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I went off on people who perpetuate taxonomic chaos by naming new taxa in unpublished theses.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
.* 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
Here's a plea, from a paleobiologist
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
), Hatcher 1901
), Hatcher 1903 (Haplocanthosaurus
), and Riggs 1904a and b (Apatosaurus
) 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
) and Gilmore 1925 and 1936 (Camarasaurus
) 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
), 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
yet because I'm too
** Here's a little worksheet you can go through to see if this description fits you:
1. Was the animal described in Nature
or a JVP
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?
Labels: Hackademia, More Of A Complaint Really, Posts That You Will Not Find Amusing