More thoughts on SVPCA 2017

October 13, 2017

This morning, I and the other 1456 attendees of SVPCA 2017 received a useful document, SVPCA report_for attendees, which collects and analyses delegates’ feedback on the meeting. It prompted me to mention a few more thoughts of my own.

First, I didn’t like the shortening of the meeting, from the usual three or even four days to two and a half (or just two if you ignore the macroevolution symposium). But it’s apparent from the gathered feedback that nearly everyone disagrees with me on this.

My position may be an artifact of my idiosyncratic status on the edge of the field: SVPCA is pretty much my only physical (non-blog) contact with the vertebrate palaeontology community, so by the time I’ve taken a week off work for it, the more of that time I can use for it, the better. By contrast, people who spend most of their work-hours with other palaeontologists don’t have that incentive, and see a longer meeting as a financial burden. I’m guessing that if the survey had specifically asked for opinions on meeting length and then compared those opinions with people’s career stage, they’d find a strong correlation between amateur and other unusual statuses, and preferring a longer meeting.

Sadly (for me), it seems pretty clear how this one is going to go: the meeting is attended overwhelmingly by professionals of various career stages. Since the majority of those prefer the shorter meeting, I imagine Birmingham’s abridged programme will become the new normal.

Second thing: a lot of people complained that the posters were only up for the dedicated two-hour session, and quite a few didn’t like having a dedicated poster session at all. Once more, I find myself in a minority here. As someone presenting a poster, I very much appreciated having time dedicated to it. And I also liked that it was restricted to a specific slot, so I didn’t feel I had to spend the whole meeting babysitting the poster. Wine was provided for this session, which made it feel like a friendly, bustling session with plenty of science going on, and time to go and physically fetch the people who I specifically wanted to discuss my poster with.

So I would definitely support a dedicated two-hour poster session with wine at future meetings; though I wouldn’t object if the posters remained up in the background for the next day, if that was logistically easy. (It wasn’t in Birmingham.)

The third thing, which I forgot to mention on my feedback form, is that lightning talks need to be all together in a single session. These talks didn’t really work at Birmingham. By tagging two or three of them on the end of a regular session, they simply came across as a lesser versions of regular talks — tail-enders with no particular merit of their own.

But I do think lightning talks can work well: I’ve been in conferences (admittedly in computer science and library science rather than palaeo) where the lightning-talk sessions have been the best in the conference. The key is keeping all of them together in a single, dedicated session, and really keeping the pace up: whizzing through each talk within a strictly enforced five-minute time limit, and leaping from subject to subject. It can be exhilarating.

(There were specific reasons why it couldn’t be done this was at this year’s meeting — paucity of lightning-talk submissions, people’s difficult schedules and unexpected withdrawals all meant that the original plan couldn’t be adhered to. But I would hate to see lightning talks dropped from the conference because of their underwhelming impact this time around.)

The fourth thing is that I was not wholly convinced by the symposium. Given the scarcity of talk slots, their limited length, and the carefully blinded abstract review process, it seems inimical to invite a special anointed class of speakers who get twice as long and don’t have to go through review.

I might have been convinced despite this, had the quality of the talks been uniformly higher. But as one respondent to the survey wrote: “I was alarmed and disappointed to hear one presenter say that they had put their talk together the night before, and it showed”. It really did. Surely if being invited to give a double-length talk is anything, it’s an honour. People in receipt of that honour should either do their job to a level that merits it; or, if they don’t have time, politely decline and let someone else have the slot.

Finally, and least important, the annual dinner. This was a curry, with a good selection and far more food than we needed. But the report says “there have been a few comments […] that more people might attend if the food was more of a meat-and-two-veg type affair, and that some people would like to see a more formal, or more ‘special’ dinner”. For whatever it’s worth, I threw my hat in partly because it was a curry. In my experience, attempts at catering “special” dinners for large groups tend to produce mediocre food tarted up, which is why my group tends to skip the dinner.

But I’m glad I went this year. I liked the sense of being part of an ongoing community, of seeing the handover to next year’s host (Rob Sansom), hearing who the winners of the prizes were, and so on.

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I can’t even count how many sauropod vertebra pictures we’ve posted here across the last ten years, but I am confident that the total comes to at least a lot. Here’s a picture from each year of the blog’s existence so far — let’s vote on which is the best!

November 15, 2007: Xenoposeidon week, day 1: Introducing Xeno

The stark beauty of the Xenoposeidon proneneukos holotype NHMUK R2095, a mid-to-posterior partial dorsal vertebra in left and right lateral views.

February 1, 2008: Your neck is pathetic

Sauroposeidon proteles holotype OMNH 53062, 8th cervical vertebra in left lateral view (1400 mm total length). Entire human neck for scale.

January 7, 2009: The sauropods of Star Wars: Special Edition

Our old friend Giraffatitan brancai MB.R.2181 once more, this time with Matt for scale.

February 12, 2010: Tutorial 8: how to photograph big bones

The Archbishop in all its glory. The much-loved dorsals 8 and 9, in right lateral view, of the Tendaguru brachiosaurid NHMUK R5937.

May 16, 2011: Why the long necks? Probably not sexual selection

Taylor et al. (2011), fig. 1: Sauropod necks, showing relationships for a selection of species, and the range of necks lengths and morphologies that they encompass. Phylogeny based on that of Upchurch et al. (2004: fig. 13.18). Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (neck 9.5 m long) modified from Young & Zhao (1972: fig. 4); Dicraeosaurus hansemanni (2.7 m) modified from Janensch (1936: plate XVI); Diplodocus carnegii (6.5 m) modified from Hatcher (1903: plate VI); Apatosaurus louisae (6 m) modified from Lovelace, Hartman & Wahl (2008: fig. 7); Camarasaurus supremus (5.25 m) modified from Osborn & Mook (1921: plate 84); Giraffatitan brancai (8.75 m) modified from Janensch (1950: plate VIII); giraffe (1.8 m) modified from Lydekker (1894:332). Alternating grey and white vertical bars mark 1 m increments.

April 15, 2012: Neural spine bifurcation in sauropods, Part 6: more reasons why Haplocanthosaurus is not a juvenile of a known diplodocid

Wedel 2009: Fig. 6. Pneumatization of the presacral vertebrae in Haplocanthosaurus. (A) X-ray image of a posterior cervical vertebra of CM 879 in right lateral view. (B) A CT slice through the same vertebra. (C) X-ray image of an anterior dorsal vertebra of CM 572 in left lateral view. (D) X-ray image of the same vertebra in anterior view.

January 16, 2013: Plateosaurus is pathetic

Our old friend C8 of the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181 in left dorsolateral view, with a comparable cervical of the prosauropod Plateosaurus for scale.

February 12, 2014: Can PeerJ really be only a year old?

Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429, Vertebra Q (C?13). Top row: left ventrolateral view. Middle row, from left to right: anterior view, with ventral to the right; ventral view; posterior view, with ventral to the left. Bottom row: right lateral view, inverted. Inset shows diapophyseal facet on right side of vertebra, indicating that the cervical ribs were unfused in this individual despite its great size. Note the broad, flat prezygapophyseal facet visible in anterior view. (Taylor and Wedel 2013b: figure 6)

September 14, 2015: So what were apatosaurs doing with their crazy necks?

A slide from our 295 SVPCA talk, illustrating key points in apatosaurine neck morphology that led us to the BRONTOSMASH hypothesis.

May 18, 2016: Thank you to all our Sauropocalypse hosts!

Mike compares Jensen’s sculpture of the big Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024 with the actual fossil.

August 15, 2017: “Biconcavoposeidon”

AMNH FARB 291, five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod which we informally designate “Biconcavoposeidon”, in right lateral view.

(Yes, there are eleven pictures: we’ve been running for ten years, but that includes both the end of 2007 and the start of 2017.)

So, which is the picture of the decade? Vote here (and let us know in the comments if we missed your favourite).

 

Amazingly (to me, anyway), SV-POW! is ten years old today. It was on 1st October 2007 that we published Hello world!, our first post, featuring a picture of what may still be our favourite single sauropod vertebra: the ?8th cervical of the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181. Of course, back then, we thought it was the type (it’s not), it was thought to belong to Brachiosaurus brancai (mea culpa), and the specimen number was HMN SII. A lot has changed in ten years, but the vertebra is still heart-breakingly beautiful.

Some other things have changed in those ten years, of course. Three of us started the blog, but one (Darren) has become a sleeping partner due to the enormous success of his other blog, Tetrapod Zoology. We began intending to be a picture blog, but we’ve ended up as a 50-50 blend of sauropod palaeontology and open-access advocacy. Along the way, I (Mike) got my Ph.D, and Matt moved from UC Merced to Western University of Health Sciences, where both he and his wife Vicki now have tenure. Darren meanwhile has carved out a unique niche for himself as a writer and consultant, and has his own cconference.

We never thought this blog would run for so long — I seem to remember the original plan was to make 52 weekly posts, then call it a day after one year. In fact, over the last ten years, we’ve posted 1160 articles, for an average of one every 3.15 days: more than twice as often as the weekly schedule that the blog title suggests. But not all those posts have included sauropod vertebrae — so, guessing that about half of them have, we’re more or less on target.

In the mean time, you have written 16820 comments, for a pretty healthy average of 14.5 per post. One of the things I’m proudest about regarding this blog is that we’ve only once had to shut a thread down because it became unproductive; and I think on only two other occasions have we had to issue a public warning. We have a fantastic community of commenters here, and my deeply felt gratitude goes out to you all.

Our most-read post at the time of writing is Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse (with 214,438 views), followed by Elsevier is taking down papers from Academia.edu (62,695), SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales (35,944) and How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really? (35,531). These lead a list of 35 posts that have each garnered more than 10,000 views, contributing to an overall total of 3,573,821 views (which gives us an average of 3,080 views per post). We are alternately delighted, baffled and impressed that the world has shown such interest.

We have one or two things planned for this week of the 10th anniversary, but for this post I just want to leave it like this: THANK YOU ALL for reading, commenting and engaging with this blog. Thank you, palaeontologists for putting up with the open-access posts, and thank you scholarly communication specialists for putting up with the sauropods. We hope it’s been interesting, entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking; and we hope we can continue in the same vein. (We certainly have no plans to stop any time soon.)

We love you guys.

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

After my short post on what to leave out of a conference talk, here are few more positive thoughts on what to include, based on some of the SVPCA talks that really stayed with me.

First, Graeme Lloyd’s talk in the macroevolution symposium did a great job of explaining very complex concepts well (different ways of mapping morphospace onto phylogeny). It was a necessarily difficult talk to follow, and I did get lost a few times. But, crucially, Graeme offered lots of jump-back-on points, so I was never out of the game for more than a minute or so.

I think that concept of jumping-back-on points is important (albeit clumsily named). It’s easy, if someone is describing for example a detailed osteological point about a bone in basal tetrapods that doesn’t even exist in the animals we know and love, to tune out and lose the thread of the rest of the talk. There is an art in making it easy for people in this situation to tune back in. I’m not sure how it’s done: it might be more a matter of style than of content. I’ll think more on this one.

Also: several times as I watched Graeme’s talk, I internally raised an objection (such as low explanation-of-variation values of PC1 and PC2 in the plots he was showing) only for him to immediately go on to note the issue, and then explain how he deals with it. This should not be too difficult to emulate: anticipate possible objections and meet them in advance. This is something to have in mind when rehearsing your talk.

It was a talk that had obviously had a lot of work put into it. Another talk, which I shall not attribute, had very obviously been thrown together in 24 hours, which I think is flatly unacceptable. When you know you’re going to have a hundred professionals gathered in a room to listen to you, do the work to make it worth the audience’s while. Putting a talk together at the last minute is not a ninja move, or a mark of experience. It’s simple unprofessionalism.

Neil Brocklehurt’s talk was based on a taxon that was of very little interest to me: Milosaurus, and the pelycosaur-grade synapsid group to which it belongs. But his presentation was a textbook example of how to efficiently introduce a taxon and make it interesting before launching into details. There is almost certainly video out there somewhere — the SVPCA talks were filmed — and I recommend it highly when it becomes available. For fifteen glorious minutes, I was tricked into thinking that Carboniferous synapsids are fascinating. And it’s left me thinking that, hey, maybe they are interesting.

 

I deliberately left a lot of things out of the poster I presented at SVPCA: an abstract (who needs repetition?), institutional logos (who cares?), references (no-one’s going to follow them up that couldn’t find what they need in other ways), headings (all the text was in figure captions) and generally as much text as I could omit without compromising clarity.

In the same way, I found myself thinking a lot of the talks at his conference could have done with leaving some conventional things out — especially as talks now take place in 15-minute slots rather than 20 minutes.

Here are some things you don’t need to do:

  • Don’t start by saying the title. We can read it. Instead, while the title slide is up, tell us something about why we should care about your talk.
  • Don’t introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the last year of your Ph.D, or starting a postdoc with such-and-such person. We care about your science, not your biography (at least during your talk).
  • Don’t reiterate your conclusions at the end. We just heard them: if we can’t remember what you told us less than 15 minutes ago, we have bigger problems.
  • Don’t say “thanks for listening”. We’re here to listen to you. It’s why we came to the conference. You’re doing us a favour, not the other way around. (Matt persuaded me that this one is wrong: see below.)
  • Don’t read the acknowledgements out loud. Nothing is more boring to listen to(*). Just leave the acknowledgements up on the screen as you finish, and we can read them if we’re interested.
  • Don’t say “I’ll be happy to take questions”. It’s the moderator’s job to invite questions — and indeed to judge whether there enough time.

Why omit these things? Most importantly, because they waste time, which you want to use to tell us your story. Your work is fascinating and we want to hear all about it. Do all you can to make space for it.

[See also: Tutorial 16: giving good talks (in four parts)]

 


(*) Except talks about mammal teeth, of course.

 

Revising a poster

September 14, 2017

Yesterday, Matt and I showed our posters in a two-hour session at SVPCA, as two of about thirty. It was actually a hugely positive experience, and it’s left me wondering whether to prefer posters to talks at future conferences — one of us will write about it separately

My poster (left) and Matt’s (right), in their natural environment. Phil Mannion (Mammalia: PrimatesHomoninae) for scale.

But it was eye-opening to road-test what I’d thought was a pretty good poster with real visitors. I quickly realised that the “Biconcavoposeidon” poster was missing two important things.

First, there’s an insert that shows schematic views of amphiplatyan, opisthocoelous, procoelous and amphicoelous vertebra. But it should show two or three of each kind of vertebra, in articulation, so that the insert shows not only the isolated shapes, but how they fit together (or how, in the case of biconcave centra, they do not fit together.)

The second problem: another insert shows — again in schematic form — how vertebrae articulate in amphibians and mammals. But I really needed a third part of that figure showing how the articulation works in birds. I kept needing to point to such an illustration, and I didn’t have one.

But all is not lost: I am not bound to an imperfect poster for all time. The poster is published as part of a PeerJ Preprint, and I can revise that preprint as often as I like. Which means I can revise the poster.

And that is what I plan to do. I’ll make both of the changes described above, and update the published version. The question then becomes: in my publications list, where the poster is explicitly tied to the presentation at SVPCA 2017, should I continue to point to the version that I actually used at the meeting? I am inclined to think so.

But wait: there’s more.

It turned out at the conference that Matt was right when he advised me that I should have made the anaglyph bigger, and placed it at the top of the poster, at eye-level. Instead, I had a sequence of visitors who had to painfully kneel down and peer myopically at the small, low-down version that I used. (Or, more often, they didn’t bother looking at the anaglyph at all — which is a shame, because it’s really informative.)

(Seriously, folks: buy yourself some dirt-cheap red/cyan glasses, and start making use of these incredibly useful, and very simple-to-make, visuals. Everyone who looked at the anaglyph, without exception, was startled at how much more informative it was than the regular image.)

But I am not going to re-organise the poster along those lines in the forthcoming revision. Why not? Because I don’t expect to present the new version at a conference, where eye-level is an issue. Instead, I expect it to stand as a research artefact in its own right, to be viewed on screens or printouts — and for those purposes, the present composition is better. That’s true especially because most people downloading the poster won’t have the red/cyan glasses necessary to view what would be centrepiece of the putative revision; but when presenting the poster at a conference, I can provide the glasses (and I did).

So I think I have now landed on the notion that a poster as a research artefact is a fundamentally different thing from a poster for presentation at a conference. I didn’t see that coming.