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Project head Andy Farke interviewed by Bora Zivkovic

March 4, 2010 1 comment

Andy is too modest to mention it himself, so I’ll point you all at the excellent interview that PLoS ONE guru Bora Zivkovic did with our glorious leader, as part of his coverage of ScienceOnline2010.  GO HERE to read it.

Categories: Interview, Publicity

The Project Heads Speak: Mike Taylor

November 18, 2009 2 comments

In the second installment of a three-part interview with Mike, Matt, and me, here’s Mike Taylor! Matt will follow tomorrow.

Mike Taylor with dorsals vertebrae A and B of Brachiosauridae indet. NHM R5937 ("The Archbishop") in right lateral view.

Mike Taylor with dorsals vertebrae A and B of Brachiosauridae indet. NHM R5937 ("The Archbishop") in right lateral view.

Do you believe you might be setting a trend?
Part of what’s so exciting is that we are in such uncharted territory.  We really have no idea whether this particular project [is] setting a trend — it’s nice to think it might be so, but equally this might end up being the one project of its kind.  It might crash and burn, or it might spiral out of our control into something really far reaching.  Three days in, it’s much too early to make concrete predictions, beyond that we’re certain to learn something.  Whatever comes out of this project in the short term, I hope that one of the long-term results is that if other people do start broadly similar large-scale collaborative projects, they’ll be able to learn from our mistakes and do a better job than we’re doing.

And this project is only a tiny part of a much bigger … I wanted to say movement, but it’s nothing as well defined as that.  It’s an ill-defined and approximate trend, but generally what’s happening is that the whole way we do science is changing in ways whose ends are hard to foresee.  Electronic publishing is no longer exotic, and some prestigious journals have no print edition; open access to online articles is increasingly widespread and journals that don’t do it are looking more and more reactionary; scientific blogging is becoming very serious in places (not least at our own Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week blog, http://svpow.wordpress.com/), with original research sometimes “published” in this way without recourse to journals at all; even the most staid journals are accepting citations of online resources.  Generally the trends seem to be towards decentralisation of authority, increasing openness and progressive divorcing of medium from message.  The Open Dinosaur Project fits very comfortably into that loose coalition of ideas: we’re trying to democratise science, open up data, blog the process, and make sure that the final publications are freely available to the world.

So whether or not other groups in the future do things that are similar in detail to the ODP, I do think that we are trending inevitably towards the kind of scientific environment in which those KINDS of thing — things in the same SPIRIT as the ODP — are going to proliferate.  If we’re a small part of taking the world in that direction, I’ll be happy with that.

Finally, will the contribution be limited to the creation of data registers? Can people contribute in other ways?
Again, we’re feeling our way here.  What we know for sure is that volunteers — including those with no academic background — can make a real contribution in aggregating data.  For that reason, and also of course because data collection is one of the first phases of a project, that’s what we’re concentrating on now, but we’re certainly open to pushing more work onto our volunteers down the line!  In particular, there are lots of different kinds of analyses that can be run on the data, and it’s unlikely that the three of us have the necessary background to do all of them — maybe some of the project contributors can do, I don’t know, principle component analysis or something. We’ll also need people to help organize and format the project’s massive bibliography, as well as track down abbreviations and other crucial (but hard-to-find) pieces of information. Figure preparation, and especially artwork, is another obvious area where we can hope to find and and use the talents of ODP  volunteers.

Categories: About Us, Interview

The Project Heads Speak: Andy Farke

November 17, 2009 2 comments

Mike, Matt, and I recently were interviewed about the ODP by the Brazilian science publication Ciência Hoje On-line. Only a few select bits of the interview were included in the article, so the next few posts here will include our full responses (with permission from our interviewer, Ciência Hoje’s Raquel Oliveira). Exercising privilege of being project lead, and because the interview makes the most sense in this order, here are some of my responses. Mike Taylor’s will follow tomorrow, and Matt Wedel the next day.

Andy Farke

Andy Farke

Why did the group launch the project? You meant to distribute the job? From what I understood, you want to analyse a huge amount of data.
We launched this project for three reasons. First, we wanted to do some good and interesting science. In the case of collecting all of the data, we knew right away that it would have to be a task spread across many individuals. And the best way to do this seemed to be just opening up the process to anyone who wanted to help out!

Second, we wanted to get the general public excited about and involved in doing “real” science, working in cooperation with paleontologists. There is a great interest out there in paleontology, particularly dinosaurs. It’s amazing how many non-paleontologists read the technical literature! I thought, “Why not harness this enthusiasm?” There have been many people waiting for this sort of opportunity (even if they didn’t know it), and I think the response speaks for itself. In less than a week, we’ve had over 40 non-specialists indicate interest in the project, and half of these have already submitted data. I look at it as a tremendous outreach opportunity! And the information flow goes both ways–we’ve had some very insightful comments, observations and suggestions from “amateurs.” They’re making substantive contributions to the project, beyond “just” entering data.

Finally, we want to promote the concept of “open science” in paleontology. It can be a pretty secretive field, sometimes for good reason–to prevent theft of fossils from dig sites, for instance, or to avoid being “scooped” in naming a new dinosaur. But, I think there are areas where we can change this culture. For instance, lots of scientific publications are based around huge data sets of measurements. . .but often these measurements are never published, and are eventually lost as people retire, die, or switch careers. Not only does it make it difficult to reproduce the analysis (an important cornerstone of science), but it also means that it is much more difficult to build upon previous work. We’re continually re-inventing the wheel. I would never say that every piece of in-progress research should be blogged, or that every piece of data should be immediately available, but I would like more of us scientists to have data and publication availability as a higher priority. It will take time, but I am optimistic. There are many paleontologists who are starting to buy into the idea of “open science”. If some branches of physics can do it, with the arXiv website, and if molecular biology can do it, with tools like GenBank, surely paleontology can change with the times too.

How do you think the academia will react to the Open Dino?
Already, we’ve noticed an interesting mixture of excitement and skepticism. Some people have looked at the project and said, “Wow, why didn’t I think of that?!” They’re excited about the possibilities. And others have said, “Well, there are so many potential problems, scientifically and organizationally, that it will never succeed.” By opening up the project, by blogging about it, we want to be able to address any concerns about the structure and science of the project essentially in real-time. Some legitimate concern does stem from the fact that we’re pulling data from the published literature – how do you know that all of these scientists measured bones consistently, for instance. So, we’re focusing on a set of relatively simple bone lengths that should hopefully be more consistently measured. For the large-scale evolutionary analysis that we’re conducting, I suspect that minor variation in measurement style from paleontologist-to-paleontologist is a rather small problem.

On another note, I think there is some reaction – positive and negative – to the fact that the project is going to be so transparent. By blogging the project, all of our successes and mistakes will be out there for the world to see. I think some folks will like that, and others won’t.

Categories: About Us, Interview

Meet the Project Participants: Diane (DeDe) Dawson

October 28, 2009 1 comment

Continuing our series of interviews, we’re happy to introduce all of you to Diane (DeDe) Dawson. In a project that relies so heavily upon the literature, it is a good thing to have a science librarian on our side!

DeDe Dawson

DeDe Dawson, collecting fossil graptolites in Nova Scotia for her M.Sc. research

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do (professionally)? Any other interesting facts?
I am originally from the Toronto area, but have just recently moved to Saskatoon (Saskatchewan, Canada) to work at the University of Saskatchewan as the Natural Sciences Liaison Librarian. I am responsible for Geology and Chemistry subject areas, so I maintain the collections in these areas as well as provide reference and “information literacy” instruction to students and faculty. Basically, I help them find the information that they need and teach them effective literature searching skills.
I have quite a varied background. My undergraduate degree is in Biology, my main interest being evolution and zoology. I completed an honours thesis project on several trilobite species found locally (in Ontario) – collecting all the specimens myself and performing some basic morphometric analyses. Certainly I’ve always had an interest in natural history in general, and a particular fascination with fossils. So, during the summers I worked in the Vertebrate Paleontology lab of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. After graduation, I remained at the ROM as a technician for several years and was lucky enough to be involved in an excursion to collect Jurassic marine reptile fossils in northern British Columbia! But it turns out though that my interests are much older… and without backbones! I ended up returning to invertebrates for my MSc thesis in Earth Sciences: graptolite phylogenetics. During the process of my Master’s thesis research I began to realize that I also really enjoyed the literature search, and while I loved paleo, I didn’t see a career in it for me. Academic librarianship presented itself as a profession more suited to me and a way to maintain my connection with the academy.

Why did you decide to participate in the ODP?
Besides my longstanding interest in all things paleo, I also have a very strong interest in open access issues and what we librarians call “scholarly communication.” Being a librarian I am all too aware of how expensive some library resources are, particularly scientific journals. The exorbitant costs often put the research published by scientists out of reach of the general public, and increasingly out of reach of budget-restricted institutions too. I realize that I am in a privileged position in having access to many of the articles that the public does not, so I want to be able to help the ODP gather this kind of data. I also want to support any effort that shares knowledge, increases collaboration across disciplines, and challenges barriers to accessing information. I am very intrigued by the concept of the ODP as a potentially new form of scholarly communication and collaboration in the sciences, and I’m eager to see how the project unfolds!

So far, what has been the best part of the ODP for you, and why?
The best part so far has been to put my library’s collection to use! I am always assisting others to use the collections here, but now I have a purpose for the collection too. I am relatively new to this library, so have not had a lot of time (or reason) to explore the stacks yet. It is very satisfying to be able to pull some of the dusty old journal volumes from the shelves and make use of them! I have also been able to identify and correct some access problems with electronic journals during this process. So I’m actually doing my job at the same time!

What have you learned from your participation in the ODP?
I have learned what a scapulocoracoid is!

What advice would you give those who might be interested in helping out with the ODP?
First spend some time reading through the ODP website, especially some of the tutorial postings about anatomy and what the abbreviations in the forms refer to. This has saved me from hassling the project leaders with lots of questions! Also, I found it easiest to start with verifying some of the articles already entered. This has given me a better feel for the process, and what to look for in the articles. Soon I might look for some new articles myself…

Categories: About Us, Interview

Meet the Project Participants: Rob Taylor

October 11, 2009 1 comment

Continuing our series of interviews with project participants, we’re now happy to introduce you to regular contributor Rob Taylor (no relation to Mike). Beyond Rob’s contributions to the ODP, many of you may know him for his work at The Theropod Archives – it’s a great resource for finding open access and public domain literature on those saurischian dinosaurs!

Rob Taylor at work on his database

Rob Taylor at work on his database

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do (professionally)? Any other interesting facts?
I was born and raised in Watertown, New York, but recently settled in southeastern Pennsylvania after residing in Northern Virginia for a number of years. I’m 41, and work as a drug safety analyst, computer programmer, and database manager for a large health care IT company. Husband to Wendy – an aspiring author, ice hockey fan (with nigh onto encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, I might add), and possessor of particular fascinations with cephalopods and the Burgess Shale; father to Nick (age five, dinosaur enthusiast) and Katie (one and a half, budding dinosaur enthusiast). Katie is watching Dr. Scott and the Dinosaur Train as I type this.
And yes, count me among those who simply never outgrew their interests in dinosaurs. In 2004, seeking to further my knowledge on the subject, I began building a database of all known dinosaur and pterosaur genera, fleshing it out with whatever publicly available data I could find. It’s a project that has been rewarding on many levels. Ultimately, a partnership was forged with the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York, where a prototype of the database was installed in their Museum of the Earth’s fossil discovery lab. Most importantly, the effort drove me to the primary literature for the first time, and allowed me to experience first-hand the benefits of open access.
Later, wanting to make my own contribution to the open access movement, I developed and launched The Theropod Archives web site. Increased work obligations have forced me to put the Archives on the back burner for a while, but followers of the project can be assured there is more to come. (There’s just the matter of a few ornithischian limb bone measurements to key in first!)

Why did you decide to participate in the ODP?
When I think about it, much of the effort I’ve put into my dinosaur projects has been about wanting to approximate the scientific experience. I’m grateful that there seems to be growing recognition among the scientific community that dedicated amateurs and knowledgeable enthusiasts might bring something to the table. Honestly, the opportunity to contribute to actual science – dinosaur science, no less! – is something I’ve always dreamed of. (And then there’s that carrot-on-a-stick offering of a publication credit dangling out front…)

So far, what has been the best part of the ODP for you, and why?
It’s the feeling of satisfaction that comes with making an actual contribution to science, coupled with a sense of excitement over being involved in a project that’s clearly breaking new ground.

What have you learned from your participation in the ODP?
Certainly those early tutorials were very useful in shoring up my knowledge of appendicular anatomy; however, the real surprise was in learning that I seem to absorb and retain a lot more when going at a scientific paper with a specific purpose in mind.

What advice would you give those who might be interested in helping out with the ODP?
I would suggest taking the time to review each work in its entirety, even though most measurements of interest may fall predictably within a single section of the paper. Read the figure captions, review the plate explanations, and note any additional information that could potentially be useful to evaluators in the email that accompanies your submission. The data presented in tables can sometimes be misleading if viewed out of context!

Categories: About Us, Interview

Meet the Project Participants: Bruce Woollatt

September 28, 2009 1 comment
Bruce Woollatt, with one of his sculptural creations

Bruce Woollatt, with one of his sculptural creations

We next decided to interview Bruce Woollatt, another one of our regular data contributors. Bruce may be well-known to many of you who follow the Dinosaur Mailing List as the person who is building the 1/10 scale T. rex – in addition to his artistic talents, he has done a fantastic turn at verifying and entering all sorts of data from old and obscure literature!

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do (professionally)? Any other interesting facts?
I was born, raised and live in London, Ontario, Canada which is sadly lacking in nearby Mesozoic exposures. My stay on Earth has lasted 47 orbits of the sun so far. I’ve had a lifelong interest in dinosaurs, having never “outgrown” them as so many kids do. My academic background is in history and philosophy (rather than science) but I earn my keep in the wonderful world of retail sales in a local camera shop. Go figure. I enjoy photography, reading and building dinosaurs. Over the years I’ve done a number of dinosaur sculptures and murals for the London Regional Children’s Museum including a life-size head of Parasaurolophus. You can see these here. My current project is a 1/10 scale T.rex skeleton which I am building for my own enjoyment as an on-line project at conceptart.org. You can follow along as I post progress reports here.

Why did you decide to participate in the ODP?
I decided to join the ODP because I thought it would be neat to make a contribution (however small) to paleontology. I’ve never dug into an outcrop but I’ve had plenty of experience digging into libraries!

So far, what has been the best part of the ODP for you, and why?
For me the best part of the ODP has been passing along the work of others, being a link in the chain. Some of the materials I was going through were nearly a century old; while nothing next to the sweeping expanse of time that paleontology routinely traverses, a century is a long time for us as individuals. Most of the data I was going through had been collected and published by people who are now dead; indeed some had died decades before I was born. I wondered what they would have thought of all the things we’ve learned in the meantime and all the new techniques that have been brought to the study of ancient life. I think they would have been amazed; I think they would have wanted to join in the dance. I feel that in a very small way I am helping them do just that. It has been an honour and a privilege to help pass on their legacy while at the same time contributing to new uses of that knowledge.

What have you learned from your participation in the ODP?
I have learned a bit about the collegial nature of science. Not that I am a scientist myself, but I do get a sense of the collaborative aspect of the enterprise. While I have never met any of the other people on the ODP, looking at the verification list and public data and I can see I’m a member of a team. A very busy team it is too. That’s cool!

What advice would you give those who might be interested in helping out with the ODP?
My advice is this: be your own verifier. Check stuff carefully and be sure you’ve entered things in the right boxes. Sometimes this can be tricky because once you’ve scrolled lower down on the data entry table the column headers disappear and it’s all too easy to enter a left femur figure as a right femur or as an unspecified femur. I know; I did it. More than once. Something I did that was helpful in avoiding this was to write out on a sheet of paper the code letters for the different measurements so that I knew that column AZ was the correct space to enter the length of the right femur, BA for the left femur, etc. Also, don’t forget to enter the page number(s) on which you found your data. (yes, this too is the voice of experience).

Categories: About Us, Interview

Meet the Project Participants: Christian Foth

September 26, 2009 2 comments

After a whole bunch of blather from me, Mike, and Matt, we figured it would be good to shut up for a little while and introduce some of our other project project participants. First on the list is Christian Foth, one of our most prolific database contributors. We sent some questions to Christian, and this is what he had to say [we've made very minor edits for style]:

Christian Foth in the Field

Christian Foth in the Field

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do (professionally)? Any other interesting facts?
My name is Christian Foth and I come from Rostock. This is a little city in the north of Germany (maybe 200,000 inhabitants). I am 24 years old and study biology at the University of Rostock. My main subjects are zoology and animal physiology and I have nearly finished my diploma, yet. The topic of my thesis is about the morphology of neoptile feathers (first feather generation of chicks) in several bird species. I am mainly interested in the evolution of birds and theropods (sorry), but ornithischians are cool, too. Last year I visit China for an excavation in the Provence Xinjiang. For more information visit http://www.dinosaurhunter.org

Why did you decide to participate in the ODP?
I like open source, and when I read about your project, I was fascinated by the idea to create a public database for dinosaurs.

So far, what has been the best part of the ODP for you, and why?
I collected a lot of publications about paleontology (especially dinosaurs) since I was a 16. And finally, I have now a reason to use this stuff in a non-profit way.

What have you learned from your participation in the ODP?
First, internet and open science are cool. And second, I learned more about the anatomy of ornithischians, and I hope to learn more about locomotor system evolution in ornithischians.

What advice would you give those who might be interested in helping out with the ODP?
If you have a little time, literature or ornithischian dino bones which need measuring, join the club of ODP.

Categories: About Us, Interview
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