The Project Heads Speak: Andy Farke
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.
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.