Monday, April 14, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology, Part 2: The Rebuttal

Hello, Dear Readers!

A rebuttal commentary to the Shimada et al. (2014) paper in Palaeontologia Electronica entitled "The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science" has arrived! Larson and Russell (2014) have provided an article in support for commercialism in vertebrate paleontology entitled "The benefits of commercial fossil sales to 21st-century paleontology." Please take a moment to read the article before continuing to read this post.

To start with my comments, I think it is a well crafted rebuttal that goes through the history of commercialism in paleontology, and highlights some of the best-case scenarios where everything worked out in the best interest of the fossil resources and the depository of public knowledge. It (mostly) avoids the more reactionary responses that one usually sees on the paleontology-related list servers, and calls for greater co-operation among all parties involved with the care of fossil heritage resources. That being said, there are a few pits into which the logical framework of this article falls, and they are pitfalls that, in my opinion, do nothing to further the discussion of how to resolve the seemingly diametrically opposed positions of commercialism vs. conservation.

1. The "We've Always Done It This Way" Argument.
The commercial sale of vertebrate fossil heritage items is nothing new to the realm of vertebrate paleontology. Famous fossil collectors such as the Sternbergs were commissioned by museums to collect and prepare fossil specimens. This is well-known paleontology history for North America. While the situation back in the early days of the establishment of vertebrate paleontology collections produced a mutually beneficial relationship between academia and commercialism, it is just that: history. As the science of paleontology has evolved over the last century, so too must the commercial operations evolve. They have, to an extent: some scientifically important specimens do end up in public repositories. However, the day that the icon of the dinosaur world, Tyrannosaurus rex, went for sale at public auction for $8.3 million, was the day that people started associating fossils with swimming pools full of money. Gaining access to private lands in the US became prohibitively expensive for researchers. Poaching on federal lands increased. As quoted from a federal employee in the Washington Post article (link above):

“After Sue sold, it was truly frightening,” said Vincent L. Santucci, a National Park Service geologist who spent years investigating fossil poachers. “You heard people saying, ‘I’m going to give up my blue-collar job and move out West to find my million-dollar dinosaur.’ And it was worth the risk doing it on federal lands because of the economic rewards that might be gained.”

This is the mentality that associating dinosaurs (or any vertebrate fossil) with dollars now engenders: the get rich quick dream, the quest for the quick buck. This was likely the mentality behind the three examples outlined by Larson and Russell of ill-conceived attempts at making money off of fossil heritage resources: the illegally smuggled Tarbosaurus (one of my posts on the subject here, full of great links), the bill “HB 392", and the attempted public auction of the fossils within the Sternberg Collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum (the link provided in Larson and Russell leads to an error page on the museum's website: either the SDNHM removed the page or there is a typo in the link.) An item that was not highlighted by Larson and Russell was the "Dueling Dinosaurs" controversy, where a specimen that was speculated to be of scientific importance (a long read, but worth it) was offered at public auction at the low low estimated price of $7-$9 million (but generously offered to natural history museums before the sale for $15 million).

If the good working relationship envisioned by Larson and Russell involves North American museums spending on one specimen the same amount that could generously fund a multi-year field project, a collections renovation, several student scholarships, or educational initiatives, that vision is unrealistic.

I am still anxiously waiting for a reply on this issue to be made by our European vertebrate paleontology colleagues. As Larson and Russell point out, some governments purchase fossils directly from collectors. While no dollar values are provided, I speculate that the European commercial fossil dealers are not pricing the fossils they sell so high that academic institutions cannot afford this practice.

If commercial paleontology is to have a positive future in North America, there cannot be a "the sky's the limit" mentality to fossil sales. Either attitudes towards the buying and selling of our fossil heritage will have to change, or there will have to be regulated price caps on commercial fossil heritage items. Those items will have to be independently assessed prior to sale for their scientific value. We cannot rely on the dewy-eyed sentiment of "those were the good ol' days" to frame the conversation on the conservation of our fossil heritage.

2. Ad Hominem Strikes Again.

This particular line from Larson and Russell stood out:

"Shimada et al. (2014) stated: “We therefore consider the battle against heightened commercialization of fossils to be the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.” We believe, on the other hand, that the demonization and marginalization of a specific portion of the paleontological community is the result of misunderstanding, misplaced entitlement and simple intolerance."

Ah, welcome home, Ad Hominem attacks! You must have been homesick for this debate to show up again so soon, but I can honestly say that we did not miss you at all.

Misunderstanding is fine. Misunderstandings happen due to miscommunication, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster knows there has been no end of miscommunication in this debate. However, Larson and Russell attempt to deflect criticism towards commercialism in paleontology by saying the critics are entitled and intolerant. In essence, that commercialized paleontology is being unfairly picked on.

Newflash: science is ALL about the criticism. Science is critical of everything. Science does not wear rose-colored glasses and ignore issues. Scientists spend their entire lives having their work critiqued. Criticism is not the same as "being demonized." When I get a paper back from review, the reviewer was not intolerant and entitled, and my paper was not demonized. All that happens with criticism is that flaws are brought to our attention. Pretending those flaws do not exist, and trying paint criticism of those flaws a personal attack only serves to deflect the path of the constructive dialog that PE is trying to encourage. There are problems. How do we fix them?

3. Stop Lumping Private/Avocational Collectors with Commercial Paleontology.

This happens in every discussion I have seen regarding the flaws with the current way in which commercial paleontology is conducted in North America. Someone inevitably says that those entitled and intolerant academics are trying to kill hobbyist or avocational paleontology.

The issue with private fossil ownership in terms of owning a scientifically valuable specimen that is going to be researched is one of archival continuity. I'm going to pull this directly from one of my previous post on commercialism and private ownership in vertebrate paleontology:

"'What are the issues with scientifically important specimens being in a private collection?'
When you are a museum with a public-trust fossil archive, you are in essence making a pledge that you will do everything in your power to ensure that the fossils under your care will remain in the public trust. Public trust means that anyone who wants to do serious research on these fossils will be able to find those fossils 10, 100, even 1000 years from now. A private person isn’t likely to be around 100 years from now. There is no guarantee their descendants will be as interested in fossils as were Gramps or Gramma. There is no guarantee these fossils will be donated to a museum after the passing (or passing interest) of the initial purchaser. This is one way in which fossils are “lost to science” when they are privately purchased. It’s too easy to lose track of privately purchased fossils because there is no accountability for their whereabouts. There is no tracking system for scientifically important fossils outside of a museum setting."

This, in my opinion, is an easy fix, but it will require new regulations and resources. Create a paper trail for avocational collectors using existing natural history museums. Create a Citizen Repository Network.  This is a system that I one day hope to implement for our natural history repository. It was inspired by the Qualicum Beach Historical and Museum Society paleontology collections created and managed by Graham Beard, one of the shining examples in British Columbia of enthusiasm for and the proper management of fossil heritage resources. I once told our local paper that if everyone had the same mentality towards fossils as Graham, there would be no need for fossil protection laws. Another example are the volunteers of my institution. The bulk of our Triassic marine vertebrate collection would not exist were it not for these volunteers, many of them children. In fact, one of our holotypes, Rebellatrix, the fork-tailed coelacanth, would not have been described were it not for a volunteer collector who was 13 at the time she discovered the specimen.

I want to explicitly state that, as an academic paleontologist, I do not in any way confuse avocational collectors with the multi-million dollar price inflation that is displayed during the auction of a high-profile vertebrate fossil. If the issue of archival discontinuity were resolved, citizen archivists could house scientifically important specimens.

Larson and Russell (2014) provides a useful historical perspective on commercial paleontology in North America, and does briefly describe how commercial paleontology is managed in other parts of the world. However, this opinion piece falls into the previously dug pits of misdirected arguments. It does not offer any solutions to the current flaws in the commercial system they wholeheartedly praise. In fact, they do not directly address the issues of archival discontinuity and over the top prices to which vertebrate fossils and their researchers face in the commercial system.

I hope that more opinion pieces continue to be submitted to Palaeontologia Electronica, because a meaningful dialog has not yet been reached, but maybe this is the very start. I hope we'll get there.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology - Who Will Accept the Challenge?

I wonder if, in my lifetime, I'll see a resolution to the issue of the commercial fossil trade.

Hello, Dear Readers!

This post is going to be part summary, part rant. This is not the first time I have commented on the commercial fossil trade (see posts here, here, here, here, and here), and it will likely not be my last. Deep down I still believe there is a magical combination of words that will finally enlighten those who support the commercialization of fossils and they will get it. They will finally get why treating the only record we have of our planet's history like organic Pokemon cards does nothing to promote science education and knowledge. They will finally understand there is more to fossils than their current market (illegal or otherwise) value. I need to believe that people truly want to understand that our irreplaceable heritage is worth protecting.

I'm not the only one who believes this. Please read this thorough commentary published recently in Palaeontologica Electronica:

Shimada, Kenshu, Currie, Philip J., Scott, Eric, and Sumida, Stuart S. 2014. The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 1; 1E: 4 p;

The article was shared on the vertpaleo listserver less than 24 hours ago, and already the predictable sniping is underway:

For so many reasons.
Some researchers have brought up useful points, especially those in Europe who have good working relationships with their commercial collectors (I would be very interested to read a detailed commentary from my European colleagues on their experiences with commercial fossil collectors). However, the bulk of the comments follow the theme of the one above. This theme of commentary that is absolutely NOT helpful.

Here's the amusing part. The article was shared by the editor of Palaeontologica Electronic on PaleoNet. In anticipation of the name-calling, pseudoreasoning, and general unprofessional behavior of some of the commercial fossil trade supporters on various public forums, he wrote this (I'll write it out below, as the link doesn't seem to display the entire contents, and this link is difficult on the eyes):

"NOTE: I am not looking for brief "comments" on Shimada et al. Instead, I want detailed and well thought out statements that will contribute to a dialog on these critical topics. Please do not be hesitant to clearly stake out a position. I do, however, reserve the right to reject any contribution that I regard as impolite."

To all those who support the current state of fossil commercialism: here is your opportunity to convince us that the commercial fossil trade is beneficial. Many paleontologists have rationally and logically stated their concerns with the current commercialized system. Present a cohesive argument that details why the benefits of the current commercialized system outweigh the damage to fossil heritage resources.

I'll offer some friendly advice. Avoid the appeals to emotion and tradition. Don't paint yourselves as the downtrodden, demonized victims of the academic elite. No one will take that argument seriously because it offers neither factual content nor practical solutions. Frame your argument in terms of the fossils themselves rather than personal issues. How does the current system of commercialism benefit fossils? What is your evidence? Can you honestly see any problems with the current system, and if so, what are they? What practical changes can you envision that will allow for a greater collaboration between commercialism and conservation (I offer some suggestions here)?

In short: go productive or stay home.

Challenge accepted?


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reviewing: A Thankless Job?

Hello, Dear Readers!

Excuse me for a moment while I brush the digital dust off of the blog. Ignore the cyber-spiders and the e-webs. There. That is much more presentable.

There has been a lot going on in my life since January, and much of it is not positive. I'm not going to elaborate on that here and now: those issues are still fresh and mutating, and I can't predict the outcome. I can postulate several likely outcomes, but which one will it be?

I'll focus instead on the productive side of my life. I made it a mission to continue with the paper writing storm we started in 2013. There have been delays, hurdles, and (of course) the unexpected, but 2014 is starting to bear the fruits of the academic trees we planted in 2013. First, a large ichnology publication on which I am second author is out, summarizing the work that has been done on vertebrate ichnology in western Canada over the last decade (the bulk of which includes discoveries and research by us and our volunteer team in the Peace Region.) Next, I am waiting for proofs for the published version of my M.Sc. thesis on Coelophysis dentition (this was the last update on that endeavor.) There are three collaborative papers that will be heading to press in March. All in all, not a bad academic start to 2014.

I have also been reviewing papers. If you have read my previous posts, you know that I take my role as Reviewer seriously and feel that, despite some flaws (check out the Nature's Peer Review Debate here), the peer-review system is the best means we have by which to produce and disseminate scientifically accurate information.

It takes time and effort to provide a thoughtful and constructive review of a paper. Most authors, who have also been on the Reviewer end of the process, recognize this. Most scientific papers contain an "Acknowledgements" section. There are items which should appear in the Acknowledgements section (e.g., grants, direct contributors who are not authors, etc.) It can look like the Academy Awards acceptance speech for scientists. If the current form of the paper would not exist without the input or efforts of other parties, you thank those parties. For example, in both the university and the published version of my M.Sc. thesis, I give shout-outs to the curators, collections managers, and technical staff who assisted me in accessing the specimens. I thank the people with whom I discussed the project at great length. I thank my committee. In the published version I thank all of these, and I also thank the reviewers.

Scientists, being human, sometimes take the opportunity to interject a little of their personality (humor, snark, noncompliments) into their published work (examples here and here).  For the big ichnology review, we really wanted to change the heading of the Acknowledgements section to "Ichnoledgements," but apparently that was taking a joke too far. Fair enough. In a scientific paper about dogs, one would not be able to change the experiment methodology heading to "Mutterials and Methods."

I flipped through one of the papers that I had recently reviewed. I find it interesting to see how the authors incorporate my revision suggestions. As a reviewer, I know that my comments may be accepted in full or completely rejected in a letter to the journal editor (with justification as to why they are rejected). In the end, it is up to the author to decide which suggested revisions to incorporate or ignore; however, the journal editor can also insist on or add amendments to the reviewer comments. [NOTE: Don't want to incur the wrath of your editors/reviewers? Show how you incorporated their suggestions!]

One thing that caught my gaze was the Acknowledgements section. Not one reviewer was named or thanked.


There is cranky, and then there is owl-strength cranky. Link to image.
While there is no rule that states "Thou shalt thank thy reviewers or forever burn in a pit of reality TV programming," you learn by reading (recent) paper after paper after paper after paper (etcetera, etcetera) that there are recurring themes in the Acknowledgements section. One of these is thanking the reviewers.

"Hold up, Shaman," you may ask, "why be annoyed? Aren't scientists expected to review papers? And don't you get your papers reviewed in turn?" (The extremely polite version of an actual comment received by a colleague not thanked by the authors for their review: the original comment contained the words "whining" and "self-centered.")

This cat is disappointed with your patronizing dismissal of my colleague's critique. Image link.
There are logical reasons for thanking your reviewers, especially if they are not anonymous:
  • Naming your reviewers gives the final version of your paper historical transparency: everyone who reads the paper knows who had some influence on its content.This is exactly why thanking those who have directly influenced your paper is not just gratuitous thanks: great or small, they are also responsible for the final published content. Readers of that paper should know the names of the hands stirring the pot.
  • Professional courtesy and respect: researchers are not sitting for hours with tense anticipation at their computer, eagerly awaiting the "BING" of an incoming email with a review request. They are writing papers, teaching and advising students, grading, serving on communities, and, somehow, having a personal life. Yes, we are expected to review, and yes, we expect ourselves to review. However, if a researcher has too much going on in the timeframe of the review request, they can decline. When a fellow researcher accepts a request to review your paper, they are taking time in their already packed professional lives to ensure your paper is ready to publish. That deserves acknowledgement.
  • Naming reviewers lets your colleagues know who is functionally available to review papers on certain topics. This can be a good resource for less experienced authors who might not yet know who all the experts in their specialization who also are available to review manuscripts.
There are reasons why reviewers might not be named:
  • Some journals may remove the names of the reviewers on their final formatting. This may be done to preserve a feel of complete objectivity during the review process, but in my opinion the benefits of naming reviewers outweigh the costs, especially in a field as relatively small as vertebrate paleontology. When in doubt, be transparent.
  • The review is really, really bad. I'm not talking about a review that is critical and results in the rejection of the paper, but a truly piss-poor job done by the reviewer. There are some reviews that are negative without providing any feedback, insulting, or vindictive. Comments such as "This is wrong" without any follow-up information is an example of a completely useless review. Sadly, many of these stories seem to correlate with anonymous reviewers, but not all do. I feel that if a review is truly not helpful, there is little point in thanking said reviewer. They are not doing science any service.
  • The reviewers are anonymous. I have mixed feelings about this. I thank my anonymous reviewers. Others do not. Reviewers may have valid reasons for remaining anonymous. Perhaps they know the authors well (a good chance in vertebrate paleontology) and want to write as objectively as possible. Perhaps they do not agree with the authors' conclusions, but do not want to risk offending a well-established colleague (something students may feel). 
As a personal example, I did consider an anonymous review for one paper only because I thought it was poorly presented and that the interpretations of the results were incomplete. There is always a chance the authors will take the review personally rather than as a critique on what was needed to bring the paper up to code.
Yes, in this analogy the paper is a house. Image link.
In the end I waived anonymity. There was nothing I put in the review that I wouldn't have said in person to the authors were they sitting in front of me as I read the paper. That was my choice, and I can't say that my choices are right for everyone. Each reviewer has to decide what they do with the option of anonymity: every situation is slightly different.

A final word (for this post) on thanking reviewers: I believe this is just the polite thing to do. Just because reviewing papers is an expected part of our jobs doesn't mean that we do not deserve to be thanked for doing our jobs. I thank the police when I have to call them. I thank my doctor and pharmacist. I thank waitstaff and the people who make my coffee. I thank my employees and volunteers. I thank my advisers and colleagues. They are doing their jobs, and I was raised to thank the people who help me. Everyone who does something for you is a person, and people like to be acknowledged for their hard work. It's the simplest way to let that person know that you appreciate their efforts.

Thank You.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

We Have Always Been Here.

 (An homage to Kosh of Babylon 5.)

"Just because it's publicly published does not make it accurate...Just because it's publicly published does not make it accurate..."

Oh, hello Dear Reader!

You caught me chanting my favorite Internet and popular media-related mantra. It is the mantra that I made my students repeat for every writing lab. The Internet and the public media are lousy with misinformation presented in a credible fashion. Opinion pieces are taken as fact. Cryptozoology web pages and books. Pig-chimp hybrids. Seazoria.

People working in academia are not immune to misconceptions and misinformation, as demonstrated this article by Nicolas Kristof. His article highlights, complete with affirming quotes, that academics have created for themselves a cocoon of irrelevancy in terms of public communication. Perhaps the academics in the disciplines mentioned within the article (Middle Eastern studies, international theory, history, political science) are not as active in social media and communication as they could theoretically be. I'm not one to judge what professors do or don't do with their time: Janet D. Stemwedel's article thoroughly and accurately demonstrates that a) professors have mandatory research, teaching, and service duties, and b) despite the workload, a multitude of professors do public outreach on Twitter, Facebook, and their own blogs despite these activities not being considered under "traditional outreach/service."

To preface my critique, I am not in a tenure track position. I am not working in a traditional academic position. That being said, I am an active academic (student though I am) and can comment on the relevancy of this article as it pertains to my specialty of vertebrate paleontology and related disciplines.

Paleontology, I feel, naturally leads to active public engagement. Tell a non-academic that you study fossils and chances are you will discuss the accuracies of the latest dinosaur show or the trending fossil-related news article. People love fossils. Fossils inspire awe and a voracious curiosity. Every fossil, from the fluffiest dinosaur to the boniest fish, has a uniquely fascinating story just waiting to be told, and paleontologists are fortunate enough to directly interact with these fossils to bring their stories to the world, first through scientific publications, then through the media and museum exhibits.

So, on reading quotes such as this,
'“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation',

...I become a touch irate. Yes, paleontology has very specialized fields of study: histology (study of bone structure), palynology (pollen and spores), cladistics (evolutionary patterns). Heck, I have my own specialties: dinosaur tooth identification and vertebrate ichnology. These are rather extreme ends of the animal: if a dinosaur is ever found that was kicked in the teeth, I'll geek out all over the place.

What the New York Times article and those quoted within failed to acknowledge is the amount of training in basic information acquired by each rarified researcher. My paleontology training included cell biology, animal biology, ecology, earth history, earth sciences, statistics, calculus, basic anatomy, comparative vertebrate anatomy, invertebrate zoology, evolution, climate, ethology, ornithology, invertebrate paleontology, and a load of basic and specialized courses in vertebrate paleontology. A paleontologist may, for example, study the tooth patterns of an extinct fish, but that is not all they know: they represent an entire undergraduate and graduate education's worth of accumulated knowledge.

"Hold up, Shaman: these researchers may have the knowledge to speak on many of these subjects, but can they do it in a way that is interesting to the general public?"

Fair question, and easily answered. Nicolas Kristof does all of academia a huge service by pointing out:
'Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.'

[Begin sarcasm] Really? Social media exists for academics and the general public alike? It's not just a place to post pictures of cat memes? Holy crap! This is news! [End sarcasm].

The avalanche is well underway, and the above quote about the availability of social media as a tool for science communication is a pebble trying to influence the flow.

Here is a tiny list (not at all meant to be exhaustive) of paleontology-related blogs run by real-life academics (professors, researchers, and students), many who also have Twitter feeds. Many also have links to other paleontology-related blogs. Some are museum blogs, and the information on them would not be possible without input from their academic team. Some of these blogs are new. Many of these blogs have been around for a few years.

Archosaur Musings
Canadian Museum of Nature Blog
Chinleana (Triassic fun)
Dinochick Blogs  (with a long list of other paleontology-related blogs!)
Green Tea and Velociraptors
Inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum
The Integrative Paleontologists (PLOS Blogs) 
Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs
Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (an ichno-tastic blog covering the traces of all backboned critters and those critters that likely taste good with clarified garlic butter)
Paleo Illustrata
Pick & Scalpel (there is also have a Facebook page, WitmerLab at Ohio University, that is full of wonderful CT-scan images and 3D reconstructions)
Rantings of a Canadian Evolutionary Biologist
Tetrapod Zoology 
What's in John's Freezer? (full of squishy dissection images, themed quizzes, and great skeletal anatomy)
The Whirlpool of Life
4th Dimensional Biology

Vertebrate paleontologists are also very active on Facebook. Many natural history museums manage both a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Are these paleontologists blogging every day? Are they on Facebook and Twitter 24/7? No, of course not. As with any other academic person, paleontologists have both busy professional and personal lives. That being said, the amount of time and energy paleontologists put into social media is astounding. This is not including the outreach they do through public talks, educational days, museum open-houses, and the media.

One of the great joys I have in my career is the large amount of public outreach opportunities that I have. Talking to school groups and womanning Fossil Road Show booths are my favorites. Outreach started very early in my education. My favorite outreach moment is when, at a fossil booth for a Museum Open House, a four year old was absolutely convinced I was Ms. Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus". He stayed to reminisce about our adventures together through the human nose. Interacting with kids about fossils is a joy. I also develop our museum's educational programming, judge science fairs, visit classrooms, manage our museum's Facebook page, and speak to the media when contacted (we don't have a PR office). 

These are considered normal outreach activities, regardless if they "count" in terms of a traditional tenured academic career. I have met very few paleontologists that are put off by the idea to interacting with the public. Every scientific discipline has a subset of that community that is active in public outreach. We talk to the media. We give public talks. We run information booths. We talk to school groups. We design public museum displays based on their research. We advise on movies and documentaries. We are educators. We love what we do and want to share our fascinating world with you. We are not hiding from the public. We are not hiding from you. Ask us.

We have always been here.

The Blank Page

There is nothing more daunting to me than the blank screen.

Before I had consistent access to computers (and my very first computer was the family Commodore 64 that we received second hand from a relative during Grade 7, and it had a black screen with green letters and came with a lovely D&D style maze game), there was nothing more daunting to me than the blank page. I know I'm not alone when it comes to having a stare-down with the blank screen. Scientists and writers extraordinaire with much more experience face this stare-down at various points in their lives.

I admit to being a procrastinator when it comes to physically writing SOMETHING. I'm not a procrastinator in the sense that I'll look at a writing task and think "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee, I'll think about writing that tomorrow," but a procrastinator in the sense that I spend more time than I should, well, assing around before I write what could be considered a passable sentence containing any content. I fill the time when I could actually be depressing keys with my fingers and putting words on the screen with going overboard on the other aspects of writing a paper - in other words, everything except the actual writing part.

Oh sure, I spend a great deal of time researching the background information, the previous studies, collecting the data, and running the analyses. I make the pretty graphs. I study the pretty graphs until I am confident in what they are telling me about the data. I rerun the analyses (and make the pretty graphs as a result of said analyses) to make sure I'm not missing an angle. I know what I know, and I know that I know it well.


The blunt truth of the issue is that I, a die-hard field researcher for whom encountering (mountain) lions and tigers (do bad field tans count?) and bears (oh my!) is just part of the job, and thinks nothing of flinging herself (safely) down a 60 degree slope to study dinosaur footprints, am nothing more than a highly derived theropod belonging to the genus Gallus (I'm chicken).

I will never be as cool as these chickens from Grossi et al. 2014. Walking like dinosaurs: chickens with artificial tails provide clues about non-avian theropod locomotion. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88458. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088458.

Are my observations original enough? If they are not original, do they at least offer a fresh perspective? Am I interpreting the data logically? Am I interpreting the previous work correctly? I imagine those concerns are relatively normal for academic writing, and if nothing else, they keep me vigilant. Still, those are the logical concerns, and my paper-writing trepidation is full of all kinds of non-logic.

On a deeper emotional level, The Idea that I plan to write is safe, snug, and tame in my head until I release It on the page with all of the intellectual equivalent of placenta and blood (and sweat, and tears, and frustration). Once The Idea is released, It begins to take on a life of its own. Sure, I guide It, shape It, and direct It, but The Idea grows to become a demanding force that can't be ignored or set aside. The Idea contains its own brand of strengths and weaknesses, all of which display my personal intellectual strengths and weaknesses. The Idea must be seen to its conclusion, for better (happily published) or worse (horribly rejected). Every Idea that is published has a potential to change the course of science from the smallest tweak to one of those papers that makes you sit back and think "Well, I'll be..."

Now that this swirling bit of illogical emotion is out of my head, I hear the incessant call of the The Idea that cannot be ignored.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

I Love My Job...But It Comes At A Price

I've been thinking a great deal about my last post, mostly because events in my country have transpired that have crystallized the fact for me that there are some communities in which science is not welcome. Where educated people (who aren't doctors or people who supply medications) are not welcome. These are the communities where the people use the statement "I'm not an educated person" as a boast and a badge of pride. It's fine to admit you don't know something, but a completely different cup of tea to willfully resist any opportunities to learn. These are the cultures in which "college educated" is used as an insult to insinuate a person is isolated from reality and surplus to requirement.

Being one of the useless college educated group and female to boot, there are certain personality traits I am expected to exude in the presence of these cultures. I am supposed to:
  • Be quiet when the "real world" people are talking. People look like they've been slapped when they approach me and assume I am the more quiet, soft-spoken version of my husband, and look equally kicked in the nuts when I cut through their language of ignorance.
  • Not ever correct misinformation being spewed by the "Real-Worlders." I'm an educator: that's what I do. If someone if making decisions based on faulty information, I will immediately correct them. Does it hurt their egos? Probably, but I'd rather hurt an ego than have a discussion proceed and conclude on a faulty premise.
  • Not express any opinion with confidence. I don't do passive-aggressive. I don't fish in muddy waters for compliments. If I know something, I say it. I jump in.
  • Respect ALL opinions. Nope, sorry. I can't respect opinions founded on logical fallacies or willful ignorance. Faulty logic leads to faulty solutions. A person has the right to believe whatever they wish, but that right does not protect them from critique. 
My career in science is the result of me having the confidence and the knowledge that I have today, but those benefits come at a price. I will never be viewed as a "regular person." For better or for worse I will always represent the "Ivory Tower", and my point of view will be forever excluded from that of the "average citizen." I accept this, and I also have to accept that because of my educational background I am more likely to be ignored than those of the Fallacy Flingers and Science Rejectors. Oh sure, they will come to me when they want to be entertained: after all, to these groups paleontology is nothing but a source of amusement. However, when it comes down to the cold, hard, and sometimes inconvenient facts, the science viewpoint will be considered less than valid and worthy of scorn.

Knowing this makes me extremely appreciative of the science community. This is the one community in which (close friends, my dojo, and family are the exceptions) where I feel it is perfectly fine for me to be a scientist and a person. It's not a community without its own peculiar faults, but it is one of the few places I feel as though I belong. Perhaps I'll live to see the day when "scientist" isn't a dirty word to the general public, but right now I feel as though I'm experiencing a modern Dark Age. All I can do is science on, and hope that my small efforts will contribute to the little spark of knowledge that will survive these times and shine bright and strong in the future.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Love My Job, But It Is Still Work.

Hello, Dear Readers!

I'm having one of those navel-gazing moments, and other than seeing that I have a hole in my shirt, a few things have happened, rather inconsequential things, that have given me pause to think about the state of my life thanks to science and academia.

The main trigger was this article by Miya Tokumitsu called "In the Name of Love." It covers how the mantra "Do what you love [DWYL] and you will never work a day in your life" is a sack of foetid dingoes kidneys. If you're not completely googly-eyed enamored with your job (say, for example, you have a job that you do because there is rent, food, daycare, etc. for which to pay), the DWYL mentality erodes the perceived quality and importance of your work. DWYL is the employment cry of the privileged. I used to buy in to the DWYL mantra, but reading this article has caused me to examine that belief and reclassify it as such.

The section of the article that hit home for me on a personal level was this:

"If DWYL denigrates or makes dangerously invisible vast swaths of labor that allow many of us to live in comfort and to do what we love, it has also caused great damage to the professions it portends to celebrate. Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia...Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all."
Being a scientist is a large part of my personal identity. I am a scientist in a time when being part of the "Ivory Tower" is politically and publicly unpopular (as least in Canada and the USA, where the term Ivory Tower is used as the adult version of "doody-head"). In a culture that believes that every opinion is valid, I thrive on logic, data, critical thinking, and knowledge.

Step away from the comments section, Shaman...step away. Image source.
In a sense, science saved me emotionally. In elementary and high-school I was the Amy Farrah Fowler. I was very odd, and an easy target. So, I was targeted. There were no anti-bullying campaigns in my day. Science kept me going. Paleontology was my dream, and studying and the good grades on my transcript were my ticket out of that prison of an educational institution. I left home for university with strict instructions to my parents to burn any reunion notices. I also left home with horrendously low self-esteem.

Science changed that for me. It started when my parents (with unwavering support for my career choice) gave me a choice of high-school graduation gifts: financial help on my own vehicle, or two weeks at a paleontology field experience program. I chose the field experience. During those two weeks I met future mentors and like-minded people who were also, by the social standards of my area, odd. They were odd and reveled science, and I reveled in their influence.

I still had a long way to go, and many mistakes to make along the way. I used to be that person who constantly fished in muddy waters for compliments. I used to be that person for whom, when receiving a compliment, would twist it to turn it into an insult. No one could ever say the right thing to cheer me up. I was draining to be around. I was draining myself. I had a lot of emotional scar tissue that was still raw.

Science allowed me the opportunity to rebuild my self-esteem. I realize that is an odd statement, considering academia is chock-full of situations that can make one doubt themselves with Ex-Lax-like regularity. I learned that what matters in science is the quality of the work that I do. As a student that meant grades. That meant volunteering. That meant working. Eventually it dawned on my that I was capable of accomplishing things that mattered, regardless of what anyone else thought or said. It also dawned on my that, no matter what, there is nothing, NOTHING, that someone else could tell me that would make me feel better about myself if I wasn't able to tell myself the same damn thing and bloody well believe it.

I do love my work. I have the opportunity to see things that haven't seen the light of day for millions of years. I take the impressions of past life and translate their stories. There are days when I think it could not possibly get better than this. That does not mean that the work is not oftentimes frustrating, tedious, exasperating, and actual hard work. Hard physically, hard mentally, and hard emotionally. The problem with the DWYL mantra is that a person who has a job they love cannot express frustration without being countered with such pablum as "Well, at least you get to do what you love." It sounds like a math-based platitude: X is difficult, but since the love (Y) is greater, the result comes out positive! YAY! Problems all solved, right?

No. Just no. Love of a job does not cancel out or erase the negative aspects. The DWYL mantra does not negate difficulties. There is no fix for those days that make you think "Why do I bother?" My friend Jenny, who is living her dream by running a school in Tanzania, said it best: "People confuse living your passion with living in a 5 star resort vacation! They are NOT the same thing!"

This is a dangerous mindset, especially if we insist on it to younger people entering the workforce. DWYL carries with it the expectation that it's all so damn easy to do what you love. Of course, one of the interpretations of "easy" is "I can just sit back and sip my wine, and it will all work out. No effort required!" The sooner that insinuation is challenged, the better.

At least there is some interesting ichnology happening during this particular head in the sand episode.
A job in academia comes with a myriad of costs. There is no guaranteed employment. There is little financial stability. There is little locational stability. Life milestones that non-academic friends celebrate become foreign concepts, such as starting a family, building a dream house, or going on regular vacations. There is no 9am-5pm: if I'm not doing something related to my thesis or work, I get antsy and refer to my down time as "being lazy."

I love what I do, and I've had to realize that loving my job does not mean it is stress-free, problem-free, or even doubt-free. There are costs. Thanks to my job and the path that I took to get here, I feel like I have the emotional resilience to pick up the bill for those costs and work out a reasonable payment plan. The love of the job gives me the mental armor to wade into battle and slog through the difficult times.