My scientific media diet, the arborization of science, and the Red Queen
July 25, 2014
I was reading a rant on another site about how pretentious it is for intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to tell the world about their “media diets” and it got me thinking–well, angsting–about my scientific media diet.
And then almost immediately I thought, “Hey, what am I afraid of? I should just go tell the truth about this.”
And that truth is this: I can’t tell you what forms of scientific media I keep up with, because I don’t feel like I am actually keeping up with any of them.
Papers – I have no systematic method of finding them. I don’t subscribe to any notifications or table of contents updates. Nor, to be honest, am I in the habit of regularly combing the tables of contents of any journals.
Blogs – I don’t follow any in a timely fashion, although I do check in with TetZoo, Laelaps, and a couple of others every month or two. Way back when we started SV-POW!, we made a command decision not to list any sites other than our own on the sideboard. At the time, that was because we didn’t want to have any hurt feelings or drama over who we did and didn’t include. But over time, a strong secondary motive to keep things this way is that we’re not forced to keep up with the whole paleo blogosphere, which long ago outstripped my capacity to even competently survey. Fortunately, those overachievers at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs have a pretty exhaustive-looking set of links on their sidebar, so globally speaking, someone is already on that.
The contraction in my blog reading is a fairly recent thing. When TetZoo was on ScienceBlogs, I was over there all the time, and there were probably half a dozen SciBlogs that I followed pretty regularly and another dozen or so that I at least kept tabs on. But ScienceBlogs burned down the community I was interested in, and the Scientific American Blog Network is sufficiently ugly (in the UI sense) and reader-unfriendly to not be worth my dealing with it. So I am currently between blog networks–or maybe past my last one.
Social Media – I’m not on Twitter, and I tend to only log into Facebook when I get an interesting notice in my Gmail “Social” folder. Sometimes I’m not on FB for a week or two at a time. So I miss a lot of stuff that goes down there, including notices about new papers. I could probably fix that if I just followed Andy Farke more religiously.
What ends up happening – I mainly find papers relevant to specific projects as I execute those projects; each new project is a new front in my n-dimensional invasion of the literature. My concern is that in doing this, I tend to find the papers that I’m looking for, whereas the papers that have had the most transformative effect on me are the ones I was not looking for at the time.
Beyond that, I find out about new papers because the authors take it on themselves to include me when they email the PDF out to a list of potentially interested colleagues (and many thanks to all of you who are doing that!), or Mike, Darren, or Andy send it to me, or it turns up in the updates to my Google Scholar profile.
So far, this combination of ad hoc and half-assed methods seems to be working, although it does mean that I have unfairly outsourced much of my paper discovery to other people without doing much for them in return. When I say that it’s working, I mean that I don’t get review comments pointing out that I have missed important recent papers. I do get review comments saying that I need to cite more stuff,* but these tend to be papers that I already know of and maybe even cited already, just not in the right ways to satisfy the reviewers.**
* There is a sort of an arrow-of-inevitability thing here, in that reviewers almost always ask you to cite more papers rather than fewer. Only once ever have I been asked to cite fewer sources, and that is when I had submitted my dinosaur nerve paper (Wedel 2012) to a certain nameless anatomy journal that ended up not publishing it. One of the reviewers said that I had cited several textbooks and popular science books and that was poor practice, I should have cited primary literature. Apparently this subgenius did not realize that I was citing all of those popular sources as examples of publications that held up the recurrent laryngeal nerve of giraffes as evidence for evolution, which was part of the point that I was making: giraffe RLNs are overrated.
** My usual sin is that I mentally categorize papers in one or two holes and forget that a given paper also mentioned C and D in addition to saying a lot about A and B. It’s something that vexes me about some of my own papers. I put so much stuff into the second Sauroposeidon paper (Wedel et al. 2000b) that some it has never been cited–although that paper has been cited plenty, it often does not come up in discussions where some of the data presented therein is relevant, I think because there’s just too much stuff in that paper for anyone (who cares about that paper less than I do) to hold in their heads. But that’s a problem to be explored in another post.
The arborization of science
Part of the problem with keeping up with the literature is just that there is so much more of it than there was even a few years ago. When I first got interested in sauropod pneumaticity back in the late 90s, you were pretty much up to speed if you’d read about half a dozen papers:
- Seeley (1870), who first described pneumaticity in sauropods as such, even if he didn’t know what sauropods were yet;
- Longman (1933), who first realized that sauropod vertebrae could be sorted into two bins based on their internal structures, which are crudely I-beam-shaped or honeycombed;
- Janensch (1947), who wrote the first ever paper that was primarily about pneumaticity in dinosaurs;
- Britt (1993), who first CTed dinosaur bones looking for pneumaticity, independently rediscovered Longman’s two categories, calling them ‘camerate’ and ‘camellate’ respectively, and generally put the whole investigation of dinosaur pneumaticity on its modern footing;
- Witmer (1997), who provided what I think is the first compelling explanation of how and why skeletal pneumaticity works the way it does, using a vast amount of evidence culled from both living and fossil systems;
- Wilson (1999), who IIRC was the first to seriously discuss the interplay of pneumaticity and biomechanics in determining the form of sauropod vertebrae.
Yeah, there you go: up until the year 2000, you could learn pretty much everything important that had been published on pneumaticity in dinosaurs by reading five papers and one dissertation. “Dinosaur pneumaticity” wasn’t a field yet. It feels like it is becoming one now. To get up to speed today, in addition to the above you’d need to read big swaths of the work of Roger Benson, Richard Butler, Leon Claessens, Pat O’Connor (including a growing body of work by his students), Emma Schachner (not on pneumaticity per se, but too closely related [and too awesome] to ignore), Daniela Schwarz, and Jeff Wilson (and his students), plus important singleton papers like Woodward and Lehman (2009), Cerda et al. (2012), Yates et al. (2012), and Fanti et al. (2013). Not to mention my own work, and some of Mike’s and Darren’s. And Andy Farke and the rest of Witmer, if you’re into cranial pneumaticity. And still others if you care about pneumaticity in pterosaurs, which you should if you want to understand how–and, crucially, when–the anatomical underpinnings of ornithodiran pneumaticity evolved. Plus undoubtedly some I’ve forgotten–apologies in advance to the slighted, please prod me in the comments.
You see? If I actually listed all of the relevant papers by just the authors I named above, it would probably run to 50 or so papers. So someone trying to really come to grips with dinosaur pneumaticity now faces a task roughly equal to the one I faced in 1996 when I was first trying to grokk sauropods. This is dim memory combined with lots of guesswork and handwaving, but I probably had to read about 50 papers on sauropods before I felt like I really knew the group. Heck, I read about a dozen on blood pressure alone.
(Note to self: this is probably a good argument for writing a review paper on dinosaur pneumaticity, possibly in collaboration with some of the folks mentioned above–sort of a McIntosh  for the next generation.)
When I wrote the first draft of this post, I was casting about for a word to describe what is going on in science, and the first one that came to mind is “fragmentation”. But that’s not the right word–science isn’t getting more fragmented. If anything, it’s getting more interconnected. What it’s really doing is arborizing–branching fractally, like the blood vessels in the image at the top of this post. I think it’s pointless to opine about whether this is a good or bad thing. Like the existence of black holes and fuzzy ornithischians, it’s just a fact now, and we’d better get on with trying to make progress in this new reality.
How do I feel about all this, now that my little capillary of science has grown into an arteriole and threatens to become a full-blown artery? It is simultaneously exhilarating and worrying. Exhilarating because lots of people are discovering lots of cool stuff about my favorite system, and I have a lot more people to bounce ideas around with than I did when I started. Worrying because I feel like I am gradually losing my ability to keep tabs on the whole thing. Sound familiar?
Conclusion: Help a brother out
Having admitted all of this, it seems imperative that I get my act together and establish some kind of systematic new-paper-discovery method, beyond just sponging off my friends and hoping that they’ll continue to deliver everything I need. But it seems inevitable that I am either going to have to be come more selective about what I consume–which sounds both stupid and depressing–or lose all of my time just trying to keep up with things.
Hi, I’m Matt. I just arrived here in Toomuchnewscienceistan. How do you find your way around?
- Britt, B. B. 1993. Pneumatic postcranial bones in dinosaurs and other archosaurs. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Calgary, Calgary, 383 pp.
- Cerda, I.A., Salgado, L., and Powell, J.E. 2012. Extreme postcranial pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs from South America. Palaeontologische Zeitschrift. DOI 10.1007/s12542-012-0140-6
- Fanti, F., Cau, A., Hassine, M., and Contessi, M. 2013. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Tunisia with extreme avian-like pneumatization. Nature Communications 4:2080. doi:10.1038/ncomms3080
- Longman, H. A. 1933. A new dinosaur from the Queensland Creta- ceous. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 10:131–144.
- McIntosh, John S. 1990. Sauropoda. pp. 345-401 in: D. B. Weishampel, P. Dodson and H. Osmólska (eds.), The Dinosauria. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
- Seeley, H. G. 1870. On Ornithopsis, a gigantic animal of the pterodactyle kind from the Wealden. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Series 4, 5 279-283.
- Wilson, J. A. 1999. A nomenclature for vertebral laminae in sauropods and other saurischian dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19, 639-653.
- Witmer, L.M. 1997. The evolution of the antorbital cavity of archosaurs: a study in soft-tissue reconstruction in the fossil record with an analysis of the function of pneumaticity. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 3:1-73.
- Woodward, H.N., and Lehman, T.M. 2009. Bone histology and microanatomy of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis (Sauropoda: Titanosauria) from the Maastrichtian of Big Bend National Park, Texas. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):807-821.
- Yates, A.M., Wedel, M.J., and Bonnan, M.F. 2012. The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(1):85-100. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4202/app.2010.0075