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.
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?
- You sit down and write something.
- Finish what you write. Pensées don’t count. Neither do short stories without an ending.
- If the next morning you think it’s any good send it to some editor who might buy it.
- 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!
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.