Monday, December 16, 2013

How This Scientist Reviews a Paper.

Hello, Dear Readers!

I am feeling particularly less annoyed than in my last post. There have been a few posts written that thoroughly describe why the pig-chimp hybrid idea is NOT science: check out Donald Prothero's post, and this article by Henry Gee, which also includes what has to be the most disturbing image of a pig-primate merger that I have had the displeasure to see. (Thanks, Guardian. Now my subconscious has new fodder with which to replace the spiders that usually invade my nightmares.)
Nope, I decided that I can't be the only one who has to live with this image. You're welcome.
All of the criticisms of the idea are consistent, but the take-home for non-scientists should be this: the hybrid idea is not science because there is nothing that has been peer-reviewed and published. As I detailed in my last post, throwing information up on the Internet is not the same as publishing a peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal. There is no credibility in such a website because there has been no fact-checking. That's what the peer-review process is: scientific fact and logic checking by other scientists. Plain and simple.

What exactly is involved with peer-reviewing a paper?

I can describe the process I go through when I review a paper that has been submitted for scientific publication. In fact, I'm reviewing an ichnology paper right now, so I can outline what I do and in what order I do it.

Note: I will not be divulging the authors, contents, or my comments of said paper. That behavior would be the weakest of weak tea. One of my specialties is ichnology, so it stands to reason that I will be asked to review ichnology papers. The first people who get to see the detailed comments and recommendations are the authors themselves and the editor of the scientific journal. Actually, the ONLY people who get to see my comments are the paper authors and the editors. Confidentiality in this part of the review process is important for maintaining objectivity. The only person I will have direct contact with will be the editor. Once the paper is published, its data and interpretations are then open to the scientific community as a whole for comment and critique, but only the finished product: even then my comments and recommendations remain confidential.

First, I have to actually agree to review a paper. I am given a choice whether I want to review, but am under no specific obligation to review a paper. I do not get paid for the time it takes to review papers (there is no financial reasons involved in accepting or rejecting a paper.) There is nothing in my job description that states "Thou shalt review thy colleague's papers!" While there is no specific obligation, the expectation is still there to review. Why? Well, for many reasons:
- I have accumulated knowledge and experience, and can make constructive comments that will hopefully improve the content and/or presentation a paper,
- Part of contributing to science is to make sure that shoddy science (i.e. interpretations that are not supported by the available data) are corrected and do not make it into official publications,
- Papers cannot be published in scientific journals unless they are reviewed. If people don't review papers, the process is stalled, and it slows down spreading the scientific love,
- I also publish papers, and someone in my field took the time to review and improve my papers. This is a science version of "paying it forward."

Second, I have to agree to the time limit for the review. These can range from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. The idea is that I will get the review completed in a timely enough fashion so that the paper can be published in a timely fashion.

OK. I've accepted the review request and the editor has sent the PDFs of all of the files that have been submitted by the authors. These include the text of the paper, all of the images and their captions, all of the data tables and their captions, and all of the supplementary information.

The first official step that I take is I read the abstract. Yup, just like reading a paper for my own research project, I read the abstract to see what sort of paper I will be reviewing. Is it an systematic paper, where new ichnotaxa will be named? Is it a first occurrence (or earliest occurrence, or youngest occurrence) of tracks an area? Is it a ichnofaunal paper? Each type of paper has its own specific rules for presenting that specific information, so I make a mental check list of what I want to see in such a paper. I also make a mental check list of what reasons I would accept for certain bits of information not being presented. Heck, I'm a field person, so I know that the realities of collecting data in the field will trump the ideals. I just want to see that the authors have made an effort to not only collect all the information that they need, but to account for information they wanted to collect but couldn't because the site was unexpectedly flooded, or a tornado hit, or it just wouldn't stop raining, or the site was vandalized, or they lost funding and couldn't continue the get the idea.

If there are certain track types or ichnofossils mentioned in the abstract, I make note of those, because the next step for me is to actually read the key papers that have been previously published on those specific trace fossils. Oh yes, Dear Reader. This paper reviewer does her homework. I don't get to just sit back with a cup of tea (OK, the tea part I do get to do), whip out the Red Pen of Dashed Hopes and arbitrarily cross out paragraphs whilst yelling "Rubbish!"

My ideal Red Pen of Dashed Hopes would have feathers on it. Grading and reviewing papers is more fun when the cat that is physically sitting on said papers is entertained. Priorities. Image from
There is no way I can retain all of the relevant details of every ichnotaxon ever described in my tea-soaked noggin. I don't assume that I know (or can remember) everything. I read up on the original descriptions of the ichnotaxa in question, as well as the key interpretations that have been previously made about said ichnotaxa. I want this information fresh in my head going into the review. I also review any of the debates or alternate interpretations regarding some ichnotaxa and the evidence to support said arguments. I also make a mental check of my own stances on certain arguments. I've been around the outcrop a few times, so I have my own opinions on what interpretations the available data does and doesn't support.

My background reading is complete, but the materials are close at hand in case I need a refresher, or to make sure that the authors are interpreting previous works accurately, or are at least not stretching an interpretation too far. One item I always have at hand is the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Yup, ichnologists must follow the Code for the naming of new ichnospecies, ichnogenera, and ichnofamilies, just like any other taxonomist. If the paper I'm reviewing is naming, renaming, or reorganizing the systematics of a certain ichnogroup, it's my job as Reviewer to make sure the rules of the Code are followed.

I've gone through the paper and have highlighted areas that I find either need correcting (grammar, typos, etc.) or more work (examining alternate interpretations, more data, better figures, and in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster include a data table if there are measurements collected!) It's not just my job to say "This isn't good enough," or "NO!" [That "NO!" was an actual review comment received by a colleague.] Those are examples of general negative comments at don't actually help the author improve the paper. I have to qualify what kind of work is needed to get me from a "No!" to a "Yes!" If there are other papers that the authors need to use in certain sections, I list those. If I find the figures uninformative, I suggest what would need to change to make the figures useful. If there are alternate interpretations that need consideration, I state those. Review comments should always be constructive.

After my comments are all sorted out, I check the reference list. I go through each in-text citation and make sure that it occurs in the reference list. This is a long but necessary process. The reference list is a useful tool for people reading the paper. It contains all the sources of information used by the authors to arrive at their current interpretations. If the reference list is not complete or is full of errors, the reader of the finished product does not have all of the information.

Let's say you get your paper back, and it has a big ol' "NO!" written on one of the pages, or all of your great insights were met with harsh criticism by your peer reviewers. Yes, you might receive negative comments. Are you unpleasantly surprised? A bit pissed off? A little hurt? A lot hurt? You might be: you're also a human being.

I was teaching university-level science writing seminars, the inevitable writing assignment always created a lot of stress among the students, especially around the time when the first drafts were returned. I was fortunate in that, by the time I was teaching those writing seminars, I had already received a fairly damning review of one of my papers. I knew what it felt like to construct what I thought was a flawless piece of scientific brilliance only to have it crawl back from gaping maw of review, leaving a trail of smeared bloody red ink on the floor to mark its passing.

I was brutally honest with my students. I told them exactly what I thought and felt when receiving that review. I told them about all that personal gooshy feely stuff that us robotic scientists aren't supposed to experience. Then I told them how I proceeded from the raw emotion stage to the "making it better" stage.

I felt the feels, and then let them pass. After a couple of days, I picked up the review and looked at it again, this time with a critical eye. Well, darn it if my reviewers weren't quite correct in all of their comments and critiques! I found that two day cool-off period essential. I even implemented it for my students: they had to wait 48 hours before contacting me with questions about their papers. When they finally did contact me, I received less emotional responses and more constructive advice-seeking. At the end of the semester I even had a couple of students thank me for telling them the story of my first negative review and for making them wait a couple of days before coming to see me. The two days gave them time to see that my comments were there to help, not hurt.

How did my colleague deal with the "NO!" written across one of their pages? After setting it aside for a couple of days, they realized that something was striking the reviewer as "off" about the interpretations made in that section. They realized that perhaps they didn't provide enough background information to logically support the interpretations. Two pages of detailed explanation and support later, that "NO!"disappeared, and the interpretation was well supported. Even negative reviews can be helpful if you choose to see them in that light.

Time to switch from reviewing mode to paper-writing mode! Let's see if I can get one last paper submitted before the end of 2013.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Strange Woman Abroad: Chongqing Ichnology Conference - The Lotus Tracksite

Well, Dear Readers, it's time to resume the saga of our 2012 Chongqing Ichnology Conference and related field trips. We visited the Yangqing National Geopark Tracksite (we made a return trip in September 2013, but that is a story for another time), and the Shandong area tracksites within the quarries. Now we were whisked away from the cool dry climate of north-central China to the southern coastal region of Chongqing. This would be the last field work we did before the conference on November 29.

In northeastern BC I've had the privilege of working on some spectacular paleontology sites with glamorous scenery that inspires one to run through alpine meadows singing. The Lotus Tracksite is one of those sites. Situated outside of the city of Chongqing, it gives off a sense of idyllic rural peacefulness.
"The hills are alive with the sound of footprints! Lalalalaaaahaaaa!" (This is why I am a scientist and not a singer.) Mountain scenery of the Lotus Stockade Tracksite.
For the next four days, the bus would drive us to the rural center, and then we would walk along a path that went over brook and field.

We followed the path to the farmhouse in the upper right corner of the photo.

Laura Pinuela and Martin Lockley.

Lovely terraced farms.

Babbling brook with sediment from a recent rain.

A completely different style of growing crops than I was used to seeing growing up in southern British Columbia farm country.

I was not brave enough to try one of the fresh spicy peppers seen on this pepper plant. I hang my head in shame. (No one else tried one either, so I am in good company!)
Our party reached the farmhouse, but that was not the end of the trek. Oh no: we had to transport ourselves (and our field gear) from the base of the cliff to a natural fissure using a cement stairway.

Daniel Marty and the resident farm ducks. These ducks spent a great deal of time free-ranging in the fields. They are also a possible modern analog for a webbed bird footprint from the Cretaceous, named Uhangrichnus.

Our brief reprieve at the farmhouse. Lida Xing (left), Martin Lockley (right).
Can you see the tracksite from here? If I were going to hide from raiders, this would be the place.
Martin actually counted the steps: there are approximately 900 steps in the staircase. This is where I experienced a slight ping of culture shock, because around noon and in the afternoons we would see elderly people slowly walking up and down the entire stairway. They were doing this for exercise. Coming from a culture where everything is in walking distance yet people drive less than a kilometer to get a bag of potato chips, this impressed me.

So many steps...

The Lotus Tracksite from the stairs. Almost there!
If it wasn't for the staircase, I could not see any easy egress or regress to the Stockade. It was a perfect defensive post against raiders.

As the Lotus Stockade is now a heritage tourism destination (thanks to the work of Lida Xing), there were visitor friendly additions to the actual site (including the stairs). Wooden boardwalks are installed so that people can view the tracks without stepping on them. As the derelicts that ichnologists are, the first thing we did was physically explore the track surface.

Approaching the tracksite.

Wooden barricades keep distracted paleontologists corralled.
The Lotus Stockade has a fascinating history. The people who took shelter there 700 years ago noticed the large ornithopod tracks and the large-scale dessication features. They arrived a very astute explanation for the presence of these odd shapes: the ornithopod tracks were described as preserved impressions of lotus blossoms. One of the fascinating parts of ichnology is discovering all of the cultural explanations for footprints, and this is one of my favorites. Lida did a wonderful artistic interpretation of the story, and it became one of the logos for the Ichnology Conference.

The interpretation of ornithopod tracks as preserved lotus impressions does not require a large leap in imagination. Check out the original image here.

Now it was time to get to work. As these tracks are currently the subject of in-progress and in-press papers, I won't show too many of the details that are going to occur in said papers. However, there are two surfaces that we had to document in three days: the upper ornithopod track layer, and the lower bird layer.

The upper ornithopod surface, viewable through a plexiglass floor. Us delinquent ichnologists had special permission to crawl all over the surface.
We split into two teams. Rich, Martin, Laura, and I took the lead on the bird layer, while Daniel, Matteo, Hendrik, and Julien worked on the ornithopod layer. The two teams had slightly different procedures, but both ended with two large plastic tracings that matched up between the layers beautifully. Lida bounced between Team Ornithopod and Team Bird (my affectionate names for the groups - we were all one happy ichnology team) making sure that we had everything we needed for a three-day session of mass data collection. He also made sure we were fed: a constant supply of snacks were made available.

Here's how Team Bird tackled a several square meter surface that contains over 200 footprints (218 according to my field notes.) First, we found a very distinct footprint with a clear digit III preserved. The end of digit III was the anchor point for the next step. Second, we established a 1 meter by 1 meter grid system along the surface. We established the grid using fairly old-school techniques: a compass, a meter stick, and chalk.

Next, we physically gridded the entire track-bearing surface. We went through a great deal of chalk! We saved our welder's soapstone pens for the next step of physically outlining each and every footprint we could see on the surface. Establishing the physical grid took about half a day (we checked, double-checked, and triple-checked for repeatability) while the outlining of the prints took about another half of a day. It is a long process, but it makes the data collection all the more simple.

Next, we labeled each footprint according to the grid square in which it occurred (e.g. track B10-1, A2-7, etc.) Each print was photographed from multiple angles for future digitizing work, as well as each individual grid square. After the tracks were labeled and individually photographed, physical measurements were collected (I rarely collect data from photographs if I have the original specimens at hand.)

Rich McCrea (foreground) of Team Bird photographing gridded squares while Martin Lockley paints latex on a specimen for replication. Team Ornithopod is in the background.
Team Ornithopod tracing the upper surface.
We were all quite amazed when we found out that we didn't have to hike all the way back down to farmhouse for lunch. A hot lunch was brought up to us! Salted pork, cabbage and hot peppers, rice, and stewed pumpkin! You can see from the photos that we are all in our cold weather gear, and a hot lunch was most welcome.

A hot lunch at the Lotus Tracksite.
Team Bird spent the bulk of their time physically measuring prints and taking photos. It wasn't until November 28 that we joined the tracing party.

The final step: tracing the surface onto plastic sheets. Not only did we trace on the prints on the plastic map, but we traced on the corners of the grid squares for reference.

Other researchers and conference attendees arrived during our three day session at the Lotus Track, which allowed for more eyes on the surface.

Team Bird was finished the documentation of the lower surface late in the afternoon of the 28th. It's an odd feeling to be finished documenting a surface. I always feel as though I should be doing something else, but we had done everything we could do in the time frame available. We were done. Team Ornithopod continued into the evening, but they too were finished on the 28th. Now all we had to do was to put our finishing touches on our presentations and switch to conference mode! The conference was fascinating, and I am pleased to say that my presentation on the multivariate analysis of Mesozoic bird footprints was very well received.

The traced plastic maps, all bundled up and ready to head to the lab for interpretation.
My patience was well rewarded! I had finally seen and documented bird footprints! Not only that, but I had seen bird footprints in an area steeped with history. My co-authors and I are working on getting the paper that analyzes these prints ready for submission. Stay tuned!

That's it for now!

SW out.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Public Service Science Announcement (PScA): Posted Online Does Not Mean Scientifically Published.

Good Morning, Dear Readers!

I'm feeling annoyed with the Internet right now. Perhaps I woke up cranky. Perhaps I haven't had my usual dose of Earl Grey tea. Or perhaps it's all these tweets I've been seeing over the past couple of weeks. I don't feel right posting a link or showing a screen capture of just one tweet as an example, because it seems that my Twitter feed is filled with retweets from multiple people sharing this news article. I wouldn't want to seem as though I was singling out one re-Tweeter.

The subject of said article: humans originated from a pig-chimpanzee hybridization.

"Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster! Which journal is this published in?" was my reaction when I first saw the links.

I may be incorrect, but there does not appear to be any scientific journal in which this research appears. The documentation for this idea comes from the researcher's own website.

My reaction when from "Holy Cthulhu!" to "I'll wait for the paper."

Science literacy and atrophied critical thinking skills are not new topics. We have the cringe-worthy "It's just a theory" phrase when someone wants to discredit an idea without themselves having any knowledge or data to support said discrediting. We have several cryptozoology websites whose contributors have boarded the Circular Reasoning Merry-Go-Round and present only data that supports their claims (Bigfoot/Sasquatch is my favorite example because of the strong ichnology influence.)

Topical to this is my all-time favorite, the Pacific Tree Octopus, a seemingly well-researched website that decries the decline of an endangered species, but was really a social science experiment to test the online academic critical thinking skills of students. Turns out that we as a society are a bunch of suckers when it comes to information presented online.

This is a definite PR problem when it comes to science publication. We (as scientists) call for open-access to published research while simultaneously seeming to denounce those that are sharing their own work for the world to see. The big difference between open-access of published data and these "open science" websites is that the published data has been officially published. This is not a smart-ass comment. When the results of a research project are published by a scientific journal, it means there is a history of critical work that went into getting those results to a certain scientific standard. This is called the peer-review process. First (there are variations of this process), the editor of the journal to which the paper was submitted would send the paper to two or three experts in the field of that particular research. These would be experts who were not directly involved with the research.

Second, the experts would go over the results with a critical eye. When I review papers, these are the questions I ask myself (and I assume that researchers reviewing my papers ask themselves):
- Were the data collected carefully? Were enough data collected?
- Does the subject matter (e.g. a fossil footprint) show to me what the researcher says that it shows?
- What are alternative interpretations that I can come up with before I reach the interpretations and conclusions section of the paper?
- Did the researcher address all the possible alternative interpretations? In the case of identifying a fossil, did the author examine all the possible identities of said fossil before settling on an identification?
- Did the researcher thoroughly check all of the previous work and interpretations that have been done on the subject?
- Are the interpretations and the conclusions in proportion to the data presented? In other words, are the authors stretching an interpretation over too little data?

Third, the experts would write up their comments and recommendations for the paper. Their recommendation options run from "Accept with no changes" to "Accept with minor/major changes" to "Accept with major changes and re-review" or "Reject/Not acceptable for publication." In my experience, the information and/or interpretations presented in a paper have to be pretty shoddy to warrant a "Reject." My philosophy with reviewing papers is to help the researchers present the most sound interpretation based on the data available. A rejected paper is not meant to be a personal attack: it simply means that the researcher did not convince their fellow researchers of their interpretations. It means they need to go back to the drawing board (or the lab, or the field, etc.) and do more work.

Fourth, the editor for the journal reads these recommendations, adds some of their own, and then notifies the researcher about the decision. If the paper is accepted with any type of revision recommended, the researcher must address those recommendations before sending in the corrected copy (or provide a darn good reason why they are not applying said recommendations.) The version of the paper that is originally submitted is the equivalent of a first draft of an essay, and the revised version is the second draft, ideally with all the corrections made. The peer-review process can be long, complicated, and sometimes arduous, but it is the most thorough way the scientific community has of fact-checking research.

Here's the peer-review process for posting your unpublished work online. First, do your work. Second, acquire internet access and design a website. Third, post said work. [Note: there is a big difference between posting unpublished research and posting about research that has already been published.]

This is why I always lectured my students in any writing classes I taught on the pitfalls of relying solely on the Internet for researching scientific writing assignments. There is no peer-review of the Internet. If I want to create a website that states Tyrannosaurus rex is a 40 meter long fish, I can do that. I can make it look official. I can present realistic looking data. Sure, I would be open to the mocking of my peers, but that website would remain up for as long as I wanted it to, and students everywhere could write about the wonders of an aquatic T. rex.

The fact that an image of an aquatic T. rex exists does make me less cranky. Image source:
A less hyperbolic example of this is the discussion around the website it is presented in such a way that the layperson or student would not be able to distinguish its information from peer-reviewed sources. Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology does a thorough examination of the site: it's a lengthy read, but worth every word. It is critical without being personal. Another example is despite being told by countless paleontologists that the specimens in question are in fact glacial erratics with no bones in them whatsoever, the person who made the website insists that they represent the remains of a frozen "Sea Dragon."

This is why websites like the pig-chimp hypothesis,, and annoy me. Regardless of the intent of the authors of such "open science" websites, they do take advantage of a society that is hungry for scientific information but has atrophied critical thinking skills. The authors of these sites are already convinced of their ideas, but have not convinced their research peers. What are almost never presented on these sites are the rebuttals to these ideas, which only serves to make the ideas seem accepted by the scientific community.

Back to the chimp-pig topic. I don't think that I can do a better dissection than PZ Meyers on Pharyngula (who does poke fun, but also presents thorough counters), but from what I have read of the Macroevolution website, there is one misperception that I know for a fact is not accurate, and has the effect of making the lay-person reader more accepting of the hypothesis. [Note: I have to hat-tip the Macroevolution site here. They do not say this is a theory, but a hypothesis. The science-reporting world is the culprit for attaching the ever-misused "theory" moniker to the stories.]

This misconception is the non-acceptance of hybridization in tetrapods by the scientific community. At least in the avian world, there are several examples of hybridization that are not only accepted, but are the focus of scientific research. My favorite examples come from Dr. Darren Irwin's website on his lab's research at the University of British Columbia Department of Zoology (complete with links to published papers).

"You'll do." MacGillivray's Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei) to the Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia) during breeding season, producing the "MacMourning Warbler" above. Image source.
Not only do some bird species within the same genus interbreed, but they also produce fertile offspring. This is why there is such consternation among conservationalists regarding the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis): those darn endangered owls are known to get freaky with a closely related competitor species, the Barred Owl (Strix varia), which makes their conservation even more frustrating.

"Owl just have to settle for a Barred Owl" said the punny Spotted Owl during breeding season. Image source.
While this topic does give me an excuse to post bird (and specifically owl) images, there is a point: hybridization is not a verboten topic in biology. Hybrids can happen between closely related species. In other words, hybridization is not unheard of between species whose genetic lines have had only a short (few million years) amount of time to accumulate differences. As PZ Meyers details, approximately 80 million years worth of accumulated genetic differences is a different hybridization hurdle to overcome. This is just the one example that stuck in my mind. Other scientists with different research foci will likely find others.

Why this Public Service Science Announcement (PScA)? Unfortunate for the pig-chimp hypothesis and other sites like it, it has received a great deal of attention before receiving the "SCIENCE" stamp. For this idea to break into actual science, it has to go past a compilation of literature review and comparisons to a peer-reviewed published paper. All of the supporting data have to be critically viewed by other geneticists and evolutionary biologists, specifically those that have familiarity with the evolutionary history of the subjects in question. Both the argument and the data have to be convincing.

This is a PScA for students. If you plan to use an online source when doing research for your school projects (or even for your academic work if you are a grad student), please check with your teaching assistant or your professor. Chances are they have a list of sources that contain peer-reviewed information that will not lead you astray, and can also warn you about sites that seem legit but actually do not contain peer-reviewed information.

Always remember: just because the nice website offers you the intellectual version of candy doesn't mean that you should get into the vehicle with it.

Shaman out.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Dinos For Dollars" Needs to Change to "Dollars For Dinos."

Hello Dear Readers,

It has been awhile since my last post. I have been mentally ruminating over the interesting recent events in the World of Vertebrate Paleontology. For those that have read my previous pieces, you probably know that when I say "interesting" I mean soul-suckingly frustrating. Many people have written about their take on recent events. I've been reading and processing, processing and reading. And thinking. And more thinking. All I can come up with is summarized by the statement "Things fall apart." This is not meant to be a negative statement: things have to fall apart before they are repaired and proofed against future degradations.

First, there was the impending auction of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs by Bonhams, which failed to sell at auction despite a high bid of $5.5 million because the reserve price was not met. Paleontologists were interviewed (read here, here, here, with excellent quotes from Jack Horner and Hans Dieter-Sues in the last link) and social media buzzed (here, here, and here, for example) about why the sale of such specimens is quite detrimental to the science of paleontology.

Sadly, this is becoming rather old cheese in paleontology as more and more specimens seem to be arriving on the public auction block. What took the paleontology community by surprise was the announcement that the Board of Directors of the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM, and let’s be clear: this decision had no consultation from the paleontology staff) had deaccessioned a part of their fossil collection collected, prepared, and donated by Charles H. Sternberg (yes, THE Sternberg) and put said fossils up for public auction. Letters were written, official statements were made by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, blog posts were written (the Comments section of Brian Switek's post contains many copies of letters that were sent to the SDNHM Board of Directors), and after much public pressure the announcement was made the day before the November 19 auction that the SDNHM removed the specimens.

The gut reaction when a person hears or reads a paleontologist saying that a private person buying a museum specimen or a scientifically valuable fossil is a problem is to angrily critique the science community for being so damned unreasonable. I’m sure I haven’t heard the last of being called “ivory tower”, “academic snob”, or “elitist.” To save time, here’s a sample list of the ad hominem comments made about paleontologists on social media sites and the dreaded “Comments” section. All these paleontologists have done is critique the system of the commercialization of fossil heritage and state their concerns with private fossil collections.

"Scientists have a creationist-like view with regard to private fossil ownership and the sale of fossils."

"Scientists don’t live in the 'real world' or are 'blind' to how the 'world works.'"

"Scientists are academic snobs/elitist."

"Scientists want all the fossils for themselves (greedy)."

"Scientists keep other scientists from studying museum fossils, so they should just be ignored." (that logical fallacy is the No True Scotsman, condemning a person's stance because the person or their establishment isn't "perfect.")

"Scientists would rather let fossils rot in the ground than let a private person collect them."
(I have to interject on this comment. Sample size matters in paleontology. It's not enough to qualify: we have to quantify, and to quantify we need multiples of the same type of fossil. The sad fact is that we don't often have the resources to go after multiples. Trust me, anytime you hear someone say "We don't need another hadrosaur," you're hearing a severely underfunded scientist lying to themselves. N=3000 kicks the ass of N=30.)

"Scientists have a “holier-than-thou” attitude."

"Scientists are arrogant," and, the one that has become the battle-cry as of late,

"Scientists are 'demonizing' commercial and private fossil dealers."

These reactionary statements hurt paleontology because they are made, as are most reactionary statements, without considering all the information. They are also statements that gain traction within public opinion because they are dramatic and are repeated ad nauseam (again, as are most reactionary statements.) In fact, if you feel the need to defend one position or the other with any sort of ad hominem attack, I'm treating your rebuttal as one from an angry child who cannot get its own way and calls everyone a doody-head. All the above ad hominem attacks are the “grown-up” version of doody-head. Go constructive or go home.

I have made it no secret my opinions on the commercial fossil trade and I have no problem answering questions about the scientific ethics. Here are some of the questions that have been asked that are actually constructive. [Note: these are questions within the US and Canada framework. Other countries have their own laws and issues regarding fossil trade.]

"Why is selling fossils considered so destructive?"
If a potentially scientifically important fossil is discovered on private land, there is no consistently applicable framework in place for the evaluation of said fossil by a specialist to determine its scientific value. All fossils found on private land, regardless of their scientific value, have an equal opportunity of appearing in the auction house. The only statements made to the public regarding the scientific worth of the fossils are made by people directly connected with the sale: auction house employees, the private sellers, and commercial sellers. There is no third party evaluator involved to either confirm or deny the claims. Hype drives up the interest, and the level of interest drives up the price. This leads in to the questions below.

"Why don't museums just purchase the fossils if they are so concerned about losing them?"
Natural history museums, as Hans Dieter-Sues so succinctly stated in one of the interviews, don't have high-end benefactor backing as do art museums. Museums aren't just struggling to be able to purchase high-end fossils: they are struggling to keep the staff and research programs they currently have. Museum research and archive programs are often an easy target for purse-tightening schemes because most of the museum-visiting public (and oftentimes the Boards of Directors of museums) forget that without a robust research and archives program, there is no base for making a kick-ass public-wowing display. Even if museums wanted to purchase a several million dollar fossil from auction, they couldn't afford to without laying off the staff they would need to research it. The only groups able to afford these fossils are wealthy individuals and businesses. In other words, the private collectors.

Ethically, many museums do not want to contribute to the high prices and hype that surround a legal fossil auction because it helps to sustain said hype and prices, and also encourages the illegal fossil trade. The Case of the Smuggled Tarbosaurus is one example of this "dinos for dollars" mentality. Regardless of the motives behind the legal sale of fossils, "dinos for dollars" encourages poaching, plain and simple. Also, I don't see how anyone can ethically claim they own a fossil. I can't think of a better way to voice my opinion on the subject than what I recently wrote on a Facebook post (edited for clarity):

"Every stakeholder in this discussion has a loud voice: landowners, commercial people, fossil purchasers, industries, and they have their laws and rights on which to rely. The groups that have no voices are the fossils themselves and the people who are not even born yet for whom we hold these fossils in trust. I take my position as a collections manager very seriously. These are not MY fossils. I don't sleep on a horde of them like Smaug. I don't view them as decorative or art pieces. They are not mere curiosities to be traded like so many Pokemon cards. They are not rare trophies to flaunt. They are The Dead, and deserve as much reverence and respect as any other Dead. I merely guard and stand watch until it is my time to pass on the torch, and hope that I can tell the story of The Dead to the best of my abilities before I join them. Sounds hokey? That's how I feel, and I feel it unapologetically."

“What are the issues with scientifically important specimens being in a private collection?” 
When you are a museum with a public-trust fossil archive, you are in essence making a pledge that you will do everything in your power to ensure that the fossils under your care will remain in the public trust. Public trust means that anyone who wants to do serious research on these fossils will be able to find those fossils 10, 100, even 1000 years from now. A private person isn’t likely to be around 100 years from now. There is no guarantee their descendants will be as interested in fossils as were Gramps or Gramma. There is no guarantee these fossils will be donated to a museum after the passing (or passing interest) of the initial purchaser. This is one way in which fossils are “lost to science” when they are privately purchased. It’s too easy to lose track of privately purchased fossils because there is no accountability for their whereabouts. There is no tracking system for scientifically important fossils outside of a museum setting.

“Once a fossil has been researched and all the information is collected, is it OK to sell it then?” 
It is even more important that researched fossils remain in the public trust. For example, I might take all the data I can on a fossil footprint, but I know I am limited by the technology and scientific advances of our time. There are going to be tests, measurements, and scans not yet developed that I can’t even imagine that paleontologists will be able to do 10, 100, 1000 years from now. If those future scientists read my research and want to take a fresh look at that footprint, the only guarantee they will have of seeing the footprint is if it is in a museum. A museum’s job is to give scientists access to specimens. However, if that footprint is part of a private collection, that person has no obligation whatsoever to give scientists access to the footprint. This is another way in which fossils are lost to science: paleontologists know where these fossils are, but can never be guaranteed that they will see them. This is why most scientific journals that publish paleontology papers demand that any specimens that are part of the paper have to be archived in a museum. This is how we maintain the scientific paper trail.

"How can we improve the situation?"

I wish I knew. Unfortunately, stating the above to educate the general public and the fossil enthusiast alike and try to work towards a new system gets paleontologists called names by people who support commercialization of natural heritage. This happened when Dr. Thomas Carr proposed a suggestion. While I don't know the answer, or can even hazard a guess as to what form the eventual solution will take, I have suggestions. The suggestions I offer below will likely get me called names, but since I already stated The Rule that I am hereon dismissing arguments that contain name-calling of any kind, I offer the following suggestions.

1. Develop a culture of heritage consciousness with fossils (time and energy involved.)

There are public awareness campaigns to discourage the trade of products that encourage poaching. There are public awareness campaigns to discourage unsustainable practices, such as shark-finning. I see no reason why a similar campaign cannot be developed for natural heritage consciousness. There are so many positive ways in which a person can both support sustained natural heritage conservation and be directly involved with fossils. For example, if you enjoy the aesthetic beauty of fossils (let's admit it, fossils are beautiful), there are people who create museum-quality paleontology art and detailed replicas.

We can change the way that people think about fossils. Rather than thinking fossils are a financial asset (dinos for dollars), we (as a culture) should be thinking that that fossils need our help (dollars for dinos). Instead of spending several million dollars on one purchase, wealthy individuals could be convinced that they would see more bang for their buck by becoming benefactors of fossil-related research programs at museums. An "Advocacy for Benefactor Science" group would put those who enjoy certain fossil groups in touch with museums and academic programs that focus on telling the stories of those particular fossils. Like tyrannosaurs? There's a Research Interest Group for that. The investments from these benefactors would train future scientists, help paleontologists do more outreach work to the public about the fossil group of choice, and would fund the basic research needed to create show-stopping displays. Scholarships can be created for scientists. All of this (and more) would be with "Thanks to BENEFACTOR NAME HERE." This is about legacy building. Fossils have left their mark in time and space. Supporting science is one way in which a single person can make a positive difference and leave their mark.

2. Establish rules for private fossil collections (additional museum resources involved.)

The greatest issue I have with scientifically valuable fossils being held in a private collection is one of archival continuity (explained above.) This is not meant to be a personal insult to private fossil collectors, but properly caring for both the fossils themselves and their associated data takes training. A lot of training. Who better to provide this training than the museums themselves?

I have mentioned this many times to many colleagues, but one system I want to implement at my current institution (once I have the mythical "sustained resources") is the Citizen Archives Program. Fossil enthusiasts would apply to the institution for an archival permit as Citizen Archivers. The Citizen Archiver would manage, for all intents and purposes, an off-site collections facility for the home institution. They would be instructed on how to collect and store both the fossils and the associated data. Copies of this archival data would be stored at the home institution, and yearly fossil audits would take place to ensure compliance with agreed upon standards, and these standards would be the same ones under which a natural history museum operates (access to researchers, no engaging in commercial activities with fossils, etc.) Once the Citizen Archiver retires or passes away, the care of the fossils would be transferred to the home institution or to a relative who agrees to all the conditions as did their predecessor. Under this system a paper trail is established as the fossils are technically archived at a public trust institution, and serious fossil enthusiasts can be directly involved with fossils. The potential would then exist for specimens cared for by a Citizen Archiver to be published. The Citizen Archiver can collect specimens that scientists do not have the resources to collect. Citizen Archivers could be individuals, elementary and high schools, long as the permit system was followed and the fossils were accounted for, anyone could be a Citizen Archiver.

3. All fossils going for sale must be evaluated by a third-party specialist (laws involved.)

If the commercial fossil trade is going to continue in it's current form, there needs to be a way to ensure that scientifically valuable fossils, even those from private lands, are evaluated by a third-party specialist of that particular fossil prior to sale. If the fossil is deemed novel or unique to science, local natural history museums would be given right of first refusal. The fossils would not necessarily have to be given away, but there would be a set price at which the fossil would be acquired. Off the top of my head I would suggest cost recovery plus a percentage of the total cost recovery as payment for the private landowners. No, it is not the several million dollar swimming pool full of money that people would likely want and receive from a public auction, but it both compensates the land owner and keeps the price of the fossil within an acceptable range for natural history museums, as well as decreases the trend of fossils selling at ever-increasing prices.

Are these suggestions perfect? Likely not, but if I'm going to err I want to err on the side of the long-term care and conservation of our fossil heritage. We only get one shot at preserving our fossil heritage for future generations. We owe The Dead that level of respect.

Strange Woman out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy Halloween!

My Halloween geekitude, (or Geekoween spirit) has inspired my ichnology-themed pumpkin. He answers to the name of Ichno Facey. (If you get that bad play on words, you are as geeky - or more - than me, and you are awesome.)

Ichno Facey, the ichnology god of Halloween.
Have a Happy (and safe!) Halloween!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Eggs, Turtles, and Toast: When Pareidolia Meets Paleontology

Discoverer: "Hi, Unicorn Scientist. I have made a cool discovery. At least I think I'm on to something. Can you take a look and tell me what it is?"

Unicorn Scientist: "Sure! We like seeing new things, and like people coming in with possible finds. Let's take a look."

Discoverer: "Now, I don't want to influence your opinion, but I think it is a saddle that Bigfoot uses to ride unicorns."

There is at least a minute of respectful study of the piece of shoe leather.

Unicorn Scientist: "Well, I can see why it looks like a piece of Bigfoot unicorn saddle, but saddles for unicorns are all made out of taffeta, and are stitched together with candy-floss because unicorns have such delicate skin. There are eyelet holes here for the laces of a shoe. It has the [insert your favorite shoe brand here] symbol partially preserved."

Discoverer, Version #1: "Why aren't you confirming my interpretation? It's shaped like a unicorn's back! I thought you were an expert on unicorns!"

Discoverer, Version #2: "Well OF COURSE you would say that! You've been brainwashed by Big Unicorn and are too close-minded to see the Cover-Up of the Truth!"

Discoverer, Version #3: "You have dared to disagree with my most insightful observation. I will not rest until I expose you for the fraud that you are, for the sake of all those who wish to see a Bigfoot ride a unicorn!"
* * *
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? I'll bet they do. I'll bet that if you're in a profession that is remotely scientific, you've had one of these encounters.

First, I want to state that most people who bring fossils into the museum for identification do not behave like the above Discoverer. If they bring in a funky shaped rock and I tell them that it's a cool funky shaped rock, it usually spurs a series of questions which turn that funky shaped rock into a teachable moment about erosion and different rock types. Even better, if they seem really keen we can give them a behind the scenes tour and show them tonnes of real fossils, and we may even interest them in volunteer work. Of course, the pleasant encounters stick in my mind as the general warm fuzzy feeling I get when I think about the joys and passions of being in paleontology. Those fuzzy moments are thrown into sharp abrasive contrast by those other encounters.

The other encounters involve that person who, on finding a rock or an odd-shaped shadow on a photo, have already convinced themselves of the identity of the find. It's usually a fairly spectacular find (in their mind) with an even more spectacular interpretation (again, in their mind). The person brings their find to their local scientist. The local scientist offers a different, yet less fantastic identification. The person, on seeing that the scientist does not agree with them, becomes defensive and/or outraged. Sometimes the scientist never hears from this individual again. Sometimes the scientist will have to deal with this person for the rest of their career.

My first encounter with a person like the Discoverer was back in 1999 when I was still an undergraduate. I was visiting my parents over summer break and joined them on a day of antiquing. I was browsing through the store when my parents called me over to the front counter. They had been talking with the proprietress of the shop, and somehow it came up in conversation that I was studying paleontology. The woman was very excited to talk to me: she had a fossil to show me. Before showing me the fossil, she gave me a long background explanation of finding it in the badlands of southern Alberta (promising). She had even done some preliminary research and thought it might be a scapula from a hadrosaur. Needless to say I was intrigued.

This was my first lesson in fossil identification: the bigger the set-up, the less likely the accuracy of said set-up. Lying on the counter in front of me was a glacial erratic composed of metamorphic rock. There were even garnet crystals embedded in the surface. The only aspect of this specimen that was bone-esque was that it was elongate. During my examination the proprietress stared at me with eager anticipation.

I tried my hand at tact and diplomacy (also a first). "It does have a similar shape to a bone (it really didn't, but I was trying to let her down gently), but there is no bone structure present. This is a metamorphic rock that is shaped like a bone." I pointed out the different minerals. I showed her the garnet crystals, which I thought were cool because they were of a decent size and a deep red. I told her what bone texture looks like.

She wasn't impressed. The eagerness was quickly replaced with indignant exasperation. "I thought you were a paleontologist. Clearly you don't know what you're talking about," she huffed.

I'm sure my expression was one of stunned surprise. "Well, I do, and that's not bone," was my only response. (Note: I was taken off guard by her response, and I bypassed diplomacy and defaulted to direct and blunt. I probably should have held on longer to try to educate her.) She bundled up her prize and walked away. Since my first encounter I have had many people bring in non-fossils for identification, and some are pretty darn convincing. There was a rock shaped like Pac-Man that just had to be a skull (that one was not convincing, but I had to mention it because it still amuses me.) Concretions are brought in as either eggs or turtles. A piece of railway slag looked like a bison skull. There are river-eroded igneous and metamorphic rocks that look like bone. I was once asked to identify a Bigfoot tooth (piece of calcite).

The pseudo-egg on the right is the most convincing: there are even "pores" present.
One of our largest pseudo-turtles. Concretions often preserve with what looks like shell ornamentation.
OK Nature: now you're just f**king with me. The most convincing pseudo-bone I have ever seen.
What would be the "medial" side if this were something other than eroded metamorphosed sandstone.
These wonderfully deceiving rocks are pseudofossils. I make it a point to always have some pseudofossils on hand for when someone brings in a fossil that is not a fossil. Being able to explain to the person that they are not the only ones who were "tricked" by a funky rock can go a long way to ease the disappointment. This works beautifully with kids. I love identifying rocks and fossils for kids. Even when they bring in a non-fossil, it always cheers them up to hear they have a pseudofossil.

Seeing orderly shapes where no shapes exist is the well-documented phenomenon of pareidolia: the phenomenon of perceiving patterns in randomness. One well-known example of pareidolia is the "Face on Mars" which, on thorough examination, was only an illusion visible from one angle. Our brains are likely hard-wired to do it. If you see a pony in the clouds it's your brain trying to organize information that seems unordered. Pareidolia can also send our species' reasoning skills down the path of the illogical. Dieties appear in toast and other starchy foods. A wisp of mist in a photograph becomes a shrouded ghost (same with camera straps, insects, dust specs illuminated by flash, water spots or smudges on lenses...). Skeletons are seen on Mars.

Unfortunately, pareidolia often teams up with pseudo-reasoning to create the most frustrating experience a scientist can face when working with the public. Convinced that their eyes and brains would never deceive them, those being coached by the Pareidolia-Pseudoreasoning Double Team not only are damned sure they have something, but there is no amount of evidence to the contrary will sway their interpretation. This is what science ISN'T. Science does not cherry-pick the data to support a pre-set interpretation. A proper scientific investigation looks at all the available data and then sees which interpretation best explain the data. Unfortunately, this is not how science is viewed by society: based on the Comments section of science articles, scientists are only publishing the data that support their ideas. By extension, that's how one engages in a scientific discussion.

I will be the first to admit that when I was an ichnology newbie I used pareidolia often. My mentors, being the very patient educators that they are, checked out every depression (for natural moulds) and odd-shaped sedimentary river rock (for natural casts) I though might be a track. For each pseudo-ichnite (there were many explanations that started with the phrase "That's very interesting, but...") they would carefully explain why it wasn't an actual ichnite. I think ichnofossils are more prone to pareidolia than other fossil types. Ichnofossils are, in essence, shapes in the rock (you can't look for bone texture in an ichnite), but they are shapes made by specific biologic processes.

I continued to ask questions about objects I found when prospecting, but I also paid close attention to what my mentors were showing me when we encountered actual ichnofossils. I studied the tracks of extant animals in various different sediment types. Eventually I saw enough ichnites of many different types (mammal, dinosaur, bird, turtle, crocodile, pterosaur, invertebrate burrows, etc.) that my brain began to recognize those patterns: I had developed a search image.

Does pareidolia still creep in when I am prospecting? I admit that it does, but I now use it as a prospecting aid. When I'm prospecting, I give my brain two tasks. One, I let it process shapes in the rock. If my brain applies order to the chaos of a rock ("Hey Strange Woman, that looks footprint-esque,") I stop and examine it more closely. Two, I use the accumulated experience of having seen what is and isn't a track and look for ichnologic indicators (repeated biologic structure such as digits, slide marks, skin impressions, etc.). The process is now automatic for me, but in the beginning it was a learning curve with which I struggled. If I can't apply biologic or evidence-based support to the pattern detected by my brain, I move on.

The difference between someone who is truly trying to learn and someone who is just trolling to "win a debate" with a scientist is what that person does when they are told their discovery is not a fossil. If a recent thread I've been following on a paleontology Facebook page is any example, there is no amount of data or explanation that can re-train a brain devoted to the Pareidolia-Pseudoreasoning Double Team.

"But Strange Woman", some may ask, "surely these people just need to be educated about the facts and the scientific method?" A more likely question might be "Why feed these trolls?"

Most of the scientists I know are natural educators. They see every opportunity to turn a seeming frustrating conversation into a teachable moment. When misinformation rises from the depths like a pseudological Kraken, scientist are there with the recent data (and their years of experience) to slay the Pseudoscience Beast. What is sad is that these efforts might actually feed the Beast. A recent study (link here: it's pay-walled) on the political perceptions of the public suggests that offering corrections to previously read inaccurate statements failed to reduce misperceptions (1). In fact, the study also shows that corrections tended to strengthen political misperceptions rather than correct them. If people's minds work the same way with misinformation in science (I would love to read a study on that), what hope do we have of countering misinformation, especially when those misinformation is potentially detrimental (e.g. climate change deniers, misinformation on reproductive health, anti-vaxxers, etc.)?

It's likely we will never find the magic formula of words that will break through that armor of pseudologic. That won't stop us from trying. No matter what, scientists will continue to ensure that the correct information is out there for those not caught on the circular reasoning merry-go-round.

So, Dear Reader, we are more than happy to take a look at your funky specimen. Please don't be insulted if it is not a fossil. We're not trying to trick you, just teach you. We want you to develop a fossil search image and discover something cool for science!


1. Nyhan, B. and J. Reifler. 2010. When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior 32(2):303-330.

Monday, October 14, 2013

We're Better Than This.

Finally, we hear from Biology Online regarding the editor who called a scientist an "urban whore" when she politely declined an unpaid blogging position. An apology was posted by a site administrator this morning (read the full apology here):

"We would like to express our sincerest apologies to Danielle N. Lee (DNLee) and anyone else who may have been offended by the way our recently hired employee, Ofek, handled the conversation with her. Ofek's behaviour was completely out of line and after gathering the facts we immediately terminated his employment. Ofek failed to show the respect and prudent behavior expected of him as a contributor to Biology Online."

THIS. This is how to apologize and rectify a situation. You apologize without conditions or excuses. You deal with the inappropriate behavior in such a manner so there is no doubt of your organization's stance on an issue. You don't push ANY of the blame back onto the victim.

Kate Clancy at Scientific American delves deeper into the issue as to why so much "Twitter-rage" erupted over Scientific American's decision to pull Dr. Lee's response to the abuse by the ex-employee of Biology Online. Read it here: if you read nothing else about this incident, read this.

Dr. Clancy summarizes the situation perfectly:

"It’s a rare thing to speak up in the face of victimization. But the secondary trauma from not being believed and being silenced (pulling a post first for the reason that it is not “discovering science,” then pivoting and claiming it was for “fact-checking”) is far too common. It’s that secondary trauma from Scientific American’s actions that crush a person. Going somewhere you trust – a blog network that prides itself on inclusivity in terms of the way it has fought intolerance in the past, in the identities of its bloggers and in its allowable content – and then being shut down? It’s like going to someone you trust and being called a liar."

Why do these issues of race and gender discrimination continue to persist in academia, which one would assume is populated by people intelligent enough to avoid these pitfalls? Dr. Clancy offers this insight:

"This is why fake gender and race blindness is so problematic, it’s why not talking about whiteness and privilege is problematic. Avoiding these things is silencing to the people who need to talk about it to reset boundaries. And if we consider ourselves allies, it’s time to start talking about this stuff."

Where I live and work I am not a minority, but I will always be a woman no matter where I am in academia. I can pretend all I want that gender discrimination or gender stereotypes do not exist. I can chant "It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter" until I pass out (it may be time to break out a post or two of my experiences). I can think that my colleagues and I are intelligent enough not to let discrimination and stereotypes be an influencing factor.

Gender and race discrimination are not like the Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal who believes if you can't see it, it can't see you. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away. Ignoring the problem allows it to accumulate in the dark corners like society's unsightly dust-bunnies, only to be discovered when they roll out from under the couch in front of your dinner guests. We leave ourselves in the uncomfortable position of reacting rather than acting. We sweep away the accumulated dust of the ages and pretend it was never there.

By admitting there is a problem with race and gender discrimination in academia, we are essentially admitting to ourselves that we are not intelligent enough as a community to passively weed out discrimination. Fortunately for us, we are intelligent enough to identify when a strategy is not working. If this recent incident highlights nothing else, it is that our current strategy for dealing with gender and racial discrimination in academia with fake blindness is not working.

This is not news to people like Dr. Lee, who does tremendous outreach work in STEM to engage under-represented youth. This is not news to anyone who has ever blogged about sexism or racism in academia. This is not news to all those people who provide outreach and mentorship to counteract racial and gender discrimination. However, it is still to easy for those having not experienced this kind of discrimination to dismiss these voices as being "over-sensitive", "over-emotional", or "over-reactionary", all of which are dismissive attitudes that lead to secondary victimization. They are dismissed because we believe that as scientists we are above this behavior.

We are above this behavior. So let us actively be better. As Dr. Clancy explains in her post, this will require some self reflection. Asking a question as simple as "Is there a correlation between how I behave around a colleague and the race/gender of that colleague?" is a key beginning. We examine phenomena all the time: that's what we do as scientists. Sometimes the phenomena are aesthetically unappealing. We just have to gonad up and do the work. An intelligent person doesn't want to discover that they may have behavioral traits they would attribute to the 1950s.

I want to be very clear on this next point, mostly because the most common argument I hear against focusing attention on racial and gender discrimination is that "it perpetuates an inferiority complex." Those are two different issues. A person belonging to an under-represented group in STEM does not need this attention because they lack the ability. That is ludicrous. What is lacking are support and encouragement: support and encouragement for kids everywhere to enter STEM careers, support and encouragement from role models with whom kids can identify personally, and support and encouragement for those who report discrimination are growing, but there is still a long way to go.

We can all do more. We can mentor. We can visit public schools and connect with kids. We can be vocal about our experiences in academia, no matter how uncomfortable or seemingly personal, because if it happens to a scientist it is part of life in the sciences. Our goal should be to talk gender and race discrimination to death because that is all it deserves. If we truly want to clean academia's house we'll have to air out the musty corners and deal with the dust-bunnies, because ignoring them won't make them go away.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Respect in Science: When saying "No" gets you called a "Whore". #StandingwithDNLee

What do you get when you are a busy scientist and you are asked to do work for free for a supposedly professional science-based blog, but you respond politely with "Thank you very much, but I have to decline your offer. Have a great day." (paraphrased)?

It turns out that you get called a whore.

This happened to biologist and STEM promoter DNLee. This happened just recently, as in within the last 48 hours. Rather than silently feel rightly outraged yet powerless to counteract the most blatant unprofessional conduct I have heard of in a long time, DNLee shines the world's largest halogen light on this bad behavior and shares the interaction via blog and video.

Like many others, I am sharing DNLee's blog post. This is my small part to keep the light shining on this grotesquely unprofessional behavior. As the old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Here is DNLee's post, unedited (in-between the dashed lines):

wachemshehao hao kwangu mtapoa

I got this wrap cloth from Tanzania. It’s a khanga. It was the first khanga I purchased while I was in Africa for my nearly 3 month stay for field research last year. Everyone giggled when they saw me wear it and then gave a nod to suggest, “Well, okay”. I later learned that it translates to “Give trouble to others, but not me”. I laughed, thinking how appropriate it was. I was never a trouble-starter as a kid and I’m no fan of drama, but I always took this 21st century ghetto proverb most seriously:

Don’t start none. Won’t be none.

For those not familiar with inner city anthropology – it is simply a variation of the Golden Rule. Be nice and respectful to me and I will do the same. Everyone doesn’t live by the Golden Rule it seems. (Click to embiggen.)

The Blog editor of Biology-Online dot org asked me if I would like to blog for them. I asked the conditions. He explained. I said no. He then called me out of my name.

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately:”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

This is my official response:

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand.What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation? Plus, it was obvious me that I was supposed to be honored by the request.

After all, Dr. Important Person does it for free so what’s my problem? Listen, I ain’t him and he ain’t me. Folks have reasons – finances, time, energy, aligned missions, whatever – for doing or not doing things. Seriously, all anger aside…this rationalization of working for free and you’ll get exposure is wrong-headed. This is work. I am a professional. Professionals get paid. End of story. Even if I decide to do it pro bono (because I support your mission or I know you, whatevs) – it is still worth something. I’m simply choosing to waive that fee. But the fact is I told ol’ boy No; and he got all up in his feelings. So, go sit on a soft internet cushion, Ofek, ’cause you are obviously all butt-hurt over my rejection. And take heed of the advice on my khanga.

You don’t want none of this

Thanks to everyone who helped me focus my righteous anger on these less-celebrated equines. I appreciate your support, words of encouragement, and offers to ride down on his *$$.



The time and talents of professionals are worth something. It matters that people, specifically scientists, realize this. Too often I hear of colleagues underselling themselves, or assuming that if they demand some sort of fair compensation for their time (e.g. consulting, documentaries, etc.) that the prospective benefactor of the talents will go elsewhere, or under-represent them. Always expecting that a highly trained professional will do everything for free disrespects their time and expertise.

To put the crap icing on top of the pile of a cake, the insult had to take a sexist approach by using the time-tested term of "whore." [Begin sarcasm] Yup, nothing puts an uppity woman in her place like calling her a whore. [End sarcasm]. This was disrespect for DNLee as both a scientist and a person.

The only way this kind of behavior will end is if these incidents are not shoved in the dark closets or swept under the rugs. Don't just dismiss this behavior, or feel that you can do nothing about it. Call it out. Expose it to the sunlight and let it shrivel and die.

Off to do my job as a researcher and collections manager for which I get paid.

Shaman out.

Update: 12-10-2013

On the blog Isis the Scientist, Dr. Isis lays down the hard truth concerning Scientific American's removal of DNLee's original post. Follow the link and read. Whether that was the intent or not, Scientific American's removal of DNLee's post (and the subsequent justification of said removal on the grounds that it wasn't science-y enough) felt like a continuation of the original disrespect shown to DNLee by the editor of Biology-Online dot org. The situation was not pretty, but deleting it will not remove the problem, especially if the problem is one of disrespecting a scientist using abusive and sexist language.

Update #2

The editor of Scientific American's blog recently posted on Twitter that they are still collecting information.

Scientific American blogs editor Twitter statement. Follow the link here to read the replies.
We'll have to wait and see what the official statement is. I'm definitely curious!

As a completely personal opinion, the outrageous behavior that was highlighted in this incident, as well as all those incidents that continue to be under-reported, isn't magically "fixed" by singing the "I'm Very Sorry" song. When a person's go-to response is to trot out a sexual and race based insult, that speaks to the character and maturity of the person. If they have not yet internalized that a) this type of behavior is intolerable and (most importantly) b) WHY this type of behavior is unacceptable, there are larger issues at work than just an "Oops, I made a mistake in judgement", or worse "It was just a joke!" defense. You do not get to pick-and-choose to whom you behave professionally. Period.

No matter what the final outcome of this is incident is, it demonstrates that there is still a long way to go before discrimination is culled from the world of science and science communication. Everyone needs to keep exposing these incidents to the light of day, not just for ourselves, but for all those who will follow in our academic footsteps.


Update: 13-10-2013

The Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American has posted a more formal statement. Read it here:

As another completely personal opinion, reading this left me feeling rather unsatisfied. I realize they are not yet complete in their information gathering, but here are a couple of items that spring to mind (and to the minds of many who left comments on the recent post, now that I had finished reading their comments) that I still find troubling:

1) In no way was their any mention that the behavior (hell, phrase it as "alleged behavior" if there is a need for hiney-covering) of the Biology-Online editor was inappropriate and unacceptable. A simple statement along the lines of "if this is indeed what transpired, it was wrong" would have sufficed. Respected science organizations need to step up and emphasize that mistreatment of any professional is unacceptable. Institutions such as Scientific American have the ears and eyes of so many, interested public and professionals alike, that they should be at the forefront of promoting professionalism in science. This includes letting people, especially their bloggers, share their less than smiley experiences and how they dealt with said experiences. Their stories and experiences are our stories, too. Science and science communication are the last places where dark corners should be acceptable.

2) I am not sure how the statement originally made by the Editor-in-Chief regarding the removal of DNLee's post
Link to the original post on Twitter.

is connected to the statement "Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post." The initial post stated that what DNLee experienced and her response was not suitable for Scientific American. This recent post states that they need to investigate for legal reasons. Those sound like two completely different reasons for removing the post.

There are still specific issues that will need to be addressed to help move on from this incident, such as how Biology Online will address their editor's actions, and how Scientific American and Biology Online are connected.

We will see what happens. For now, my phasianid theropod is roasting in the oven covered with the leaves of several species of aromatic angiosperms and the liquid from fermented grapes. Have a Happy Geeksgiving!