I got a wonderful surprise a couple of nights ago!

Supersaurus referred scapulocoracoid BYU 12962 back when it was still in the ground. Rough composite assembled from screenshots of the video below, from about 23m17s.

I found myself wondering where the widely quoted (and ludicrous) mass estimate of 180 tons for Ultrasauros came from, and went googling for it. That took me to a blog-post by Brian Switek, which linked to a Google Books scan of what turned out to be my own chapter on the history of sauropod research (Taylor 2010) in the Geological Society’s volume Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: a Historical Perspective. So it turns out that I once knew the answer to that question. My chapter references McGowan (1991:118), which says:

Jim Jensen’s (1985) Ultrasaurus (“beyond lizard”), found in Colorado in 1979, had an estimated length of more than ninety-eight feet (30 m), compared with seventy-four feet (22.5 m) for the Berlin specimen of Brachiosaurus. This is a length increase of 1.32, so the weight increase would be (1.32)^3 = 2.3, giving an estimated weight of almost 180 tons.

[As I noted in my 2010 chapter, that’s based on Colbert’s (1962) equally silly estimate of 78 tonnes for MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN S II), the Girafatitan brancai paralectotype.]

So that’s a funny story and a mystery solved, but where it gets really good is that as I was grubbing around in the search results that led me to that conclusion, I stumbled on Episode 21 of the I Know Dino podcast, which contains a glorious embedded video: The Great Dinosaur Discovery, a 1976 film by BYU about Jensen’s work at quarries including Dry Mesa, and heavily featuring bones of what would become Supersaurus!

It’s very well worth 25 minutes of your time, despite the horrible 1970s documentary music, and brings actual new information to the table.

Some of the highlights include:

— Right from the start, seeing Jensen himself: someone I’ve been sort of familiar with from the literature, but never really imagined as being an actual human being.

— From about two minutes in, Jensen seems be uncovering bones in dry sand, rather like kids in a palaeo pits at some museums. It takes about one minute to uncover a nice tibia. Is it ever really that easy? Is the Dry Mesa quarry that easy to work?

— Putting faces to the important names of Vivian and Eddie Jones, the uranium prospectors who first led Jensen to several of his important sites, and after whom the species Supersaurus vivianae and Dystylosaurus edwini were named.

Vivian “Supersaurus” Jones and Eddie “Dystylosaurus” Jones in the field [from about 4m41s in the video]

— From about 13m30s onwards, we see what I think must be the Supersaurus pelvis that’s now on display at the North American Museum of Ancient Life. (It doesn’t actually look all that big, in the scheme of things.)

— From 16m50s onwards, things start to get real, with the uncovering (real or re-enacted) of the first Supersaurus scapulocoracoid: that is, the one that Jensen referred to in his 1985 paper as “first specimen”, but which in the end he did not designate as the holtotype. This bone, once accessioned, became BYU 12962 (but Jensen refers to it in his papers as BYU 5501).

The first appearance in the film of the Supersaurus scap BYU 12962 fully unconvered [18m11s]. You can easily recognise it as the bone that Jensen posed with from the lobe-shaped acromion process.

— Within seconds of our seeing the scap, Jensen decides the best thing to do is illustrate how it’s “like a sidewalk” by walking up and down on it. Seriously.

Oh, Jim.

— At about 19m30s, we see what is probably the big Barosaurus vertebra BYU 9024 whose identity Jensen changed his mind about a couple of times. Unfortunately, the film quality is very poor here, and you can’t make much out.

— From 20 minutes in, the video shows comparative skeletal reconstructions of Brontosaurus (clearly from Marsh 1891), “Brachiosaurus” [i.e. Giraffatitan] (clearly from Janensch 1950) and Supersaurus. The fascinating thing is that the latter is restored as a brachiosaurid — in fact, as a scaled-up Janensch-1950 Giraffatitan with some tweaks only to the head and anterior neck. So it seems Jensen thought at this time that he’d found a giant brachiosaur, not a diplodocid. (Note that this film was made three years before the Ultrasaurus scapulocoracoid was discovered in 1979, so the presumed brachiosaurid identity cannot have rested in that.)

Brontosaurus (yellow), Brachiosaurus (blue), and Supersaurus (white) — which is restored as a brachiosaurid.

— During this section, a fascinating section of narration says “The animal found here is so much larger than anything ever dreamed of, the press, for lack of scientific name, called it a Supersaurus.” If this is legit, then it seems Jensen is not guilty of coining this dumb name. It’s the first I’ve heard of it: I wonder if anyone can corroborate?

— As 22m06s we are told: “It was an AP newsman who broke the story to the world. Time and Life followed. Reader’s Digest ran the story. And National Geographic, one of the quarry sponsors, began an article.” I would love to get hold of the AP, Time, Life and National Geographic articles. Can anyone help? It seems that all these organisations have archives online, but they all suffer from problems:

Here’s that scap again, in the process of being excavated. [22:05]

— As 22m40s, Jack McIntosh turns up to give an expert opinion. I don’t know how much film of him there is out there, but it’s nice that we have something here.

Everyone’s favourite avocational sauropod specialist, Jack McIntosh.

— At 23:17, we get our best look at the scap, with a long, slow pan that shows the whole thing. (That’s the sequence that I made the composite from, that we started this whole post with.)

All in all, it’s a facinating insight into a time when the Dry Mesa quarry was new and exciting, when it was thought to contain only a single giant sauropod, when that animal was known only informally as “Supersaurus” having been so nicknamed by the media, and when it was (it seems) thought to be brachiosaurid. Take 25 minutes, treat yourself, and watch it.

Update (the next day)

The Wikipedia entry on Jim Jensen says that “In 1973, Brigham Young University cooperated with producer Steve Linton and director John Linton in order to produce The Great Dinosaur Discovery, a 1-hour-long color documentary showing Jensen’s on-site finds in Dry Mesa. […] the full-length documentary was reduced to a 24-minute-long mini-film which started airing on American television channels throughout the USA as of 1976.”

Can anyone confirm that the original date was 1973, and not 1976 as given on the short version that’s linked above?

And, more important, does anyone have access to the full-hour version?

 

References

 

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Before we get on to the home stretch of this series — which is turning out waaay longer than I expected it to be, and which I guess should really have been a paper instead — we need to resolve an important detail. We all know there are two scapulocoracoids in the BYU Supersaurus material, and that one of them is the holotype: but which one?

The two elements

Since we don’t know the actual specimen numbers yet, we’ll refer to the two specimens as Scap A and Scap B for now.

Both specimens are on loan from BYU to other museums. We’re not sure where Scap A is, but there is a good cast at the Dinosaur Journey Paleontological Museum in Fruita, Colorado; and Scap B is at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL) in Lehi, Utah. Happily, we saw both on the Sauropopcalypse. Unhappily, we were in a rush both times, and didn’t pay them anything like the attention they deserve.

Scap A

We don’t have many photos of this, because we only had a single day at Dinosaur Journey museum and we had a lot of specimens we wanted to hit in collections. But it’s still shameful that we have as little as we do. Here’s one from Matt’s earlier visit in 2014:

Cast of one of the scapulocoracoids of Supersaurus, which we here refer to as Scap A, at the Dinosaur Journey musuem in Fruita, Colorado. Matt Wedel for scale.

And here is an anaglyph made from the only two photos I took on our 2016 Sauropocalypse visit:

Sort-of-OK anaglyph of the cast of the Supersaurus scapulocoracoid A. It’s not great because we don’t have a good pair of source photos, but it’s still way more informative than a 2d photograph.

If you think our images are disappointing, check out Jensen’s own illustrations of this specimen. It crops up in line-drawing form as part B of figure 8 in his 1985 paper:

Jensen 1985:figure 8B and G. For comparison only, not to scale. Profiles of various sauropod scapulae and scapulocoracoidae. B, Supersaurus vivianae, first specimen. G, Supersaurus vivianae, second specimen. (Other, non-Supersaurus, parts removed.)

And that seems to be all we have of this specimen.

Well … almost all. There is just one other photo …

I really really wish I’d spent less time making out with this specimen and more time studying it. There’s a lesson there for all of us, kids!

This scap has really nice, clear ridges running along the ventral border of the proximal end, and up from there to the acromion process. That makes it very clear that we’re looking at the lateral side of the scap, which means it’s a left scapulocoracoid.

By the way, I am a little short of six feet tall. Using myself as a very crude scalebar, it looks like this scap is a hair over eight feet long. (Why am I using Imperial measurements? Because, as will become clear below, that’s what Jensen used, and so what we want to compare with.)

Scap B

This occurs in Jensen’s (1985:figure 8G) line drawing, as shown above. But there are a few more photos out there. For a start, this is the scap which Jensen is measuring and then lying next to in the photos in his descriptive paper:

Jensen 1985:figure 6. A, Measuring Supersaurus vivinae scapulocoracoid. D. E., Vivian Jones; J. A. Jensen. B, The author, 6’3″ tall beside Supersaurus vivianae scapulocoracoid.

This is evidently the scap that we photographed at NAMAL, although it’s been flipped since the photos were taken of it in the ground:

Supersaurus vivianae scapulocoracoid, photographed at the North American Museum of Natural Life. The exhibit text reads: “Supersaurus scapula and coracoid. This is the actual Supersaurus bone that the world saw when the announcement was made of the new animal’s discovery in 1972. The scapula lay in the ground for five more years, waiting for the collection of other fossils that lay in the path of excavation. The flatness of the bone presented a challenge to “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen, who had to figure out a way to get the bone safely out of the ground. He finally accomplished this by cutting the scapula into three pieces. In 1988, Cliff Miles, Brian Versey and Clark Miles prepared the bone for study. It is still one of the largest dinosaur bones known in the world. Specimen on load from Brigham Young University’s Earth Science Museum. Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous (about 144 million years ago)

A similar photo turns up in Lovelace et al.’s (2008) description of the WDC Supersarus specimen, where a specimen number is given. This is welcome, as neither museum display includes a specimen number, and none of the Jensen’s illustrations do, either. It’s the first specimen number we’ve seen in this post.

Lovelace et al. 2008:figure 10. Lateral view of Supersaurus right scapulacoracoid (BYU 9025).

Also, Lovelace et al. (2008) provided a scalebar. If it’s reliable — which is always open to question with scalebars — the scapulocoracoid is 2.34 m long (based on 687 pixels for the scap, 147 for the scalebar), which is about 7’8″.

I don’t know where Lovelace et al. got the specimen number for this element: it’s certainly not on display in the NAMAL public gallery. Elsewhere, Lovelace et al. (2008:527) say that “The name Supersaurus was erected for a single scapulocoracoid, BYU 12962″, contradicting Jensen’s designation of BYU 5500 (i.e. BYU 9025) as the holotype.

Is this in fact a right scapulocoracoid, as claimed? I did wonder, because based on my own photos and the Lovelace et al. illustration the surface we’re looking at is pretty flat and featureless, which would suggest it’s the medial side of the bone. If that were so, it would be a left scap viewed from inside, not a right scap viewed from outside. But I was able to recover a very rough-and-ready anagylph from my NAMAL photos, and that was enough to persuade me that there is some surface structure on this bone, and that we are indeed therefore looking at the lateral face of a right scap.

(If you can’t make out the 3d structure here, it’s because you don’t have any red-cyan anaglyph glasses. Get some red-cyan anaglyph glasses. You’ll thank me.)

Anyway: I am satisfied that Scap A is a left scapulocoracoid and Scap B is right scapulocoracoid. So that’s something.

Which is the holotype?

This should be a simple question to resolve. But it’s not, for several reasons. First, although the earliest literature on Supersaurus refers to the scapulocoracoids, it doesn’t give specimen numbers. Second, Jensen’s (1985) description is vague about specimen numbers, sometimes using them and sometimes just referring to “first specimen” and “second specimen”. Third, the specimen numbers that Jensen used have since been changed. Fourth, the subsequent literature contains contradictions and perhaps straight-up mistakes. And finally, as though all that were not enough — and as we’ve already noted — the two museums that have the actual bones on display have omitted specimen numbers from their signage.

Yeah. It’s pretty crazy stuff. Let’s see if we can sort it out.

That Reader’s Digest article

The earliest reference to the name “Supersaurus” we’ve been able to find in the literature is George 1973b. (This predates George 1973c, cited by Curtice and Stadtman 2001, which I have been unable to obtain a copy of, if indeed it is actually a real article, as it does not seem to be. I also have not been able to obtain George 1973a, which the 1973b article is a condensation of. If anyone can help me with either of these, I would appreciate it!)

Aaanyway, here’s what George (1973b) says about “Supersaurus” scapulae. It doesn’t amount to much.

A shoulder blade, still partially encased in clay, spanned eight feet. Breaks and cracks were sealed with a mixture of sand and plaster, the bones were wrapped in burlap soaked with plaster of paris, braced, then swung aboard a special trailer for the journey to B.Y.U. in Provo, Utah. There, “Supersaurus,” as we shall call him, awaits an official name and taxonomic classification.

This certainly sounds like the eight-foot-long scap was destined to be the type specmen, but it doesn’t come out and say it.

Jensen 1985

As far as I know, the next published reference to this material is eight full years later, in Jensen’s (1985) formal description. It needs careful reading. But what seems clear (from page 701) is:

HOLOTYPE.—BYU 5500, scapulocoracoid 2.44m (8′) long.

REFERRED MATERIAL.—BYU 5501, scapulocoracoid 2.70 m (8′ 10″) long. [And other material not of interest for our purposes.]

[… and a little later …]

DESCRIPTION.—(Holotype BYU 5500; right scapulocoracoid) Scapula long but not robust; distal end expanding moderately; shaft not severely constricted in midsection. [There is more, but it’s not relevant here]

REFERRED MATERIAL.—BYU 5501, scapulocoracoid 2.70 m (8′ 10″) long. Description same as Holotype, BYU 5500.

So based on this, the “description” of the two scaps is the same, and the only recognised difference is in length: the holotype, at eight feet in length, is ten inches shorter than the referred element.

On that basis, Scap B might seem the more likely contender to be the holotype, as the scalebar in Lovelace et al. 2008:figure 10 suggests a length of 2.33 m which is closer to the 2.44 m given for the type than to the 2.7 m given for the referred specimen.

(On the other hand, the photo of me in love with Scap A at Dinosaur Journal suggests it’s about eight feet long, which would mean that it might be the type. *sigh*)

As we have seen, the captions in Jensen 1985 do not give specimen numbers, so we can’t tell whether the scap in his figure 6 is the holotype. And in the comparative figure 8 which shows both scaps, he maddeningly calls them “first specimen” and “second specimen” instead of giving numbers. We might guess that “first specimen” is the type; but it might instead refer to the order in which they were found or excavated. And we might guess that the specimen appearing in Jensen’s photos is the type, but it really would only be a guess — and one contradicted by the guess based on “first specimen”, since the photographed bone is the “second specimen”.

Jensen 1987

Jensen’s 1987 paper is primarily about brachiosaur material, but it does contain information relevant to to the present problem. Its figure 9 replicates Jensen 1985:figure 8 (the comparaive scapula line-drawings) but with an even less informative caption that doesn’t even say “first specimen” or “second specimen” for the two Supersaurus scaps. But then the text on page 602 may contain a key bit of information, given away in passing as though by accident:

I here remove the vertebra, BYU 5003, from Brachiosauridae and provisionally refer it to the Diplodocidae. This referral is based on two factors: principally, a bifurcate neural spine, and, secondly, the fact that two unusually large scapulocoracoids (Figs. 9B, 9G), found in the same (Dry Mesa) quarry, were referable to the Diplodocidae. One of these (BYU 5500, Fig. 9B) is the holotype of Supersaurus vivianae Jensen (1985).

Astonishingly, this is the first time in any of Jensen’s papers that he associates a specimen number with an illustration of either of the Supersaurus scaps. Jensen was notoriously careless with specimen numbers, but BYU 5500 does match his designation of the holotype in his 1985 paper, so we can perhaps be somewhat confident in this case.

The old specimen number BYU 5500 corresponds with the new number BYU 9025, which suggests that BYU 9025 is the the scap illustrated in Jensen 1987:figure 9B — which is scap A.

Curtice and Stadtman 2001

Curtice et al.’s (1996) paper referring the Ultrasauros holotype dorsal vertebra to Supersaurus does not say anything about the two Supersaurus scapulae. But the followup paper on Dystylosaurus (Curtice and Stadtman 2001) does. As noted in part 3 of this series, the “Supersaurus vivianae roll call” section remarks:

When [Supersaurus was] formally described (Jensen, 1985) a number of elements were referred to the holotype including the left scapulocoracoid discovered in 1972 (BYU 9025), a right scapulocoracoid (BYU 12962) …

This is not as helpful as it could be, as it lists both scapulae as “referred” without stating explicitly which was the holotype. But based on the evidence so far, we can be fairly confident that it it really was BYU 9025 (BYU 5500 of Jensen’s usage). The really useful information here is the designation that 9025 is a left scap and 12962 is the right. Since scap A is clearly left sided, this offers corroboration that is is the holotype, BYU 9025.

As we discussed before, Curtice and Stadtman (2001:39) went on to say:

Jensen never referred the two Supersaurus scapulocoracoids to the same individual due to a 260 mm discrepancy in length. Stripping away the paint and resin on BYU 9025 revealed the proximal end had been inadvertently lengthened during preservation. Close examination of the actual bone surface nets a total scapulocoracoid length less than 50 mm longer than BYU 12962, an amount easily accounted for by scapular variation and thus here both are referred to the same individual.

But this doesn’t make sense for two reasons. Most importantly, BYU 9025 is BYU 5500 of Jensen’s usage, and his 1985 paper makes it clear that this was the shorter of the two scaps at 8 feet, compared with 8 feet 10 inches for his BYU 5501 (i.e. BYU 12962). Shortening BYU 9025 would increase the discrepancy in length between the two scaps, not decrease it. Perhaps Curtice and Stadtman got the two scapulocoracoids’ specimen numbers reversed?

It’s also surprising because of the claim that the it was the proximal end that was inadvertently lengthened. The proximal end of a scapulocoracoid is the coracoid bone, which is thick and sturdy, and has a well defined proximal margin that would be difficult to inadvertently lengthen. Whereas the distal end — the farthest part of the scapula blade — is thinner and easily broken, and potentially shades into cartilage where the cartilaginous suprascapula attached. We could easily imagine the latter being subject to interpretation, but not really the proximal end. Perhaps Curtice and Stadtman (2001) were using the terms “proximal” and “distal” in the opposite sense to how they are generall applied to scapulae?

Dale McInnes’s involvement in preparation

In a comment on the first post in this series, Dale McInnes took issue with aspects of Curtice and Stadtman’s account of the repreparation of the scaps. According to McInnes, Jensen sent “the second specimen” (i.e. what we’re calling Scap B, if the caption to Jensen 1985:figure 9 is to be trusted) to RAM, and Phil Currie had McInnes prepare it in the late 1970s (i.e. after the initial popular publications on “Supersaurus” but well before Jensen’s formal publication in 1985). In an 11-foot-long field jacket, they found 9’2 of bone, which they reduced to 8’10 by closing four inches of open cracks.

So far, this account is consistent with that of Jensen (1985), who quotes only the final prepared length of 8’10”. But it doesn’t help us to make sense of Curtice and Stadtman’s account of re-preparing BYU 9025 to reduce its length, thereby creating a larger gap between its length and that of BYU 12962.

If Curtice and Stadtman were here reporting on the wrong scapula (i.e. they “stripped away the paint and resin” from BYU 12962) then it seems they may have undone some of the careful work done by McInnes and colleagues to preserve “an area that had an ultra thin section that at best could only be described as a sharply defined delineation of the distal termination (literally powdered bone) [which might have been] an imprint of the cartilage”. If so, that is unfortunate indeed.

So which is which?

Jensen 1985 designated BYU 5500 (= BYU 9025) as the holotype and said it was 2.44 m (8′) long. He referred BYU 5501 (= BYU 12962) and said it was 8’10” long — but neither scap in its present form seems to be longer than 8′, so the differences in length reported by Jensen don’t help much.

Scap A (at the Dinosaur Journey Paleontological Museum in Fruita, Colorado) is a left scapulocoracoid. Curtice and Stadtman (2001) noted that BYU 9025 is a left scap (and BYU 12962 is a right scap), so that suggests that Scap A is BYU 9025.

Scap B (at the North American Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi, Utah) is a right scapulocoracoid, maybe 2.34 m long (7 feet 8 inches), based on the scale bar from Lovelace et al. (2008:figure 10). Their caption for that figure says it’s BYU 9025, but elsewhere they claim (incorrectly as far as I can tell) that BYU 12962 is the holotype, so something is wrong there.

The single most helpful thing in the literature is Jensen’s (1987:602) almost parenthetical comment that “(BYU 5500, Fig. 9B) is the holotype of Supersaurus vivianae“, as it’s the only published work that ties any specimen number to any illustration. Figure 9b shows Scap A — which indeed seems to be about eight feet long, according to the very fallible Mike-as-scalebar method.

But Curtice and Stadtman’s (2001:39) comments on re-prepping BYU 9025 suggest that it is the longer of the two elements, and  therefore (according to Jensen’s 1985 description) the referred element and not the holotype. We know that one of the scaps at least at one time measured 8’10, becausde of McInnes’s account of reducing the length of “the second specimen” to 8’10. But neither of them presently seems to be that long. (I hope Dale comments again, on this post, and is able to tell us whether the bone her worked on was Scap A or Scap B — and whether its present state is different from how he left it.)

Putting it all together, I think the weight of evidence says that Scap A is the holotype (BYU 9025, previously known as BYU 5500), with Jensen’s (1987:603) comment being our smoking gun. Other evidence includes Curtice and Stadtman’s (2001) observation that BYU 9025 is a left scap; its being about the right length (I trust my own scalebar, however informal, ahead of Lovelace et al.’s); and the fact that it is the better preserved of the two elements, making it a stronger candidate for having been selected as the holotype.

If that’s correct, then it is not without problems. It would follow that Lovelace et al. (2008:figure 10) is miscaptioned, being BYU 12962 and not 9025 as stated. It would also follow that Curtice and Stadtman were in error in describing the re-preparation of what was in fact the referred specimen BYU 12962 and not 9025 as stated.

Addendum: a cautionary tale

When I started this series of articles, I assumed that the NAMAL scap was the holotype (as you can see in the caption for the illustration of it in the first article). Why did I think that? Well, the Wikipedia article [archived link] says so: it has a photo of it captioned “The holotype of Supersaurus, scapulocoracoid BYU 9025″.

But as I got deeper into writing this series, I checked out the provenance of that photo on Wikipedia, only to find that it’s my own photo, as edited by Stephen O’Connor. Then I checked my emails to see whether I’d ever corresponded with Stephen, and I found that he’d emailed me three years ago including a link to this old SV-POW! photo of Scap A, and asking “I’m a little confused if the scapular in the image is a cast of holotype BYU 9025 or is it the opposing side, BYU 12962?” And I replied as follows:

Hi, Steve. I am attaching Jensen 1985, which is the canonical reference for this. Very poorly illustrated, though […]. Based on Figure 8 (page 708), the photo is a cast of “second specimen”. I’m attaching my photo of the holotype (“first specimen”) at NAMAL in Utah, in case it’s helpful.

So what happened here is that I over-interpreted a vague bit of hand-waving in Jensen 1985, fed it via Steve into Wikipedia, then trusted my own forgotten authority to reinforce the apparent legitimacy of my incorrect guess. I trusted Wikipedia on the identity of the NAMAL scap only to find it was my own assumption fed back to me.

A couple of days ago I read “Ninety percent of online journalism these days is nothing more than wannabe reporters summarizing other people’s assumptions from web sites that know how to game a search engine”.  I am pleased to find that I am efficient enough to cut out the wannae-reporter middle man from this process, and just summarise my own assumptions.

References

  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33-40.
  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). M. Morales (ed.), “The continental Jurassic”. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • George, Jean. 1973a. Supersaurus, the biggest brute ever. Denver Post, Empire Magazine. May 13, 1973.
  • George, Jean. 1973b. Supersaurus, the biggest brute ever. Reader’s Digest (June 1973):51–56.
  • George, Jean. 1973c. Supersaurus, the greatest of them all. Readers Digest (August 1973), page-range unknown.
  • Jensen, James A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45(4):697–709.
  • Jensen, James A. 1987. New brachiosaur material from the Late Jurassic of Utah and Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 47(4):592–608.
  • Lovelace, David M., Scott A. Hartman and William R. Wahl. 2008. Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527–544.

 

As I was clearing out some clutter, I came across this hand-written list of projects that I wanted to get completed:

old-poop

Sadly, I didn’t put a date on the list. But I can estimate it as before 2013 (because of the reference of Why giraffes have short necks as a project still to be completed) but after 2011 (because the no necks for sex project is not listed.) So it’s probably from 2012, which means four years have passed since I wrote that list.

What have I achieved in that time? Not nearly enough.

  • ICZN checklist refers to the short set of name-a-new-animal instructions that I was crowdsourcing here on SV-POW!. We started this on 10 February 2011, had it nearly done less than two weeks later, then … stalled for no reason at all. Eighteen months later, the ICZN changed to allow electronic publication, instantly rendering the in-progress document obsolete. Now I don’t know whether to kill the project or update it. Should have just published it in 2011.
  • WTH (Why giraffes have short necks) was published in PeerJ, hurrah!
  • PBJ stands for “Pneumatic Butt on a JANGO“. It was published in the PLOS ONE’s sauropod gigantism collection, hurrah!
  • Archbishop is of course the Natural History Museum’s Tendaguru brachiosaur, which I have been planning to describe since 2004. Still not done. Shameful.
  • Apatosaurus” minimus is a descriptive project. Real work has been done, and I gave a talk about it at SVPCA in 2012. Not much progress since then. Lame.
  • Astrolembospondylus refers to the starship-shaped cervical vertebra of the Barosaurus holotype YPM 429. That project has seen daylight as both an SVPCA talk in 2013 and a PeerJ Preprint — which is great. But once the reviews were in, we should have turned it around and got it submitted as a proper paper. For some reason, we didn’t, and this project, too, is in limbo. Weak.
  • ODP is the Open Dinosaur Project. Do not get me started on that train-wreck.
  • Neck cartilage: giraffe, ostrich, croc. This refers to a comparative dissection project to determine whether sauropods had intervertebral discs. I proposed it as a Masters project twice, but no-one bit; then I offered to up to anyone who wanted it on SV-POW!, with the same (lack of) result. Looks like it’s not sexy enough for anyone to invest the time into, which is a shame because it’s important.
  • Limb cartilage limiting mass refers to the second talk I ever gave, at Progressive Palaeontology in 2004. It’s ridiculous that I never wrote this up. Ridiculous.
  • Haemodynamics refers to Matt’s and my looong-running plans to write up our thoughts about Roger Seymour’s work that suggests blood-circulation issues prevented sauropods from having habitually erect necks. I’m going to blame Matt for this one’s lack of progress. (Not because he’s any more to blame than I am — just because I’ve been taking all the blame so far, and I want to share it around a bit.)
  • Immature sauropods, pop. dynamics. Parts of this made it out in the recent Hone, Farke, and Wedel (2016) paper on dinosaur ontogenetic stages. Not as much as I’d have liked to see, but enough to make a dedicated paper about this not really feasible.
  • Ostrich skull atlas. I made lovely multi-view photos of nearly every bone in my ostrich skull. My plan was, and sort of still is, to publish them all in a text-light paper. No progress on this. I still have a few bones left to photograph, and may need to completely disarticulate the mandible before I can do that.
  • Wealden sauropod vert. analysis. I’d planned, going back to the earliest posts on this blog, to properly redescribe and analyse the many fascinating isolated sauropod vertebrae of the Wealden Formation. This is another one that I gave a ProgPal talk about before getting distracted. Not sure if this will ever happen: I’m still very interested in it, but even more interested in other things.
  • Fossils explained is a series of articles for geologists, explaining various fossil groups in laymen’s terms (here is an example). Darren’s done half a dozen of them. Once many years ago I expressed an interest in doing one on sauropods, and the editor liked the idea. Then … nothing. My bad.
  • Ventral compression bracing is a section that, heaven help us, we somehow decided we should remove from Why Giraffes Have Short Necks and make into its own paper. It got stalled on some croc-dissection work that Matt was doing with his student Vanessa and is now in limbo.

That’s fifteen projects that I had on the go, or planned to work on, four years ago. I make it that two of them (WTH and PBJ) have been published and one (Barosaurus) has made it as far as a the preprint stage. Three more are probably dead for various reasons, and that leaves nine where I’ve made woefully inadequate progress — in most cases, none at all.

Meanwhile, needless to say, I’ve added a bunch more projects to my To Do list since I scribbled this one out. (And to be fair to me, I’ve got a few other projects out in this time that weren’t mentioned in the note: neural spine bifurcation as Matt’s co-author, lead author on intervertebral cartilage and sole on its addendum; I slipped in as last author on Haestasaurus; and I wrote the SPARC briefing paper on evaluating researchers.)

What does all this mean?

I don’t know. Some of those no-progress yet projects are still very much alive in my mind — notably the Archbishop, of course. Others might never happen. Some are 90% done and I should just push them out the door.

One moral of this story is that I shouldn’t have burned 250 hours since Christmas playing Skyrim. But maybe a more constructive one is that it’s just really hard to know what projects are going to take wings and fly and which aren’t. My guess — and I’d love to hear some confirmation or denial in the comments — is that most researchers have a similar palette of half-done projects floating around their hindbrains, continually projecting low-level guilt rays. I guess I long ago gave up on the idea that I would ever finish all my projects, because the only way that would happen would be if I never started any more new ones — and that ain’t gonna happen.

Oh, here’s a better moral: ideas to work on are cheap. In fact Matt and I have so darned many that we sometimes just give them away here on SV-POW!. (I am pretty certain that there are lots more similar project-giveaway posts somewhere here, but we didn’t tag them at the time.)

Ideas are cheap; actual work is hard.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly seven years since the “resolution”, if you want to call it that, of Aetogate, the aetosaur plagiarism-and-claim-jumping scandal.

I was contacted privately today by someone wanting to know if I had copies of the SVP’s documents published in response to this. I didn’t — and the documents are hard to find since they have been moved at least twice from their original addresses on the SVP site. They can no longer be found by navigating that site — at least, not by me or my correspondent. (Searching doesn’t help either.)

But by suitable application of Google-fu I did manage to dig out the documents, in their third (at least) home. So I thought it would be useful to make permanent copies here, in case they vanish completely next time the SVP changes things around. Here they are:

  1. Statement from the Executive Committee about the allegations of unethical conduct from J. Martz, W. Parker, M. Taylor and M. Wedel against S. Lucas, A. Hunt, A. Heckert, and J. Spielmann.
    [SVP copy] [local copy]
  2. Best practices from the Ethics Education Committee regarding research, publication, and museum work.
    [SVP copy] [local copy]
  3. Addendum to Executive Committee’s Final Statement Concerning Allegations From Martz, Parker, Wedel and Taylor.
    [SVP copy] [local copy]

(In case anyone’s forgotten, I was not impressed by these documents. At all.)

 

Short post today. Go and read this paper: Academic urban legends (Rekdal 2014). It’s open access, and an easy and fascinating read. It unfolds a tale of good intentions gone wrong, a chain of failure, illustrating an important single crucial point of academic behaviour: read what you cite.

References

Rekdal, Ole Bjørn. 2014. Academic urban legends. Social Studies of Science 44(4):638-654. doi: 10.1177/0306312714535679

 

Regulars will remember that nearly two years ago, I reviewed a paper for the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters, recommended acceptance with only trivial changes (as did both other reviewers) and was astonished to see that it was rejected outright. There was an invitation to resubmit, with wording that made it clear that the resubmission would be treated as a brand new manuscript; but when the “resubmission” was made, it was accepted almost immediately without being sent to reviewers at all — proving that it was in fact a minor revision.

What’s worse, the published version gives the dates “Received August 21, 2012.
Accepted September 13, 2012”, for a submission-to-acceptance time of just 23 days. But my review was done before August 21. This is a clear falsifying of the true time taken to process the manuscript, a misrepresentation unworthy of the Royal Society, and which provoked Matt and me to declare that we would no longer provide peer-review for the Society until they fix this.

By the way, we should be clear that the Royal Society is not the only publisher that does this. For example, one commenter had had the same experience with Molecular Ecology. Misreporting the submission/revision cycle like this works to publishers’ benefit in two ways: it makes them look faster than they really are, and makes the rejection rate look higher (which a lot of people still use as a proxy for prestige).

To the Society’s credit, they were quick to get in touch, and I had what at time seemed like a fruitful conversation with Dr Stuart Taylor, their Commercial Director. The result was that they made some changes:

  • Editors now have the additional decision option of ‘revise’. This provides a middle way between ‘reject and resubmit’ and ‘accept with minor revisions’. [It’s hard to believe this didn’t exist before, but I guess it’s so.]
  • The Society now publicises ‘first decision’ times rather than ‘first acceptance’ times on their website.

As I noted at the time, while this is definitely progress, it doesn’t (yet) fix the problem.

A few days ago, I checked whether things have improved by looking at a recent article, and was disappointed to see that they had not. I posted two tweets:

Again, I want to acknowledge that the Royal Society is taking this seriously: less than a week later I heard from Phil Hurst at the Society:

I was rather surprised to read your recent tweets about us not fixing this bug. I thought it was resolved to your satisfaction.

I replied:

Because newly published articles still only have two dates (submitted and accepted) it’s impossible to tell whether the “submitted” date is that of the original submission (which would be honest) or that of the revision, styled “a new submission” even though it’s not, that follows a “reject and resubmit” verdict.

Also: if the journals are still issuing “reject and resubmit” and then accepting the supposed new submissions without sending them out for peer-review (I can’t tell whether this is the case) then that is also wrong.

Sorry to be so hard to satisfy :-) I hope you will see and agree that it comes from a desire to have the world’s oldest scientific society also be one that leads the way in transparency and honesty.

And Phil’s response (which I quote with his kind permission):

I feel the changes we have made provide transparency.

Now that the Editors have the ‘revise’ option, this revision time is now incorporated in the published acceptance times. If on the other hand the ‘reject and resubmit’ option is selected, the paper has clearly been rejected and the author may or may not re-submit. Clearly if a paper had been rejected from another journal and then submitted to us, we would not include the time spent at that journal, so I feel our position is logical.

We only advertise the average ‘receipt to first decision’ time. As stated previously, we feel this is more meaningful as it gives prospective authors an indication of the time, irrespective of decision.

After all that recapitulation, I am finally in a position to lay out what the problems are, as I perceive them, in how things currently stand.

  1. Even in recently published articles, only two dates are given: “Received May 13, 2014. Accepted July 8, 2014”. It’s impossible to tell whether the first of those dates is that of the original submission, or the “new submission” that is really a minor revision following a reject-and-resubmit verdict.
  2. It’s also impossible to tell what “receipt to first decision” time is in the journal’s statistics. Is “receipt” the date of the revision?
  3. We don’t know what the journals’ rejection rates mean. Do they include the rejections of articles that are in fact published a couple of weeks later?

So we have editorials like this one from 2012 that trumpet a rejection rate of 78% (as though wasting the time of 78% of their authors is something to be proud of), but we have no idea what that number represents. Maybe they reject all articles initially, then accept 44% of them immediately on resubmission, and call that a 22% acceptance rate. We just can’t tell.

All of this uncertainly comes from the same root cause: the use of “reject and resubmit” to mean “accept with minor revisions”.

What can the Royal Society do to fix this? Here is one approach:

  1. Each article should report three dates instead of two. The date of initial submission, the date of resubmission, and the date of acceptance. Omitting the date of initial submission is actively misleading.
  2. For each of the statistics they report, add prose that is completely clean on what is being measured. In particular, be clear about what “receipt” means.

But a much better and simpler and more honest approach is just to stop issuing “reject and resubmit” verdicts for minor revisions. All the problems just go away then.

“Minor revisions” should mean “we expect the editor to be able to make a final decision based on the changes you make”.

“Major revisions” should mean “we expect to send the revised manuscript back out to the reviewers, so they can judge whether you’ve made the necessary changes”.

And “reject and resubmit” should mean “this paper is rejected. If you want to completely retool it and resubmit, feel free”. It is completely inappropriate to accept a resubmitted paper without sending it out to peer review: doing so unambiguously gives the lie to the claim in the decision letter that “The resubmission will be treated as a new manuscript”.

Come on, Royal Society. You’ve been publishing science since 1665. Three hundred and forty-nine years should be long enough to figure out what “reject” means. You’re better than this.

And once the Royal Society gets this fixed, it will become much easily to persuade other publishers who’ve been indulging in this shady practice to mend their ways, too.

Illustration talk slide 47

Illustration talk slide 48

Illustration talk slide 49

Illustration talk slide 50

That last one really hurts. Here’s the original image, which should have gone in the paper with the interpretive trace next to it rather than on top of it:

Sauroposeidon C6-C7 scout

The rest of the series.

Papers referenced in these slides: