Vanessa Graff and I spent yesterday working in the herpetology and ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM). The herpetology collections manager, Neftali Comacho, pointed us to this skull of Alligator mississippiensis. It’s not world’s biggest gator–about which more in a second–but it’s the biggest I’ve seen in person. Normally it lives in a big rubbermaid tub in the collections area, but this Sunday it will be out on display for Reptile and Amphibian Appreciation Day (RAAD) at the LACM. RAAD will include guest talks, tours of the collections, and live animal demonstrations. If you’re in SoCal and you’re into herps–or have kids, grandkids, nephews or nieces that are into herps–it will be well worth checking out. While you’re there, don’t neglect the newly renovated Age of Dinosaurs and Age of Mammals halls, which are frankly phenomenal: spacious, well-lit, loads of actual material on display, skeletons you can walk all the way around, informative but unobtrusive signage, tasteful integration with existing architecture…I could go on. Better if you just go and see for yourself.

About that gator. First the bad news.  It came to the LACM from another collection, and has no data–no locality, no date collected, nothing. The skull is also missing all of its teeth, the left retroarticular process, the back end of the braincase and the occipital condyle. I think the latter losses were probably caused by a foramen of Winchester.*

Now, the awesome news. The length from the snout tip to the end of the articulars was 680mm and from the snout to the end of the quadrates was 590mm. Irritatingly I did not get a dorsal head length, which is the gold standard for comparative croc skull measurements, because I only reread Darren’s giant croc skull post after I got home last night. Going from the photos, I think the dorsal head length was right around 50 cm (beware, the yardstick in the photos is marked off in inches).

Darren’s post led me to this one, which has some very useful measurements (yay!) of giant croc skulls. The table at the end of that post lists alligator skulls with dorsal head lengths of 58, 60, and 64 cm, so the big LACM gator is nowhere near being the world’s largest. In fact, the 64 cm skull would be a quarter again as large, which is a truly horrifying thought. Still, it’s a big damn skull from a big damn gator.

You might get the impression that here in the Wedel lab we are shamelessly obsessed with giant saurians. And that is in fact true. But we also look at tiny ones, too. Here I’m playing with the skull of a little Tomistoma, the false gharial. Tomistoma is notable because another individual of the genus produced the longest skull of any known extant crocodilian–a whopping 84 cm dorsal head length (photos of this monster are in both of the giant croc skull posts linked above).

The moral of the story? If the sign says don’t go swimming, don’t go swimming. Go to RAAD instead, and see the giant alligator skull, and a ton of other cool stuff besides. And if you’re into gator skulls or just like geeking out on awesome anatomy, check out the 3D Alligator Skull site, a joint project of the Holliday lab and Witmer lab. Have fun!

* bullet hole

Preparing a talk is a time-consuming process, and there’s no question that getting the slides ready is where the bulk of that time goes.  But unless you understand exactly what it is that you’re going to talk about, even the best slides won’t rescue your talk from mediocrity, so before you fire up PowerPoint, go and read part 1 of this tutorial, on finding the narrative.  Seriously.  The slides are how you convey your message, and they’re important.  But not as important as what your message is.

Assuming you know what story you’re trying to tell, here is the overriding principle of slide design: make yourself understood.  Remember again that you have something less than twenty minutes in which to make your rich, complex research project understood to a hall full of strangers who have just sat through five or ten or fifteen other presentations.  They will be mentally tired.  Help them out.  Make every slide tell a clear story.

The slides for a conference talk are science, not art.  That doesn’t mean they have to be ugly — of course it doesn’t.  But it does mean that whenever you find yourself facing a choice between clarity and beauty, go with clarity.

That means you do not want your slides to look like this:

OK, that is not even beautiful.  But it does illustrate some horrible mistakes, and we’ll touch on all of them  in what follows.  For now, just remember that the purpose of a Results slide is to help the audience know what your results were.

So how do you make yourself understood?

1. Use the full size of the screen

Most importantly, don’t “frame” your content.  You have a specific amount of space in which to present your work.  Don’t throw any of it away.  Although the super-bad slide above may look extreme, I have seen plenty to slides that present, say, specimen photos in about the same amount of space as the graph above occupies.  So, then:

  • No picturesque borders.
  • We don’t need the talk title, or your name or address on every slide.  You can tell us once at the start of the talk and then, if you like, once more at the end.  If we truly forget who you are in the middle, we can always look at the programme.  If we forget what you’re talking about, then your talk has more profound problems.
  • That goes double for logos.  We do not need to see the following more than once (or indeed once):
    • Your institution’s crest
    • The conference logo
    • Logos of funding bodies

We don’t need any of that stuff, and all of it wastes precious real-estate.  Space that you could be using to tell your story.

Most important of all: use as much space as you can for your images.  Specimen photographs, interpretive drawings, reproduced figures from the literature, graphs, cladograms, strat sections — whatever you’re showing us, let us see it.

In my own talks, I like to make the picture fill the whole slide.  You can usually find a light area to put a dark text on, or vice versa.  I often find it’s useful to give the text a drop-shadow, so that it stands out against both light and dark background.  (You can find that option in Format -> Character… -> Font Effects if you use OpenOffice, and no doubt somewhere similar in PowerPoint.)

If the aspect ratio of an image that I want to use is not the 4:3 that projectors give you, then I will often crop it down to that aspect ratio, if some of the edges of the image are dispensable, so that the cropped version is properly shaped to fill the screen.

(On image resolution: most projectors seem to be 1024 x 768, maybe some these days are 1280 x 960.  There’s no point using images at a higher resolution than that: your audience won’t see the additional information.)

2. Legibility

Hopefully you won’t need too many words on your slides, since you’ll be talking to us about what we can see.  But what words you use, we need to see.  Specifically, this means:

  • Use big fonts.  There is absolutely no point in showing us an eighty-taxon phylogenetic tree: we just won’t be able to read the taxon names.  I tend to make my fonts really big — 32-point and up, which actually is probably bigger than you really need.  But you don’t want to be smaller than 20-point at the absolute minimum.
  • Use high contrast between the text and background.  That usually means black on white, or (if you must) white on black.  Well, OK — it doesn’t literally have to be black, but it needs to be a very dark colour (I often use very dark blue).  And it doesn’t literally have to be white, but it needs to be a very light colour.  (I occasionally use a very pale yellow “parchment”-type colour, but less often.)  Do not use grey text or a grey background.  Especially do not use grey text on a grey background, even if they are fairly different greys and the muted effect looks classy.  You’re not shooting for “classy”, you’re shooting for “legible”.  Because you remember the prime directive that you’re trying to make yourself understood.
  • If for some reason you must use a non-black, non-white text or background, don’t make it a highly saturated colour.  Some combinations, such as a red on blue, and virtually impossible to read.
  • No vertical writing (with the possible exception of short y-axis labels on graphs).  If your cladogram’s taxon names are vertical, turn your cladogram around.  Redraw it if necessary.  If the audience have their heads on one side, you’re doing it wrong.

3. Font Choice

Apart from size, what else matters about fonts?

  • Avoid elaborate fonts, such as the URW Chancery L Medium Italic that I used for my name and affiliation in the Bad Slide at the top.  They’re hard to read, and at best they draw attention away from the message to the medium.
  • Pick a single font and stick with it for consistency.  Or if you wish, one serifed font (for body text) and one sans-serif (for headings).  But you should have little enough text on your slides that it’s practically all headings.
  • Stick to standard fonts which you know will be on the computer that will be displaying your presentation.  In practice, the safest approach is it stick to Microsoft’s “core fonts for the web” — which is plenty enough choice.
  • You might want to avoid Arial, which is widely considered particularly ugly.  Other ubiquitous sans-serif fonts include Trebuchet and Verdana, which are both rather nicer than Arial (though Verdana’s glyphs are too widely spaced to my eye).
  • Do not use MS Comic Sans Serif, or no-one will take anything you say seriously.  I don’t just mean your talk, I mean ever, for the rest of your life.

Why is it important to stick to standard fonts?  Because of size, spacing and positioning.  Your computer may have the super-beautiful Font Of Awesomeness and it might make your slides look beautiful; but when you run your PowerPoint file on the conference computer, it won’t have Font Of Awesomeness, so it will substitute whatever it thinks is closest — Arial or Times or something.  Not only will you not get the visual effect you wanted, but the glyphs will be different sizes, so that your text will run off the edge of the page, or fall right off the bottom.

(Handy household hint for users of Debian GNU/Linux and variants such as Ubuntu.  Make sure that you have the MS core fonts installed on your computer, so that OpenOffice can properly display your slides as you’re designing them, rather than substituting.  sudo apt-get install ttf-mscorefonts-installer, restart OpenOffice, and you’re good to go.)

4. How many slides?

I need to mention this issue, if only to say that there’s no right answer.  I don’t say that lightly: for most slide-design issues, there is a right answer.  (Example: should you use MS Comic Sans Serif?  Answer: no.)  But number of slides has to vary between people to fit in with presentation styles.

I tend to use a large number of slides and whiz through them very quickly — my SVPCA 2011 talk had 80 slides, and in 2010 I had 92 slides.  Lots of them are parenthetical, sometimes just a silly joke to make in passing a point that I am already making.  If you miss such a slide, it doesn’t really matter: it’s just light relief and reinforcement, not an integral part of the narrative.


But that many-slides-slipping-quickly-past style doesn’t suit everybody. In the eighteen minutes or so that you get to give a talk (allowing a minute for messing about getting set up and a minute for questions), getting through 80 slides in those 1080 seconds gives you an average of 13.5 seconds per slide.

Lots of people prefer to use fewer slides and talk about them for longer. You can give an excellent talk with very few slides if that approach comes naturally to you: step slowly through nine slides, talk about each one for two minutes.

Once you’ve given a few talks you’ll know which approach works best for you, and you can design accordingly. For your first talk, you’re probably best off aiming initially somewhere in the middle — thirty or so slides — and then seeing what happens when you dry-run the talk. (We’ll discuss that next time around.)

5. Miscellaneous

I’ve touched on this one already, but it’s best to use as little text as possible. That’s because you want your audience listening to your story, not reading your slides. I used to put a lot of text in my slides, because I wanted the PowerPoint file to stand alone as a sort of a record of the talk. But I don’t do that now, because a talk involves talking (clue’s in the question). I include enough text to remind myself what I want to say about each slide (sometimes just one or two words; often none at all). And I try to make sure there’s enough to let the audience know what they’re looking at if I zoom straight past it. For example:


I used this slide to briefly tell a typical taphonomic story of a sauropod neck.  But I didn’t need to say that I was using diagrams of the neck of Sauroposeidon taken from Wedel et al. 2000, so I just shoved that information on the slide for anyone who was interested.  That way I didn’t have to break the flow of my narrative to impart this information.

Use a consistent colour palette.  If you’ve used dark blue text on white for half of your slides, don’t switch to black on pale yellow for the other half.  It’s not a hugely important point, but it all contributes to helping the talk go down smoothly.  You’re getting rid of mental speed-bumps that could stop your audience from giving their full attention to the story you’re telling.

Where possible, avoid putting important information at the bottom — in, say, the lower 10-15% of the slide.  That’s because the lower part of the screen can sometimes be obscured by the heads of the people in the front rows.

Avoid hatching, which can look terrible on a screen, in a way that’s very hard to predict.  In the Sauroposeidon taphonomy slide above, for example, the lost bones are “greyed out” using a flat grey colour rather the close diagonal lines of the original.  I knew it would look right on the screen.

Skip the fancy slide transitions, animated flying arrows, and suchlike. It’s just distracting nonsense that no one in the audience (or anywhere else, for that matter) needs to be exposed to. It’s just gross. Also, as with fonts, you may end up giving your talk from a machine with an older version of PowerPoint that doesn’t support the turning of animated pages and the bouncing arrival of arrows and clipart, and then your presentation will either look stupid or fail to run entirely.

You might want to draw highlighting marks on your slides, e.g. circles around the relevant parts of a specimen photos.  That will save you having to mess about with the laser pointer later.  (I will have much to say about the laser pointer in part 4).  I like to show two consecutive slides: one of the unadorned photo, then one that’s identical apart from the addition of the highlight, like this:

Then as I am talking about the first slide, “in order to mount the vertebrae in something approaching a straight line, they had to leave a huge gap between consecutive centra”, I’ll step on to the next one, which highlights what I’m saying.  Slick, no?  (This is part of why I end up with such high slide counts.)

A pet hate: don’t write “monophyletic clade”.  If it’s a clade, it’s monophyletic by definition.  “Monophyletic clade” is like “round circle”, “square square” or “boring ornithopod”.

And finally …

Show us specimens.  We are vertebrate palaeontologists, and we love vertebrate fossils.  No-one goes into the field because of a deep and abiding passion for graphs or for tables of numbers.  We understand that from time to time you’ll need to show us those things in order to tell the story, but nothing makes an audience happier than big, clean photos of beautiful specimens.

Well, that’s it — how to make good slides.  Next time we’ll look at rehearsing the talk.  (It’ll be a much shorter post than this one.)

Matt, Darren and I were all in Lyme Regis last week for SVPCA 2011, the Symposium of Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy — an excellent technical conference similar in some ways to SVP, but much nicer because it’s small enough that you can see all the talks and meet all the people.

This is the seafront, from the Cobb (harbour wall) at the west end of the beach, looking east.  The tiny white building that you can see at far right is the Marine Theatre, where the scientific sessions took place.  Many of the other buildings are pubs, where unscientific sessions took place.

It was an excellent conference, and you can read more about it in Darren’s accounts over on Tetrapod Zoology (part 1, part 2).  But in any conference where you watch and listen to more than fifty talks, you’re going to get a range of quality from the inspiring to the … not-quite-so-inspiring.  Having seen both good and bad (and some ugly), I found myself thinking about what makes a good talk.

The result is this: a series of four articles, which should appear over the next couple of weeks:

  1. Planning: finding a narrative
  2. The slides: presenting your information to be understood
  3. Rehearsal: honing the story and how it’s told
  4. Delivery: telling the story

And this is the first of those.

Planning a talk

Here is rule number one: make us care about your project.  We’re going to hear eighteen talks today, and we’re probably not even particularly interested in hybodont sharks or rare earth elements or whatever it is that you work on.  So make us interested.

Obviously some of this is about how your slides look, how well you prepare, and your delivery.  But it all starts here, with how you select your material.  And rule number two is that you need to tell us a story.

Does this mean that you have to dumb your work down?  No, not at all.  The conference audience is intelligent, and they are quite capable of following you if you say complicated things.  But they can’t do that if they’re asleep, which means that (especially in the session directly after lunch) you have to give them something to cling onto, a way to follow you through the maze of information that you’ve gathered through your work this year, and to reach the middle of that maze with a clear appreciation of the journey.  Stories are the way to do that.  They engage us, hold our attention.  It’s just the way people are wired.

If you’ve shown us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #1 in the last slide but one, and the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #2 in the last slide; and if now you’re showing us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #3, don’t be surprised if we lose interest when in the next slide you show us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #4.  (Yes, I’ve really seen this done.  And there were a lot more than four of them.)

(Note: the Consecutive Mastoton Tooth Stable Isotope Ratio Graph talk was not given at the Lyme Regis SVPCA.  Just to be clear)

How do you find a compelling story that summarises the research you want the world to know about?  Well, start by accepting that it’s going to mean you won’t be able to talk about everything you’ve done this year.  Even if you could fit it all into the twenty-minute slot, it wouldn’t work as a talk.  It would be a mere aggregation of facts.  You, who are the specialist on your topic, have had whole a year to absorb all this information and make sense of it; but we, in the audience, have only twenty minutes.  So we need you to be our expert guide.

Once more, understand that this means you will have to omit much that is relevant.  That’s because your actual research is like a tree, branching out all over the place and giving rise to tiny baby new projects, some of which might develop for long enough to become independently viable.  But you can’t walk us across the tree of your research: there isn’t time, and we wouldn’t be able to digest it anyway.  Instead, you need to pick a single narrative, concentrate on that, and explain it to us as linearly as you can.

Here’s an analogy that might help.  When you’re trying to explain human evolution to someone, you know that evolution “doesn’t work in straight lines” and that it produces a tree rather than an ascent of man.  You are a sophisticated evolutionary biologist, and you know that diagrams like this one are misleading:

… except that they’re not.  I know that Gould loathed this picture, but it’s actually a perfectly good representation of the evolution of a single branch of the tree of life.  Yes, other branches forked off along the way.  But depending on what group we’re concentrating on, we can temporarily ignore those — just as I habitually ignore the negligble offshoots of the tetrapod tree that led to lissamphibians, mammals, turtles, lizards, crocs, ornithischians, theropods, diplodocoids and titanosaurs.  The truth is that every single organism on this planet descended in a direct line from the ancestral organism.

So: that maligned diagram has to be your model as you plan the content of your talk.  You have to ruthlessly prune — not only the branches of your research that didn’t go anywhere interesting; but also, and more painfully, the many branches that did go somewhere interesting, but not the place that your talk is focussed on.  Those branches may be interesting, they may be important; but they don’t contribute to your goal here, which is to make us understand the story of your project in twenty minutes.

It can be hard to figure out what is core to the story and what is a side-branch.  I know that I’ve been seduced into including fascinating-but-distracting side-branches into my own talks often enough.  But I do know of one good strategy for figuring out what your narrative through-line is.

Take an intelligent friend to a pub.  Have a beer, and buy one for your friend.  Heck, buy him two.  Now try to explain your project to him.

In the pub, you won’t have the crutch of slides to fall back on, so you will have to think about the story itself.

In the pub, your friend will interrupt with questions that help you clarify your own thinking, rather than leaving an audience mystified.

In the pub, you’ll be told immediately if you wander off into Irrelevant Land, rather than ploughing blindly on, getting further and further away from the point, as an audience too polite to interrupt quietly disengages.

Whether you mean to or not, you and your friend will be workshopping the core of your talk, figuring out what the narrative core is, slicing away the fat, slicing away as well the irrelevant meat, and gradually homing in on a structure that begins at the beginning, tells a single coherent story from beginning to end, and then stops.

And then you’re ready to start thinking about the slides.  Or maybe better leave it till the morning.

Jeff Liston at Lyme Regis. SVPCA for scale.

Next time: the slides.

Needless to say, one of the things I love most about Paco’s Brontomerus artwork is that it’s a rare and welcome example of the much neglected Sauropods Stomping Theropods school of palaeo-art.

When I reviewed the examples I know of, I was a bit disappointed to find that they number only five.  Here they are, in chronological order.

First, we have this gorgeous sketch by Mark Hallett, showing Jobaria (here credited as “unnamed camarasaurid”) quite literally stomping on Afrovenator:

To the best of my knowledge, this has never actually been published — I found it on Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings, in the interview with Hallett.  Mark tells me that this was a concept sketch of possible main art for Paul Sereno’s North African dinosaur article, Africa’s Dinosaur Castaways in the June 1996 issue of National Geographic (Sereno 1996) — three years before Jobaria was described[1] (Sereno et al. 1999); but for some inexplicable reason, it wasn’t used.

It seems incredible to think that there was no published, or even completed but unpublished, sauropod-stomping-theropod art before the mid-1990s, but I’ve not yet found any.  I thought that Bakker might have come up with something in The Dinosaur Heresies (Bakker 1986) or The Bite of the Bronto (Bakker 1994); but I flipped through both and I don’t see anything relevant.  Anyone know of anything earlier?

The next entry on my list is Luis Rey’s striking Astrodon, carrying away a raptor that bit off more than it could chew.

This appeared in Tom Holtz’s outstanding encyclopedia (Holtz 2007), which I highly recommend for every interested layman, including but not limited to bright kids.  The image also turned up, with Luis’s permission, in the publicity for Xenoposeidon — notably in The Sun, one of Britain’s most downmarket, lowest-common-denominator tabloids, where it was a pleasant surprise indeed.

I just love the expression on the raptor’s face.  He’s going HOLY CRAP!, and his buddies are all like, Hey, dude, c’mon, we were only playing!  But Astrodon‘s all, Nuh-uh, you started this, I’m going to finish it.

Next up, and a year, later, we have this moody just-going-about-my-business Camamasaurus, squishing theropod eggs, nests and babies in a casual sort of way, as though he’s saying “Well, you should have got out of my way”:

As it happens, this one was done for me, by Mark Witton.  It was intended as an illustration for a “Fossils Explained” article that I was going to do for Geology Today on the subject of (get ready for a big surprise): sauropods.  In fact, I am still going to do it.  But since it’s been two and a bit years since I got the go-ahead from the editor, I’m hardly in a position to complain that Mark gave the image to Dave Martill and Darren when they suddenly needed artwork to publicise the findings of their Moroccan expedition.  (Since then, the Mail seems to have re-used this picture pretty much every time they have a story about dinosaurs — even when that story is complete and utter crap.)

I don’t mind too much about this Witton original being whisked away from me, because shortly afterwards Mark went on to provide me with a much better piece — the beautifully wistful Diplodocus herd scene that we used in the publicity for our neck-posture paper.

And, amazingly, that brings us up to date.  The next relevant artwork that I know of was Paco’s glorious Brontomerus life restoration, which you’ve already read all about.  Just to vary things a bit, this is the second of the two renders — the one that wasn’t in the paper itself:

So is that the end of the story for now?  Happily, not quite.  Emily Willoughby produced this alternative Brontomerus restoration on the very day the paper came out!

I’m not going to claim that this is close to the quality of the other four pieces in this article, but you have to admire the speed of the work.  Emily wrote most of the initial Wikipedia entry for Brontomerus, and produced this picture to illustrate it.  At first when I saw this, I thought Emily had misunderstood the paper as indicating powerful retractors, so that the drawing had Brontomerus kicking backwards like a horse. But when I looked closely I realised it’s kicking outwards, thanks to the enlarged abductors. Neat.

A question and a challenge

I’d like to end this post with a question and a challenge.  First, the question: what other pieces of palaeoart have I missed that feature sauropods handing theropods their arses?  There have to be others — right?

And the challenge: I’d love it if those of you who are artists were to fix this terrible hole in the fabric of reality?  I’d love to see new and awesome art on the timeless theme of sauropods stomping theropods.  How about it?  If any of you have influence with the Art Evolved people, you might try seeing whether you can get them to join in the challenge.  It would be awesome to see a whole new crop of these pieces!


  • Bakker, Robert T.  1986.  The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking The Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction.  Morrow, New York.  481 pages.
  • Bakker, Robert T.  1994.  The Bite of the Bronto.  Earth 3 (6): 26-35.
  • Holtz, Thomas R., Jr., and Luis V. Rey.  2007.  Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages. Random House, New York.  432 pages.
  • Sereno, Paul C.  1996.  Africa’s dinosaur castaways.  National Geographic 189(6):106-119.
  • Sereno, Paul C., Allison L. Beck, Didier. B. Dutheil, Hans C. E. Larsson, Gabrielle. H. Lyon, Bourahima Moussa, Rudyard W. Sadleir, Christian A. Sidor, David J. Varricchio, Gregory P. Wilson and Jeffrey A. Wilson.  1999.  Cretaceous Sauropods from the Sahara and the Uneven Rate of Skeletal Evolution Among Dinosaurs.  Science 282:1342-1347.


[1] If you want to call it that.

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?

  1. You sit down and write something.
  2. Finish what you write. Pensées don’t count. Neither do short stories without an ending.
  3. If the next morning you think it’s any good send it to some editor who might buy it.
  4. 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!

Yes you do.  This is a solved problem.  We’re living in the Shiny Digital Future now.

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.

In an interesting comment on Matt’s “Amphiocoelias brontodiplodocus” post, an anonymous commenter wrote (among much else):

As for the paper itself, it does point out something that may become a future problem for paleontologists. I know of several amateur and commercial paleontologists who believe they aren’t allowed to write peer-reviewed papers to be published in journals because they aren’t professional paleontologists or work at a university (in fact, this even applies to a couple museum paleontologists who work at non-university public museums).

I started to write a reply to this, then realised it was important enough to merit its own post — so here it is.

The amateur and commercial palaeontologists alluded to in the comment are wrong, plainly and simply. Anyone can submit a manuscript to any journal[*]. And the evaluation of submitted manuscripts is supposed to be done strictly on the basis of the scientific content of the manuscript itself, not on the reviewers’ opinions of the individuals involved. [I’m not saying that ad hominem reviews never happen — I’ve had one myself, when my very first submission was rejected in part because I had no publication track-record, which introduces an obvious chicken-and-egg problem. But this is very, very much the exception rather than the rule, and in fact in 40 or so reviews that I’ve had up to this point, I think that was the only example of this happening.]

So the commenter’s amateur friends should just go right ahead and start participating in the world of professional palaeontology. They’re welcome, so long as their stuff is good. Thing is, “participating in the world of professional palaeontology” entails things like copy-editing the careless mistakes out of your manuscript, getting your citations and references to match, reading and understanding the existing literature to recognise where your work fits in and what actual evidence supports the position you’re setting out to overturn, submitting the manuscript to a recognised journal, and putting it through peer-review. The brontodiplodocus manuscript is being dismissed by the professional community because it didn’t do any of these things — not because the authors aren’t professionals.


Galiano and Albersdorfer 2010:fig. 11A.  Right lateral view of “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus” specimen DQ-TY, dorsal, sacral, and anterior caudal vertebrae articulated with ilium, partially exposed in field jacket.


The anonymous comment continues:

Or that if they donate their specimens to a public institution so they can be publicly available they will be barred from studying the specimens and/or they will go to someone else to name. It doesn’t help that some paleontologists actively cultivate this view towards amateur and commercial paleontologists.

Who does? I have never heard of a professional palaeontologist denigrating an amateur or commercial for donating their scientifically significant specimens to a public institution. Never.

If an amateur or commercial paleontologist dots all their i’s and cross their t’s, subject their papers out to peer review, and place the holotype fossils in a publicly available institution, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to publish stuff?

They are allowed.

I don’t want to keep bashing on and on with the obvious example here, but I myself am an amateur: in the seven years since I started to work seriously on palaeo, I’ve generated a total palaeontology income of £215, for an annual income of £30 p.a. (That’s a £40 interview fee and a 200 Euro travel grant.) I do all my work in my spare time, fitted in around a demanding day-job. I am in fact the very model of an “amateur”, i.e. one who does it for love rather than for money. That’s not stopped me from getting my work published — some of it in very good venues. It needn’t stop anyone else, either, if they’re prepared to do the work.

A better example, and one that Matt mentioned last time, is the man who is arguably the most respected in the whole field of sauropod palaeontology: Jack McIntosh, whose careful, detailed work over the last few decades has all been done in his spare time, and which constitutes a legacy of important papers that are still much referred to today.

The bottom line in the professional-vs.-amateur dichotomy is not in fact whether you get paid for what you do; it’s whether you conduct yourself according to your discipline’s professional standards or not. And that is a choice that everyone in the field (whether paid or not) makes for themselves. I know of people who are paid to do palaeo and who do not conduct themselves like professionals (though, thankfully, not many of them); and I know of unpaid people who are functional as professionals.

For this reason, I actually think that professional/amateur is unhelpful nomenclature when discussing these matters.  But  we’re stuck with it, and I’m not going to try to change the world.  Just remember, everyone: in the field of palaeontology, you’ll be considered professional if and only if you conduct yourself as a professional.

That is all.

[*] OK, “Anyone can submit a manuscript to any journal” is a very slight oversimplification.  There are a few journals that don’t accept unsolicited submissions, or that only accept them from members of a specific society, or what have you.  But these area vanishingly small proportion of the whole journal-space, and no-one should be put off from submitting to the other 99% of journals because of the existence of this 1%.

Every year the Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis in Teruel, Spain, gives out the International Award in Palaeontology Research, a.k.a. Paleonturology. ‘Paleonturology’ is a bit of a pun–it’s actually PaleonTurology; Turol is the old Roman name for the area, from which the Turia river, Turiasaurus, and the city and province of Teruel are all derived. (The photo above shows the sun setting over the hills near the Turiasaurus quarry.)

So what’s the deal with the award? You can find full rules and guidelines here, but here’s the short version: any paleontology paper published in the calendar year 2007 is eligible, just send in an application form (1 page) and a few copies of your paper or a PDF by November 15. If you win, you get a prize of 4500 Euros, which in the current economy is roughly a million dollars. You will also be invited to travel to Teruel next December to serve on the jury for Paleonturology 09, and attend a press conference where the book version of your winning paper will be unveiled and the next year’s winner will be announced. Depending on the state of the Paleonturology war chest, your trip may be partly or wholly paid for; all I paid for last year were souvenirs.

Those are merely the on-paper blandishments. If you take the trip to Spain, you’ll also get to:

. . . knock around some gorgeous medieval cities, like the 13th century fortress valley of Albarracin;

. . . hang out with the awesome folks at Dinópolis and other museums–here I am with Francisco “Paco” Gasco of Dinópolis (left) and Senor Maria, who runs a little museum in the village of Galve;

. . . visit incredible fossil quarries and tracksites (yes, that is an IKEA paper tape I have stretched out by the sauropod tracks–I keep one folded up in my wallet, where it takes up less space than a credit card, so I am never without an English/metric yard/meter tape, which is very handy when you work on sauropods),

. . . enjoy amazing food and drink, and be put up at a very nice hotel, probably with a view of a thousand-year-old church/fortress/tower out your window (there are four such towers in Teruel, so your odds are good). I got to go last December, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

In the five years that the award has been given, winners have included grad students, young professionals, mid-career paleontologists, and near-retirees, from Spain, the US, Scotland, and Hungary, writing solo or with coauthors, on Pliocene hominins, clam shell construction, dinosaur gastralia, sauropod pneumaticity, and trilobite eyes. The point is that anyone, of any age, anywhere, writing about any paleontological subject has a chance to win.

To be as direct as possible: if you published a paper in paleontology in 2007 and don’t apply, you’re missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

That said, the recent winners have all had a few things in common. The papers have been about good-sized clades rather than single taxa, they’ve been well-illustrated and with a high general-interest factor (if I do say so myself), they’ve tended to address paleobiological questions, and none of them has been a shorty from one of the ‘high-impact’ journals (although such papers have been submitted). Still, even if your only paper from 2007 is a Nature note on a new Cambrian worm or the foot morphology of Pleistocene dragonflies, you’d be nuts not to submit, for two reasons: this year’s jury may be looking for something different, and yours might be the best paper they get.

Suppose your 2007 paper is on trilobite eyes or sauropod pneumaticity. Submit anyway. I was on the jury for Paleonturology 07, coming off two years of dinosaur papers, and a couple of dinosaur papers made it almost to the final cut. We all agreed that it didn’t matter what the paper was about, the qualities we were looking for were quality of research, broad interest, readability, and good (clear, helpful, aesthetically pleasing) illustrations. The trilobite eye paper won because it excelled in all of those areas, not because it was about trilobites rather than dinosaurs.

Did I mention that the province of Teruel is practically overrun with awesome sauropods? Aragosaurus (1987), Galveosaurus (2005), Turiasaurus (2006), and the newly-described Tastavinsaurus (2008) are just the tip of the iceberg. You will be hearing a LOT more about the Mesozoic biota of Teruel in the next few years. Here’s a dorsal vertebra of Tastavinsaurus, from Canudo et al. (2008:fig. 3).

I almost didn’t apply for Paleonturology 06. I was busy dissertating and it seemed like a long shot. But the application is one page long and I figured it would be stupid not to apply, so on the last possible day I printed it out, made copies of my paper, and dumped it all in the mail (that was back in the dark ages when you had to send paper copies; now you can apply over e-mail). When I think about how great my experience was, and how close I came to not applying, it makes me a little sick. Don’t be a doofus.


  • Canudo, J. I., Royo-Torres, R., and Cuenca-Bescós, G. 2008. A new sauropod: Tastavinsaurus sanzi gen. et sp. nov. from the Early Cretaceous (Aptian) of Spain. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28(3):712-731.