Sunday, October 6, 2013

Trends in publishing for west coast Cenozoic marine vertebrate paleontology, 1960-2013

On a coffee-fueled whim I decided to type up a spreadsheet of publications relating to west coast marine vertebrate fossils in order to take a look at the number of publications per year. I decided to limit this first iteration of the spreadsheet to studies published in 1960 and later. Why have I done this? I'm curious as the number of researchers in marine mammal paleontology in general - and more specifically researchers focusing on west coast Cenozoic marine vertebrates (birds, bony fish, sharks, sea turtles, and marine mammals) - seems to be higher than ever. Make no mistake - I'm not lamenting it as a problem; I don't foresee marine mammal paleontology ever having the problem dinosaur paleo has at the moment with an extreme surplus of young researchers, driving competition for specimens, overselling of crappy fossils, disputes over generally miserable material, or re-reinvention of the wheel (I've seen some papers redescribing a crappy dinosaur that was redescribed only a decade ago). In marine mammal paleontology, we have an enormous surplus of beautiful fossils - quite the opposite problem. The apparent abundance of other researchers at the moment - and increasing numbers of young researchers in my field - means more options for collaboration, and a larger pool of peer reviewers than ever before. I can only see it as a positive.

West coast marine vertebrate paleontology has never been a large field. While it can be drawn back as early as O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope describing things like Desmostylus and "Eschrichtius" (now Balaenoptera) davidsonii from the Neogene of California, it did not really kick off until the early 20th century with the numerous publications by D.S. Jordan on the fossil fish and sharks, and Remington Kellogg in the 1920's on fossil marine mammals from California. Beginning in the 30's and 40's, the study of fossil marine birds began in earnest with the studies of Alexander Wetmore, Loye Miller, and Hildegarde Howard (who continued to publish well into the late 1980's). After the 1930's, marine mammal work sagged as Kellogg focused on the enormous cetacean fossil collections from the Chesapeake bay region - which he would continue until his death in the late 1960's. In the early 1960's, Ed Mitchell began work on fossil pinnipeds, and was followed a decade later by the recently retired curator of Paleontology Larry Barnes. Most of Barnes' early work focused on fossil pinnipeds and odontocetes from southern California and Oregon. Charles Repenning began work in the late 1960's on fossil pinnipeds from Isla Cedros, which he eventually published in what is arguably my favorite paper (Repenning and Tedford, 1977). In the 1970's, Daryl Domning began a career of studying fossil sirenians; his 1978 monograph on sirenians from the eastern North Pacific is pretty inspired in my opinion. The 1970's also saw numerous studies on fossil sharks published by UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Bruce Welton. Research by Barnes, Domning, and Welton was supplemented in the 1980's and early 1990's by the next generation of paleontologists including Tom Demere, Annalisa Berta, Douglas Long, Bob Chandler, Kenneth Warheit. In recent years, another generation cropped up including Brian Beatty, Nick Pyenson, Meredith Rivin, Jim Parham, Tom Stidham, N. Adam Smith, Eric Ekdale - and an even more recent group including Jorge Velez-Juarbe, Rachel Racicot, Morgan Churchill, Joe El Adli, and myself (I've probably forgotten names, please yell at me to add some if you think of them).

When I started looking into fossil marine mammals and other vertebrates from California, I was surprised with how much remained unpublished. I've sort of been fascinated with the subject for several years. The impression I had was that there was quite a lot of research published in the 1970's through early 1990's, with a big lull in research during the late 1990's. At the moment, it seems that there is more interest in the subject than ever, and I think we might be on the cusp of a renaissance in west coast marine vertebrate paleontology. And we can sort of test this nebulous hypothesis with this fancy spreadsheet I put together.


In order to qualify, I made a short list of requirements: 1) studies must be published articles or book chapters; I'm not interested in tallying up meeting abstracts, as it would be a big pain and isn't really a measure of productivity (which I suppose is more of the focus rather than strictly 'interest' in the subject). Studies must also 2) focus on marine vertebrates from 3) Cenozoic rocks from 4) Baja California, California, Oregon, and Washington (eventually I will add in papers on marine vertebrates from British Columbia and Alaska). I'm not really interested in looking at papers detailing fossils from older marine rocks, simply because it's outside of my research interest (and therefore memory), but Mesozoic vertebrates are generally worked on by a separate coherent 'block' of researchers. What sorts of studies don't count? Papers on terrestrial mammals preserved in otherwise marine formations, and papers on bony fish from fluvial deposits, for example.

Ok, that's great, but how much does a paper have to focus on marine vertebrates from that region in order to be included? That's a bit fuzzier. There is clearly a wide spectrum of relevance, from alpha taxonomic papers describing new fossils from this region, to papers that merely include a west coast marine vertebrate fossil in a cladistic analysis. I decided to not include the latter, as some fossil marine mammals - e.g. Enaliarctos, Albireo, Parapontoporia, Parabalaenoptera - are included in numerous cladistic analyses from studies published on fossils from other regions, and merely including one of those in an analysis isn't really a contribution to west coast marine vertebrate paleontology, in a sense. So, at the bare minimum, a study has to include at least some passage of text focusing on west coast fossils, or include a figure of one. Admittedly, there are far fewer of these 'fuzzy' in between examples than clear cut alpha taxonomic studies (e.g. Repenning and Tedford 1977, Otarioid seals of the Neogene).


I've kept it pretty simple so far: I just have four columns, including subject, author, year, and title. I haven't including any more bibliographic information at this point, and unless I actually publish this, I'm not going to waste my time doing that. Subjects include: Aquatic Carnivora (pinnipeds, otters, and Kolponomos), Odontoceti, Mysticeti, Sirenia, Osteichthyes, Elasmobranchii (which should actually be Chondrichthyes because I have at least one study on chimaeras in there), Aves, Assemblages (for papers reporting on more than one group), and Taphonomy (for studies that focus mostly on fossil preservation and may include more than one group). So far I've not implemented a way to have secondary subjects for assemblage and tapho papers to count for each taxonomic subject represented.


Using pivot tables in Excel I have generated histograms from the spreadsheet, each of which is shown below. I apologize for the crappy Excel graphics; this isn't a publication, so I'm not going to spend a bunch of time making pretty graphics in Illustrator. NOTE: Keep in mind that since this is a quick n' dirty in excel, years that have zero publications are not included on the X-axis, and thus each graph makes publishing look more constant at first glance.


At the largest scale with everything thrown on the board, a couple trends are apparent: there is quite a bit of noise from year to year, and the maximum possible number of publications has increased in the last two decades. The former may simply reflect the "reset" time between publishing articles; not every researcher gets a paper published every year (or, may have published articles that did not meet the criteria for inclusion). Many prolific researchers have diversified since their early work into studying fossils from the east coast or even Japan.

We have some serious spikes here: what the heck happened in 1994-1995? Also, 2008 and 2013 were/are crazy (and there's still three months left in 2013!). Firstly, 1994 and 1995 saw publication of two special volumes: the Frank Whitmore volume in 1994 and the Island Arc special volume on marine vertebrates in 1995 (fun fact: although articles from the Island Arc issue say 1994, they were actually published in January 1995 and need to be cited as such; same goes for the 1976 Systematic Zoology special volume, which says 1976, but in reality was published January 1977). 2008 and 2013 do indeed have record numbers of publications - but unlike the mid 90's spike, it is unrelated to special volumes.

What else is evident is that there is indeed a slump in the late 1990's; I have no idea what to attribute this to, but it is refreshing that my impression was correct. However, publishing prior to the 1990's doesn't appear to have ever been very high, so that was an incorrect impression on my part.


Looking specifically at marine mammals, some of the trends are similar to before; however, a spike in 1977 is more obvious here, relating to the publication of the 1977 Systematic Zoology special volume. There's also a pretty solid spike from 1984-1986. The post-Island Arc volume lull is even more obvious here; keep in mind that 1999 and 2000 had zero publications, so they're not even included on here.

I'm still not sure what happened in 2008. The lower peak for 2013 is because of several papers on birds and sharks published this year (which would not show up on this histogram).


Holy walruses batman, 1994 was a good year for pinniped research. 1994 saw publication of two papers by Tom Demere on walruses, the Berta and Wyss phylogeny, the paper on pinniped basicrania by Hunt and Barnes, the paper on Kolponoms by Tedford et al., and two others that are escaping my memory as I type this (I don't have the spreadsheet in front of me at the moment).


So now we see that much of the 2008 and 2013 spikes are due to paleocetological studies.

 NON MAMMALS (bony fish, sharks, turtles, birds)

I lumped all of these into one chart because this combined group is approximately similar to paleo marine mammalogy. Here you can really appreciate a post-1970's sag in research, with much of the 1970's and 1960's dominated by research on birds by Hildegarde Howard, shark work by Bruce Welton, and bony fish work by John Fitch. After Howard passed away, only a couple of papers were published on west coast marine birds until the last few years. Similarly, shark and fish work has picked up by work from Gary Takeuchi (LACM) and colleagues, and the "retirement" of Bruce Welton from the petroleum industry (and "un-retirement" from paleoichthyology; he's published two papers on fossil basking sharks this year, and from what I hear there are several more on west coast sharks in the works).

So, new impressions from this data?

1) Although there is a general increase in the number of papers per year (or, more specifically, higher maximum possible number, with inter-year lags in research output), there was a very real lull in research in the late 1990's. The increase through time likely reflects continued research output by the older generations of researchers, supplemented by the addition of younger generations.

2) Non-mammal work was severely slowed down after the late 1980's, but has recently picked back up.

3) 2008 and 2013 tied for record-breaking numbers of papers (14 each), with 2009 and 2011 having impressive numbers as well (8 and 9, respectively). The 2008 spike is dominated by cetacean studies, whereas 2013 is a bit more even in terms of subjects.

Anyway, that's about all for now, but I am really interested to hear what other people have to say about this. One last point: I know for a fact that I have missed certain papers, and several have come to mind already as I type this (e.g. Barnes 1970, Allodesmus mandibles in PaleoBios). I will upload a copy of the spreadsheet, and if folks are interested they can scour it for mistakes or omitted papers.


James Parham said...

Really interesting. I am glad you did this andI look forward to seeing this updated. For next iteration, leave the zero years in the graphs. Leaving them out obscures the peaks and valleys.

J. Velez-Juarbe said...

Nice!! Looks like you really put in quite some time into doing this, and very interesting results! There's so much that still needs to be done! I think the upcoming years will see an increase in west coast marine mammal publications ;)
Let us know when you upload the spreadsheet, I'm interested in looking at it.

Unknown said...

the 1994 peak was from the Whitmore volume

Morgan Churchill said... mentioned that

Robert Boessenecker said...

Jim - That's an obvious shortcoming, but it's primarily due to the limited utility of graphing stuff in excel (and, more likely, my limited knowledge of the program).

Jorge - Thanks, and I totally agree. I think there's enough fresh blood to reinvigorate west coast marine vert research.

Otherwise, I'll probably have to upload the spreadsheet someplace else (my personal webpage, for example) and link to it here.

Anonymous said...

Interesting work Bobby. It does not seem to be reflected in marine invertebrate studies in the western Pacific. I have a working manuscript on Pleistocene invertebrate fossils papers from the eastern Pacific from California and Baja California (1866-2000). Using just the 1900-2000 data it shows a decrease in publications (abstracts and papers) since the late 70's, early 80's.

Chuck Powell

Brian Lee Beatty said...

This is nicely done, Bobby. Considering what we know exists in collections, this is actually kinda depressing. Imagine what it would be like if there were less hoarding and more collaborative efforts and open sharing? I guess we'll find out, because the younger generations are going to kick some arse!
Thanks again, Bobby, for being a treasured colleague and friend. It was really good to see you in CA.

Robert Boessenecker said...

Yes I know! There is a very large volume of material that is 'claimed' - as we all know - but in spite of that, we are still seeing a huge surge in papers produced by young researchers in our age brackets. And that - despite the amount of hoarding going on in our field - I think is very, very encouraging! Many of my own experiences over the past few years have motivated me to take a more open stance with my collection of material at UCMP - if someone is interested in the material I've collected they are welcome to take the lead (e.g. I've invited Rachel Racicot to work on the porpoises, and Morgan Churchill to help me with the pinnipeds), and I would prefer to make some sort of intellectual contribution and be a coauthor - but if not, I would still be pretty happy to see the material written up in the first place.

Anyway, I think the next few years in our field are going to be very exciting.

Robert Boessenecker said...

And of course - it was an absolute blast to be able to talk shop as always, in addition to much less serious discussions! I think this was the most fun and productive SVP I've ever had.