Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist

November 12, 2010

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

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

Step 1. Publish papers about palaeontology

… and you’re done.

Really.

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

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

But Mike, it’s not that simple!

Yes, it is.  It really is.

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

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

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

How do you get to be a writer?

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

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

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

Objection 1. But I’m not a professional!

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

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

Objection 2. But I don’t have a Ph.D!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, wrong actually.

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

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

Objection 6. But what if my paper is rejected?

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

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

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

So what’s stopping you?

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

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

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


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42 Responses to “Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist”

  1. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    Mike, you are, as always when you’re blunt, spot on!

    On Objection 2:
    I have a “real” job (now), too, and it pisses me off that everyone else there is Mr. Wankshisdong or Mrs. Clueless or Mr. Moron – only poor me, I am “the Dr.”. Hey, vanity counts for nothing! And I am real person, too, not two letters with a dot after them! I’m very glad that on my papers nobody can tell where I grew up, what my parents did and do for a living, what school I went to, what subject I studied at university, whether I finished anything or not – what counts is the stuff to comes after the word “Abstract” and before the next paper’s title.

    On Objection 3:
    One of my papers gives a street address. In fact, after being treated shabbily, I used that as leverage the institution that otherwise would have been listed there. So what?
    Do I care if someone lives at 13 Shabby Drive in Dumbfuck, Idaho, or has an office in some run-down museum semi-ruin? What counts is the stuff that comes after the word “Abstract” and before the word “References”.

    I guess I should bold that sentence, because, as Mike points out quite succinctly: what counts is the stuff that comes after the word “Abstract” and before the word “References”. Make sure that that stuff is up to par, and that’s all!


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Philip Spencer and Chris Rowan, JP – Research Lab. JP – Research Lab said: Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist: Last time around, I referred in passing, rather flippantly, to wha… http://bit.ly/dAPbjt […]

  3. Bill Parker Says:

    Great post Mike. It has always amazed me how “easy” the process is, and the part about fixing and resubmitting rejected papers is spot on. Our Revueltosaurus paper was rejected without review and we just resubmitted it as is to the Royal Society and voila! I checked today and it has been cited 43 times to date and not one of the five authors on the paper had a PhD at the time of publication(and two of them still don’t). There are lot’s of non-published indivuals out there who absolutely blow me away with the depth and bredth of their knowledge and they definitely have important ideas to contribute. Unfortunately if they don’t write and submit it, no one will ever know. Blogs and e-mails pass quickly, the published literature endures.

  4. 220mya Says:

    I would like to emphasize one modification to Objection 6: If your paper is rejected after review, *revise* before you resubmit to another journal. Even if you think the reviewer(s) missed the point/totally misunderstood of your MS, they are almost sure to have valuable commentary that will help improve your paper. Many times they really do have valid points you need to address! In any case, I try to think about it this way: if the reviewer has misunderstood what I’m trying to say, then that means it is likely to be confusing to others, and I need to re-write the passage to be more clear. Peer reviews can be a bitter pill to swallow (or a dish best served cold? Who knows – I’m mixing metaphors here), as we’re all proud of our own work, but its important to recognize that they really can improve your science and writing in a MS.

  5. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    220mya:

    I guess we should distinguish between proper reviews (reviewers actually read the paper, not only the abstract, think about matters and suggest improvements) and smackdowns. If you receive on of the latter, there is no need to revise – ignore and re-submit. Luckily, I never had a pure smackdown happen to me; the one I received started out fairly fair, and only drifted off the edge at the 70% mark.

    Rejection without review, as Bill writes, means a straight re-submit as well in my world.


  6. Mike, you forgot: “But I LIKE complaining about how scientists won’t let me publish!”

    People with advanced degrees do have an important advantage over people without: they went through a process which REQUIRED them to write, and get critiqued on it. They were also forced to put together coherent scientific arguments (well, some of them were). Non-degreed folks who haven’t been forced to write a lot (or put together scientific arguments) in thier day jobs may be at a little bit of a disadvantage, at least starting out. Fortunately, there is a solution: WRITE SOMETHING AND SUBMIT IT. They’ll help straighten you right out.

  7. Tracy Ford Says:

    I totally agree with Mike. I am a non professional and I’ve had papers published in peer reviewed journals. I’d also add, pick your journal. It doesn’t have to be Nature, Science, JVP etc. I’ve been published in the Mesa Southwest Museum Journal (when it was being published), the Tate Symposium Journal, etc. If it gets rejected fix what they said needs to be fixed and resubmit it. I’d also like to add check what kind of formatting the paper needs for the journal you are submitting to. I’ve recently came acoss this problem with the JVP (which I’ve never submitted to before).

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, Randy, absolutely right — if a paper is rejected after review then nearly always it’s best to revise it before sending it back out. I guess I didn’t really make that clear in the original article. What I mostly had in mind was the numerous times that my work has been tossed out without even being shown to reviewers: for example, Proc. B rejected our neck-posture paper because it was too reviewy, and suggested we submit to the the Proc. B reviews; we did, and predictibly enough they rejected it for being too researchy. So neither of those rejections had anything to teach us about the actual paper, and we were very happy to send it on to the next journal without making any changes at all (except to formatting).


  9. On Objection #5: On a number of occasions now, I’ve been positively suprised by the amount of time and attention museum people – none of whom I knew – were prepared to give me once they were convinced my intentions were serious. The easiest way to do that is through a publication record, but simply talking to these people and having them make sure you know what you’re talking about will get you a long way. I’ve been able to see dozens of fossils up close, and I consider myself a historian of science rather that palaeontologist. So give that your motives are clear and you know your stuff, getting access to specimens might often not be quite so hard as you might think.

    Oh, and another point: let us not think that a title is something insignificant. Getting your degree(s) are a rite of passage, a way of gaining entrance into the academic community. It’s not the only way, but it is one that puts the question of whether you’re willing and able to do the ‘dirty work’ of education and research behind you before you even start you conversation – and therefore tremendously useful.

  10. David Hone Says:

    A bit of shameless self-promotion, but utterly relevant is my little guide to actually writing papers:
    http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/how-to-write-a-paper-and-get-it-published/

    and do palaeo things in general:

    http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/the-complete-how-to-guide-for-young-researchers-so-far/

    And in order to add something useful, yes I totally agree that if the MS comes straight back, do look at it again before resubmitting. Even if your paper did not go for review, the journal is likely to explain what they thing is wrong. If they say your analysis / methodology is fundamentally flawed and uncorrectable then go ask a few people’s opinion or for help. Just resubmitting is likely to get you the same answer somewhere else and simply waste your time and that of the editors.

  11. Rob Taylor Says:

    Easy to embrace a model that’s so elegant in its simplicity and light on cost! Certainly it’s one I hope to follow. While I don’t feel I’m quite there yet from a knowledge perspective, the Open Dinosaur Project is serving as a wonderful way to bridge the gap. For an uneducated paleo wannabe like myself some, the ODP affords some much-needed insight into the scientific process. Appreciation to you, Mike (along with Andy and Matt) for leading the way with that effort. I’ll say the same for folks like you and Tracy in general, for serving as inspirations to those of us hardcore enthusiasts hoping to join the ranks of published paleontologists.

  12. Darren Tanke Says:

    This is a great post! Contrary to what many think, I don’t have a Ph.D., a Masters of Science, or a Bachelors of Science. Heck, I had to take an extra year of high school to get my diploma. Why? Because I was skipping class all the time to go to the University of Calgary to photocopy dinosaur articles. Another way to get a name for yourself and publish papers is to hook up with other, established researchers. Go to conferences and network. Send emails to researchers. Find others with similar interests, or, once you are established, they will come to you. I had an early interest in paleopathology and had a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Bruce Rothschild and we have published numerous papers to this day. In this case, I had collected great specimens for our museum and he had ideas on dinosaur paleopathology that needed such specimens. In the early 1980’s I began to notice that all small to medium-sized skull material from centrosaurine ceratopsians looked the same (like “Monoclonius”). In 1988 at SVP I stuck my neck out on this idea and published my first abstract and made an oral presentation. But how was I to publish my thoughts? Two rising stars in ceratopsian research (Scott Sampson and Michael Ryan) came along and helped me publish my ideas (Sampson, Ryan and Tanke, 1997) which has been cited 60 times and resulted in several “spin-off” research projects by others. Another early 1980’s idea was to try and establish how many dinosaur skeletons were lost to erosion and how many remained in situ in Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. I am horrid at math so had no hope in hell of ever getting that work done, let alone published. However, when Dr. Philip Currie left our museum he was replaced by math whiz Dr. Donald Henderson. I offered him the project and we worked on it together and it was just published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.
    It is so true that once you build up a reputation doors at museums and universities will open for you. But you must appear sincere, genuine, and real. I have talked to some museum higher ups outside of my museum and they really are not that interested in letting people into their collections that have a history of selling fossils.
    Writing and publishing is not that difficult. You just have to get off that couch, find something interesting, research it, and write about it. The excuse “someone has already done it”, is no excuse. I presently have about 55 writing projects on the go and publish about 10 annually in various peer and non-peer reviewed journals and none of them have “been done before”. You just have to reinvent yourself and your project, putting a different spin on it. Travel the (research) road less travelled and you will do fine. I was once told by a very famous vertebrate paleontologist that if you don’t know “how to write”, find someone whose published work you like and use that writing style as a template for your own. He said the first few papers will be hard, but will be less and less so as you publish more and eventually you will develop your own writing style. Don’t be put off by manuscript rejections, the Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai monograph, 21 years of work (Currie, Langston, and Tanke, 2008) was rejected sight unseen after the publisher practically begged us to submit it!

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    I totally agree that if the MS comes straight back, do look at it again before resubmitting. Even if your paper did not go for review, the journal is likely to explain what they thing is wrong. If they say your analysis / methodology is fundamentally flawed and uncorrectable then go ask a few people’s opinion or for help. Just resubmitting is likely to get you the same answer somewhere else and simply waste your time and that of the editors.

    That’s not been my experience. Of my rejections without review, one was of the form “We’re just not interested in this kind of thing”, one was “We don’t think the specimen is interesting” (bizarre, of Xenoposeidon), one was “We are Science, and we reject whatever the hell we want”, and the other two were the complementary “It doesn’t fit” Proc. B rejections mentioned above. None of those cases told me anything useful about the manuscript.

  14. William Miller Says:

    Xenoposeidon wasn’t considered interesting? …Did they miss the “whole new neosauropod ‘family'” bit and only see the “one vertebra” bit?

  15. 220mya Says:

    Heinrich – Even most “smackdown” reviews can have something informative that will help with revision. OK, they probably won’t if they’re a three-line review, but if the person took the time to do a *detailed* smackdown, there is probably a useful comment or two hidden in the review.

    Mike – I can’t comment on your specific experience, but sometimes you can learn something useful from “reject without review”. If you think your MS really deserved to be sent out for review for that particular journal, then it is likely that you didn’t do a good job emphasizing the importance of your work in your MS and/or cover letter. I’ve often found this is the case when a colleague shows me an MS that has really important data/conclusions, but didn’t get sent out for review at a high-profile journal.

  16. Tracy Ford Says:

    I agree 100% with Darren and would like to add something. I’ve been going to the SVP since 1984. I’ve only missed two since then. I’d go and talk to everyone I could and find out what they were working on. After a few years some started to ask me what I was working on. Nothing I’d say because I didn’t know what to write or how to write it. I kept getting encouraged by them; Phil Currie, Jack Horner, Ken Carpenter, etc. Still I didn’t know what to write on. Then I did write and present my first paper on why I don’t think Theropods have lips. Ever since then I’ve been working on things.

    I’d say over all Paleontology as a whole is very receptive to first time authors and I’ve found them to be very encourgeing. For the most part they just want people to publish. Sometimes you need help and be a co-author. Sometimes you’ll be asked, and other times they’ll ask you. This has happened to me several times. I asked Dan Chure if he wanted to be a co-author on a new kind of premaxillary tyrannosaurid tooth I found when I was at the Mexico SVP.

    So, bottom line, like I’ve been told and others on this thread have said, just publish. That simple. If it get rejected don’t take it as an attack but a learning experance.

  17. Dean Says:

    Totally unrelated question but has anyone heard anything new about the Plagne sauropod tracks, official size…ect.

  18. Stu Pond Says:

    Excellent article, and this could be just the motivation I need . . .

  19. Gary Says:

    Great post! I’m adding your amazing blog to my blog roll.


  20. […] Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist […]


  21. […] tutorials, you now know how to get copies of academic papers (learn Google fu and ask politely) and how to become a paleontologist (write and publish papers). But what are you going to write and publish papers […]


  22. […] Matt (which in turn is how I became a palaeontologist — a story that I must tell some time in Tutorial 10: how to become a palaeontologist).  Usually this won’t happen: you’ll just have a brief, courteous exchange, and move […]


  23. […] doom that hang below the centrum of every post-axial Apatosaurus cervical (see these posts [#1, #2, #3] for some crazy examples, and this post for more pictures and discussion). The giant cervical ribs […]


  24. […] coming, and there are things you can do to improve your chances. Be aggressively curious. Write. Publish. Give good talks (and give lots of talks so you can become good at it). Broaden your skill set […]

  25. bilaer Says:

    Hi,

    I’m Weicheng, a grad student who are studying in CMU currently. Dinosaurs always fascinated me a lot since I was a little boy. I’m good at drawing so I really want to be an artist who draw pictures of this magnificent ancient creatures for textbook and museum like some of the artist did. I’ve been drawing some sketches in the the natural history museum near my campus. However, the more I drew, the more I think it need to learned. So I decide to learn more about the basic thing of dinosaurs such as its skeletal structure, muscle etc. But I really don’t know where to start because I’m not a paleontology students. Could you give me some advice about what kind of books or articles I should read in order to learn something like morphology or biology of dinosaurs? Thank you very much!

    Best regards
    Weicheng

  26. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Weicheng, good to hear from you. For a long time, the only game in town was Greg Paul’s notes on restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs. But things have moved on a lot in the last decade, and I would strongly recommend recent books by John Conway (All Yesterdays/i>, which I reviewed here) and Mark Witton (Recreating an Age of Reptiles). There may be other good books that will help in this area — I hope others will chip in.


  27. […] for no detectable reason. Accept it and move on. In the same way that one builds a body of work by publishing one thing after another, one remains a fishkeeper by not quitting when fish […]

  28. Muhammad Says:

    Hi

    I must say this was definitely a much needed read for me.
    However, I have a question. Would publishing a paper without a degree in a relevant subject be much more difficult. What advice would you give as to where to start.

    Thanks

  29. Mike Taylor Says:

    No doubt having a relevant degree helps. But it’s evidently not necessary, since when my first five papers came out (and when the next five were submitted), my only degree was one in pure maths from 20 years earlier.

    Where to start. Just start. Find an area of palaeontology that fascinates you. Read all about it. When you come across something that makes you think “Hmm, that’s funny”, pursue it. When you have a novel idea or insight, develop it. Write a paper. Submit it.


  30. […] you’d like to get your name into published scientific work (whether you pursue writing and publishing yourself or not), get drawin’, and upload those babies using CC-BY. Make sure it is your own […]

  31. Bryan Lewis Says:

    Mike, your tutorial has really been helpful. I have no idea how it happened, but I have a paper I want to publish on a subject in paleontology.

    some of it is written in a writing package called “Ulysses” which isn’t really for scientific writing. I am looking for a recommendation on a software package that is good for science writing.

    I like your idea of write first, then figure out what to do with it, but I am stuck on citations. since i don’t know which publication will eventually accept my work, and even if I did, I am a novice on writing/citing anything anyway, I keep thrashing around between this style versus that when i really should just be dumping it out on paper.

    I guess what i need is a recommendation for a software package that is easy to write in (like ulysses), but makes citations, tables, graphs, and pictures manageable. any ideas?

    Bryan Lewis

  32. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Bryan, this is great to hear.

    Formatting references is the very model of the kind of thing you don’t want to be worrying about at this stage. My advice is just to put them into your manuscript in whatever format seems good to you and includes all the relevant information. You can always reformat them just before submitting — tedious but ultimately easy work. Don’t let that stuff stop you from doing the real work work.

    I do most of my writing in LibreOffice, carefully using named styles rather then direct formatting for most purposes. It has integration with Zotero, which you can use to manage your references if you want; but I admit that I usually don’t bother, maintaining them by hand instead.

  33. 19wannsee52 Says:

    Libreoffice is fine of course, although it isn’t very helpful in the composition department.

    I’m mainly using Ulysses to write the basic text, and add the technicalities and more complicated things later. Ulysses is great for composition purposes and I absolutely love Markdown (being a touch typist). It’s Mac-only, though.

    Scrivener (Mac & Windows) is also a good tool for long-form writing and more science-friendly, although I have little experience with doing equations in it (should be possible though). It does give you a more finished product than Ulysses does, but it’s kitchen-sink approach can make it confusing.

    If you’re working collaboratively, you might also want to check out Authorea (https://www.authorea.com/) which presents itself as basically a Google Drive for scientists. Its development progresses swiftly, but already it has proven useful for me.

    Finally, since you’re working on a Mac you might want to look at Manuscripts (https://www.manuscriptsapp.com/), which you could describe as Ulysses or Scrivener for science writers (both of the latter are mainly aiming at the much larger and richer market of aspiring novelists). It’s very graph & equation-friendly, and has just switched to open source (i.e., is free). Not sure what the business model is, however.

    Each of these has their own way of doing things, so I’d give them all a go if I were you.

  34. Mike Taylor Says:

    For me, the absolute knock-down-dead argument in favour of LibreOffice is that when I am collaborating (which is more than half of the papers I work on), I know all my co-authors will be able to use the same files. (For this reason, I save in MS-Word format rather than OpenDoc format.) However great Ulysses, Scrivener and Manuscripts might be, they’re no use to me if the other people working on the same paper don’t have them, can’t get them, or don’t want to learn them.

    And I mistrust all-in-one systems like Authorea. I get that they are trying to make things simpler by having everything in one place, but I have my own tools that I use for many kinds of work (e.g. keeping things in git version control), and I want to be in full control of my own files for that reason.

    So for pragmatic reasons, LibreOffice is definitely the way to go. BTW., it’s word-processor is pretty mature now. I’ve used it to lay out and typeset whole books. (Shame that it’s PowerPoint-alike is still so bug-ridden.)


  35. Oh, I can well see why you would use LibreOffice and if I’d be exchanging separate files with multiple peopleI would probably too. For me, the biggest plus of LibreOffice (not being Word but being almost fully compatible) is one reason why I use Authorea (not being Google Drive).

    One of the big problems with such online solutions is that often you’re not sure where they will go. Authorea is still in beta, and they might do a Mendeley and end up a slave to the Evil One (yes, that’s Elsevier). With LibreOffice you’re fairly sure the developers won’t, even if open source software presents its own problems. But Authorea has proven very useful in the recent past in a way I could never see happening when using an “old-skool” files exchange.

    I don’t think there is a universal solution – it all depends on the work, and the way you work, and it pays to experiment just a bit before committing fully to one solution – so long as that experimenting does not escalate into deadly procrastination.

  36. Mike Taylor Says:

    That’s a good point about how we don’t know what the future is of authoring platforms. Whereas open-source software really is as future-proof as anything can be: as LibreOffice itself nicely illustrates, having been forked from OpenOffice once that began to stagnate under corporate stewardship.


  37. In theory, yes. In practice, the story is not quite so straightforward. LibreOffice is by far the best, more rounded example of open source software that I know of, also because there’s a pretty strong hand behind it in the form of the Document Foundation. But the history of LO (or rather, Open Office) is also a demonstration what can go wrong: sectarianism, feuding and the fragmentation of coder’s efforts, leading to excessive forking (we’re now nearing the point that every person on the planet has their own Linux distro, haphazard development, and general inconsistency. Many open source tools possess quite a monumental learning curve. It’s great for developing ideas, but unfortunately not so much for giving us well-rounded, user-friendly products. Photoshop might be a pig, but it’s still miles easier to use than GIMP, for instance. We’re very lucky LibreOffice is what it is, as even for me it’s been a life-saver for more often than I care to remember.

    Sorry for getting off-topic, though.

  38. Mike Taylor Says:

    It’s always cool to go off-topic in SV-POW! comments.

    LibreOffice is indeed a flagship open-source project, but if it’s really by far the best and most rounded example you know of, you must be ignoring the Linux kernel, BSD, GNU Emacs, GCC and its descendants, X11, KDE, Gnome, Firefox, GIMP and many others.

    I would say that LibreOffice’s troubled history (StarOffice, OpenOffice, NeoOffice, LibreOffice, what have you) is a perfect demonstration of how robust open-source software is against the problems that can kill or cripple proprietary software.

    Regarding PhotoShop vs. GIMP, my sense is that whichever one people learn first, they find “intuitive” — because they’ve trained their intuition — and they find the other one weird and hard to use.

  39. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    To answer some questions raised by Bryan Lewis:
    “a software package that is good for science writing” – no such thing. Basically any word processing software you are comfortable with works, although you may have to convert the final version of the manuscript to Word or some other major word processing software. If you cannot do a “save as” to Word or something similar, there is the possibility that the publisher’s/editor’s software cannot read your file. I suggest you use one of the many free online converters. One that handles a LOT of file formats is Online Convert: https://www.online-convert.com/

    Regarding the formalities of writing a manuscript do NOT desktop publish it. Meaning that images, tables, etc, are NOT embedded into the body of the manuscript. These must be submitted as separate files, and each image as a separate file (e.g., “Lewis_Fig1”, “Lewis_Table1”, etc. Images are a minimum of 300 dpi, although some journals want 600 dpi. Line images (simple maps, etc.) are usually 1200 dpi. The width of the image is usually set at either one column or two column width, so you will need to know what the journal column width is. It is usually best to create your images at a minimum of 28 cm (11 in) at 600 dpi, then save it and protect it so that it doesn’t get overwritten (right click on file, select properties at the bottom and check the box for “read only”). Then if you submit to a journal that wants the resolution downsized to 300 dpi, but they reject your manuscript, the next journal may want 600 dpi. You still have your original master to work from. You will undoubtedly need to label your images, but don’t label your master. If you are forced to reduce the width to 15 cm (6 in), the labeled letters may be too small to read. Always label the resized image (10 or 12 pt Arial font on the image is best). That way the labels on all the images will have the same look and be the same size.

    Finally, since this is your first scientific publication, it is important that you have someone knowledgeable on the topic give it a read. Better a sympathetic reader than the unsympathetic reviewer. Regardless, the comments are going to hurt and you will undoubtedly take the comments personal – as an attack against you. This one aspect is why some professional scientists publish very little in their career: the blow to the ego is too much pain, despite known that the comments are supposed to be constructive, to make a good manuscript a great manuscript (but in real life that is bullshit).

    I wrote a article on scientific writing for people just like you. You can download it here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314894909_How_to_Write_a_Scientific_Article

    good luck


  40. OK, I’ll give you Firefox; but I’m not entirely sure something like a kernel can count as a finished product. I’m thinking of something that a non-techie, general audience can use without too much hassle, along with proper support – there really are not that many to choose from. On the other hand, there are countless promising projects that have died out because after the initial spur of enthusiasm no one had the energy or opportunity to continue.

    Now, that’s fine, because it shows how the open source community is not afraid of experiments; and each of those failed attempts will have helped people develop further, and become better at coping with similar projects in future.

    But the flipside of that freedom is that it does not force people to look outside their ideological cave and make compromises for the sake of shipping a product. I have seen a depressing amount of ideological conflicts while working on software products, some of which actually ruined the entire project.

    To be fair, I’m not too pessimistic about the state of software at the moment, in particular because for scientific work, open data formats matter far more than the software you happen to use to access it. But still, I’m happy that LibreOffice is there whenever some *** sends me another 3.5″ floppy with a WordPerfect 4.2 file on it (and yes, that really happened last year).

  41. Matt Wedel Says:

    Regarding PhotoShop vs. GIMP, my sense is that whichever one people learn first, they find “intuitive” — because they’ve trained their intuition

    I think that is exactly right. I used to use Photoshop, but switched to GIMP a little over 10 years ago. It took me a little while to get used to GIMP, but now it’s reflexive. Photoshop has evolved so far in the meantime that now it seems completely foreign to me.

    I assume someone must be working on the question of whether really learning a software package is more like learning a language, or a musical instrument, or if it’s different enough to be its own thing. It feels to me like about the same level of fluidity as learning a musical instrument.

  42. Bryan Lewis Says:

    Wow! Thanks to all of you for such a comprehensive response. Really helpful. This makes going forward much easier!


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