It was ten years ago today: my first published paper

September 15, 2015

Ten years ago today — on 15 September 2005 — my first palaeo paper was published: Taylor and Naish (2005) on the phylogenetic nomenclature of diplodocoids. It’s strange to think how fast the time has gone, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I get a bit self-indulgent and nostalgic.

TaylorNaish2005-diplodocoid-taxonomy-ABSTRACT

I’d applied to join Portsmouth University on a Masters course back in April 2004 — not because I had any great desire to earn a Masters but because back in the bad old days, being affiliated to a university was about the only way to get hold of copies of academic papers. My research proposal, hilariously, was all about the ways the DinoMorph results are misleading — something that I am still working on eleven years later.

In May of that year, I started a Dinosaur Mailing List thread on the names and definitions of the various diplodocoid clades. As that discussion progressed, it became clear that there was a lot of ambiguity, and for my own reference I started to make notes. I got into an off-list email discussion about this with Darren Naish (who was then finishing up his Ph.D at Portsmouth). By June we thought it might be worth making this into a little paper, so that others wouldn’t need to do the same literature trawl we’d done.

In September of 2004, I committed to the Portsmouth course, sending my tuition fees in a letter that ended:

tuition-fees-letter

On the way to SVPCA that year, in Leicester, I met Darren on the train, and together we worked through a printed copy of the in-progress manuscript that I’d brought with me. He was pretty happy with it, which meant a lot to me. It was the first time I’d had a legitimate palaeontologist critique my work.

At one of the evening events of that SVPCA, I fell into conversation with micro-vertebrate screening wizard Steve Sweetman, then on the Portsmouth Ph.D course, and he persuaded me to switch to the Ph.D. (It was my second SVPCA, and the first one where I gave a talk.) Hilariously, the heart of the Ph.D project was to be a description of the Archbishop, something that I have still not got done a decade later, but definitely will this year. Definitely.

On 7th October 2004, we submitted the manuscript to the Journal of Paleontology, and got an acknowledge of receipt<sarcasm>after just 18 short days</sarcasm>. But three months later (21st January 2005) it was rejected on the advice of two reviewers. As I summarised the verdict to Darren at the time:

It’s a rejection. Both reviewers (an anonymous one and [redacted]) say that the science is pretty much fine, but that there just isn’t that much to say to make the paper worthwhile. [The handling editor] concurs in quite a nice covering letter […] Although I think the bit about “I respect both of you a great deal” is another case of Wrong Mike Taylor Syndrome :-)

This was my first encounter with “not significant enough for our journal” — a game that I no longer play. It was to be very far from my last experience of Wrong Mike Taylor Syndrome.

At this point, Darren and I spent a while discussing what to do: revise and resubmit (though one of the reviewers said not to)? Try to subsume the paper into another more substantial one (as one reviewer suggested)? Invite the reviewers to collaborate with us on an improved version (as the editor suggested)? Or just revise according to the reviewers’ more helpful recommendations and send it elsewhere? I discussed this with Matt as well. The upshot was that on 20th February Darren and I decided to send the revised version to PaleoBios, the journal of the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) — partly because Matt had had good experiences there with two of his earlier papers.

[Side-note: I am delighted to see that, since I last checked, PaleoBios has now made the leap to open access, though as of yet it says nothing about the licence it uses.]

Anyway, we submitted the revised manuscript on 26th May; and we got back an Accept With Minor Revisions six weeks later, having received genuinely useful reviews from Jerry Harris and Matt. (This of course was long before I’d co-authored anything with Matt. No handling editor would assign him to review one of my papers now.) It took us two days to turn the manuscript around with the necessary minor changes made, and another nine days of back and forth with the editor before we reached acceptance. A week later I got the proof PDF to check.

Back in 2005, publication was a very different process, because it involved paper. I remember the thrill of several distinct phases in the publication process — particularly sharp the first time:

  • Seeing the page proof — evidence that I really had written a legitimate scholarly paper. It looked real.
  • The moment of being told that the paper was published: “The issue just went to the printer, so I will send the new reprints […] when I get them, probably sometime next week.”
  • Getting my copy of the final PDF.
  • The day that the physical reprints arrived — funny to think that they used to be a thing. (They’re so Ten Years Ago now that even the SVPCA auction didn’t have many available for bid.)
  • The tedious but somehow exhilarating process of sending out physical reprints to 30 or 40 people.
  • Getting a physical copy of the relevant issue of the journal — in this case, PaleoBios 25(2).

I suppose it’s one of the sadder side-effect of ubiquitous open access that many of these stages don’t happen any more. Now you get your proof, then the paper appears online, and that’s it. Bam, done.

I’m kind of glad to have lived through the tail end of the old days, even though the new days are better.

To finish, there’s a nice little happy ending for this paper. Despite being in a relatively unregarded journal, it’s turned out to be among my most cited works. According to Google Scholar, this humble little taxonomic note has racked up 28 citations: only two fewer than the Xenoposeidon description. It’s handily outperforming other papers that I’d have considered much more substantial, and which appeared in more recognised journals. It just goes to show, you can never tell what papers will do well in the citation game, and which will sink without trace.

References

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4 Responses to “It was ten years ago today: my first published paper”

  1. Allen Hazen Says:

    A nice clear piece of expository writing. (I.e., even I, a non-specialist, could follow it without difficulty.) … Even if ranks are meaningless, it would be nice if endings like -oidae, -morpha, etc, marked an ordering by inclusiveness: it would make them useful as landmarks for someone coming new to the literature, but I suppose, given the history of the subject (and the fact that even in the future namers of taxa won’t always know what OTHER namers of taxa are planning in their not-yet-published papers) that can’t really be hoped for.
    (And yes, old-fashioned publication did provide thrills for novice authors! I remember my own first offprints a decade or so earlier.)

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Allen!

    Yes, it would be nice if the endings of clade-names gave some sense of containment — and indeed that is often the case: for example, Diplodocinae is contained within Diplodocidae which is contained within Diplodocimorpha, all of which is as one would expect. But that’s not guaranteed. If a new phylogenetic analysis recovered Dicraeosaurus closer to Diplodocus than either is to Apatosaurus, then Diplodocidae (= Diplodocus not Dicraeosaurus) would be contained within Diplodocinae (= Diplodocus not Apatosaurus). There’s nothing really that can be done to prevent such things — we just have to accept that, when our names are tied to nodes in a phylogeny, they are going to move around when the phylogeny changes. I would say that the art of phylogenetic nomenclature is defining clades in such a way that they are likely to keep the expected content and the expected relations between them.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dammit, I found a mistake in Taylor and Naish (2005)! Page 3, “Rebbachisauridae” section, lines 8-9: “Neither Bonaparte (1996) nor Sereno et al. (1999) provided a phylogenetic definition”, should say Bonaparte (1997).

    Better rush out a formal correction!

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    On the containment of Diplodocimorpha within Diplodocoidea, we wrote (p4):

    In Linnean taxonomy, the -oidea suffix usually indicates a “superfamily” in vertebrates and -morpha usually indicates the more inclusive rank of “infrasuborder.” However, the clade Diplodocimorpha is less inclusive than Diplodocoidea. Since these ranks are essentially meaningless, we do not perceive this as a problem in the defi nitions of the clade names.

    Again, there is just no avoiding this kind of thing. Best not to worry about it.


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