"It blows my damn mind that a century ago people like Charles Whitney Gilmore and John Bell Hatcher could measure a dinosaur to within an inch of its life, and publish all of those measurements in their descriptions, and lots of folks did this and it was just part of being a competent scientist and doing your damn job. And here we are in the 21st century with CT machines, laser surface scanners, ion reflux pronabulators and the like, and using a narf-blappin’ TAPE MEASURE is apparently a lost art."Just for giggles, I decided to find out if things really were better in the past, or if we're just waxing nostalgic for a golden age of documentation that never existed. Being someone who is number-inclined, I grabbed a bunch of ornithischian data from The Open Dinosaur Project. Using some handy-dandy spreadsheet functions, I extracted data for the year of publication for a series of measurements as well as the number of relevant limb bone measurements for that paper that made it into our database.
Then, it was time to run statistics! I wanted to see if there was a correlation between year of publication for a specimen's measurement and the number of measurements published for each specimen. So, I ran a non-parametric test of correlation (Spearman's rho, or ρ). Care to guess what I found?
Sadly, Wedel is right. There is a negative correlation between year of publication and number of measurements: ρ = -0.44, P less than 0.0001.
So then I thought, there are a lot of papers that have just published a single measurement of an isolated bone, or a whole table of single element specimen measurements (e.g., femur length for 20 different species). Maybe that was biasing the dataset. Thus, I trimmed out all of the entries that had only one measurement. Still, there was a significant negative correlation (ρ = -0.27, P less than 0.0001). The average paper published between 1920 and 1930 had 18.5 measurements; between 2000 and 2009, 14 measurements.
Have our dinosaur skeletons gotten less complete? Or have we given in to the need to squeeze less information in less space, and perhaps a little laziness on the side? What will it take to change this trend? It's all food for thought.
Caveat: This is a highly unscientific, probably very non-random sample. Oh well.