Thursday, June 3, 2010

Interview: Ricardo Araújo on Journal of Paleontological Techniques

Fossil preparators are the unsung heroes of paleontology. For every paper on a spectacular Archaeopteryx skeleton, or an exquisite new ceratopsian skull, there is at least one talented preparator who freed the fossil from its rocky tomb. Despite the importance of preparators for paleontology, there are surprisingly few formal publications devoted to the trade (beyond the occasional symposium volume). Even rarer are open access publications on fossil preparation. Thus, it is a real pleasure to share this interview with Ricardo Araújo, the executive editor for Journal of Paleontological Techniques.

Tell us a little about Journal of Paleontological Techniques. How did the journal get started?
The Journal of Paleontological Techniques got started due to the difficulties that we felt in the Museu da Lourinha (in Portugal) to get access information relative to preparation. Unfortunately it is extremely hard for a peripheral country to have access to the know-how developed in the great centers of knowledge, namely central Europe and the US. So, we had to find an economical way without detriment of scientific rigor; publishing and editing articles using an open access philosophy seemed the right solution. Furthermore, the lack of a systematic compilation of paleontological techniques is evident in the literature.

What makes Journal of Paleontological Techniques unique?
There are a few things that make our journal unique:
  1. There is no other journal focused on the practical side of paleontology. Some typical paleontological journals publish sporadically on paleontological techniques, and there are a handful of printed publications. However, there is an immense quantity of knowledge acquired by generations of preparators that is hard to access if you cannot go to the main conferences or workshops.
  2. Also, preparation is practical in its essence. Thus, our papers can include videos and as many photos as necessary to make a technique easily perceptible. Most of the time it is difficult to express these techniques in words.
  3. Our publications are edited in volumes. Each article is published by itself as a volume, which decreases the total amount of time for publication. This flexibility allows us, for example, to publish annals of congresses or symposia.
  4. Our journal is totally open access and double-blind peer-reviewed. This doesn’t make our journal unique but certainly a “rare specimen.”

What advice would you give to authors who are interested in submitting their manuscripts to JPT?
Write! The preparation community is not used to writing about their findings, some of which are extremely important and can save thousands of euros for paleontological institutions. To spread paleontological techniques is to advance paleontology as a whole. Preparation is a science as well, in its most Popperian essence. To test and refute paleontological techniques is possible, and in fact, is done by all preparators everyday when we use different products, methods and tools, striving for the best way to do something efficiently.

What kind of difficulties, if any, have you encountered in editing JPT? How have these been solved?
When we embraced this project we quickly realized that the challenge was not to create the space to publish practical-paleontological ideas, but almost to change the status quo that preparators face nowadays. Institutions hire preparators to prepare fossils, not to write scientific articles. However, to my eyes, that is a rather limited view about the role of preparation. Preparation is the technical side of paleontology, and like any other science paleontology has its own methods—methods that are publishable. Actually, methods that are required to be published. Moreover, thinking strictly in an economic perspective, by spreading this sort of knowledge, preparator’s employers will quickly realize that they can save money by KNOWING and SHARING their knowledge.

In order to circumvent this problem, we are trying to present at as many events related to preparation as possible, not only to publicize the journal itself but also to spread the ideas behind it. We are part of mailing lists, groups of geosciences journals, and a gazillion things like that. For every preparation-related paleontological event that we know, we try to contact the organizers in order to publish the abstracts or edit a volume with selected papers. We are currently trying to organize an opinion paper that will be submitted in a mainstream paleontological journal, about the underestimation of the importance of preparation/paleontological techniques as a legitimate science. We recently got a wave of papers submitted, and hopefully it will be sustainable.

What has been the best part of editing a journal like JPT?
What I enjoy most about this project is actually the spirit of the journal and the challenge it represents. I believe the actual scenario is difficult, but not impossible to surpass. Ideally we would like to get help and cooperation from various areas of the preparation community, starting from the preparators themselves, up to the heads of departments, and paleontologists.

Image credit: courtesy Ricardo Araújo, originally published at Palaeontologia Electronica.