EGU Blogs

Science Communication

The greatest mass extinction in the history of life

In palaeontology, there are so many things more important than dinosaurs. For example, the study of large-scale patterns in the history of life on Earth, commonly known as macroevolution, is all about uncovering patterns of speciation and extinction. We are currently about to enter the sixth mass extinction within the last 542 million years of life on Earth, so figuring out exactly what happened during periods of elevated extinction and ecosystem catastrophe is pretty damn important if we want to offset as much damage as possible.

Recently, a suite of new papers have been published giving detailed insight into the environmental and biological patterns and processes throughout the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event 252 million years ago that saw the demise of greater than 90% of life on this planet (numbers vary depending on which measure you use). What I’d like to offer here are bitesize summaries of each, and show that there is much more important research out there in palaeontology than just ‘woo new dinosaur’.

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Every time you publish behind a paywall, a kitten dies.

“Every day, people are denied access to something they have a right to.”

That’s the opening line from a new appeal from students Joe McArthur and David Carroll. Open Access describes a form of publication of research where articles are made instantly available for free, and with unlimited reusability rights, as long as the source is attributed. There are many pseudo-open access ‘definitions’ out there from publishers to obfuscate its use, but this is the only real, least restrictive one.

There has been a global open access movement over the last 10-15 years, which has accelerated so rapidly in the last year or two that many research funders and institutions, as well as government bodies, have developed open access policies. However, despite this progress, large commercial publishers like Wiley, Taylor and Francis, and Elsevier are still the most profitable industry in the world (with margins even higher than Apple), the majority of their profits coming from obscene charges for pdfs and library subscriptions for research articles and journals.

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The future of scientific publishing

Last night, the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK, SRUK, hosted an event discussing the past, present and future of scientific publishing (event details). One thing that was nice about this discussion, compared to previous ones I’ve attended in London, was the number of practising academics in the room. Often, academics are excluded from the discussions about scholarly publishing, which is a bit odd when you know, they’re the ones who actually need the services that publishers etc. provide.

Anyway, what did we all discuss?

Three great and varied speakers formed our menu tonight. For starters, we had Cameron Neylon, ex-scientista, and now the Advocacy Director for the megajournal PLOS. The main course consisted of Eva Amsen, also an ex-scientist, current epic science communicator and Outreach Manager for F1000Research. Dessert was the experimental Prof. Juan Aréchega, Professor of Cellular Biology at the University of Basque County, Spain, and Editor for the International Journal of Developmental Biology (note: not a predatory journal). I’ll try and summarise some of their key points.

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The Cambridge Science Festival

Last night, I was honoured to have spoken at the final evening lecture at the Cambridge Science Festival, along with Nick Crumpton, Anjali Goswami, Rob Asher, and Stephanie Pierce, about why palaeontology is important. Below is a rough transcript of some of what my talk was about. Unlike the others, I didn’t discuss my own research. Instead, by general gist was that although palaeontology is useful in addressing some of the greatest scientific questions of our time, like the evolution and history of life on Earth, the current narrow framing of science in terms of impact is being quite detrimental to creativity and exploratory science. As such, should palaeontology be more focused on its emotive qualities, and be used as a ‘hook’, or ‘gateway’ into the other fields of science?

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