The Sassy Scientist – Where the wild grids are

The Sassy Scientist – Where the wild grids are

In the labyrinth of scientific research, one often finds themselves at the crossroads of data accessibility and the desire to reuse and build upon other people’s work. All too frequently, results are presented in a format that cannot be read by the computer. Does your favourite Geochemistry paper come with a PDF table, but no excel spreadsheet on the sight? Been there. Wondering what lies beneath that interpreted seismic reflection profile? Done that. (In case you ask yourself how do I master so many skills, remember: I am geo-panthomath and I cannot stop learning). Where are the shapefiles with the geospatial data or the text files with the numerical results? We all face these issues sooner or later. This time, Parvati, an early-career scientist working with seismic tomography, have come to share her frustrations and she’s asking:

All published tomography models should have an open-access gridfile or netcdf or something? Why do some only exist as .jpeg or .pdf?

Dear Parvati,

My dear young researcher. You emerged from your cocoon and started facing the daily struggles of a seismologist. This is a problem older than the 1976 Akin and Lee foundational paper. You most certainly weren’t born during that time; as for me, I can neither confirm nor deny. I’m gonna answer your rhetorical question with a yes, they should. However, the world is far from perfect, and more often than not, you’ll stumble upon just a few figures in an eye-piercing rainbow colour scale. Before you start weighing other career choices, here is my small piece of advice on how to proceed:

Have you scrolled till the end of the article and found a Data Availability statement? It’s becoming increasingly common to include one as many journals now mandate it. The link to the magic repository with the gridfile might be tucked away somewhere. What if you find nothing or just the ever-elusive statement ‘Data available upon reasonable request’? Aghh. Don´t let me start ranting about this cryptic statement. What does reasonable even mean? FAIR principles, anyone? After mumbling curse words of your choice to the screen, rise from your seat, and go to make yourself a cup of tea (or perhaps something stronger – hey, I’m not judging here).

Next step is to search on the internet. There are some fabulous open-access (oh, my ears delight in that word) web-based tools. IRIS and Sub-machine are just a couple of gems to mention… 

No good luck? Make catharsis with your colleagues. Maybe one of them actually knows the authors. Moving forward, simply write to the authors requesting for the data and describing why you are interested in their research and how you would use it (cc a few of coathors if you think it’s appropriate). You might just have ignited the spark for a future collaboration. Tip: include your supervisor/PI in the loop. Hate to say it, but some scientists feel more compelled to reply if they see a senior name in the mix. 

Weeks have passed and no reply? Don’t feel disheartened. Yes, ghosting in Academia happens as often as it does in your favourite dating app. Best of luck as you invest countless hours georeferencing those depth slices in raster format. If you find more of those on the supplementary material, consider it winning the lottery.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist


PS: Maybe you meet that infamous author at the next conference you are attending. Refrain from gazing at the person from a distance with your rather intense, Cyclops-like stare. Go ahead and approach them by expressing your interest in their research. A couple of brews later at the poster session, people start to show their inner social butterflies.

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.

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