How the Concrete Diplodocus paper came to be

February 23, 2023

Last time, I told you about my new paper, The Concrete Diplodocus of Vernal (Taylor et al. 2023), and finished up by saying this: “But Mike, you ask — how did you, a scientist, find yourself writing a history paper? It’s a good question, and one with a complicated answer. Tune in next time to find out!”

Paper 1

The truth is, I never set out to write a history paper. My goal was  very different: to belatedly write up my and Matt’s 2016 SVPCA presentation, How Big Did Barosaurus Get? (Taylor and Wedel 2016). In that talk, we discussed a half-prepared jacket at BYU that contains three Barosaurus cervicals which are significantly larger than those of the well-known specimen AMNH 6341. And we went on to note that the giant “Supersaurus” cervical BYU 9024 is morphologically indistinguishable from those of Barosaurus, even though it’s going on for twice the size.

That paper (codename: superbaro) is in progress, and I would estimate it’s about 40% done. But in that paper, I needed to write a brief section in the introduction about AMNH 6341, the keystone specimen for Barosaurus, from which all our perceptions of that animal derive. And it turned out that in that section I had a lot to say, to the point where …

Paper 2

It became apparent that this section needed to be pulled out and become its own paper on the AMNH Barosaurus. As I worked on this, trying to get to the bottom of the complicated history of the mounted cast in the museum’s atrium, I got a lot of help from Peter May of Research Casting International, and from AMNH alumni Lowell Dingus and Gene Gaffney, to the point where they have all been added as authors to the ongoing manuscript.

That paper (codename: baromount) is in progress, and I would estimate it’s about 80-90% done. But in that paper, I needed to write a section on the sources of the various elements that make up the cast — they are not all from AMNH 6341, which is pretty complete as sauropods go but still has a lot of gaps. It turned out, after some poking about, that significant parts of the skeleton were Diplodocus casts, and that they had been made from molds taken from a concrete cast in Vernal, Utah. I started to write up the background information on this, but quickly realised that there was a lot to say, and that it needed to be extracted out into its own paper.

Paper 3

Taylor et al (2023:figure 4). Assembly of the outdoor concrete Diplodocus at the Utah Field House in 1957. (A) In right posterolateral view. The sacrum and fused ilia having been mounted on the main support to begin the process, the hind limbs, last four dorsal vertebrae and first caudal vertebra have now been added. (B) In left anterodorsolateral view, probably taken from the roof of the museum. The mount is almost complete, with only the forelimbs, their girdles and the dorsal ribs yet to be attached. Note that, contra Untermann (1959, p. 367–368), the skull is already in place. Both images scanned by Aric Hansen for the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, image IDs 1090660 and 1090647. Used by permission, Uintah County Library Regional History Center.

That paper, of course, became The Concrete Diplodocus of Vernal. As I was working on it, I found myself constantly consulting park manager Steve Sroka, and quickly realised that the manuscript had reached the stage of being co-authored. Later in the process, significant contributions from Ken Carpenter went beyond the point of pers. comms, and he was added as a third author. (This paper also received a lot of help from other people, and the acknowledgements are correspondingly extensive and effusive.)

So that is the origin story of yesterday’s paper. But there is another chapter in this story …

Paper 4

As I was writing the section of this paper about the original Carnegie Diplodocus, and in particular about the composition of the mounted skeleton from which the original molds were (mostly) made, it became apparent that this, too, was a long and complicated story. And even though that story has been told in detail multiple times (most notably by Nieuwland 2019), there was still plenty to be told. So this section needed to be pulled out of the CDoV paper (where only a brief summary remains) and become its own paper.

That paper (codename: carnegie) is in progress, and I would estimate it’s about 90-95% done. It, too, has acquired co-authors, including Ilja Nieuwland himself and three Carnegie staff members, but cannot be completed yet as I await an important contribution from an indisposed co-author. Still, it should not be too long before that one is submitted — to be followed by baromount, and then finally superbaro.

So what’s happened here is that a perfectly innocent morphological description paper, based on a conference abstract and a 15-minute talk, has mutated into four substantial papers (of which, admittedly, only one is published so far).

The moral of this story

One moral is that I evidently have very little idea what I am going to work on at any given point in my career. As I was putting together the sidebar page on the Concrete Diplodocus paper, I stumbled across another sidebar page titled Mike’s open projects, which I made in 2020. It lists eight projects that I was going to work on. Of those, one (What do we mean by “cranial” and “caudal” on a vertebra?, Taylor and Wedel 2022) is complete; one (the superbaro project) has advanced but been interrupted by its three offspring papers; and the other six have pretty much not advanced at all (though I do still plan to do them all). Meanwhile, I have done a ton of work on projects that weren’t even on my radar back then, including pneumatic variation (Taylor and Wedel 2021) and finally putting a stake through the heart of neck incompleteness (Taylor 2022).

That’s the bad moral. But there is also a good moral. This is a nice example of what Matt wrote about way back in 2011, for Tutorial 12: How to find problems to work on. Once you actually get started working on something — anything — it will tend to sprout buds. And those buds can easily — too easily, sometimes — become new projects of their own. There is no such thing as a linear programme of research, at least not in my experience. Just an endlessly ramifying tree of fascinating areas that beg to be worked on.



3 Responses to “How the Concrete Diplodocus paper came to be”

  1. llewelly Says:

    contratulations on making some progress on your depth-first traversal of the tree of superbaro research projects. : )

    Interesting story behind the story.

  2. dale mcinnes Says:

    Please !!!! Whatever you find elsewhere, DO NOT slack off on this multi-paper publication of Barosaurus. It is extremely exciting ! I await with eager anticipation of your publishing on this one taxon. May the winds of time be with you !

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Dale, that’s very encouraging!

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