Don’t do PR before the paper’s out

Recently, information about a “new” species of pterosaur has been making the rounds. This is not a new phenomenon – stories like this often make the news. This animal has been touted as the largest pterosaur ever, and was reportedly flightless, both things making this an extremely significant animal in terms of understanding pterosaur diversity and ecology.

That is, if it’s true.

Extraordinary claims, such as largest pterosaur or first flightless pterosaur, require extraordinary evidence. The problem in this case, is that as it currently stands, there is no evidence. No scientific paper has been published on this specimen, and none of the PR material shows any of the specimen in question. It all knows an impressive looking skeletal mount, though I’m pretty sure the mount is a replica, not the bones itself. It’s also difficult given that some stories say they are able to reconstruct the skeleton from a large number of bones, while others seem to suggest there aren’t a lot. Again, we just don’t know.

The pterosaur itself comes from the Transylvanian Basin of Romania, dating back to the Latest Cretaceous. This is an area that is known for pterosaur material, including one of the largest known to date – Hatzegopteryx thambena.  I have been to the sites that this material comes from, and have excavated pterosaur fossils here. In fact, I *think* I’ve even seen some of the material from this specimen, but it’s hard to know, given that there are no images or descriptions of the material. I cannot comment on how it compares to other pterosaurs, for example Hatzegopteryx, but I can say that what I have seen was from a very large pterosaur.

Some of my colleagues have been contacted by these news organisations to comment on the story. But how are they meant to comment? As scientists, how are we able to say anything at all about this so-called amazing find when we cannot read how the palaeontologists have come to these claims? Or how the material compares to other animals?

For example, in one article, I read that the animal weighed as much as half a tonne. Given that I’ve spent a significant amount of time so far in my research career studying how we estimate the mass of pterosaurs, I am very curious about how they got to this number. This is one of the main reasons why they say it’s flightless, but I am immediately suspicious about how they came to this number given that there are only a handful of bones known. It’s tough to estimate body mass in extinct animals, even more so when they are weird and don’t compare well to modern animals (like pterosaurs), and especially when they are incomplete. The fewer bones, the tougher (and less accurate) it is.

I am not saying that this animal is not new, or that it’s not the biggest, or that it’s not flightless. All I’m saying is how are we meant to say anything about it as a scientific community without a paper? Doing the PR before a paper comes out (or is even accepted, as it kind of seems like in this story) is unscientific. Publish the paper and let the community form opinions before going to the press.

For someone who is really interested in pterosaurs, especially large ones, it’s frustrating to see amazing stories like that, but without being able to see the science behind it.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t do PR before the paper’s out

    1. Well it’s hard to know who found it since we don’t know much about it. At least some of it was found by a Romanian palaeontologist, but I’m not sure if it was all found at the same time by the same guy or not. And most of this seems to be advertised by a bunch of German palaeontologists. I guess we just need to wait and see

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  1. Hi Liz. I was going to welcome you but you’ve obviously been around a while!

    Nice writing.

    Before getting on to the “Extraordinary claims…” bit which is what made me comment, your other postings are also comment-worthy. Problems with your PhD, eh?! I found trying to do AI-style robotics under an engineering professor, using a computer belonging to another department, which got moved to another university in the middle of my project, so annoying I decided never to do research under anyone or any organisation again. I envy and would recommend your status as a business person and money-generator in your own right. Not only might you avoid needing grants but you might be able to study what you want, and how you want to!

    This is important since in many areas the richest research seams are to be found in areas thought to be barren by others. You say: “So often I see people hold on to ideas that others have shown aren’t correct.” The more you discover, the more that comment will define your challenge. And an independent researcher is better able to avoid the constraints of others’ stubborn foolishness.

    The slogan “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is immensely reassuring for people confronted by someone else’s challenging new idea because it offers an excuse to carry on ignoring the new idea, while subtly putting the blame on the innovator. By “claim” is meant “theory”, since if it meant evidence, the saying would be meaningless. Science is about providing the theories that explain or predict observations the best. A better theory is just a better one, not one that is better than the old one by some value X%. Those that use the “Extraordinary claims…” slogan to repress new ideas, suggesting that some big new observation unexplainable by pre-existing theories is needed, should always explain first why that “X% better” needs to be there. To require an extraordinary piece of new evidence would assume theorists in the field have been perfect. That is also a comforting assumption for those wishing to ignore or delay an important new development but it is hugely irresponsible.

    The slogan is refuted by one of the best examples of the acceptance of a new scientific theory. The Copernican/Gallilean sun-centred solar system theory was extraordinarily different from the old theory but needed no new evidence at all.

    Gimpasaura, eh? Not familiar with that genus.

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    1. Hi John, thanks for the comment.

      The point about the extraordinary claims statement is that if you’re going to say something about having “the largest” or describing “the first” of something, you should produce some good evidence of that. The fact is that so far, there is NO evidence to support either of these claims in this case, as there are no images of the fossils, or descriptions, nor is there a scientific paper. So there isn’t a whole lot to say. As a scientist, you should not make huge claims in the media without evidence to back it up. That is what this is about. This is a large and important claim with not just non-extraordinary evidence, but no evidence at all, as we currently stand. The implication that I am “wishing to ignore or delay an important new development” by using this claim is a bit offensive. If it truly is the largest pterosaur, and flightless, then that’s pretty awesome. We have a new morphology and ecological group of pterosaurs we didn’t have before, and I absolutely welcome that idea. But they have to show us WHY and HOW they came to this conclusion. There is literally nothing to support this claim right now, and to me, that is what is hugely irresponsible. Not the questioning of the lack of evidence, but going to the media with a claim that has no evidence.

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