Tuesday, May 19, 2009

About That Adapid. . .Or, Hype In the Digital Age

Today's PLoS ONE includes an article on a new primate from the Eocene of Germany, Darwinius masillae. Poor Darwinius has suffered heaps of abuse over her existence (we know the specimen is probably a she, based on the lack of a baculum). She died young, possibly suffocating during a belch of noxious gas from a volcanic lake. She got squashed ("lightly crushed," as her describers euphemistically say) under tons of rock, and then was rudely given a split personality upon her discovery. Each half of Darwinius was sold privately to a different collector, and eventually one half made it as far as a museum in Wyoming. This half received a little bit of creative restoration somewhere in between. The other, more intact half eventually made it to a museum in Norway. But, the fun was only beginning!

Our friend was described by a multi-national team of scientists, who teamed up with the History Channel, BBC, and other outlets to create a media blitz the likes of which the world has never seen before. Not only a peer-reviewed article, but press conferences, book deals, television programs, interviews, and much more.

Why is there such a fuss over such a little specimen (weighing in at approximately a kilogram while alive)?

First off, this is a spectacular fossil. The Messel Beds of Germany have produced truckloads of spectacular specimens with exquisite soft tissue preservation (everything from bats to birds to rodents), but primates are exceedingly, exceedingly rare. Nobody would debate the tremendous scientific value of the find. People are debating the authors' interpretation of the find.

The authors claim that Darwinius is a haplorhine primate. That is, Darwinius (and other members of its clade, the adapoid primates) is more closely related to anthropoid primates (including monkeys of all sorts, apes, humans, etc.) than to strepsirrhine primates (the group including lemurs). It's hard to believe for those of us who study dinosaurs, but this is a ridiculously contentious claim. To put it into context for you dinosaur nerds, this would be similar to someone claiming that Compsognathus is more closely related to birds than Velociraptor. Oh, the humanity!

The claim of Darwinius and other adapoids as a haplorhine is contentious for two reasons: 1) most recent, widely accepted cladistic analyses place adapoids as closer to lemurs (strepsirrhines) than to monkeys (haplorhines); and 2) there is no real cladistic analysis to support the claim made by the present paper. Instead, the authors give a list of characters that they believe to support the assignment to the haplorhine clade. Unfortunately, there is little or no discussion as to what these characters (including absence of a "toilet-claw" and "tooth comb," features found within, but not universally across, lemurs and kin) mean, including the possibility of convergence or mosaic evolution.

So, it appears that some extraordinary claims are made about Darwinius, but the supporting analyses are spartan. Given the wonderful preservation of the skeleton, it should be relatively straight-forward to code this specimen and present a cladistic hypothesis (because this will resolve all questions, right?!). Darwinius is an important fossil. The problem is that the interpretation of this specimen is highly debateable. The authors may very well be correct. . .but the burden of proof is still upon them.

As always with articles in PLoS ONE, the paper is free for everyone. Judging by the blogosphere today, there are some very strong opinions about this specimen - if you have thoughts on the little critter, please post a comment or note over at PLoS ONE!

Further Reading in the Blogosphere
Brian presents an excellent, in-depth analysis of Darwinius over at Laelaps.
Bora provides a nice list of blog coverage over at Blog Around the Clock.
Carl writes another excellent critique at The Loom.

Franzen, J., Gingerich, P., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., von Koenigswald, W., & Smith, B. (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

Image at top from the original article at PLoS ONE (Franzen et al., 2009).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Book Review: Charles R. Knight, Autobiography of an Artist

Charles R. Knight was one of the most influential paleontological artists of the 20th (and latest 19th) century. His iconic paintings of Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, woolly rhinos, and other prehistoric animals have influenced the direction of scientific thought, inspired movies and toys, and motivated paleontologists for decades. Every paleontologist, whether consciously or not, owes a debt of gratitude to Knight and his work.

I was particularly thrilled to receive a copy of Knight's autobiography for my birthday recently. This slim paperback, largely written by the author himself, is a fascinating glimpse into one of paleontology's vivid imaginations.

The story opens in Knight's childhood, with his earliest recollections of visits to the newly-founded American Museum of Natural History, among other memories. He details his early loss of vision in one eye, a sometimes strained relationship with his stepmother, and an early trip across the Atlantic to visit his father's family. The prose offers a window into a lost (but not necessarily simpler) time, as we see the stirrings of an interest in natural history.

The next phase of the book covers Knight's initial training in art, from sketches to stained glass. A parade of characters passes by at this and other points in the book, from the obscure, to the eccentric, to the famous. We learn about Knight's first wildlife art, and then his near-chance meeting with paleontologist Jacob Wortman. So began a paleo-art career that was to span decades.

The rest of the book largely functions as a travelogue, with occasional vignettes of paleontological characters. Most fascinating for me, as a dinosaur paleontologist, were the pages devoted to Knight's collaboration with Edward Drinker Cope. Knight describes in detail the faded glory of Cope's home at 2102 Pine Street, packed to the brim with papers and bones. Curiously, despite the tremendous influence that Cope had upon Knight's early art, the men only knew each other for a few months before Cope's death.

Perhaps because Knight wrote the book as an autobiography rather than a paleontological treatise, the reader gets only the briefest glimpse into Knight's imagination and thoughts on prehistory. The book is focused on people and places, rather than on the fossils. Some readers may be disappointed by this, but I found the format quite engaging from start to finish. Judicious editing by Jim Ottaviani helps the book flow along quickly--the manuscript was left unfinished by Knight, so I am sure it took a little bit of work to whip the text into shape.

The book is greatly augmented by a few pages of text from some notables--forewords by Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen, and afterwords by a number of paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History. Illustrations by Mark Schultz bring to life many of the distinctive characters (including what is probably the earliest description of a "crazy snake guy"). Finally, memories from Charles Knight's granddaughter, Rhoda Knight Kalt, add a unique perspective and a fitting tribute. If you're looking for an enjoyable read in the field this summer, make sure to pack this book!

Charles R. Knight, Autobiography of an Artist, by Charles R. Knight (with forewords, introductions, and afterwords by a number of other folks), 112 pages, published by G. T. Labs, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Open Access Dissertations in Physical Anthropology

My colleague Biren Patel (who is doing some awesome research on primate locomotion and functional morphology) passed on this link to open access dissertations in physical anthropology and paleoanthropology, hosted by the Paleoanthropology Society. A number of very nice dissertations from major centers of anthropological research are posted here, some that have been published formally and others that have not. We paleontologists would do well to heed more closely the world of physical anthropology - oftentimes the "hot new techniques" presented at SVP have long been old news in the anthropology world. Furthermore, a number of our anthropological colleagues are asking the exact same questions we are! It pays to keep up on their literature.

The Paleoanthropology Society also hosts an on-line, open access journal called (oddly enough) PaleoAnthropology. Go check it out!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The True Cost of Journal Subscriptions

Most of us paleontologists have a handful of journals to which we personally subscribe, usually associated with society memberships. In other cases, we rely upon our institution's library, other local libraries, or the goodwill of colleagues to get access. In these days of tight budgets, many libraries are eyeing journal cuts. But, one might say, "I only pay $100 a year in membership dues--surely the institutions can't be that strapped for cash!" The key thing, though, is that institutional and individual subscriptions are entirely different animals.

To some extent, it is easy to legitimize a higher cost for an institutional subscription. An inexpensive journal is a perk of society membership, for instance--and this low cost is subsidized in part by library subscription fees. Additionally, the journal publishers might have a much slimmer amount of income per printed page for institutional subscriptions (because many, many people would be utilizing the same copy). So, to keep things running smoothly, it's necessary to charge a little more to an institution.

Unfortunately, the problem results when subscription rates increase at a rate exceeding institutional budgets. The fact of the matter is that some journals are just ridiculously expensive for a library to purchase! Just how ridiculously expensive, you might ask? Let's consider the case of the journal Palaeoworld. In 2008, the journal had a total of 264 published pages, and an annual institutional subscription cost of $532. This comes to a cost per printed page of $2.02--no wonder most institutions can't afford it!

You are probably thinking to yourself that I've chosen a ridiculous example--and to some extent I have. Palaeoworld is a relatively small journal targeting a limited audience. Let's look at a "better known" journal--Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. They regularly publish high-impact, groundbreaking research--to the tune of $1.02 per page. The venerable Cretaceous Research costs $1.09 per page!

Then, there are the cases that are so egregiously expensive that it simply boggles the mind. Consider Journal of Morphology. It's not strictly a paleontology journal, but it frequently publishes paleontology-related content--and its reputation is pretty solid. In fact, I've even published there. Yet, a yearly institutional subscription costs $6,031!!! That works out to a staggering $3.89 per page.

Are there any reasonably-priced journals for institutions? Fortunately, there are some, if you dig around a little. Kudos to the folks at Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, with a price per page of 22 cents. And let's hear it for Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, barely tipping the scales at 13 cents per page. As opposed to the examples above, these are society or labor-of-love journals published through relatively small publishing houses. Yet, even the for-profit journal Nature manages 42 cents per page for institutional subscriptions. In my mind, these are all perfectly reasonable costs.

Some savvy publishers have figured out a very slick way to seemingly lower the price--"bundling" packages of electronically-accessed journals together for a group discount. This is somewhat admirable in modestly reducing the overall price per page (for the short term), but it also means that you get stuck with supporting journals of very, very dubious scientific quality. See this news release from Cornell about why it's not a good economic idea in the long-run, too (and a quick internet search will turn up many other examples).

I think that the concept of commercial journal publication is not inherently bad--there are a number of good-quality journals run by such companies. It's just that they're so blatantly overcharging for access to this content! A journal clocking in at $2/page is not sustainable in the long-run. Although I have a strong preference for open access (which someone has to pay for somewhere along the line), I also recognize that some very good closed-access journals provide a valuable service (and see delayed open access as a viable compromise).

So, I challenge you publishing readers (and myself) to weigh all of the factors before submitting that next research paper. What is the impact factor? How respected is the journal? And, will people be able to afford to read it? Let's publish responsibly.

Methodological Notes--I grabbed the most recent available annual, instutional subscription prices from publishers' websites, with rates for US institutions in US dollars whenever possible. I then counted up the total number of pages published in 2008, and divided this by the subscription rate to come up with a value for dollars/page.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Get the Goat Head Paper for Free!

I am happy to announce that one of the papers resulting from my dissertation research, on head-butting in goats, is now freely available for download. You can get the paper in HTML or PDF form. For a previous blog post on the topic, check here. Journal of Experimental Biology is one of the progressive mainstream journals that opens up their archives after six months. . .it is a high-profile publication (impact factor in 2007, for what it's worth, of 2.972), and there are a lot of really cool papers in there (beyond mine, of course). Go check it out!

Farke AA (2008) Frontal sinuses and head-butting in goats: a finite element analysis. Journal of Experimental Biology 211: 3085-3094. doi:10.1242/jeb.019042