Eating Cats & Top Journals

I have a big paper out today on the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania.  I am not first author, but still very proud of the paper.  Laetoli is the oldest footprint site known at over 3.75 million years and was first discovered in the late 1970s by the Leakey’s.  It consists of a couple of trails each of a dozen prints or so preserved in volcanic ash and is a site that has been argued over ever since its discovery with different teams interpreting the prints in different ways often basisng their arguements on specific prints.  The likely print maker is Australopithecus afarensis which is perhaps better known by the famous skelton called Lucy.  Some say the prints represent a primitive foot anatomy, function and gait, while other claim a more modern form and foot function.  One of the challenges here has been the lack of an objective methodology to allow different hypothesis to be explored.  At the heart of my current NERC grant with Liverpool University is a new objective approach based on calculating a mean footprint from a trail, which can then be statistically compared to others.  This provides the first objective method with which to interpret ancient footprint trails.  The paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface today applies this method to the Laetoli prints to good effect resolving, in our view at least, over 30 years of argument!

The paper is based on data that I collected back in 2008 during a rapid visit to Nairobi to scan casts of the prints during the height the post election troubles that year.  I remember the visit quite well not just for the 16 hours of plane flights in two days there and back stolen out of a busy term, but for the political tension still evident on the streets.  The paper it self stems from 2009 when Robin Crompton (Liverpool) and I first started to collaborate and has taken a while to gestate and find a home.  I suppose it’s the latter aspect that is worth mentioning because this paper was first tried in the top three science journals – Nature, Science and PNAS – without success or review.  In each case there was something of a jaundiced view from the editor ‘not yet another paper on Lateoli!’  Yet in our view the paper is top-notch and the science within it ground-breaking and we were very disappointed not to get the paper even reviewed.  There are several things here worth drawing out.  One is keeping faith with a paper as it is rejected by different journals and keeping your nerve, as you try and aspire to each top journal in turn.  Because it will find a home eventually if it is good and in truth the Journal of the Royal Society Interface is a great journal since not only does it have a high impact factor but there is much more space to describe the science!  The paper will be part of my REF submission that is for sure.  It has also attracted a fair amount of publicity today and my colleagues in Liverpool have been stars of local TV this evening.  The other aspect that is worth drawing out is around the sheer luck in getting things published in a top journal.  When I got my Science paper in 2009 not only was it based on a new discovery but there had not been many recent footprint papers so it had additional novelty.  When our current paper was doing the rounds this autumn we discovered subsequently that another team had submitted a Laetoli paper, and in our view an inferior paper, unsuccessfully a few months earlier making our research seem just that bit less noteworthy.  Journals such as Nature and Science have their pick of the best stories so want something to excite interest as well as be good science.  I suppose a headline of ‘Cat eats boy’ stands out when it is a rare event, but when there has been a run of stories about domestic cats eating boys it does not!  (And if you are wondering where this came from, the connection is that my cat is currently licking my abandoned desert bowl.)

This idea that success is not just about the sheer merits of something but is about the circumstances and timing is an interesting concept and goes to the heart of a book I have been reading recently entitled Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  He dissects a range of successful individuals – sports players, business men, billionaire etc – and shows how in most cases talent is not the sole reason for their success but the context and timing of their contribution is critical.  As is years of practice!  So in the context of trying to hit the top journals one could argue that it is all about timing and the current scientific context in vogue or considered to be novel.  If you talk to Ralph Clarke in ApSci who hit Science the same year I did he will tell you the same thing – you need a great a bit of research, but timing is also everything.  This cuts both ways in our case we did not know that other papers were hitting the editor’s desks at the same time, but if we had not tried then we would have been left always wondering if it could have made it.  But if you turn this around you also need to have an eye to what will hit the right buttons at any one moment and capitalise on it if you can.  Any way enough of this; time to do the washing up!

You can read the abstract here: 10.1098/rsif.2011.0258

And a review of the article here: