortal wound and then explain that he was born with his heart on the right side. (Pro tip: the heart crosses the midline in folks of both persuasions, so just shoot through the sternum and you’ll be fine. Or, if you’re worried about penetration, remember Rule #2 and put one on either side.) Anyway, take everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph, mirror-image it left to right, and you’ve got a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve on the left. But just like the normally-sided person who still has an RLN on the left, a person with situs inversus and no remnant 4th aortic arch on the left (double variation alert!) still has an RLN looping around the aorta and ductus arteriosus on the right.
Bottom line: replumb the vessels to your arms, swap your organs around willy-nilly, you just can’t beat the aorta. If you have an aorta, you’ve got at least one RLN; if you don’t have an aorta, you’re dead, and no longer relevant to this discussion.
Nonrecurrent laryngeal nerves–a developmental Hail Mary?
But wait–how do we know that the inferior laryngeal nerve in embryonic sauropods didn’t get rerouted to travel in front of the fourth and sixth aortic arches, so it could be spared the indignity of being dragged into the chest later on?
First of all, such a course would require that the inferior laryngeal nerve take an equally dumb recurrent course in the embryo. Or maybe it should be called a procurrent course. Instead of simply radiating out from the central nervous system to its targets in the sixth pharyngeal arch, the axons that make up the RLN would have to run well forward of their normal course, loop around the fourth and sixth aortic arches from the front, and then run back down to the sixth pharyngeal arch. There is simply no known developmental mechanism that could make this happen.
Even if we postulated some hypothetical incentive that would draw those axons into the forward U-turn, other axons that took a more direct course from the central nervous system would get to the sixth pharyngeal arch first. By the time the forwardly-recurring axons finished their intelligently-routed course and finally arrived at the sixth pharyngeal arch, all of the innervation targets would be taken, and those axons would die off.
Also, at what point in the evolution of long necks would this forwardly-looping course supposedly be called into existence? Ostriches and giraffes have RLNs that take the same recurrent course as those of humans, pigs, and all other tetrapods. The retention of the recurrent course in extant long-necked animals is further evidence that the developmental constraint cannot be broken.
Finally, the idea that a non-recurrent laryngeal nerve would need to evolve in a long-necked animal is based on the perception that long nerve pathways are somehow physiologically taxing or otherwise bad for the animals in which they occur. But almost every tetrapod that has ever lived has had much longer neurons than those in the RLN, and we all get on just fine with them.
In dire extremity
Probably you seen enough pictures of neurons to know what one looks like: round or star-shaped cell body with lots of short branches (dendrites) and one very long one (the axon), like some cross between an uprooted tree–or better yet, a crinoid–and the Crystalline Entity. When I was growing up, I always imagined these things lined up nose to tail (or, rather, axon to dendrite) all down my spinal cord, arms, and legs, like boxcars in a train. But it ain’t the case. Textbook cartoons of neurons are massively simplified, with stumpy little axons and only a few to a few dozen terminals. In reality, each neuron in your brain is wired up to 7000 other neurons, on average, and you have about a hundred billion neurons in your brain. (Ironically, 100 billion neurons is too many for your 100 billion neurons to visualize, so as a literal proposition, the ancient admonition to “know thyself” is a non-starter.)
Back to the axons. Forget the stumpy little twigs you’ve seen in books and online. Except for the ganglia of your autonomic nervous system (a semi-autonomous neural network that runs your guts), all of the cell bodies of your neurons are located in your central nervous system or in the dorsal root ganglia immediately adjacent to your spinal cord. The nerves that branch out into your arms and legs, across your face and scalp, and into your larynx are not made of daisy chains of neurons. Rather, they are bundles of axons, very long axons that connect muscles, glands, and all kinds of sensory receptors back to the nerve cell bodies in and around your brain and spinal cord.
Indulge me for a second and wiggle your toes. The cell bodies of the motor neurons that caused the toe-wiggling muscles to fire are located in your spinal cord, at the top of your lower back. Those motor neurons got orders transmitted down your spinal cord from your brain, and the signals were carried to the muscles of your feet on axons that are more than half as long as you are tall.
Some of your sensory neurons are even longer. Lift your big toe and then set it down gently, just hard enough to be sure that it’s touching down on the floor or the sole of your shoe, but not hard enough to exert any pressure. When you first felt the pad of your toe touch down, that sensation was carried to your brain by a single neuron (or, rather, by several neurons in parallel) with receptor terminals in the skin of your toe, axon terminals in your brainstem, and a nerve cell body somewhere in the middle (adjacent to your sacrum and just a bit to one side of your butt crack, if you want the gory details). That’s right: you have individual sensory neurons that span the distance from your brainstem to your most distal extremity. And so does every other vertebrate, from hagfish to herons to hippos. Including, presumably, sauropods.
I had you set your toe down gently instead of pushing down hard because the neurons responsible for sensing pressure do not travel all the way from toe-tip to brainstem; they synapse with other neurons in the spinal cord and those signals have been through a two-neuron relay by the time they reach your brainstem. Ditto for sensing temperature. But the neurons responsible for sensing vibration and fine touch go all the way.
If you want to experience everything I’ve discussed in this post in a single action, put your fingertips on your voicebox and hum. You are controlling the hum with signals sent from your brain to your larynx through your recurrent laryngeal nerves, and sensing the vibration through individual neurons that run from your fingertips to your brainstem. Not bad, eh?
Getting back to big animals: the largest giraffes may have 5-meter neurons in their RLNs, but some of the sensory neurons to their hindfeet must be more like 8 meters long. I don’t think anyone’s ever dissected one out, but blue whales must have sensory neurons to the tips of their flukes that are almost 30 meters (98 feet) long (subtract the length of the skull, but add the lateral distance from body midline to fluke-tip). And Supersaurus, Amphicoelias, and the like must have had neurons that were approximately as long as they were, minus only the distance from the snout-tip to the back of the skull. I could be wrong, and if I am I’d love to be set straight, but I think these must have been the longest cells in the history of life.
Oh, one more thing: up above I said that almost every tetrapod that has ever lived has had much longer neurons than those in the RLN. The exceptions would be animals for which the distance from brainstem to base of neck was longer than the distance from base of neck to tip of limb or tail, so that twice the length of the neck would be longer than the distance from base of skull to most distal extremity. In that case, the neurons that contribute to the RLN would be longer than those running from brainstem to tail-tip or toe-tip. Tanystropheus and some of the elasmosaurs probably qualified; who else?
In this post I’ve tried to explain the courses that these amazingly long cells take in humans and other vertebrates. I haven’t dealt at all with the functional implications of long nerves, for which please see the paper. The upshot is that big extant animals get along just fine with their crazy-long nerves, and there’s no reason to assume that sauropods were any more troubled. So why write the paper, then? Well, it was fun, I learned a lot (dude: axoplasmic streaming!), and most importantly I got to steal a little thunder from those silly poseurs, the giraffes.
Department of Frivolous Nonsense: yes, I titled the paper after those TV ads for Chili’s hamburgers from a few years back. If you never saw them, the ads compared mass-produced, machine-stamped fast-food burgers with restaurant burgers painstakingly built by hand, and concluded with, “Chili’s Big-Mouth Burgers: monuments of inefficiency!”
Update: All of this is out of date now that the paper has been formally published. Department of Good Karma: since the paper is at the “accepted manuscript” stage, I still have the chance to make (hopefully minor) changes when I get the proofs. As is always, always, always the case, I caught a few dumb errors only after the manuscript had been accepted. Here’s what I’ve got so far, please feel free to add to the list:
- Page 1, abstract, line 3: pharyngeal, not pharyngial
- Page 1, abstract, line 8: substitute ‘made up’ for ‘comprised’
- Page 6, line 12: substitute ‘make up’ for ‘comprise’
- Page 9, line 5: citation should be of Carpenter (2006:fig. 3), not fig. 2
- Page 10, line 7: “giant axons of squid are”, not ‘ares’
- Page 12, entry for Butler and Hodos should have year (1996)
- Page 12, entry for Carpenter has ‘re-evaluation misspelled
- Page 16, entry for Woodburne has ‘mammalian’ misspelled
(Notes to self: stop trying to use ‘comprise’, lay off the ‘s’ key when typing bibliography.)
- Butler, A.B., and Hodos, W. 1996. Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation. 514 pp. Wiley–Liss, New York.
- Kaplan, E.L, Salti, G.I., Roncella, M., Fulton, N., and Kadowaki, M. 2009. History of the recurrent laryngeal nerve: from Galen to Lahey. World Journal of Surgery 33:386-393. DOI 10.1007/s00268-008-9798-z
- Toon, A., and Toon, S.B. 2003. Okapis and giraffes. In: M. Hutchins, D. Kleiman, V. Geist, and M. McDade (eds.), Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Vol 15: Mammals IV, 399–409. Gale Group, Farmington Hills.
- Wedel, M.J. 2012. A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(2):251-256.