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Social Media, Preprints, and a Dinosaur Tooth

Map showing the maximum extent of the Western Interior Seaway that split North America during the Late Cretaceous. The location of the new tooth from Mississippi is indicated by a red dot. Researchers have debated when and to what extent this inland sea retreated at the end of the Mesozoic–the Mississippi fossil indicates it probably happened sometime in the last few million years before the dinosaur extinction. Public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today my colleague George Phillips and I published a paper on the first known ceratopsid horned dinosaur from eastern North America. The fossil is “only” a tooth, but it’s more than enough to show that this group of dinosaurs made it farther east than many scientists (including me) had predicted.

A big seaway stretching from the Gulf of Mexico up to the Arctic Ocean split North America into eastern and western halves during the final 30 million years or so of the Mesozoic (see figure at right). The waters were in place before ceratopsids (the group including Triceratops) had evolved in western North America, which prevented them from dispersing onto the eastern “island” landmass.

The tooth, from Mississippi, is pretty diagnostic as a ceratopsid dinosaur–in fact, it’s probably the best single part of the animal that you could find in terms of identification. But, how did an example of this presumably western (and Asian) group end up out east? Many geologists have speculated that the two halves of North America might have been reunited just before the big dinosaur extinction 66 million years ago, but evidence was pretty sparse. The tooth we published provides the first vertebrate fossil evidence consistent with this hypothesis of a terrestrial connection. We don’t know exactly what species the dinosaur was, but based on the age it was probably something very closely related to Triceratops (perhaps even Triceratops itself).

In any case, you can read all about the scientific side of things at PeerJ, where the final peer reviewed paper was published. For this blog post, though, I wanted to highlight the behind-the-scenes stuff that got the paper to this point. It’s a case study in how open scientific practices provide enormous benefits! [Full Disclosure: I am an academic editor at PeerJ, but was not involved in the editorial handling of my paper.]

Ceratopsid (horned dinosaur) tooth from Mississippi. Photo by George Phillips.
Ceratopsid (horned dinosaur) tooth from Mississippi. Photo by George Phillips.

Social Media and Collaboration
Firstly, this paper resulted directly from social media. When George (paleontology curator with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks) found this tooth last July, he knew it was probably from a plant-eating dinosaur but wasn’t sure of the precise identification (his expertise is primarily with invertebrate fossils). Within minutes of making the discovery in a streambed in Mississippi, he posted the picture to Facebook, where our mutual friend Lynn Harrell spotted it and suggested horned dinosaur as the identification. Lynn reposted the image, and as a result I saw it within a few minutes. This got me really excited! Nobody had ever found a ceratopsid so far east before, and I knew the fossil had tremendous scientific significance. Immediately, I sent George a Facebook message and an email, asking if anyone was working on the fossil and if we could discuss a collaboration. He quickly agreed, and we set to work on the paper.

I have to give a big acknowledgment to George! He took a risk in putting this unknown fossil out on social media, a sharp contrast with many of my colleagues who would have treated such a find as a top secret specimen only to be discussed in hushed tones along the side halls of a professional conference. He also took a risk in bringing me on as a co-author–we have never met in person, so every communication has been over email. I’ve had a blast working with George, and thanks to him I have learned a ton about about the geology and paleontology of a new part of the world. This is the kind of collaboration I love–I get pushed to learn a whole bunch of new stuff, and get to know a new colleague. I think our strengths in expertise complement each other nicely; where one’s knowledge ends another’s knowledge fills in the gaps. Thanks, George!

Pre-Prints and Paleontology
Early on, we made the decision to publish this work in an open access journal. I also suggested that we consider circulating a public preprint of the paper before publication–George agreed, and so we elected to publish through PeerJ, which conveniently has a preprint server alongside its main journal operation.

Why did we post a preprint? Firstly, I wanted to get the news of this find out there! It’s a cool fossil of great importance, and others might want a head-start in learning about it. Second, I wanted to solicit feedback before final publication. And perhaps on the slight petty side, I get quite tired of seeing a paper published, and then someone chiming in with the usual gripes of “How did this error make it through peer review?” or “Well, why didn’t they send it to me?” or any other number of complaints. This seemed like a good way to circumvent the usual internet curmudgeons (and improve our paper in the process).

The preprint was posted simultaneously with the submission of the paper to the journal. We elected to do this to help speed things along through the process, although I could also see an argument for doing preprint first, collecting feedback, and then submitting for formal review. In order to get the word out, I posted the preprint extensively on social media (Twitter, my personal Facebook feed, relevant public Facebook groups, etc.).

The various pros and cons of preprints have been hashed out in detail elsewhere. I can say that for this particular paper, it was an absolute success! How so?

  • We received direct feedback that helped us clarify some identifications for the organisms associated with the dinosaur tooth, resulting in a more accurate faunal list in the final published version. Importantly, this was from people who were not invited as formal reviewers via the journal.
  • Public feedback on the preprint site and social media provided suggestions on where to add references for paleogeography, and also spurred us to tighten up our discussion on the taphonomy of the fossil. Some of this feedback overlapped with comments from the formal peer reviewers, and others were unique to the commenters. I found all of the public comments substantive, well written, and worthy of consideration during the revision process. We were also able to get a jump-start on revisions, which helped speed along the overall process.
  • One paleobotanist who saw the preprint contacted us directly. This was incredibly fortuitous, because they have an in-press paper directly relevant to the paleobiogeography issues we discuss. Thanks to our preprint, they could cite our work and we could cite theirs! This almost certainly would not have happened without a public preprint.

So, I think a public preprint was the right choice for our paper. We got concrete feedback from researchers who had relevant expertise but wouldn’t necessarily have received the paper to review, and several important areas of our final version were updated accordingly. Our work got cited in at least one paper that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Of course, this was not a substitute for the formal peer review process, but it sure as heck made a nice supplement. Our paper is substantively better thanks to this two-pronged approach. Once again, I owe a huge thanks to George as co-author for supporting the idea of preprinting our work!

Following this uniformly positive experience, I am now even more firmly convinced of the value of open communication on social media and preprints. I urge all of my colleagues to follow our lead!

You can check out our final paper here:

Farke, A. A., and G. E. Phillips. 2017. The first reported ceratopsid dinosaur from eastern North America (Owl Creek Formation, Upper Cretaceous, Mississippi, USA). PeerJ 5:e3342.


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