Paleo Blogs: Where the action is

During the past month Andy Farke of The Open Source Paleontologist has been considering the rise (and fall) of paleontology-oriented mailing lists (like the Dinosaur Mailing List and the VRTPALEO Discussion List). These lists are good for a lot of things, like quickly disseminating news to a large audience of specialists or requesting papers/information, but more and more in-depth discussions of paleontology are moving onto blogs. Andy has already covered some of the major points, but I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.

There are advantages and disadvantages to science blogging vs. discussions on a mailing lists. Blogs, for instance, are public venues that typically allow comments and are often easily found by members of the public through simple Google searches. Discussions can be as technical as bloggers want them to be, although many paleontology blogs attempt to make technical concepts understandable to readers with out an extensive scientific background.

On the other hand, however, science blogs do not have the built-in audience of experts that the DML or VRTPALEO lists do. If your aim is to generate an in-depth discussion of a study or scientific topic it can be difficult to get people involved if they are not already reading. Even so, it seems to me that professional paleontologists and other scientists are increasingly showing up on blogs. The comment section of yesterday's post about the fossil anthropoid Ganlea, for example, now features a spirited back-and-forth between paleontologists Chris Beard and Philip Gingerich, and Jessica Theodor stopped by a few months ago to clarify a few points about a phylogeny of cetartiodactyls she co-authored. Paul Sereno, as well, also engaged in a detailed back-and-forth with the fellows at SV-POW! about Aerosteon, another case in which the "behind-the-scenes" aspect of science was made public.

Paleo blogs also facilitate private discussions and correspondence, and there appears to be an increasing number of paleontologists who read blogs at least occasionally. As a freelance science writer and aspiring paleontologist this has been invaluable. Blogging has put me in direct contact with professionals who have offered constructive criticism, encouragement, and advice that I would not have otherwise received. Indeed, since many paleo bloggers are students of varying levels these opportunities for interaction are invaluable. Even if professional paleontologists are not comfortable blogging themselves, I hope they will continue to engage with bloggers in some manner or another.

Blogs are not just commentary, however. It might make up only a fraction of what is posted on the web, and it may not be "peer-reviewed" in the traditional sense, but every now and then original research does turn up on blogs. I have published some original historical research on this blog myself, and doing so can provide a springboard to other publications (be it popular or academic). Indeed, blogs are not just regurgitation of what is already available but often contain original insights and contents. There is a lot of resistance to citing original contributions on the web, but the publication of original work at least has the potential to foster collaboration, discussion, and maybe even publication in the long run.

The paleo side of the blogohedron is indeed growing, especially more specialist blogs, and with this expansion comes some growing pains. I am thinking specifically of the role blogs and social networking sites might play at conferences. Last year Zach of When Pigs Fly Returns posted summaries of a few abstracts from the 2008 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, but he quickly took them down as it was unclear if the post was in violation of SVP policy. It appeared that bloggers fell under the same restrictions as journalists (i.e. that a writer needs the permission of a presenter to write anything), but I would like to see this issue more deeply considered. (See this post for a discussion of the same issue at another conference and the response of journals like Science and Nature. Also see these posts on SV-POW!.)

Unfortunately, as was illustrated during the Aetogate scandal, there are at least some members of SVP that do not look too kindly on science blogging. Like it or not, though, the way science is communicated within paleontology and to the public is changing. The paleontological community is going to have to come to grips with that. Blogs and Twitter should not be ignored. I would like to think that major groups like the SVP would want to work with bloggers (many of whom are students and scientists) to help popularize the discipline in a responsible manner, but so far there seems to be some institutional resistance to the idea.

What I would like to see, then, is a full consideration of the use of blogs, Twitter, and other resources to communicate presentations made at this year's upcoming SVP meeting in England. Now is a good time to reevaluate the purpose of embargoes on presentations and determine not only whether blogs undermine those purposes, but if social media can actively facilitate communication between scientists and to the public. Especially during a year when many people may not be able to attend this year's SVP meeting due to a lack of funds (like myself) it might be a good idea to look into new ways in which information can be shared so that those who cannot attend can engage in the proceedings, as well.

As I am not presently a member of SVP and cannot afford to go to this year's meeting I realize that I have little influence in this matter, but I would encourage paleontologists who are attending to push for a clear statement on blogging and the use of Twitter during the meeting. There is no guarantee that SVP would open access on these fronts, but bloggers need to know where they stand. Furthermore, such a statement could provide the starting point for a more fruitful discussion of how the web can be used to foster science communication within our discipline.

From what I have seen students, scientists, and members of the public are actively engaging each other through science blogs on a daily basis. It would be a shame to ignore the unique opportunity this presents to foster research and enhance the public's understanding of science. Please contribute your own thoughts in the comments.

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Twittering would be pointless in the wake of Aetogate, unfortunately. Attendees are unable to discuss in any kind of publishable media the findings discussed at the meeting to avoid claim-jumping. Example: We all saw Limusaurus as SVP last year, but nobody was allowed to mention it until it was described last week.

Personally, I think that's ridiculous.

I don't have time for a huge response/commentary right now, but did want to throw in a few things. Because I'm someone who is both a scientist and a blogger, I've got mixed feelings on this issue (and this has been covered in some detail on other blogs recently).

First, I'm going to play devil's advocate. Attendees can discuss findings from the SVP meetings--provided they have permission from the authors. Reasons for this are myriad, often for reasons out of the authors' control. Journals like Science and Nature may not accept an article if it seems like it received too much advance publicity (although there is some wiggle room afforded that may allow an "out" for blogs - for instance, Nature doesn't mind at all if a paper is posted and discussed on a pre-print server!). A glamour mag paper can be the difference between a job offer or the wait list, tenure or unemployment, funding or poverty; naturally, folks get a little skittish when these sorts of things are perceived to be at stake! Funding organizations like National Geographic Society may have "right of first refusal" for any media coverage (which presumably includes blogs).

Furthermore, there is the stigma of being "that guy" who is always in the media but never in the literature (think back to finds like "Dakota," "Leonardo," and "Sue," which saw oodles of press and blog coverage before anything ever made it into the peer-reviewed literature - and you will find rather critical opinions from many professionals on what they think of doing science this way). Nobody wants to be "that guy" who is forever blogging about their new specimens but never publishing them. Unless full data are published and the specimens are completely available for study, it's nearly impossible to verify any extraordinary statements. Claim jumping is less of an issue, because usually the folks who might do so are already right there in the lecture hall (with the exception of nomenclatural vandals - you don't even have to see the specimen to try and rename it!).

But at the same time (as I argued on my own posts), the scientific conversation is moving onto the blogosphere and social networks. This is the reality. By and large, this conversation will move the science forward. I think this is a good thing. I want to get feedback on my ideas in progress. . .but worry about the "colleague" who might use the information to scoop me. I'd love to share more about my field sites here and abroad. . .but worry about unscrupulous collectors. I would welcome blog coverage of my SVP presentations - but fear it would hurt me in the long-run. Secrecy and silence keep paleontology running, and simultaneously (consequently?) are a deep running poison within the field.

In a dream world, I would love to run an "open" paleo research project with a wiki where anyone could contribute to the discussion and data collection, analyze the data, help write the paper, and share in the credit. . .anyone want to make this happen?

[ok, this is way longer than intended - sorry!]

Andy; All good points. That's why I wanted to open up this discussion. As an "outsider" with little experience I wanted to hear from people who have a better feel for this subject.

Also, just in case anyone misunderstands, I am not demanding that the SVP meeting be opened up to Twitter, blogs, &c. with no restriction. Given the cases where people have found themselves in hot water for sharing abstract details or tweeting thoughts on a presentation, however, I think the SVP needs to issue a clear statement of what is and is not acceptable to them in terms of online involvement. Even if it is simply to say "The rules are the same as for journalists" at least is a starting point. It is not a good thing to ignore blogs or Twitter, be it in terms of the good they can do or the potential harm they can do, and I think it's about time these questions get addressed. I just would hate to see a blogger write about an abstract or presentation and then get in trouble because SVP policy on such things was not stated clearly. It is time to at least think about the changing nature of how science is communicated, between scientists and to the public, even if the decision is that nothing should be changed yet. Thank you, again, for your detailed comment.

The 2008 SVP abstract volume had the following text: "Observers are reminded that the technical content of the SVP sessions is not to be reported in any medium (print, electronic, or Internet) without the prior permission of the authors." This would seem to exclude bloggers, tweeters, and conventional journalists from doing pretty much anything.

It does leave rather nebulous the question of writing about an abstract at the meetings. . .for instance, if I went to Dr. Jane's presentation on new mosasaurs from Swaziland, would I be able to blog about it after the fact if I only referenced information found in the abstract? I would say "yes," it's fine to blog (but probably not to real-time blog or tweet). For those who would say, "But it's reporting on content from the presentation" - I would respond, "Yes, but it's also in print!"

I am really glad all of this was brought up. Though I started a blog for personal reasons several years back, only in the last couple of months have I started a new one that is intended to share ideas and thoughts about my research interests. As a working paleontologist/comparative anatomist, I also see and agree with Andy's points, particularly that of the poison of secrecy. I have had many conversations about this with others, and still find it silly.
I don't know about others, but I find myself getting excited by a paper, or specimen I've seen in a collection, and immediately begin thinking of ideas for future projects. Usually, I would start a brief manuscript, or just jot down a note detailing what I would do. That was fun and exciting when I was a student and it felt like time was on my side, but now that those notes and starts to manuscripts has grown to number in the hundreds, and I work in an institution that lacks graduate students, I find it daunting to think that it is very unlikely that I'll get to know any answers to those questions before I die.
So, my solution has been the blog. I am not divulging any secrets or my most ingenious or active ideas in progress, only sharing thoughts on what could/should be done, if the opportunity arose. I would LOVE it if that occasionally leads to some folks, especially students, to approach me about collaborating (especially because in many cases I already have a good deal of data collected or available). But if not, no biggie.
I am trying to enjoy these thoughts and ideas and stop keeping them hidden like a hermit, hoping that sometime it will pay off. At NYCOM we are considering making all of our lectures for the medical school as open access videos, mainly because those sorts of things ARE the future of education, and we would rather start off as the voice of it rather than let others take that helm. In a way, science blogging, particularly by those that are active members of the research community, is not only a very positive way to communicate with the public, but also to communicate with our peers. As someone about to turn 32, I know that a number of leaders in our field don't read these blogs, but as time passes and people like all of us bloggers are the "old guard", this sort of thing will be commonplace and I think, expected.
So let's have fun with it, and share. I am a member of SVP (since 1998) and WILL bring it up at the meeting in Bristol (which I will be attending).
Cheers guys!

As a lay reader with a lifelong interest in palaeontology, I've found science blogs a huge improvement over print media. I can read a great post by an enthusiastic student like yourself, or a post on a new paper by the author of that paper and then eavesdrop on an argument in the comment section. All that's missing is a pitcher of beer!

Not being a researcher, I'm not on the mailing lists, so I can't comment on those. But, as the recent events in Iran have shown, New forms of communication are in the mainstream and expanding rapidly. A professional organization that resists the integration of this new communication runs the risk of making itself obsolete.

Hopefully I can expand on a few things as like Andy I'm both a blogger and researcher. I am, in general, in favour of things being 'open', but I think there is some confusion here between 'open' and 'now'. Limusaurus, (to pick a pertinent, recent example in which I was involved) is now open to everyone. Nature may not be open access, but people have passed arund the PDF, the media has reproduced things, blogs have been written, arguments had etc. etc. etc. Now, really in the grand scheme of things has any non-professional researcher been harmed one iota but the delay of a few months from the SVP presentation to the actual publciation of the paper? And let the author have thier full sya at the right time in the right way and not base it on a few hundred words and a poster or 10 minute talk.

However, had the talk (or yes, even the abstract as reproduced in the handbook) been freely discussed months ago, our job getting that paper published (at least in the forum we were aiming at, in the manner we chose as authors) might have been a lot harder. Potential referees might have felt they were not fully independent if they has read a few hundred comments on a blog post about the research, the editors might not have felt the work was as original as it might have been, potential opponents might have been able to petition the journal, or someone would cite the work as 'in prep' while the document itself was still changing or who knows what. Instead we were largely able to do our work in private and quiety, discuss things with people we chose in the manner we wanted and so on. Yes there were comments and discussions at SVP of course, but were it not for the fundamental nature of conference abstracts (and I have written about their misleading nature on my blog before) we might well have said even less about it.

I would argue therfore that the bloggers and reader lose very little by not being able to cite absracts freely. There might be a delay in publciation, sure, but that's about it and at least you are still forewarned about the paper / research. The abstract might be misleading anyway and come on, if you *really* want to cite something, how hard is it to write to the author and as permission? Takes 2 minutes tops. On the other hand, I do think the authors have potentially quite a lot to loose. Abstracts may let the cat out of the bag to a degree, but they are normally 1/10th of the paper, and generally the exciting tenth but without all the detials, caveats and expansive wrok that goes behind them.

As a result I would say that the default should be a ban. The authors should not have to go out of their way not to ask people to discuss things they do not want discussed, or without all the information to hand in the way they want it presented. They should be given a basic right to have thier work protected and it is not hard to ask for permission if you really want to talk about something. (No, not everyone will say yes, or even reply, but that's their right).

Open access is great and good, but abstracs ae, I would argue not a part of that (and let's be fair, in theory the vast majority of papers are not open access they just appear to be because of the way they are passed around). Let people produce their own work at their own rate in their own way and treat abstracts as a teaser trailer for the goodies to come. You can wait for The Dark Knight, you can wait for that Nature paper to come out, it really won't kill you and you'll learn a lot more from it that a second hard report of a 200 word abstract.

This is a really interesting question. Many other fields don't have bans on writing about or publicly discussing material presented at conferences, so why does paleontology--and especially vert paleo--consider itself a special case? (I was going to say "most other fields" but I realized I may be wrong about this--I welcome correction if that's the case)

One argument against SVP's policy would be to ask why, if an author has decided to 'let the cat out of the bag' in a conference presentation, that information should be 'protected' from further publicity. SVP's policy begins to sound like an argument from elitism in this light: only a 'select' group of insiders (e.g. SVP attendees) are privileged or trustworthy enough to hear sensitive information. But that doesn't make much sense, since the very people most likely to make use of the info (e.g. other vert paleontologists) are also most likely to attend the conference--they don't need to hear about it on a blog.

Of course, conference attendees tacitly accept the ban on publication, so SVP presumably believes that information is 'safe.' But the kind of writing and discussion Brian and others are arguing for isn't scientific publication that would devalue or dilute the original research, so what's the harm? It sounds like Dave's position is that blogging and internet conversation might open more opportunities for potential abuse. But I don't really buy that, since the same basic rule should apply when learning about something in a blog as when learning about something at a conference: don't use the information in a scientific publication unless given explicit permission by the authors.

The bottom line as I see it is don't present something at a conference that you wouldn't want to see blogged about. Limiting the venue and media for further discussion of ideas seems to defeat the purpose of a 'conference' in the first place.

But hey, I'm just a historian, so maybe I'm overlooking some vital aspect of the issue here. If I am, then somebody please set me straight!

Sorry - to add one more comment, though: I wouldn't expect to see scientists flocking to blogs the same way they did to the old listservs. For one thing, the listservs were a more 'closed' environment, meaning that just any old person couldn't come wandering in to the discussion. Blog comments, on the other hand, attract a much wider range of participants, which may discourage scientists and other academics from participating.

Now, I'm not making my own argument from elitism, just making an observation: while many blogs remain civil and maintain a high level of discussion (like this one), I and many scientists I know keep comments to a minimum because of bad experiences on other blogs (like Pharyngula). In fact, I've seen a number of occasions where a moderate or high-profile scientist (or philosopher, etc.) shows up to a discussion only to set off a feeding frenzy among the anonymous internet chatterers. Some of those folks, it seems, get such little excitement in their 'real' lives that they see the opportunity to attack someone 'famous' as an irresistible temptation.

So the question, then, would be how to encourage open dialog among scientists and other respectful, interested observers (hey, I'm not a scientist myself!) without inviting the kind of atmosphere that prevails in the comments on many popular blogs. I dunno the answer to that one.

Thought-provoking post as usual Brian. It's interesting to see this self-reflexive discussion--"The rightful place of blogs in the broader scientific dialogue"--emerging across so many Paleo Blogs over the last few months. But I suppose this sort of critical self obsession is really one of the hallmarks (for better and worse often) of the blogohypercube.

I think that this is actually one of the factors which unsettles the "old guard" as Brian Beatty calls them. It's not actually what bloggers write so much that has the greatest impact but what "blogging" is perceived to be--namely a self-styled revolutionary front--even when much of what is produced is not really revolutionary or actually threatening to the status quo in any radical way. It seems trite to invoke McLuhan here, but I think in this case the medium really is the message for advocates and opponents alike.

David Sepkoski (I really, really wish I had taken one of his classes while he was at Oberlin by the way...damn) raises the interesting question of why vertebrate paleontology seems to regard itself as a special case when it comes to communication of new discoveries preliminary results. As Andy Farke notes, part of it is related to the sensitive and irreplaceable nature of many of the objects and sites that we work with. Vandals and private collectors can easily compromise decades worth of research in an afternoon (private collectors can also fuel decades of research depending on the circumstances--but that is obviously an entirely separate, and seemingly never-ending discussion).

Another part of it, however pertains to the unique culture of avocational paleontology enthusiasts with whom "professional" (i.e. degreed, academic paleontologists) have a very ambivalent and often strained relationship. However, many non-scientists are dues paying members of SVP and attend the annual meeting (which must be a fairly unique situation among scientific conferences), so really, enforcing a blog embargo doesn't entirely solve this "problem." But, perhaps it is seen as controlling it at least: limiting the amount of speculation and arm-chairing that takes place before research has had the chance to be scrutinized through peer-review.

Popularization is often seen as a delegitimizing agent within science, perhaps because sometimes it can actually be an engine for shoddy work, oversimplification and misinformation. On the other hand, science is (as much as most scientists are loathe to admit) a social endeavor and there are both noble and craven reasons to cultivate appreciation and communication with non-scientists as well as the broader scientific community. I think the benefits offered by blogging along this front fair outweigh the "threats" discussed above, but perhaps some sort of balance has to be struck.

I certainly did not want to advocate elitism, and it's news to me the palaeontology is a special case (though that's probably because I don't go to any physics or maths conferences). However as Neil points out, in may ways we *are* a special case, whether we like it or not. I currently work in China and most of the fossils we collect are the ones the farmers and fossil dealers have left behind. Of the few good sites we *do* have there is a constant risk of them being discovered and material being taken or destroyed.

Even in mainstream biology if you want to study a rare species there are generally a few specimens in museums you can visit, often in dino palaeo at least we have only one partial skeleton of a given animal that might have costs tens of thousands of dollars to excavate in terms of time, effort, prospecting work, preparation and curation etc. and the risk of your site being 'given away', or the details of years of research being 'leaked' are very real. Now of course in a great many circumstances there is little to worry about in terms of more people knowing. But, there is a significant fraction of the work that should be kept quiet.

Perhaps this is elitist, but I am not sure that all of the people who do read blogs etc. can be trusted with the kind of information handed out. It's not a problem (I imagine, I admit I don't know) for a maths conference - few non-professionals will be interested, those that are will read blogs etc. but perhaps it will go no further. However, release the identity of a new dinosaur locality on the web and there is a real danger of the site being plundered. I'm not sure how many people new about Messel (aside from the hardcore amateurs and professionals) before Darwinnius, but I would bet good money on people making a bee-line for the site now that it's scientific importance has come to light,
and the fossils are clearly a) capable of being collected by private individuals and b) being sold for very large amounts of money. Other problems like taxonomic names being published by accident and issues over priority are also likely to add further complications by those who might not realise the problems they may be creating.

I guess the question I would pose is that is it elitist to try to prevent people from writing about your work publicly who may, unwittingly, cause you significant problems / set your research back because they lack the expert knowledge to do so? One can of course try to educate these people or subsume them into the culture of research and I think to a degree palaeontology has done this successfully (hence the large numbers of blogs, SVP attendees and amateurs who publish in scientific journals). However, we can't reach everyone (other blog readers, people with a passing interest, internet forums) and these are (potentially or possibly) those who might cause problems.

To a degree I was brought through my palaeontolgoical training with a general understanding that you spoke about your research to people you wanted to know about your research and if you were one of those, you didn't pass the details on without permission. Perhaps this is elitist or paranoid, but as things like Aeteogate have demonstrated there is a real risk of being gazumped over your research. That might be a 'cultural issue' in palaeontology, but then if it's one we are not even aware exists (it's news to me that this is not common) that there is perhaps little we can do about it.

Now one could argue (as noted above in the comments) that if this is such a great concern then we should not be publishing abstracts until the work is done. In that case the meetings become virtually meaningless as we would often end up presenting work that has already been completed. I think in context as things stand we offer the best possible combination for all parties. The researchers can present their findings to each other (and other interested parties) but these remain somewhat closeted until publication (often only a few months after the meeting). If people want to talk about things then of course they can, you can't stop speech (or e-mail)! But by asking people not to put things down on blogs on in print they protect the intellectual (and even physical) rights of the researchers until publication. As noted above, one can well publish on an abstract if one agrees with the author - not a difficult or time-consuming thing to do and I suspect most would be more than willing. We are not hiding our research or keeping others out, just delaying the release of details to avoid problems.

By Dave Hone (not verified) on 03 Jul 2009 #permalink

Dave Hone makes some good additional points. Certainly, the danger of having work disrupted and sites disturbed is pretty unique to paleo and very worth considering. I wonder what, say, archaeologists do at their meetings? Still, the fact that paleo field seasons are short and sites have to be left, unprotected, for months at a time adds additional problems.

So I guess I see why it's a tricky matter. Nonetheless, as Dave himself acknowledges, publishing an abstract or giving a presentation does effectively let the cat out of the bag. The real question is whether blogging would genuinely make the situation worse. We could hope that bloggers would be sensitive about how specific to be about localities, etc., but policing the entire internet obviously wouldn't be possible.

I feel like I'm in kind of a funny position here: as an academic I have personal feelings about access to information, but as a historian I'm also kind of a passive observer who thinks this is all very interesting (and that someday there may be a paper about it!).

I really, really wish neil had taken one of my classes at Oberlin... especially since he has such a cool-looking blog!

Thanks for the follow up David, it is certainly a potential minefield in a variety of ways. I appreciate you do not seem to agree but I do think there are issues over priority of concepts / names / ideas in palaeo that are (perhaps) not prevalent in other fields (I've not seen it on the biological side of my research and background for example) but whether this is a 'historical' culture or a perceived necessary one is another matter I can't really comment on. Having seen enough colleagues get burned over things like theses and abstracts and having (kinda) suffered myself I can see *why* people are unwilling to overly discuss their work and why the barriers might have come down.

There is certainly a kind of PR issue in as much as the fact that dinosaurs especially attract such a colossal amount of non-academic interest (and indeed speculation) that can spread round the world in minutes. Despite running my own blog have seen people distort my words and ideas from my papers often terribly at times and in huge numbers of posts / comments etc. that I cannot conceive of happening in maths or chemistry (or even astronomy where there is a huge amateur following). If that happens to a published paper where I *can* say what I want about my worn work online too, I can see why others might be reticent to have their abstracts and talks taken out of context. I guess that if you want to come to SVP or read the abstracts, fine, in fact good. If you want to discuss them with your friends and colleagues, very good. If you want to talk about them in open forums like the net where people might misinterpret / misunderstand (and yes, these days) misrepresent that stuff, well, is it really so much to ask for the authors permission first or wait for the full paper?

Certainly I appreciate there will be a variety of views and you would be well not to take my word alone but speak to SVP itself and other bloggers / researchers first. I'd be intrigued to hear what they say too.

By Dave Hone (not verified) on 03 Jul 2009 #permalink

Thanks, all, for the great discussion here. I, too, think that the idea of holding a "public" conference but then clamping down on information publicly presented seems a bit incongruous, but it is likely to continue to be a thorny issue.

That said, some folks are trying to solve this problem by creating icons presenters can use to open access/grant permission to tweet or blog when giving presentations. For more, see here -…