Vol. 19, No. 1
One of the things that makes micropaleontology special for me is the way in which the discipline embraces technological innovation. This is not to accuse other branches of paleontology of being luddites. Far from it. There are many examples of individual vertebrate paleontologists and invertebrate paleontologists who are as innovative and technologically sophisticated as any micropaleontologist. Nevertheless, I have long marveled at the way micropaleontology (as a discipline) has integrated advanced geochemical methods (e.g., stable isotopes), imaging technologies (e.g., scanning electron microscopy, digital imaging), and data analysis methods (e.g., multivariate numerical analysis, morphometrics), as well as placing itself at the heart of (relatively) new fields such as paleoceanography, paleoclimatology, and global change.
I believe this traditional acceptance of technology is a natural result of the problems and possibilities posed by the study of microfossils. Because of their size, micropaleontological analyses tend to be exercises in remote sensing. Most micropaleontologists are restricted to the visual inspection of their fossils and cannot gain anything like the direct tactile sense of their subjects that vertebrate and invertebrate paleontologists take for granted. As such, we rely on various technological gadgets (e.g., microscopes) to perform even the most basic tasks of our profession. Since training in various technologies is fundamental to every micropaleontologist's education we may be more comfortable with the advent of new technologies and their application to our science than many of our colleagues. This predisposition is also reinforced by our traditionally close connections with the highly technology-oriented petroleum industry.
In the last few years another of those periodic technological revolutions has swept through the paleontological community. Once again, micropaleontologists have played a crucial role in adapting it to the needs of their own community and demonstrating its viability to others. This revolution is a bit different than the others our field has encountered, however, and it promises to change more aspects of our science than any invention that has come before. It is the electronic publishing revolution.
By electronic publishing I don't mean just electronic journals. Journals, if anything, are one of the most rigidly structured forms of scientific communication. While electronic formats can be used to make journals more accessible, less expensive, more user-friendly, and banish forever the problems of publication backlogs and page charges, the formalisms of peer-review, editorial control of content, reference lists, etc. will remain. These serve definite and highly valuable purposes that have nothing to do with the medium used to access the information. Since publishing, by definition, is the act of issuing textual and/or graphic material for distribution to the public I would include World Wide Web sites, listservers, and electronic databases as aspects of the electronic publication revolution currently underway. The challenge for micropaleontologists, of course, is to integrate these technologies into the educational, research, and commercial aspects of our science in such a way as to improve (1) the utility of micropaleontological data, (2) the practical skills of micropaleontologists, and (3) the standing of micropaleontology within the scientific and general cultural community.
Improving the Utility of Micropalaeontological Data
The micropaleontological database is arguably one of the most refined and sophisticated tools in the paleontologist's bag of tricks. However, the tool is only as good as the practitioner's knowledge of and familiarity with it. With micropaleontologists making up a disproportionately large number of the world's professional paleontologists, new information about microfossil systematics and the microfossil stratigraphical record is accumulating at an ever increasing rate; much faster than any student or professional can keep up with. In the past a fortunate few who began their careers several decades ago and more-or-less "grew up" with modern micropaleontology were able to assimilate the burgeoning micropaleontological literature in annual pieces and could claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of a major microfossil group or two. Those days are all but gone.
In their place we are rapidly moving into a world in which micropaleontologists will increasingly specialize in groups, time intervals, and approaches to micropaleontological analysis. Thus, even though the comprehensive nature of many of the problems micropaleontologists face has not and will not change, we will increasingly find ourselves challenged to provide a comprehensive outlook unless we improve our ability to access/improve the micropaleontological database as a whole and consult with colleagues with various skills and experience. Electronic publishing is one of the major ways this will be done. Electronic databases (perhaps accessible through the World Wide Web) will enable us to keep current with the latest taxonomic information and track the history of improving systematic knowledge from our desktop computers. Improvements in digital imaging will allow us to view images of specimens in a variety of formats included those that we routinely use to identify specimens (see examples in the PalaeoVision Gallery). These improvements, coupled with the ready access to colleagues provided by e-mail and listservers promises to foster a new cooperative ethic among micropaleontologists as well as serving to dramatically decrease the isolation felt by many paleontologists in this time of diminishing academic positions and widespread commercial outsourcing.
Improving the Skills of Micropaleontologists
One of the most amazing statistics publicized at the recent Paleo21 meeting was that most paleontologists work in offices, organizations, and/or institutions where they constitute the sum total of professional paleontological expertise (Flessa 1997). Most of us are "lone paleontologists." Although Flessa (1997) did not break his poll down into disciplines, I believe it is fair to say that a significant proportion of micropaleontologists are also lone paleontologists. This, plus the large number of students and other non-micropaleontological professionals who study aspects of micropaleontology in isolation from professional micropaleontologists suggests that many of our colleagues are required to keep pace developments in their field by themselves and/or train themselves.
Nothing can be done about the current employment situation. Nevertheless, use of electronic publication can do much to help the entire micropaleontological community (not just lone paleontologists) improve their skills and keep current with developments in a host of related fields. The role that electronic databases will play in increasing the utility of micropaleontological data has been covered above. Databases will also play an important role in the education of future micropaleontologists. But perhaps even more importantly, electronic publication (in all its forms) has the global reach to make the most important connection in any educational exchange; that between the teacher and student.
Education via electronic media cannot match the direct person-to-person interactions that have traditionally typified teacher-student interactions within micropaleontology. However, it is considerably better than no interaction at all; especially in those cases where geography and the topic of interest conspire to separate the interested parties (a situation that is common now and will become more common in the future). In addition, the existence of listservers (e.g., PaleoNet, micropal, radfolks, the bulk of whose participants come from the ranks of professional paleontologists) means that individuals can openly query a substantial proportion of professional paleontologists in the search for answers to difficult questions, contacts with specific individuals, discussions, and a host of other interpersonal contacts. These listserver communities have already changed the nature of education for many students (and more than a few professionals) and they are rapidly integrating themselves into the mainstream process of professional education and technical discourse.
Improving the Standing of Micropaleontology
Micropaleontology is one of paleontology's best-kept secrets. Although we have a very high profile among many geological, oceanographic, and climatological disciplines the mere existence of microfossils (much less micropaleontologists) is all but unknown outside this somewhat restricted group of professional scientists. Some might view this insularity as an advantage, but I can't help but think it is detrimental to our science. Aside from their extraordinary utility and unparalleled record of service, microfossils exhibit a unique beauty and aesthetic appeal that never fails to amaze and intrigue those fortunate enough to view them under the proper conditions. Since electronic publications are, for the most part, free and actively sought out by students and laypersons as well as by professionals, these forums present the micropaleontological community with an unprecedented opportunity to raise the profile of microfossils and explain how important (and interesting) micropaleontological research is. Because of its emphasis on images, the World Wide Web will especially important in these public outreach efforts. Vertebrate paleontologists (especially those working on dinosaurs) have made good use of the opportunities electronic publishing provides in this areas. However, public interest in paleontology is not restricted to dinosaurs, trilobites, and human fossils. If that were the case very few paleontologists would be micropaleontologists today.
Meeting the Challenges
Like all new technologies, the only way to reap the benefits of electronic publication is to take the plunge and participate. Very few paleontologists (professional or student) are without access to desktop computers and the overwhelming majority of those computers are either already networked or can be inexpensively connected to a network. Sophisticated e-mail and World Wide Web browser software is readily available to academics and students free of charge. All major paleontological listservers are free (see PaleoNet for the e-mail addresses of listserver managers and/or subscription instructions) and so is the electronic journal Palaeontologia Electronica. Indeed, this may be the most inexpensive technological revolution to have ever hit the micropaleontological community. This software and these addresses can form starting points from which you can explore the many micropaleontological resources that already exist online.
Passive consumption of electronic publications and listserver postings is but the first step. Like traditional print publishing, many of the advantages of electronic publishing don't become obvious until you participate on the creative end. It's easier than you think. For listservers creative participation is (literally) as easy as sending an e-mail message. Relative to PaleoNet and several of the vertebrate paleontological listservers the dedicated micropaleontological listservers have relatively low levels of activity. In order to reap the benefits of community (as the vrtpaleo and PaleoNet communities have) there is no substitute for participation.
One step up from listservers lies Paleontologia Electronica. Creating manuscripts for this journal is no more difficult that creating manuscripts for a traditional print journal. All contributions are thoroughly peer-reviewed. There are no page charges. Use of large numbers of illustrations and color graphics is encouraged. Current volumes of the journal are free-of-charge to anyone who can access any of the distribution sites. Perhaps even more importantly for micropaleontologists, there is no manuscript size limit and no backlog. Although Palaeontologia Electronica is open to publications from all paleontological disciplines, its first issue was dominated by micropaleontological contributions and there will be a substantial micropaleontological component to Issue 2 (due for release in June/July). Although electronic journals are new to paleontology, they are by no means new to science, a point that was recently made clear when Paleontologia Electronica became the five thousandth journal to be listed on NewJour, the internet electronic journal listserver. Electronic journals are here to stay and the micropaleontological community is well placed to take the lead in this new area of paleontological publication. [Note: Two-thirds of Paleontologia Electronica's core editorial staff are micropaleontologists.]
The final step in electronic publication participation is to create your own World Wide Web site. By this I do not mean a personal web site (there are far too many of those cluttering the World Wide Web already). Rather, if you have a research project, if you have developed educational materials (e.g., lab exercises), if you are hosting a meeting, if your institution has research fellowships, in short, if you have any information that you think might be interesting to the micropaleontological community, you should consider making that information available on the World Wide Web. Web pages are very easy to design and several of the free web browsers (e.g., Netscape) have graphic web page editors built into them. Many of the word processors we use to write manuscripts also have web page design tools built into them. Almost all of the institutions that employ micropaleontologists have web pages of their own that could host pages devoted to your topic and most academic institutions will make space in their web sites available to researchers and students free of charge. Web page creation is easy, fun, and (most important) useful in getting information about micropaleontological topics and activities out to your colleagues in an extremely cost-effective manner. Once you have a web page available, post an announcement to the relevant listserver or send an announcement to the managers of paleontological web resource lists (e.g., PaleoNet) so that others can find your information.
Science (all science) is not really about things. It's about people and communicating information. Because e-mail. listservers, the world wide web, and electronic journals increase the number of ways micropaleontologists can communicate with others, these technologies represent a fundamental change in the way our science will conduct itself in the very near future. We must meet the challenges of electronic publication and use them to extend the relevance, scope, and utility of micropaleontology. Acceptance of this challenge will not constitute a radical departure from any micropaleontological tradition. Quite to the contrary, micropaleontological foresight, leadership, and innovation in the coming world of paleontological electronic publishing will be in keeping with one of the oldest and most useful of our discipline's traditions. It will be "business as usual."