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Opening the Fossil Record for Open Access Week

OAlogoOpen Access Week was somewhere between hectic and insanely hectic for me. I was part of a research team (including fellow PLoS blogger Sarah Werning) that published an open access paper describing the smallest, most complete, and youngest skeleton yet known for the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus. Beyond the gee-whiz factor and the fact that one of my high school students found the fossil after I walked past it, the fossil provides some important information on how dinosaurs grew up. The paper was accompanied by a massive release of open data (including 3D scans of nearly the entire specimen via Figshare and high resolution images of the bone microstructure via Morphobank), as well as a dedicated website for the general public. I have blogged elsewhere about the experience before and after publication, so won’t say much more on that here. Instead, this post will focus on a few reflections / comments about the whole process.

<img class=" wp-image-1485 " alt="Reconstructed skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus, by Scott Hartman. From Farke et al. 2013, CC-BY.” src=”” width=”420″ height=”160″> Reconstructed skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus, by Scott Hartman. From Farke et al. 2013, CC-BY.

What do we hope to accomplish in the long run?

  • Most importantly, we want to publicize the utility and importance of open data within paleontology. By opening up virtually everything associated with the project and having a high profile press release associated with it, we hope other paleontologists who have not already done so will be more likely to open up their own research.
  • Regarding CT scan data, we posted the segmentation files used to generate the 3D models. Because segmentation (the process in which structures are highlighted prior to modeling) has a subjective element, particularly for fossils, we want to get folks thinking about opening up this aspect of the research process so that it can be more easily verified and corrected if necessary. 3D models based on CT data are an important research tool for many labs, and it would be great to make them as open as possible!

What would I do differently next time?

  • If I had more time, I might have used more 3D renderings in concert with the interpretive drawings (instead of just straight line drawings to accompany the photographs).
  • Given more time, I would have had more high resolution scans of the specimen and its bones. Ideally, this would include all of the little unidentified fragments. Then again, the return on time investment would probably be minimal.

Pleasant surprises

  • Tech bloggers had some nice things to say about the open data.
  • One artist, independent of our prompting, made some really gorgeous renderings of the discovery. It was fun to another conception of how the dinosaur looked!
  • The response to the website for the public was overwhelming–over 100,000 visitors within the first day after it went live. If we have another discovery of this caliber again, I will definitely consider making a similar website. It is a great outreach tool!
  • The media response was overwhelming, too. It was an unexpected chance to get to spread the message of open access and open data, as well as highlight the awesome specimens at my museum and the talented high school students involved in our program.

And now it’s only another year until Open Access Week 2014…

Farke AA, Chok DJ, Herrero A, Scolieri B, Werning S. (2013) Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182

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