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ABSTRACTS [ was: Re: Re Pinacosaurus (was How Did Hadrosaurs Survive?)]

HP Carpenter,

I apologize that the post to which you responded appeared snobbish, and I
appreciate your efforts to humble me with a careful tabulation of my errors
(sincerely, no sarcasm intended). I am sorry that you (evidently) felt I was
too forceful in my arguments. If you read back over the thread, you will see
that the points I made were part of a broader discussion, based on HP
Donovan's Cretaceous biogeographic scenario. Some of the comments you might
have considered precocious were made in the context of establishing
stratigraphic correlations among Asian dinosaur-bearing units; quality of
data is a primary issue in this discussion, and a high degree off precision
is required.

HP Carpenter wrote,
> Au contraire!! Peer review has nothing to do with publication (many
European, South American and Asian journals
> are non-reviewed - some even name new taxon),

    Although it is not clear from my post, I did not intend to assert that
"publication" hinges on peer review; I listed features commonly associated
with published scientific work that abstracts lack. You point is well taken,
many journals accept articles without peer review. My comments were directed
against abstracts specifically, and they stem from discussions with
scientists in a number of fields, all of whom agree that abstracts are, in
the words of one, "the lowest form of scholarly publication." That abstracts
are normally not peer-reviewed may not be a critical flaw in and of itself,
relative to other forms of correspondence. Note, however, that the abstracts
in JVP, which IS a peer-reviewed journal, are not themselves peer-reviewed.
Should we accept these two forms of written contribution as being of equal
value, knowing that one has been subjected to a screening procedure
considered mandatory by the editorial board while the other has not?

    In defense of my position on abstracts, I cannot recall a journal that
accepts "published papers" with a limit of 2000 CHARACTERS or fewer,
allowing no illustrations (some GSA meetings allow these in abstracts), no
tabulated data, no references, and no illustrations. I cannot think of a way
in which scientific research can be presented in a responsible manner within
these limitations. The non-US journals you refer to are nowhere near this
strict, and allow the publication of such supporting documentation, which in
turn allows the scientific community to evaluate the merit of claims
presented in scientific manner. I have heard scientists, on numerous
occasions, reject the conclusions of a particular paper based on the lack
of any one of these forms of documentation. Is it your contention that we
should accept the information in abstracts at face value without these data?

> abstracts are often cited in papers published in JVP (among others). [...]
> In the case of this specimen, there is an abstract (JVP 22(3):38A)
> that does give their justification for it being a lambeosaurine.

    In my opinion (for what it is worth), there is a growing problem in
vertebrate paleontology stemming from the citation of abstracts and their
incorporation into the realm of "citable" literature. Because of the
citation of abstracts, many incompletely documented and largely untested
ideas are being accepted wholesale by scientists, and it is impossible to
test or refute them because the primary data are simply not available and
the concept itself has yet to be published (look, for example, at the almost
universal acceptance the "lipless theropod" model of the Witmer lab, an idea
not yet, AFAIK, currently supported by publication of their data). If I
disagree with the [abstract] author's assertions, is it ethical for me to
then publish my response? No, because their conclusions are not published
(in the sense required by professional ethics), and therefore it is
incumbent upon me to wait for them to publish their work before responding.
So then, how then can the idea be tested? Hypotheses presented without
possibility of refutation are naturally untestable and unfalsifiable (if
only practically and not theoretically). Most scientists I know seem to
agree that untestable hypotheses are not scientific. Are abstracts then a
true scientific resource? Is citation of abstracts then a good thing?

    As I point out in my original post, I believe there are some sorts of
data for which citing an abstract constitutes very little problem, and may
reduce confusion in the literature (in defense of JVP, this is often the
case when abstracts are cited). Suppose the specimen cited above included a
complete, undistorted skull with a beautifully preserved, hollow crest
identical to that of Hypacrosaurus, and the locality from which it was
recovered were unequivocally Lancian, and the abstract said so in so many
words. The existence of Lancian lambeosaurines would then constitute more a
matter of description than interpretation. Citation of the abstract, rather
than pretending it doesn't exist, in the context of a paper on lambeosaurine
distribution might make that paper more useful decades down the road when
everything has been published. On the other hand, if I present a grand new
scheme of caseid phylogeny in an abstract, listing just the tree topology
and few of the relevant characters, is it then appropriate to use my tree as
the framework for an functional analysis of pelvic myology in the group?
Naturally, there are shades of grey between these extremes, but I believe it
is simple enough to conclude that one should not rest a point of one's
argument entirely on an abstract.

> The specimen is actually too fragmentary, with key areas being less clear
than the abstract would have us believe.

    I must emphasize that I FIRMLY believe that there is NO deliberate
misrepresentation on the part of the authors. I have spoken to them at
length, and they appear to be committed to determining the best possible,
scientific referral for their specimen. They are also steadfast in their
commitment to perusing the data as far as it will go, rather than giving up
when others, perhaps accustomed to better material or who hold preconceived
notions about what they should be looking for, tell them to. They appear to
believe in good faith that their conclusion is the best.

    Again, I will try to withhold comment until they publish, rather than
trying to represent their data and risk setting up a straw-man or grossly
misrepresenting their arguments. Note that this is another issue with
abstracts: could these authors have successfully summarized all their
arguments in the space allowed? According to them they did not. So then, how
can the abstract serve to properly represent their interpretation as a
citable resource?

> Be careful not to come across as a intellectual snob to the rest of the
world. If I were an editor of one of these
> non-North American journals, I would consider your remarks as yet another
"Ugly American."
    I very much appreciate your advice. You are correct that peer-review is
a poor choice of an example for the difference between abstracts and
scientific publication. I hope it is clear to readers of this post, as well
as my previous posts on this subject, that I was not insisting on
peer-review as the arbiter of the scientific value of publication.

>    ...but this appears to be a non-existent paper (!). If you know of
>more, I'd very much like to hear of it.
> Really? non-existent? Odd, I wonder what I am looking at. Geological
Magazine is published by Cambridge University Press.

I find this response petty and unwarranted. Most of us do not have the
extensive achieve of ankylosaur literature that you obviously do, and I do
not believe my inability to find a particular paper in my files, on
Geological Magazine's website or on GeoRef, nor my casual use of hyperbole
demands such childishness. I was not accusing anyone of having fabricated
the paper, having made fallacious references, or any other malfeasance; I
was the one who brought up the reference in the first place. Further, if you
had read on into the thread, you would have found the following post sent
barely three hours later(reproduced in its entirety [some editing of the
header for space] below for all who missed it):

> To: dinosaur@usc.edu, msdonovan66@hotmail.com
> Subject: Re: How Did Hadrosaurs Survive?
> From: jonathan.r.wagner@mail.utexas.edu
> Date: Thu, 31 Oct 2002 21:49:21 -0600 (CST)
> Reply-To: jonathan.r.wagner@mail.utexas.edu
> Sender: owner-dinosaur@usc.edu
> I did manage to find the Geological Magazine paper, through the magic of
> Langston Library (tm). As it turns out, there IS indeed an ilium
> with the specimen. It is referred to Pinacosaurus (which was then
> monospecific) on the bases of its widely flaring ilia. Well, I just don't
> enough about ankylosaurs to say what I think of that, but I certainly
> hang a correlation on it.
> Anyway, good evening everyone!
> :)
> Wagner

[regarding the Chinese ankylosaur]
>I can find no fault with his identification.

It is good to have an expert opinion on this. However, I then have to ask:
would YOU correlated the Wangshi series and its fauna to the Djadokhta based
on this one identification? That, after all, was the point of this exercise.

> As for the age, Shuvalov (2000, The Cretaceous stratigraphy and
palaeobiogeography of Mongolia;
> In Benton et al., (eds.) The Age of Dinosaurs in Russia and Mongolia)
reports a radiometric date for
> the Baruungoyot Svita (which would include the Djadokhta (i.e.,
Pinacosaurus) as 75+/- 7 Myr.

I don't think any of the participants in this discussion dispute the age of
Pinacosaurus, nor of the Djadokhta, just the correlation of the Wangshi and
the Djadokhta based on a single, fragementary ankylosaur butt (and now the
presence of "protoceratopsians").

Thank you for your contribution to this discussion!


Jon Wagner