What Makes A Paper Useful?

For my inaugural post, I wanted to introduce myself briefly as well as talk about some issues of scientific publication that are of interest to me (and hopefully you!). As mentioned elsewhere, I am the curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, a small institution on the edge of the Los Angeles Basin. We have an extensive collection of fossils from western North America (and elsewhere), and my job is to head up the research program at our museum. At least some of this research involves identifying and interpreting new fossils. We do have a nice reference collection, access to several other museums in the area, and many colleagues to lean on for expertise, but often the scientific literature is the first stop for identifying an unknown fossil. In this post, I will talk about what it is that makes a particular piece of literature more or less useful for those of us out in the research world.

Fragment of turtle shell from the Kaiparowits Formation, approximately 75 million years old. Although the texture of the shell is quite informative for determining the kind of turtle, many turtle researchers have a seemingly pathological aversion to illustrating or describing such diagnostic features in a way that is useful to someone who isn’t a turtle specialist. Thus, the literature is strewn with images of complete shells and skulls, but comparatively little useful information on the fragmentary bits most frequently encountered by paleontologists in the field. Alf Museum specimen, collected under permit from the Bureau of Land Management.

Why Do Identifications Matter?
A museum is like a library of fossils, preserving specimens for the use and enjoyment of past, current, and future generations. For most museums (large and small), only a fraction of these fossils are ever on exhibit at one time. Thus, research really is the primary use of most museum collections. To be useful to researchers, though, fossils must be well curated. Curation involves many steps, and one of the most important is identification. It is great to have a fossil in a drawer, but this fossil is far more useful if we know what it is. Not only does this help researchers locate specific specimens of interest, but it also allows usage of the fossil in a larger-scale project. For instance, let’s say a researcher wants to look at which rock formations in western North America preserve horse fossils. By querying a set of databases from various museums, the researcher could get a specimen-by-specimen picture of what’s going on. Without good identifications, though, such projects are far more difficult!

Illustrations
A good photograph or drawing can go a long ways towards making a positive identification–if the illustrations exist! Although “key” features, such as the wear surfaces of teeth or skull sutures, are usually illustrated, less exciting bones are frequently neglected. On the one hand this makes sense–if the ankle bone of a horse won’t help to identify the species, why waste time and publication space on figuring it? On the other hand, this can be very frustrating for researchers. If the only element you have is an obscure ankle bone that is rarely illustrated, reaching a precise and accurate identification can be an exercise in futility without a comprehensive and well-identified reference collection on-site. For this reason, some students and I recently published a photographic atlas of the foot for hadrosaur (duck-billed) dinosaurs (nicely explained in this post by Brian Switek). Even though these animals are ridiculously common in the field and museum collections, many of the bones had never been shown from multiple views in a scientific publication! We just had to fix this situation, for our own use as well as to provide a service to the research community. I should also mention that color figures are ideal–many details just pop out much more readily in this mode.

Skull of the ~33 million year old rodent Gaudeamus aslius, showing a palatal view with teeth. Combined with other figures, this would be a huge help for someone trying to identify rodent fossils. From Sallam et al., 2011.

Measurements
Particularly for some mammal species, the difference between one species and another is a matter of millimeters. Consequently, good tables of measurements are invaluable. As noted by my friend and colleague Matt Wedel, lengths and widths of any kind are a vanishing commodity in the literature. I recall one recent paper describing a complete skeleton of a very rare dinosaur that provided ratios but not a single usable limb bone measurement. Bone length ratios change through the life of an organism, so without some absolute measurement of size, ratios are fairly useless. What a waste! The more measurements, the better.

Descriptions
Figures are great, but they also need some explanation. A well-crafted description can call attention to important features that may not be immediately obvious from a photograph or line drawing, as well as place these features in a broader evolutionary context.

Accessibility
Perhaps most importantly: can we access the literature? Like many museums, we are a small institution with limited library resources*. We are quite fortunate to have access to JSTOR through our host institution, but many journals just aren’t that easy to get in a fast or cost-efficient manner. As a result, I sometimes have to email the authors (if the authors are still alive or can be expected to have a PDF). On the positive side, I have nearly a 100% success rate with this approach, even if it is somewhat inconvenient for all parties concerned. Regardless, it is far better to be able to just click through to a PDF without a paywall, or pull a book off of my shelf. Through services like archive.org (which hosts a pretty amazing array of older scientific literature) and PLOS ONE, access is far easier than it used to be, and is improving fairly steadily.

Summing Up
For specimen-based sciences like paleontology, an important function of the literature is to help specialists and non-specialists alike identify unknown fossils. Clear and comprehensive images, illuminating text, carefully-constructed measurements, and easy access are all important! Let’s do our part to help future generations.

*To digress briefly, this fact is often lost on many of my colleagues from larger institutions. There really are a fair number of active paleontological researchers at small museums and government agencies outside the usual bounds of institutional journal subscriptions or easy NSF eligibility. But, many new initiatives to improve infrastructure seem to best target the large, comparatively well-funded labs and museums. How to change this? I suggest that those of us at small museums need to start getting noisy!

 

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2 Responses to What Makes A Paper Useful?

  1. Pingback: Earthling Bulletin #11 | Earthling Nature

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Absolutely agreed on the importance of good descriptive work: ideally, a descriptive paper should be able to stand as a pretty good proxy for the fossil itself — something that’s rarely been the case with descriptions in traditional journals, limited to just a few small, greyscale illustrations. Happily that is changing with works like the recent Eolambia osteology in PLOS ONE (McDonald et al. 2o12): 36 beautiful, big, full-colour figures, illustrating pretty much every bone from all cardinal directions.

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