Monday, June 11, 2007

Oh, yeah, don't forget to actually DESCRIBE your critters, too

In the previous post I went off on people who perpetuate taxonomic chaos by naming new taxa in unpublished theses. Now we're going on to the next step: actually describing the beasts. A lot of new critters are described in very brief notes, especially if they are sexy enough to get into Nature or Science.* As Jerry Harris pointed out in a comment:

there's a sad tendency for authors to perceive these "preliminary" publications as "definitive," even though they provide virtually no useful details, so nothing longer and more detailed gets published for years and years, if ever


Quite.

Here's a plea, from a paleobiologist who needs things like measurements and detailed morphological descriptions to do his work (say it with me: a list of character codings is NOT a description): if you are sitting on one of these named-but-not-really-described taxa**, and you don't have the time or inclination to write and publish a proper description, please, please farm out the project to someone else. The fact is that rapid-fire papers and phylogenetic analyses rarely have legs, whereas monographic descriptions get cited for decades. Osborn 1899 (Diplodocus), Hatcher 1901 (Diplodocus), Hatcher 1903 (Haplocanthosaurus), and Riggs 1904a and b (Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus) are all into their second century of healthy citation and they are not likely to expire any time soon. I'm sure that Osborn & Mook 1921 (Camarasaurus) and Gilmore 1925 and 1936 (Camarasaurus and Apatosaurus) will last just as long. Not to mention the monographs of Werner Janensch, which are so badass and so important that they are actually used by English-speakers! (Some translations available here.) So it shouldn't be hard to convince someone to take on the project: "Hey, how would you like to write a paper that people will still be reading, citing, and actually benefiting from long after you're dead?" Of course you'll want the person who actually does the work to put you on as an author, but that seems like a small price to pay to getting handed a project that will make them well-nigh immortal in the published literature.

This sort of thing would make a wonderful Master's thesis for someone, as long as they actually publish it when they're done. Of course I am coming from the position that all masters students who are actually generating knowledge (and if you're in the sciences, you'd better be) should be expected to publish their results, and coerced if necessary, but that's a rant for another day.

Incidentally, Jerry holds the highest moral ground when it comes to this problem: after publishing a short description of his new sauropod, Suuwassea, in 2004 (I say short, but it was still about 20 times meatier than anything you can get away with in Nature and Science), he published follow-up papers on the skull, the axial skeleton, the appendicular skeleton, and the phylogenetic relationships of the beast. And that wasn't a matter of padding his CV by generating LPUs (Least Publishable Units): the original paper and the four follow-ups are all between 14 and 31 pages long. Except for Camarasaurus, which has received thorough treatments from Osborn (twice), Gilmore, and McIntosh (twice, plus a monograph on the skull), I don't know of a more thoroughly described sauropod in the world. And Cam has an unfair lead in time (130 years, compared to 3 for Suuwassea) and number of finds (dozens of skeletons, hundreds of specimens, compared to 1).

So if you're tempted to bitch about having to read five papers on one animal, ask yourself: is anyone bitching because they have too much information available about your own critters? Or is it more likely the opposite?

Remember, kids, Dr. Vector says: aspire to Harrisian completeness, not...er, Copeian (safe because he's dead, although more recent examples rush to mind *cough*) rush jobs.



* It totally, totally sucks that ISI ratings, job search committees, tenure review committees, and departmental review committees all view these glorified abstracts as more important and worthwhile than big monographic descriptions that actually have lasting value. (Yeah, that's it! I haven't published in Nature or Science yet because I'm too good.)



** Here's a little worksheet you can go through to see if this description fits you:

1. Was the animal described in Nature or Science or a JVP Rapid Communication?

2. Did you ever publish anything else on it?

3. If I wanted to know, say, the lengths of each of its vertebrae, or its height at the hip, could I get that information out of what you've published?

4. Are you still asking other people who have seen the specimen not to publish on it almost a decade after the initial "description" came out?

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13 Comments:

Blogger TheBrummell said...

So it shouldn't be hard to convince someone to take on the project: "Hey, how would you like to write a paper that people will still be reading, citing, and actually benefiting from long after you're dead?" Of course you'll want the person who actually does the work to put you on as an author, but that seems like a small price to pay to getting handed a project that will make them well-nigh immortal in the published literature.

The benefits to both parties of such an approach seem obvious, but I sense (perhaps incorrectly) a logistical / technical snag: taxonomic expertise.

I'm not a taxonomist. My PhD advisor is not a taxonomist. Neither of us could recommend an appropriate M.Sc. advisor for an enthusiastic student of such a project, let alone attempt to supervise such a project. In other words, I can't hand anybody a novel specimen and offer them scientific immortality, because I don't know how!

I regularly read some brief skimming-of-the-surface of the taxonomic literature for the various taxa I work on, but I am by no means in a position to know what to do or how to document a truly novel species or genus. I have a vague feeling that there is a great deal of work to do in tracking down all references to closely related taxa, working out the most important distinguishing features of the organisms, and generally ensuring that the resulting contribution is actually valuable. Has anyone published a how-to guide for novel species identification and publication?

Incidentally, I hear lots of complaining in my own field (not-paleo-biology) about the relative scarcity of qualified experts of various taxa. Amusing anectodes abound about dissecting microscopes getting set up next to the oxygen bottles in the geriatric-care facility for the world's only remaining expert in deep-sea worms / planktonic larvae of Antarctic echinoids / Opiliones. Apparently, some of the funding agencies are paying attention to such whinging, and I know there are numerous, apparently easy to get, funding awards for graduate students, post-docs and faculty who dedicate themselves to taxonomic expertise. This suggests to me that such people are hard to find, which doesn't make me optimistic should I find myself with a possibly-novel specimen.

(Yeah, that's it! I haven't published in Nature or Science yet because I'm too good.)

I also say this on a regular basis, for example at committee meetings.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous dinogami said...

Awwwwwww...you make me feel all warm and squishy inside...!!!

But seriously, thanks for the kudos. I wasn't intentionally trying to set a bar or anything; just doing things the way I thought it best to do them...you know, the whole "do unto others" thing (or, in this case, "publish for others as you would have them publish for you").

6:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a complete fan of making sure you publish the long description. But I have to disagree with you on one thing - I think that it is stupid to chop up the anatomy of a partial skeleton into four or five publications. Sure, you can always write more detailed descriptions to make each paper seem substantiative, but it means that the publications are a lot less synthetic. Frankly, if I'm not a sauropod pneumaticity specialist, I don't want to know just the story the vertebrae are telling me; I want to know the story the whole postcrania is telling me!

A few caveats to my position are:

1) a large amount of material that needs to be prepared and not enough money/resources to do it in a timely fashion. Its a fact of life that it takes lots of money/time to prepare fossils, especially big sauropod-like things. And alot of places don't have unlimited prep resources. So if you have to wait years to see the whole specimen prepped, then it is better to describe the skeleton in parts as it is prepared.

2) You have an embarrassing amount of material, e.g., dozens of complete skeletons. In this case there can be so much to say that you cant do it without a 300 pg monograph or splitting things into separate papers.

3) Collaborations with other researchers dictate separate publications. See for example Sereno and Novas on Herrerasaurus.

That said, I have published a high profile paper that has yet to be followed up by a long description (Revueltosaurus). But the delay is still fresh (2005) and a result of the fact that new material was found that needed prep, I'm not the lead researcher on the project, and everyone has many other things to do. But that said, our goal is to finish up the MS this summer.

Randy

8:27 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

thebrummell wrote:

I am by no means in a position to know what to do or how to document a truly novel species or genus. I have a vague feeling that there is a great deal of work to do in tracking down all references to closely related taxa, working out the most important distinguishing features of the organisms, and generally ensuring that the resulting contribution is actually valuable. Has anyone published a how-to guide for novel species identification and publication?

Not to my knowledge! Aristotle said that the things you cannot learn by being taught, you learn by doing. That seems to be the case for descriptions of new taxa. My first (and so far only) time out I didn't know what the heck I was doing, so I read as many descriptions of new sauropods as I could and copied the best work that I could find. I also spend a lot of time and effort traveling to museums around the country to do comparative work, and photocopying tons of monographs from the library. It took years, and I was working from about 5% of a skeleton; if there had been more of it, it would have taken longer (well, really, if there had been more of it somebody would have realized how sexy it was and not given it to an undergrad, but there you go).

So I feel your pain.

Nevertheless, I think it's reasonable for master's students to attain sufficient technical expertise to describe new taxa, and the recent history in paleontology, at least, backs that up.

On the other hand, none of the taxa I work on are so obscure that they have only one (or zero!) living workers.

This diatribe is really aimed at PhD holders who never follow up on their short "descriptions" in Nature or Science. Take on an interested student to write the monograph, for cryin' out loud!

Randy wrote:

I think that it is stupid to chop up the anatomy of a partial skeleton into four or five publications. Sure, you can always write more detailed descriptions to make each paper seem substantiative, but it means that the publications are a lot less synthetic.

Whoa, hoss. To make each paper seem more substantive, or to make each paper be more substantive? I would say, and I think Jerry would agree, that more description is pretty nearly always a good thing. It is particularly short-sighted to restrict the description to those characters that are of taxonomic interest now. We don't know what the state of things will be in 50 or 100 years, but we can be pretty sure that if we do a good job people will still be reading our descriptions, so it makes sense to describe everything, as completely as possible.

Also, and taking Suuwassea as an example, cuz it's what we're really talking about, suppose Jerry had put it all in one paper. That paper would have been close to a hundred pages long, which would virtually guarantee that no one would read it.

- Few people would buy it; even if it was reasonably priced, a lot of people might not go to the trouble to order a copy (the recent Livezey/Zusi bird phylogeny comes to mind here).

- Few people would photocopy it. I love Jerry and I love sauropods, but I don't know if I would put myself through 100 pages worth of Xerox time for Suuwassea. (Sorry, Jerry! Maybe if it was a brachiosaur...)

- And at that length there are very few outlets that would provide a nice PDF with decent figure reproduction, which is why the first two options are not anachronistic in this situation.

Not to mention the problem of page charges. Very few outlets will publish anything of that length, period, and even fewer will do it without charging punitive damages.

From the perspective of getting a very detailed description widely distributed in readable form* with nice PDFs, splitting it up looks pretty good to me.

*I am much more likely to read four or five 15 page papers than one 60 or 75 page paper. Mike Taylor has stated the ideal length of a scientific paper is 15 pages; any less and you feel that they could have said more, any more and your desire to actually read the whole thing falls off exponentially.

I suppose it would have been more convenient to have all the papers together as a series in one journal, like Rich Cifelli's "Cretaceous mammals of southern Utah" I-IV in JVP back in '94. But in PDF world, who cares? The only effective difference between doing that and doing what Jerry actually did is that I had to wait a few months between installments--something that might have happened with a single-outlet series anyway.

This is all good stuff that I never see people actually writing about, so keep 'em coming.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

I've got to disagree with Randy on splitting big descriptions for one very pragmatic reason: I know from experience that I am much more likely to read four twenty-five-page papers than one hundred-page paper. I know it's pathetic, but it's true: big papers are scary. I've got to REALLY care about the critter to invest that much of my life. I'm not saying that splitting is always the right way to go, but I think it's eminently defensible for more reasons than Randy enumerated.

I'd also like to draw attention to something Matt said to me years ago about the big Sauroposeidon paper, and which he is too modest to mention here: he said that his goal in writing that paper was to say everything there is to say about the bones. I think that's laudable (and by the way that he was successful). I've adopted that goal when I write descriptions; we'll see if I can do it as successfully as Matt.

3:58 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Oh, I now see that Matt's comment had already said pretty much everything I had to say. Sorry for the duplication.

4:01 AM  
Anonymous dinogami said...

Ayuh -- it was the page limits of various journals that kept me from publishing all the Suuwassea stuff in one journal -- in many ways, I'd've preferred to publish it as a monograph, but as Matt mentioned, there's few places that would publish something like that anymore (at least anything that has a good distribution). I did try to do it as a "serial" in JVP (such as the Herrerasaurus papers back in '93 or the mammal papers Matt mentioned), but I was informed by JVP that their policy is to never do that again; in fact, to never publish two papers on the same taxon like that in the same journal in the same year (!); other journals, I discovered, had similar policies, so I was forced to farm it out across several journals. That turned out to be beneficial in some ways -- the axial paper had the most figures and was thus the longest, but Palaeontology has a much higher length limit than other journals so I still didn't incur page charges.

But yes, I agree it can be a pain to try and assemble a de facto monoraph from several papers across multiple journals. But for a variety of reasons that have been discussed here before, that's more or less what we're relegated to these days by the publishing industry...

5:47 AM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

My first (and so far only) time out I didn't know what the heck I was doing, so I read as many descriptions of new sauropods as I could and copied the best work that I could find. I also spend a lot of time and effort traveling to museums around the country to do comparative work, and photocopying tons of monographs from the library. It took years...

Yes, that's the level of effort I'm afraid of: I'm not a taxonomist, so devoting myself completely to a novel species description for such a long time is not feasible - I've got other avenues of research to pursue, more interesting to me than spending endless hours counting setae or gill rakers or what-have-you. So I agree fully that this is a task well-suited to handing to a Master's student. But I'd also like to be able to hand this hypothetical M.Sc. student some advice, like "start by talking to Dr. Whatshisname" or "Read these 15 papers", but I don't have that information to provide.

In other words, if I want to dive into such a project, where is the diving board?

10:31 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

My MS looked at bone histology and growth rates in a dinosaur taxon. Not only did my adviser not work on histology or growth rates, but nobody on my committee or in my department did either. In fact, at my whole university, there was just one bone histologist, who was on sabbatical for most of the last year I was there. And though I would have liked more guidance (or at least someone to help me sort out some of the more subtle histological differences), it wasn't much of a problem in the end. All of my committee members were capable of evaluating whether or not something was decent science. They knew how to spot arm-waving, where to say, "you need to check on this" or "explain this better because I have no idea what you're talking about", and when to call BS on one of my arguments.

And at the end, one of them thanked me for introducing him to a new area of research (he said it was because it meant he didn't have to read yet another 200-page taxonomic and phylogenetic revision of trilobites, a common topic at my MS university).

My adviser did say, "go talk to person X", but I had already figured that out by doing a lot of background reading on histo and growth (and come up with a list of other people). I think if you have a good specimen to hand out, a lit search can give you a good starting point. And you'll probably wind up reading a few papers on the topic anyway, if you have a student interested in it, so in the end you'll have an idea of where they are vs. where they should be.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of comments:

1) I never advocated skimping on the description, but there are ways of being concise without losing detail. (I'm not saying Jerry's papers weren't concise)

2) Its not my fault that you guys are supremely lazy and can't wade through a long paper. Just skip to the area of interest! Rarely do we read descriptions all the way through in one sitting anyways! Your complaints on this issue are moot given that your original post cited classic monographs that are all over 50 pages long, and several of which are over 100 pgs long. Looks as though their length didn't keep people from citing them!

3) Don't complain to me about venues to publish. Two examples of places that publish monographic studies AND have no page charges AND are listed by ISI/Web of Science are Journal of Systematic Palaeontology and Special Papers in Palaeontology. Journal of Morphology and Journal of Anatomy also publish long descriptions with very loose length limits, have no page costs, and have high ISI rankings.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Osborn and Janensch published monstergraphs and they seem to be citation classics? Oh, why don't we forget all those other AMNH bulletins that are citation classics and clock in over 50 or 100 pages. Sorry - I don't buy that longer page length equals less people reading the paper. I think distribution of the publication makes a bigger difference.

Randy

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, forgot to add Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society to the list.

Randy

7:39 PM  
Anonymous dinogami said...

Tried to respond to this earlier, but got an error page, instead -- sorry for the delay! Anyway:

Don't complain to me about venues to publish. Two examples of places that publish monographic studies AND have no page charges AND are listed by ISI/Web of Science are Journal of Systematic Palaeontology and Special Papers in Palaeontology. Journal of Morphology and Journal of Anatomy also publish long descriptions with very loose length limits, have no page costs, and have high ISI rankings.

Of course, I did put one of my papers in JSP; I actually intended it to fully print the matrix and my explanations for all the characters, but the editors thought all that would be better as electronic supplementary material (I also had to axe some text that was in the original ms and in the dissertation chapter from which the paper was excised) -- in all, it would have been monographic in and of itself, but the editors didn't want to do it that way. In the end, it probably made a lot of room in the journal for other papers, so I'm not complaining much.

I opted against Special Papers in Palaeontology largely because I don't think it's a subscription-based serial; readers/libraries would have to specifically purchase it, I have nothing against that system, but I wanted a broader distribution and lower cost to the reader (not to mention a JCR ranking for the pub!).

I really like Journal of Morphology as a venue, but in my experience, I've not seen long stuff in it for quite some time, so I assumed it had greater restrictions on length. I was unaware of Journal of Anatomy as a possible venue that vertebrate paleontologists might actually see until Julia Clarke put Yixianornis there, which wasn't 'til after I submitted everything.

I was/am aware of Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, and in fact have plans to submit something else there; I can't recall offhand why I didn't decide to put one or more of the Suuwassea papers there, but you're correct: I certainly could have! Whether I could have put everything there as a single, giant monograph, I don't know -- my guess would be that that would be too long, even for them!

Oh yeah, did I mention that Osborn and Janensch published monstergraphs and they seem to be citation classics? Oh, why don't we forget all those other AMNH bulletins that are citation classics and clock in over 50 or 100 pages. Sorry - I don't buy that longer page length equals less people reading the paper. I think distribution of the publication makes a bigger difference.

Certainly I agree on that last point, and it (plus JCR rankings) were indeed factors in my decision to publish a de facto monograph instead of a traditional one. I also agree that some monograph series, like the AMNH Bulletin, would be ideal inasmuch as they are subscription based and widely distributed. However, unless something has changed from when I checked into it years ago, only AMNH personnel are allowed to publish therein without incurring page charges, so it was out of the running as a venue for me. I'm not sure what the policies are along those lines for the Carnegie Museum and Smithsonian paleo series, but I may have assumed they were similar and didn't investigate them. But I agree that, in principle, they're ideal venues in terms of length and, probably, distribution; I don't know about the JCR rankings for them, though.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to imply that AMNH Bulletin was an option, just that longer monographs don't necessarily languish in unread obscurity. It is JCR ranked (right around 1.0 I think).

I certainly wish that there were more journals that published monographic treatments, but they do exist.

Randy

9:29 PM  

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