Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The 2010 Paleo Project Challenge

Everyone has an unfinished project. Most of us have at least a half dozen. Those partly finished manuscripts, paintings, data sets, and preparation projects. Oh, we started out with good intentions. Maybe we even poured a productive week into it. But then, the honeymoon glow faded. Something else got in the way. The field season, or teaching duties, or another more pressing project, or a grant deadline, or just plain old life circumstances, interrupted us.

Luckily, all of that work doesn't have to go to waste. Why not finish up that project? What are you waiting for? Heck, what am I waiting for?

Regular readers of this blog may remember that Dave Hone and I instituted the "Paleo Paper Challenge" (PPC) last year, in an effort to shame all of us into cleaning our (figurative) research plate. We had pretty remarkable success - although not everyone (including ourselves) were able to finish everything we wanted to, most folks made some major progress. Some papers even made it into publication, in venues like Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and PLoS ONE. Not too shabby.

Not wanting to rest on our laurels, it's time to kick things off for 2010. This year, Dave and I want to pursue a "bigger tent" approach. Why limit the PPC to just academic research? Let's open it up to all paleo enthusiasts! Preparators, artists, researchers, bloggers. . .after all, paleontology does not survive on publication alone. Thus, we are happy to kick off:

The Paleo Project Challenge
Do you have a paper that just needs the finishing touches before it heads off to publication? Is there some half-prepped fossil sitting in a cabinet in the lab? Have you started and finished a big blog post half a dozen times, but never pulled the trigger? Is that masterpiece rendering of a live Tylosaurus still sitting on the easel? Stop sitting around, and finish it!

Here are the rules:
1) Indicate your willingness to participate in the Paleo Project Challenge (PPC) in the blog comment section. You should at a minimum indicate the category it falls under (paper, blog, art, or whatever), and the project (if you can - we totally understand the need for secrecy in some cases!).
2) Do the work! You have until December 31, 2010. Remember, we're all watching.
3) Once you're done, celebrate!

You can read more about it from Dave's perspective here. Now, let's get to work!

My Commitments
1) Write up the ODP results.
2) Finish a long-running paper on ceratopsian anatomy.

What are you going to do? Chime in below in the comments section!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Horned Dinosaurs: When It Rains, It Pours

ResearchBlogging.org2010 will surely go down as the annus mirabilis of horned dinosaur research. Between the publications of the horned dinosaur symposium volume (with its myriad new taxa and other exciting pieces of research), a "bagaceratopsid" in Europe, a true ceratopsid in Asia, the hypothesis that Torosaurus and Triceratops are growth stages of the same taxon, and more, it's really tough for a "ceratophile" (to borrow Peter Dodson's term) to keep up!

Today continues the embarrassment of ceratopsian riches. With my co-authors Scott Sampson, Mark Loewen, Cathy Forster, Eric Roberts, Alan Titus, and Josh Smith, I'm pleased to introduce you to Utahceratops gettyi and Kosmoceratops richardsoni (at top and bottom, respectively, in the image at right), freshly published in PLoS ONE. Although it's been a long time coming, our hope is that these new critters will really knock your socks off!

So what's so special about these two animals? Well, for one they're new dinosaurs. And new horned dinosaurs at that. On a broader note, our new critters (along with careful radiometric dating of the Kaiparowits Formation, the rock unit in southern Utah from which they originated) provide important evidence for dinosaur provincialism during the Late Cretaceous. In other words, these big, elephant-sized dinosaurs weren't traveling far. They're the same age as dinosaurs known from much further to the north, yet represent a very different part of the horned dinosaur family tree. This is strange, especially when you consider that today there is only one (or maybe two, depending on whom you ask) elephant species in all of Africa! 75 million years ago, there were three or four closely related species of horned dinosaur living simultaneously on that little strip of beachfront property that comprised western North America. And that's not counting a few more less closely-related horned dinosaurs (centrosaurines) that lived at the same time! Truly weird.

There's been a lot said more eloquently elsewhere about these animals, so I'm just going to close with an answer to the question that should be at the top of many people's minds. Given the possibility that Torosaurus and Triceratops might be growth stages of a single species, how do we know that Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops aren't just growth stages of one species? After all, they lived at the same time in the same place, and end up somewhat close together on the phylogenetic analysis. Well, we certainly haven't done much in the way of histology yet, which would lay the issue completely to rest. However, as readers of the paper will note, we have obvious juveniles (based on sutural fusion and cranial element size) of both species. Although these remain to be published, in my opinion they pretty firmly demonstrate that both species of dinosaur were very different very early on in their development.

So, go read the paper!

Full disclosure: I am a section editor at PLoS ONE, the journal at which this new paper was published. However, I had absolutely no involvement in the handling of the manuscript (assigning the academic editor, selecting reviewers, making a publication decision, etc.).

Image credit: Lukas Panzarin

Sampson, S., Loewen, M., Farke, A., Roberts, E., Forster, C., Smith, J., & Titus, A. (2010). New horned dinosaurs from Utah provide evidence for intracontinental dinosaur endemism PLoS ONE, 5 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012292

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Crossing the Finish Line for the Dissertation

Well, it's done.

All of the chapters of my dissertation have been published as papers in peer-reviewed journals.

It's been two years and four months since I submitted the final draft of my dissertation to my university, and wow, is it ever nice to finally lay the thing to rest. As a bit of a celebration, I wanted to pontificate share some musings on the whole process, and offer some hope for those who might be working on their dissertation right now. So, how did this all come to fruition? What did I do right (in my opinion), and what might I have done differently?

Start Early
Basically, I knew from the get-go that I didn't want to write one of those perpetually unpublished dissertations. You all know the ones I'm talking about. That really ground-breaking, highly citable, novel piece of research that's been sitting around completely unpublished since the person got his or her Ph.D. back in 1976. I can't really blame them - maybe they dropped out of the field. Maybe they decided research wasn't their thing. Maybe bigger and better projects happened along. These are all legitimate reasons (life happens!), but it doesn't make an unpublished dissertation any less annoying. As anyone in the field knows, journals (and reviewers) sometimes look askance at a reference listed as "unpublished thesis" or "unpublished dissertation."

So, I made a mental commitment early on to strive to get my dissertation published as quickly as possible. This was key in achieving the eventual goal.

Get Your Committee On Board
My dissertation committee wanted to see my stuff published, too. In fact, they specifically requested that I frame each of my dissertation chapters as discrete, publishable units. This was good advice. The days of creating a book-length narrative, which is retroactively turned into publishable manuscripts, are over. If you have the dissertation chapters framed as discrete, submission-ready papers, you can save a lot of time! This is a much more common practice than it used to be, which is a good thing (in my opinion).

So, before I had even finished writing the dissertation chapters, I had decided what journals I was going to submit to. Then, I formatted all of the figures, text, and references appropriately. This saved a ton of time in the end!

Git 'er Done
Once the dissertation is written, the congratulations received, and the diploma framed, the real work begins. Get those chapters submitted for publication. Take a week to rest on your laurels, and then get back to work. Every day you procrastinate is another opportunity to completely forget about submitting the papers for peer review. In fact, maybe even consider submitting some chapters before you graduate, if you can.

In the end, though, the only way I managed to get this done as quickly as I did (not that two years is that quick!) was to guilt-trip myself into doing it. Maybe that's what will work for you, too. And as I tell many people - don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Your work will never be perfect. There are always more data. There's always another specimen to measure. But at some point, you just have to call it "good enough."

Submit that paper. Because chances are, there's someone else out there who wants--perhaps even needs--to cite you. And I'm sure they would much rather cite a peer-reviewed paper than an unpublished (if excellent) dissertation or thesis. And for every day delayed, there's just another little way in which you have to revise the manuscript before submission. Science marches on, with or without us.

Not many, on my part. All in all, I'm happy with how my dissertation chapters have turned out. I might have had a few more figures in the ceratopsian one. Maybe a slightly longer discussion in the goat head FEM one. Perhaps I might have pushed to get the ZJLS paper published a little sooner. Oh well. They're done, they're published, and I can clear my plate for new projects.

Speaking of clearing plates, isn't it about time to relaunch the Paleo Paper Challenge?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Return to the Blogosphere

I'm back! Let's just say that a global circumnavigation, two months away from home, and a move in the middle, don't leave a lot of time for blogging. It was a fun and productive summer, but now it's time to settle back in for the fall.

For this re-inaugural post, I wanted to touch on a few highlights from the past few months, particularly in the world of open access and paleo research. I'll cover a variety of topics in more detail in future posts, hopefully.

Big Happenings at PLoS ONE

The online, freely accessible journal PLoS ONE hit a variety of important milestones this summer, including:
  • For the first time, the journal received an official impact factor from Thompson-Reuters. The result: a respectable 4.351. Although this value certainly exceeds that for your typical paleontology journal (e.g., Paleobiology has an IF of 2.985, and JVP has an IF of 2.536), it is more properly compared to other general interest journals. For instance, Naturwissenschaften has an IF of 2.126 and Proceedings B an IF of 4.857. Thus, PLoS ONE is doing pretty well in the whole impact factor "game." Although impact factor has come under a lot of fire lately, we still face the reality that many scientists need to publish in journals that have an IF. Thus, the assignment of an official IF is a big step forward for the journal.
  • PLoS ONE launched a new (and hopefully more user friendly) manuscript submission system. Read all about it here.
  • PLoS launched a new blog network.
  • Full disclosure: I am a section editor at PLoS ONE.
Happenings Around the Blogosphere
  • The venerable ScienceBlogs had a major sea change, with a number of respected bloggers jumping ship. I'm still working on updating my personal blog feeds. But, don't forget that notables such as Tetrapod Zoology remain!
  • WitmerLab launched a great new blog, chock full of goodies from all of the folks there.
  • The spam filters at Blogger are horrible. I'm seriously considering transferring over to WordPress.
Research Happenings
That is all for now.