Digging Up WikiProject Palaeontology
This week's subject, WikiProject Palaeontology, first appeared in June 2008 and covers nearly 6,000 pages. Among them are 14 Featured Articles, 2 A-Class Articles, and 30 Good Articles. The project fosters task forces for paleontologists, lobe-finned fishes, geological periods, and the Cambrian explosion. Sister projects handle dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and "sea monsters". We interviewed Kevmin, Obsidian Soul, Smokeybjb, and the project's founder Enlil Ninlil.
What motivated you to join WikiProject Palaeontology? Do you have any education or work experience in paleontology?
- Kevmin: I have always been interested in earth sciences and never really grew out of the "dinosaur phase" that many many kids go through in elementary school. When I first started exploring Wikipedia in early 2006, I saw a lack of paleo articles beyond the big sexy ones like dinosaurs and mammoths. So I started writing article content. I'm now finishing out working on my Natural Sciences associates degree in preparation for moving into a biology/paleontology program. I also work at a fossil dig site for six months of the year.
- Obsidian Soul: I'm a [very] amateur fossil collector. Like Kevmin, I too simply never grew out of the dinosaur phase (as well as the beetle, fish, slug, etc. collecting phases!). These days, I'm more interested in obscure fossil taxa (particularly invertebrates and plants) rather than with dinosaurs though.
- Smokeybjb: I don't have any formal education in paleontology; for me, it's mostly a hobby that developed from the "dinosaur phase". When I joined Wikipedia back in 2008, I was shocked to see that we had quality articles for nearly every kind of dinosaur, but the coverage for almost all other prehistoric creatures was very skimpy. Most articles were either unsourced stubs or were sourced with questionable information from children's books like dinosaur encyclopedias. I remember looking at lists, seeing all the red links, and thinking that this should be fixed. Since then I spend nearly all my time with non-dinosaurian creatures, creating new pages and adding more information to these stubs.
- Enlil Ninlil: I decided to start the collaborative project on Palaeontology as the other projects were either too broad or narrow in scope in relation to the topic. Although I have not been able to contribute much I have a fascination with the fossil flora and fauna of Australia, especially that of Victoria, although the periods of the Carboniferous to Jurassic are minor, with glacial abrasive surfaces the most extensive. I will always be fascinated with Palaeontology.
WikiProject Palaeontology is home to 14 Featured Articles, 2 A-class Articles, and 30 Good Articles. Have you contributed to any of these articles? When improving articles for GA or FA status, what are some challenges unique to paleontology articles?
- Kevmin: I have started two of the articles that are now GA. Both on rather obscure fossil fungi. It was hard to take the technical papers in which the fungi were described and translate what was said into prose that is more accessible for a general audience. Often the original description of a genus or a species is the only information that has ever been written about it. Mostly what I have concentrated on since starting work on wiki is the writing and expanding of articles about fossil plants and insects, though I occasionally create articles for other extinct things.
- Obsidian Soul: Nope. GA is still somewhat daunting to me and I haven't created that many paleo articles yet anyway (my editing activity on Wikipedia has been somewhat scattered on various WP:TOL projects). I do try my best to get those I write/expand as near as possible. I simply don't take the additional step of submitting it to GAN. The biggest challenge for me is simply the lack of access to academic journals. I'm not connected to an academic institution, nor can I afford the paywall prices for the articles. While I can request them at WP:WikiProject Resource Exchange, sometimes it's hard to judge which source would be the best one to use, and I certainly wouldn't want to post a laundry list of paywall sources just so I can sort through them. Sometimes it's a deal-breaker; no matter how interested I am in a subject, the fact that I can't access the most important sources means that I have to sadly forego writing it. Journals like ZooKeys (which if I recall correctly Kevmin and Ruigeroeland also use) which publish text and high quality photos under a CC-BY license are invaluable in these instances.
- Smokeybjb: Like I said before, I mostly focus on stub articles because there are so many of them needing improvement. So far I've worked two articles up to GA status, both on relatively large groups of extinct reptiles and amphibians. The greatest challenges seem to be getting enough information, and conveying that information in a way that isn't overly technical. A long article about the intricacies of an organism's anatomy and classification can quickly become boring to most readers, so I try to word these articles as simply as possible without sacrificing information. My favorite part about improving these articles is writing about the history of study of these groups. In many articles, historical interpretations are often overlooked in favor current knowledge of paleontology. Often times this overlooks a really cool cast of paleontologists whose interpretations of these animals date back over 150 years in an intriguing narrative of discovery. I love going into online databases and exploring old paleontology books from the 1800s, but like Obsidian Soul said, sometimes I have trouble accessing these older publications.
When we spoke with WikiProject Dinosaurs two years ago, they mentioned that their project has very close connections with WikiProject Paleontology. They also mentioned that your project had begun an image review process modeled after the one at WikiProject Dinosaurs. Do you agree? How else do the two projects work together? Are there other projects that work closely with WikiProject Palaeontology?
- Kevmin: In a lot of instances members of both projects will work on articles that fall into on project or the other. I also tend to work with the relevant project that covers the living relatives of the article I am writing, such as the work I am doing currently with the new WikiProject Bivalves as I try to expand the coverage of extinct bivalve families.
- Obsidian Soul: I think it's fair to say that members of WP:WikiProject Dinosaurs are members of WP:WikiProject Paleontology as well, since WP:PALEO is the umbrella project for it. And all WP:TOL projects overlap with each other regularly. Most paleontological articles feature two or more WikiProject templates on their talk pages. Paleobotany-related articles for instance, belong to both WP:PLANTS and WP:PALEO.
- Smokeybjb: WikiProject Paleontology and WikiProject Dinosaurs are closely linked. In fact, I think I was a member of WP Dinosaurs before I was a member of WP Paleontology. Over the past few years I've drawn many pieces of paleoart, and when it came to drawing dinosaurs the expertise of WP:DINO members at the dinosaur image review was a big help. FunkMonk created the paleontology review a few years ago, and since then all my non-dinosaurian paleoart (in other words, most of it) goes through the review.
How difficult is it to find images for palaeontology articles? Would you prefer to see more photographs of fossils or depictions of extinct life in paleoart? Can the GLAM project play a role in providing these images?
- Kevmin: It can be very hard to find images for the articles; only a few taxonomy journals currently release their article images under wiki compliant licences. Many of the fossils out there are only found in museums so it involves going to the institutions and seeing if the Museum is willing to have the fossils photographed for release to the wikis. I have no problem with either fossils or illustrations as both are informative to the reader. If an illustration is used it should be checked to make sure it isn't inaccurate and thus misleading.
- Obsidian Soul: There is one factor that invariably gets me interested in starting an article on anything – a good illustration/photo. If it has none, I usually won't bother. I'm a 3d artist by trade, which is useful when I come across an interesting taxon that has no picture. But reconstructions are time-consuming and some taxa are simply too difficult to recreate at my skill level. So yes, definitely more photographs please. Especially for the more unique specimens. It's in the best interests of museums to donate high quality photographs as it also publicizes their own exhibits. We have really talented artists in Wikipedia:WikiProject Palaeontology/Paleoart review though (FunkMonk, Smokeybjb, and MMartyniuk being the most prolific), which balances that lack somewhat.
- Smokeybjb: Although I'm an amateur paleoartist, I prefer seeing photos of fossils rather than paleoart as the lead images for our articles. Fossils are real and they are the raw material of paleontology. Although paleoart can give a lot more information on how an extinct creature looked or acted, it's limited by the artist's interpretation and there will always be details like the color and behavior must be guessed at (although it is always good when we know a bit about color already). Occasionally there's been discussions here that artistic interpretation makes Wikipedia's paleoart a form of original research, but as one of Wikipedia's paleoartists I strongly disagree. Wikipedia paleoart must be accurate and based on current scientific knowledge; that is why we encourage artists to submit their illustrations for review and provide sources for their work. GLAM can be a big help if we can get more photos of fossils in museum collections. Many museums pose restrictions on photography, so the number of photos we have to use right now is limited.
What can the average editor contribute to paleontological articles, even if they don't have specialized knowledge in the field?
- Kevmin: One of the things to do is go out and get photographs of identified fossils and upload them to commons so they are usable in articles. when you do take a picture of not only the fossil but also of the identification tag that tells what it is and where/when it is from.
- Obsidian Soul: Yep, photos. Anyone with a camera, access to a nearby museum, and an afternoon off can contribute a great deal to paleontological articles. Care should be taken to note the identity of the fossils though.
- Smokeybjb: Photos! Most of our articles lack them, so new pictures taken from museums or anywhere else will be a great help. Also, if editors ever stumble upon one-liner paleo stubs, even the most basic information they can find like a brief comment on description or classification would help as long as it's sourced. You don't have to be an expert to contribute. When I started out on WP:Paleo, I didn't know much about some of the subjects I wrote about, especially things like mammals and invertebrates which I still don't know much about. I just had access to information and some time to help out.
Anything else you'd like to add?
- Smokeybjb: We've made great progress since WikiProject Paleontology was first created, but there's still lots to do. Most of our members come from WikiProject Dinosaurs, and so most of our expertise/interest is limited to big reptiles. Unfortunately, prehistoric invertebrates still have little coverage: just look at all the red links in list of trilobites to see what I mean. Even extinct mammals are underrepresented, and they're much more sexy than fossilized bugs and snails (no offense to the invertebrate paleontologists out there). Anyone with interest and knowledge in these groups is encouraged to join, because we need your help!
Next week, we'll take a familiar swirl around the tropics. Until then, take shelter in the archive.
Want the latest Signpost delivered to your talk page