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Re: Abstracts, evidence, and disappointment [was: Re: It's HERE!!!]
Mickey Mortimer wrote (responding to moi):
>> Then my point was not taken... at least not far enough. I feel,
>> and this is more opinion than fact, that abstracts aren't even worth
>> considering as science worthy of reference.
>If this is true, why do they exist in the first place? Just to announce
>somebody's doing work on something that will be done in a decade? Sure,
>they may be incorrect, but it's the same with all scientific papers.
the following bit is cynical, and not for the feint of heart. I'm
sure I will get in trouble for it. My reason for presenting it is not
to malign our science, nor to make anyone feel bad. I feel very strongly
that the attitude Mickey holds has become all too prevalent among not
only amateurs, but professionals as well. Although it require airing some
dirty laundry, I present this information in the hopes that it might
show the complexity of the "real" world of science, the non-published
world, and why everyone treats publication as something special.
As anyone who attended SVP 1999 can attest, an abstract is a
placeholder in the schedule of events of a conference, which allows you to
go to your department (or other funding organ) and request money to attend
the meeting. It later tells people that you were at that meeting, and
what you talked about.
The reasons to attend a meeting are varied: you may want to hang
out with your old buddies, schmooze for a job or an advisor, show off your
new toys, or posture and parade your intellect, accomplishments, or
students in front of your peers. There are some people who truly want
to bounce ideas off of their peers, and meetings are a good place to
do that. However, if you put your ideas in the abstract, all of a sudden a
dozen or so people are treating them as published (which then puts
everyone else, especially those who are working on the same topic as you
in a real bind). There are some, too, who go for the cameraderie of a
500-person conference of people who won't look at you funny for drooling
over old bones.
I like to use Chatterjee as an example of the ideal
meeting-attendee: He goes to chat with peers about his work, show
specimens he has trouble identifying, etc. He usually gives a very general
talk, one which is thought-provoking and conjures his latest thoughts on
"the big picture." Try citing a Chatterjee abstract... you won't get much
deatiled information, but you remember a very interesting talk. He is
avialable as a resource for colleagues, and as a general advisor for
students who need to talk about graduate school (as I once did).
An abstract itself is, ideally, litte more than a summary of what
you will be talking about. It isn't supposed to be a report; if someone
wanted to publish a report, numerous journals have a section for short
articles reporting new occurrances, etc. Sadly, as I have commented
before, times are changing, and VP abstracts are being used more and more
as if they were primary sources.
A scientific paper (of which I have none to my name) is, in some
ways, a work of art. It is research (at least ostensibly) distilled to
only the most supportable, most tightly woven fabric of logic and
evidence. It is what is worthy of presentation as scientific research.
Yes, it can be, and often is, wrong. However, it is the face of science,
the official product of a scientists work. Do not assume that, because it
can be wrong, it is somehow on a level plain with an abstract. A paper is
a crafted instrument of communication, with only the material the worker
finds fit to print. [Note: this is very pie-in-the-sky, but I'll try to be
cynical about only one thing at a time, thank you very much! :) ]
Scientist have many ideas, some of them really off the wall. The
unwritten rules of the game is that you CANNOT quote them on asides,
random comments, snippets of notebook papers, abstracts, drunken rants, or
anything like that (note, citing personal communication is a special
case). They must deliberately attach their name to a work, and submit it
for publication, for it to be a result of their research. Everything else
is their private affair.
The old-school approach to this sort of thing was that everyone
had a right to finish their work at their own pace, and you shouldn't mess
with it until it was published. Not only were those perhaps brighter days,
but the ante had yet to be upped regarding publicity and "glitz" in
science. The sad truth is, I'm not sure this holds any more, or,
perhaps, the bar has been lowered to the point where abstracts are
considered "published." (Note that it was always possible to use
an abstract as a referrent, so that someone could recieve
proper credit for having come up with the same idea as you, or if you had
seen their work, and wanted it known that you were not attempting to
I am sorry that you (and I, and everyone else) do not have the
patience to wait for the final report. However, it is important for all of
us (myself very much included) to realize that vertebrate paleontology is
*not* military intelligence (a point which, I'm sure, was a constant thorn
in the side of Steve Cole and his (now defunct) Dinosaur Discoveries,
despite his best intentions). Science is a world devided into two parts:
research and the literature. Neither can be rushed, and while advanced
knowledge of progress in one or the other is often exciting and
interesting, it is not, in and of itself, scientific.
Also, an abstract is not a "scientific paper," it has not been
subjected to peer review, it (usually) contains no references, and it
generally does not even provide any documnetation. At least a thesis
>I know of many cases where seeing a specimen in person is neccessary to
>evaluate it properly. [...]
You restate exactly what I said here, only you provide examples:
firsthand observation is not ultimate revalation, it is simply observation
one level better than examination of the literature.
>The various taxa published in Nature and Science recently are often worse
Tell me about it. These publications are very difficult to deal
with. However, don't judge too harshly: at least when you have a lot of
tiny figures... you have a lot of figures! Sereno is very good about
trying to squeeze documentation into Science, which is VERY stingy with
their space restrictions (they kind of have to be, given their mandate).
And, I'm sure most (if not all) of the people on this list would embrace
the opportunity to publish in one of these "prestige" venues, perhaps
compromising their scientific scruples for the opportunity to draw more
acclaim (and therefore, funding) to their research.
>Apparently, Nipponosaurus is extensively illustrated,which I did not
>expect (thinking of most Asian dinosaur descriptions from the seventies).
Nipponosaurus was named in 1936, with some additional work
published in 1938. There are about ten plates overall. I don't ahve
fantastic copies of some of them, but then, the bones aren't always that
well preserved anyway. I hope that the authors in question will be
re-illustrating the material.
Also, generalizations such as this should only be made when you
can back them to the hilt. I have never seen poor documentation in a
Japanese dinosaur paper, although I have seen very few Japanese dinosaur
papers. Indian dinosaur papers (from the seventies) are similarly scarce,
but Chatterjee did some work on phytosaurs in the seventies, and it is
amply illustrated. I think what you could get away with is CHINESE
dinosaur papers from the seventies (although I don't think I would publish
something so jingoistic).
How would you feel if a Chinese fella wrote about how all North
American dinosaur papers from the Nineties are arrogant and include poor
>While viewing a specimen firsthand does not guaranty correct
>interpretation, I would trust unbiased conclusions based on the actual
>specmen more that said conclusions based on the literature.
As I have already tried to point out, conclusions should be
trusted based on the *evidence*. I don't expect people to take my word for
things, but I do expect them to evaluate my arguments fairly. If they
don't have my arguments, or someone else's, I expect them to not venture a
judgement, at least not in print (where any statement would be
unscientific and insulting... you don't go around writing "I think Marsh
is smarter than Cope, so I'm going with Marsh on this one."). I consider
this to be elementary science, but maybe it is just my opinion (?).
Hope this helps,
P.S. Lest anyone whould think otherwise, I am not trying to grind poor
Mickey down here. The only reason I keep on him about this is because I
think he provides a valuable service to the DinoList community, and I
think he is worth trying to convince. I certainly don't want to insult
him, and if he were to feel that this conversation is too harsh, it
certainly wouldn't be worth continuing.