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.


27 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 […]


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