The PaleoNet Forum: A Monthly Electronic Journal January, 1996: Volume 2, Issue 1 The Future of Paleobotany (or, How am I driving?) Una R. Smith Department of Biology, Yale University

The PaleoNet Forum: An Irregular Electronic Journal
January, 1996: Volume 2, Issue 1

The Future of Paleobotany (How am I driving ?)

Una R. Smith

Department of Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

Where are we now?

As any evolutionary biologist or ecologist knows from experience, the organisms most successfully adapted to a given environment will generally perceive any form of rapid change as decay of the environment and decreasing fitness. This is the famous Red Queen hypothesis, after a fictional character who must run as fast as she can just to stay in place. It seems probable that future historians of science will view the end of this century as a period of extremely rapid change. It is not surprising, then, to read in society newsletters and hear at meetings wails of distress over the "poor state of (insert your field of research here)".

This view, which seems to be especially common within older fields of science, is a reflection of the even more famous hypothesis that The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side, together with a corollary of the Red Queen hypothesis, that Things Used to Be Better. But what basis do these ideas have in reality? And what should we do? Do you believe in Punctuated Equilibrium? Paleobiologists know from studying the fossil record that rapid change may be responsible not only for mass extinction events but also for abrupt evolutionary radiations. Which brings me at last to the topic of this essay: how will paleobotany accomodate or (ideally) exploit the rapid changes that are now sweeping through scientific communities around the world?

First, let's follow thorough on the idea that the state of paleobotany, declining or otherwise, can be observed by performing a simple analysis of publication rates. Paleobotany is one of those "interdisciplinary" fields, which means that (1) it is small and (2) it has close ties to at least two larger disciplines. These are biology (or more specifically botany) and geology.

Stern and Deghan (1995) list 2880 botanists at universities in the United States and Canada who are now training graduate students. This commendable, informative guide is incomplete, due to only partial response to the authors' poll. Nonetheless, it can be used as a measure of the health of paleobotany in the United States and Canada. Of the 2880 persons listed, 52 are listed under paleobotany and 25 are listed under palynology, for a total of 66 persons (11 are listed under both headings). The 52 paleobotanists alone comprise 1.8% of all botanists listed in the guide (2.3%, if neo-palynologists are included).

Webster (1993) gives an informative analysis of the discipline of botany, as reflected by publication rates in the American Journal of Botany (AJB) over the past 80 years. This journal, and Stern and Deghan's (1995) guide, are both publications of the Botanical Society of America (BSA). Membership in BSA is required for acceptance of manuscripts by AJB. So Webster's article and Stern and Deghan's guide concern roughly the same group of scientists. A simple analysis of Webster's (1993) figures reveals that, from 1989 to 1993, 6.9% of all articles published in AJB were on topics in paleobotany.

Hence, assuming no biases in reporting rates or in choice of journal in which to publish, paleobotanists represent 1.8% of all US and Canadian botanists, yet they contribute 6.9% of all articles published in AJB, the primary botany journal for the United States and Canada. This crude measure suggests that, all else being equal, paleobotanists are currently publishing at a rate per capita that is nearly four times as much as their colleagues in other fields of botany. That's not bad.

Analysis of BIOSIS, a popular online bibliographic search tool, provides an even more comforting piece of information: 13.6% of all publications indexed under Botany since 1987 are on topics in paleobotany (including palynology, see Table 1). Assuming that 2.3% of all botanists world-wide are paleobotanists or palynologists, this group appears to publish six times as much new research per capita. If non-paleobotanical palynologists are excluded, the publication rate for paleobotanists drops to (again) four times the average for all botanists. The extra two-fold difference may be due to counting the publications of palynologists who count themselves as geologists rather than botanists. As they say, what counts is not size (of the field), but performance.

The percentage of publications indexed under Paleobotany or Palynology in BIOSIS appears to have declined over the past three years, from 14.4% to 12.0% (at most, a 17% relative decline; Figure 1, Table 1). However, this may be due to a bias in the delay time for indexing of journals that publish paleobotanical research, relative to journals in other fields of botany.

Paleobotany is also a very small part (1.2%) of the broader field of geology (Table 2). Over the past two decades, it has declined significantly in size relative to the rest of geology (Figure 2). Is paleobotany a failing discipline? Not at all. Taking into account the long average delay time for entry into GeoRef, paleobotany has been roughly stable, in terms of publications per year, for a decade (see Table 2). This corresponds well with the rate of recruitment (not numbers) of new faculty in paleobotany, compared to related fields. (Note, this statement is based on annecdotal data.) However, the trend over the past three decades has been consistently downward, from 1.42% to 0.81% (at most, a 43% relative decline). A considerable fraction of this change in size of the field is due the rapid growth and subsequent shrinkage of palynology (Figure 3). More about this later.

GeoRef and BIOSIS report similar numbers of publications indexed under Paleobotany and Palynology combined, but the Palynology index term is used far more often in BIOSIS (Tables 1 and 2, right-hand column labeled "% B/C"). This suggests that GeoRef does not index a significant fraction of the palynological literature, while BIOSIS does not index a significant fraction of the (macro-fossil) paleobotanical literature. Perhaps some day the publishers of BIOSIS and GeoRef will join forces to produce a joint bibliographic database product that covers the entire field of paleobotany. Given the efficient information delivery expected via the Internet, it may be cost-effective to offer such a product within the next few years.

Most fields of science are producing more PhDs than there are positions available in academia, but the fraction of new PhDs who go on to work in the field in which they trained may well be higher for paleobotany than for many other fields of science. By itself, this trend toward overproduction is not cause for concern. People everywhere are living longer, working longer, and going to school longer, where they earn more and more advanced degrees. A century ago, the major threshold was entry into college. Then it became entry into graduate school. Now it is entry into jobs in academia. Consequently, there are more graduate students per professor, which has both advantages and disadvantages for both groups. On the whole, I think it tends to be an advantage for both. Overproduction is a problem for paleobotany only if too many PhD students expect (or want) jobs in paleobotany once they finish. Students in botany and geology face exactly the same problem. There is no reason to interpret this situation as a bad sign for the intellectual vigor of paleobotany.

Perhaps it is not satisfactory that paleobotany should remain stable in size for very long. The size of paleobotanical collections continues to grow, hence there should be more and more valuable information available for extraction from existing data. Perhaps paleobotanists, like macro-economists, should try to stimulate new growth while avoiding inflation or fragmentation.



Where are we going?

Many historians of science believe that major scientific advances are stimulated by new technologies. For a time, palynology was a technological advance for stratigraphic correlation and dating. Now the roles are reversed. I believe that paleobotany is now in the extremely fortunate situation of having not one, not two, but three new major technological advances to exploit. These are (1) geological dating based on abiotic evidence, (2) cladistic and phenetic methods of analysis, and (3) cheap, fast computers. It is now becoming feasible to build a network of global of specimen-based information systems that could easily include tools for quick and accurate identification of specimens (even by non-specialists), rapid phylogenetic analyses at any level, full and accurate taxonomic information according to more than one system, tremendous spatial and temporal resolution in all biodiversity information, on a global scale.

In the past several years, Norman F. Hughes devoted considerable effort to advancing various broad changes in the methodology of paleobotanical and palynological research (Hughes 1989, 1994, 1995; see also Riedel 1995). Most of these concern how specimen data is regarded. He appears to have believed that an entirely new research infrastructure or set of rules (nomenclature) is necessary. It appears that Hughes saw infrastructure and nomenclature as in some ways the same beast. I do not think this is correct. As I understand it, nomenclature is a set of rules by which we find our way through a complex system of information. Taxonomists have in effect built the rules for a system without building the system!

Now at last we have begun to build the system. Its structure is slowly evolving out of the many independent efforts around the world to wrap computer information systems around existing natural history collections. Perhaps botanical nomenclature should be changed, perhaps not. But before trying to rewrite the rules, perhaps we should try to understand the new system we are building, to which the rules of nomenclature must apply.

Hughes (1995) calls for "an entirely new classification of plant fossils", a theme which he pursued with great enthusiasm but at best modest success for many years. In reading his published comments on this topic, I have the impression that he would have agreed with the proposition that the basic unit on which paleobotanical research is based is the specimen, and consequently that data about individual specimens should become the common currency of all paleobotanical research. That is, taxonomic works (for instance) should refer explicitly, by unique identifiers, to all relevant specimens seen by the author, and catalog information (including locality data) should be made available for those specimens through the host institutions (museums and others) in which the specimens are housed. I will pick on taxonomy a bit more, not because I think there is anything wrong with it, but because I think that many researchers hold taxonomy to blame for problems of information management that are in no way the fault of taxonomy. For instance, the taxonomic literature serves as a source of "raw" data for studies of evolutionary change only because at present there is no other practical source of more appropriate data. The well-known flaws of such analyses are routinely brought forward as good reasons for abandoning "traditional" taxonomy, at least for fossils. But the flaws of these analyses have nothing to do with taxonomy per se; they have to do with the misuse of the taxonomic literature in the place of primary specimen data.

I will even go so far as to argue that many of the unsatisfactory aspects of current taxonomic methods involve exactly the same problems of inadequate management of data pertaining to specimens. Within the plant taxonomy community, "registration" is almost a dirty word. It is generally taken to mean registration of taxonomic names, and hence some sort of system of according priority. But why can't we simply build a community-wide register of all taxonomic names published elsewhere? I am suggesting nothing more than a voluntary, contributed bibliographic database for paleobotanical taxonomy. At present, we rely on Kew Index or similar expensive bibliographic tools, and we rely on the curators of those tools to discover taxonomic works in the scientific literature of the entire world. This achieves competence at the price of efficiency, and consequently these tools are pricey. If we are not so fortunate as to be able to afford these bibliographic research tools, we scrounge through whatever literature we have for references to all relevant literature on the taxonomic group in question. Proper taxonomic work should be exhaustive, within the bounds of the taxonomic problem at hand. But more often it is merely exhausting. I see no good reason why it should remain this way in the Information Age, when most authors will soon be able to contribute bibliographic data by e-mail, and others might still continue to use paper-based mail.

To do this effectively, it would seem useful to organize efforts around certain taxonomic groups (e.g., families of plants). There would need to be a pre-defined, agreed-up format for records, and a mechanism whereby individual researchers could contribute (or correct) records automatically via the Internet, with absolutely minimal editorial oversight. Does this sound like science fiction? It is what several genome research communities have already begun to do, and neo-botanists are not far behind.

For a brief overview of paleobotanical specimen catalogs accessible now via the Internet, click here.

Most paleobotanists have at least some training in taxonomy and systematics, but relatively few have training in computer applications or the trendy new field known as "bioinformatics". Bioinformatics concerns the conceptual design and administration of very large and complex systems of knowledge about organismal natural history, from the level of molecules all the way to the global biosphere. What are "traditional" paleobotanists to do then? Retrain? Retire? Why not look to your graduate students to bring these new skills to your research group? And how to find such graduate students? Why not look for them on the Internet?

I'll see you there.



Thanks to Neil D. L. Clark, for photographic and other aid, and David E. Stern, for helpful discussion of the design and use of controlled vocabularies and bibliographic classification systems.


References Cited

Hughes, Norman F. (1989) Fossils as information: New recording and stratal correlation techniques. Cambridge University Press. 136 pages.

Hughes, Norman F. (1994) The enigma of angiosperm origins. Cambridge University Press. 303 pages.

Hughes, Norman F. (1995) Palaeobotanical and palynological research. IOP Newsletter. 55: 7. The full text of this article is available from the International Organisation of Palaeobotany, via any one of the links provided here.

Riedel, Wm. R. (1995) Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. The PaleoNet Forum: A Monthly Electronic Journal 1(4). The full text of this article is available from the ">