Mike Taylor

British paleontologist and computer programmer. Double blogger: The Reinvigorated Programmer – https://reprog.wordpress.com/ and Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (along with Matt Wedel and Darren Naish) – https://svpow.com/ A graduate of the University of Portsmouth. On his account he has co-authorship in description of three taxa: Xenoposeidon, Brontomerus and Haestasaurus.




Szymon Górnicki: What do you think is the most interesting/exciting in paleontology?

Mike Taylor: I can’t possibly get it down to a single thing. Here are three, in no particular order.

A. It’s fascinating to be able to put together, with reasonably certainty, a understanding of animals that have been gone for 65 million years. There’s very good evidence, for example, that sauropods had an efficient respiratory system like that of modern birds. It’s thrilling to pull that level of inference out from something as obscure as some holes in fossil bones.

B. The sheer beauty of the animals, and indeed of their fossils. Sauropods are simply stupendous, there’s no two ways about it. To see one in the flesh would be astonishing. We can’t do that, but we still get to come close to them. Not only that, but many of the individual bones are simply beautiful objects. Who for example can look at MB.R.2180:C5 and not want to weep at the sheer loveliness of it?

C. The thrill of discovery. That moment when you are literally the only person in the whole world who knows something. For example, the moment I realised that Xenoposeidon is rebbachisaurid. That’s magical.

SG: If paleontology and programming didn’t exist, who would you have been instead?

MT: I really don’t know. Sometimes I think if the dice had rolled differently, I might have ended up doing almost anything. My first degree was in pure maths. I have a paper nearly finished in music/literature criticism (comparing two of Joni Mitchell’s albums). I preached about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation a couple of weeks ago, and found myself fascinated by the history. I love cooking. I don’t know if I could ever have become a good enough guitarist to make a living at it, but it’s an appealing idea. So, any or all of those things, or others that I’ve not thought of right now.

SG: Have you thought about a “traditional” academic career in your early age?

MT: No — nor more recently. It’s not for me. Doing palaeontology from outside of that world keeps it fun, stops me from having to be competitive, lets me avoid all the tedious admin and grant-writing and suchlike that occupies full-timers all the while, and also gives me an outside perspective that means I can write about issues like open access with a different angle from others. Being a programmer in real life is more secure and better paid, and keeps me enjoying my palaeontology (because as soon as I find I’m not enjoying some aspect of it, I can just stop.)

SG: What fascinates you in sauropods?

MT: Everything! Most fundamentally, how did they work? Even puny animals like elephants (six tonnes) and giraffes (2.2 m neck) have all sorts of anatomical adaptations to help them function. Now think about sauropods that weighed credibly 120 tonnes (20 times as much) and with necks 17 m long (eight times as long). How? How?? HOW!? Every aspect of their lives is astonishing: food gathering, digestion, respiration, circulation, locomotion. It honestly baffles me how anyone could not be fascinated by them.

SG: You are a supporter of open access, open source and open data. Of course, science must be easily available for everyone. On the other hand, there are problems with funding research and paleoart, small number of jobs in paleontology. Do you have any thoughts on how to solve these problems?

MT: Well, first of all, open access, open source and open data do not threaten jobs in palaeontology at all. If anything, they create more of a market for research, as more can be done.

Palaeoart is a completely separate problem. Fundamentally, the compensation system is different. Academics are paid for doing their jobs, and the data-sets and papers they generate are in some sense by-products. Paying academics to use their data and papers would be ludicrous: they’ve already been paid. But (with maybe a very few exceptions) palaeoartists are not salaried. They get paid only in exchange for their services. For that reason, it’s morally defensible for them to use copyright to prevent their work from being copied, in a way that is not defensible for preventing copying of scholarly papers. It’s great when artists are able to work in ways that allow their work to be freely reproduced and modified, but that will always be the exception.

By the way, I’d like to give a shout out to the many wonderful palaeoartists I’ve worked with over the years, who have generously allowed me and my colleagues to use their work without payment. Since I’m completely unfunded myself, any payment would be out of my own pocket, which is not really tenable: but when I think about pieces like Mark Witton’s Diplodocus herd illustrating our neck-posture paper
Paco Gasco’s kicking Brontomerus in our paper describing that beast
and Scott Hartman’s skeletal reconstructions that have been used in lots of contexts, I’m deeply grateful. I’d love these folks to get more work — proper, paid work!

SG: Does PeerJ meet your expectations of academic publishing practices transformation?

MT: In almost all respects, absolutely. When I was putting together the Xenoposeidon-is-a-rebbachisaur paper, it literally didn’t even occur to me to send it anywhere but PeerJ. Their submission system is less painful than any other I’ve used, their editors are thorough, their peer-review system is efficient, effective AND transparent, their website is fine, their production is really careful, and of course they do all this at a superb low price. And they offer preprints, and an easy route to move from preprint to reviewed paper. I think that as things stand, they are BY FAR the best game in town: when I look at papers in traditional journals like JVP and Palaeontology now, with their hard-to-read two-column text and their tiny greyscale illustrations, they feel like relics of a bygone era.

If I have a reservation about PeerJ at all, it’s a rather churlish one: I wonder whether they could have been a bit MORE radical. But in reality, they probably hit the sweet spot: they’ve moved the Overton window now in a way that they couldn’t have done if they’ve been perceived as too left-field for the Big Names to publish in. But in fact, PeerJ is perceived now as one of the major venues for vertebrate palaeontology, in large part I think because established workers felt that it was recognisable enough as a journal that they were prepared to publish their work there.

There’s one other thing that does need to be mentioned: it worries me a little that PeerJ is privately owned. I know Pete Binfield and Jason Hoyt a little, and they are about the most principled and trustworthy owners a scholarly publishing operation could have. I am confident that they won’t sell out. But ultimately, anything that’s privately owned is to some degree vulnerable. Suppose they dilute their stock a bit more to bring in more investment. They become huge, Then Elsevier offers $500M for them, and the other shareholders group together and
force Pete and Jason to sell. It doesn’t seem likely, but it’s not impossible. I have grown increasingly convinced of the important of the https://cameronneylon.net/blog/principles-for-open-scholarly-infrastructures/

Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures
— boring but crucial stuff. I’d love to see increasingly important OA publishers like PeerJ signing up and implementing the recommendations.

SG: Can you elaborate on the thought written in the description of the blog: “SV-POW! is the future of the Internet” 

MT: Obviously I had my tongue somewhat in my cheek when I wrote that. But I do believe it. The Internet has a lot of different futures, and there’s no denying that in commercial terms the important stuff is over at Amazon and eBay and online banks and so forth. But for my money the social value of the Internet is ultimately more important. Not long ago it would have been impossible to have a community of people who care about sauropod vertebrae: there just weren’t enough of them in any one place. Now, “place” has a different meaning. Wherever they are in the world, those few people who love this one thing can get together and discuss. That’s important. As we say on the SV-POW! “about” page, “I’d love to see more special-interest palaeo-blogs around: Ornithopod Manual Phalanx Picture of the Week, for example, or Basal Tyrannosaurid Metatarsal Picture of the Week.” If anything I’m a bit disappointed that we’ve not seen more of these pop up.

SG: What is paleoart, for you as a paleontologist who does not create it? What are your favorite old masters of paleoart?

MT: To me, palaeoart is crucial. It’s what brings hypotheses alive for non-specialists. The Brontomerus paper didn’t really feel complete until we had Paco’s artwork in it. Even in the absence of actual art, images are crucial: a technical illustration like https://peerj.com/articles/36/#fig-3 gives the viewer a kick in the hindbrain that no amount of statistics could achieve.

Old masters: definitely Knight above Burian or Zallinger. At his best, there was a dignity to his work that I really like — something sort of analogous to the dignity of the brachiosaur in the scene early in the first Jurassic Park film. That was the moment when the film laid out its approach, that the dinosaurs were to be actual animals rather than mere monsters. The best of Knight’s work conveys that, too.

But, honestly, I think palaeoart has come on a long way since then. I love Bakker’s line-drawings from the 1960s and 70s that helped catalyse the new vision of dinosaurs. I admire how Greg Paul took that aesthetic and made it beautiful. But most of all, I Iove the work of the new wave of artists who are relentlessly exploratory in their work. When All Yesterdays was published, I called it “not only the most beautiful but also the most important palaeoart book of the last four decades”. I stand by that. We’re in a golden age not only of palaeontology but of palaeoart.

SG: To what kind of people, you would recommend running a scientific blog?

MT: I’m the wrong person to ask, really, because I have this abiding conviction that everyone should have a blog. Do you have ideas? Opinions? Then write about them! There are at least three good reasons. First, the act of writing forces you get your ideas into order. As E. M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Second, the more you write, the better your writing will get — and lots of scientists badly need to improve their writing. The single most important rule of writing, as well as computer programming https://reprog.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/programming-books-part-2-the-elements-of-programming-style/
is: “Say what you mean, simply and directly”
And thirdly, when you start writing about interesting things, interesting people will start to leave interesting comments — and then you have an interesting conversation. I never judge which posts are “successful” by hit-count, but by comment-count.

SG: What first reading would you recommend  to someone who is just visiting your blog for the first time?

MT: For someone who’s new to dinosaur science, the absolute best book is the Holtz and Rey encyclopedia
its written at a level understandable to smart kids, without being patronising to adults, it covers an astonishing range of material, and it’s ridiculously cheap.

People who want to go deeper would do well to move on to “The Complete
Dinosaur” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0253357012/thedinosaurrea0a),
a collection of review papers that go into depth about pretty much every aspect of dinosaur science. Again, stupidly cheap for what it is. (I have the 1st edition, which was current when I was coming into the field, but I imagine the 2nd edition is the way to go now.)

I would like to thank to Mike Taylor for the interview and to you for reading.