My scientific media diet, the arborization of science, and the Red Queen

July 25, 2014

arborization of science

Modified from an original SEM image of branching blood vessels, borrowed from http://blogs.uoregon.edu/artofnature/2013/12/03/fractal-of-the-week-blood-vessels/.

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 [1990] 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?

References

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6 Responses to “My scientific media diet, the arborization of science, and the Red Queen”

  1. JKA Says:

    I like it. I’ve been using fragmentation and compartmentalization, then trying to explain why those words weren’t really right. Arborization captures it nicely. Just be happy your dissertation wasn’t on “Fossils”, like Ross from friends. Geez…that guys’s endnote must have been out of control…

  2. dinochick Says:

    I am really glad I am not the only one with this problem. I have yet to find a solution on how to manage it all. I gave up on blogging, let alone keeping up on reading all the blogs and media a few years back. I also rely on friends to keep me up to date with the literature.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Very interesting. As the size of the relevant literature grows, Matt is now finding himself in the position that I _started_ in — of reading only those papers that he needs for his own research. It’s a “just in time” education programme. I always felt bad about this: having missed out on the regular path to a Ph.D, I never acquired all the background that proper palaeontologists get through reading assignments. I now feel kind of better, since it seems everyone else is now in the same position :-)

    As to how I discover papers — it’s much the same system, or lack of one, that Matt uses. Emails from friends and colleagues, mentions on blogs, tweets; occasionally, but very rarely, reviewers saying “you should have cited X”. The main differences are that I am sort of on Twitter (but not really) and I am more systematic about following blogs than Matt is (using Feedly) — though I don’t follow many palaeo blogs.

    What happens is: it all sort of works out. There seem to be enough of us in the dino-literature network that someone discovers everything relevant, and it eventually makes its way to everyone.


  4. enjoyed the post!
    google and scopus alerts e-mailed to me as a daily/weekly digest does work – provided my search terms are very specific. If not my mailbox/ e-mail message gets flooded. However, even with specific search terms only about 5% of results catches my eye. Of these I’ll probably end up reading less than half (and by reading I mean an abstract). I only find time to read full papers directly relevant to my current project(s).


  5. […] time, not shorter. Partly that’s because my little corner of the science ecosystem is getting increasingly subdivided, so it’s hard for me to write a paper now with a title as broad as, “The evolution of […]


  6. (For new papers): Generally I check on the DML most every day, then I check the websites of big journals (or I get an email notification from them every week or so).

    (For previously existing papers): oftentimes I end up discovering something by accident, if I’m reading through a paper & see a citation I don’t recognize. Then it’s a simple matter of copy-pasting the title into Google & hitting search. Either something turns up (in PDF or DOC form), or there’s something alluding to a repository where I can find it.

    Very basic I know, but I rarely have a problem with this method.


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