Monday, 20 April 2020

Diversity in palaeo - a hard look at my own stats

There has been a welcome increase in sensitivity to the diverse community that works within palaeontology. This is evidenced by more open discussions on social media and the responses of professional societies, such as the establishment of a Diversity Committee by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The Palaeontological Association has been particularly proactive in this respect, instituting a survey of its membership to gauge the different issues faced and to inform its policies in future. All of these initiatives are welcome and, as an openly gay man, I'm pleased to see that some progress is being made in a profession that has historically been almost exclusively male, white and straight. This initiative, in combination with frequent posts from other friends and colleagues online, has made me think more about my own track record in this regard. Just how diverse is my cohort of coauthors and collaborators? I start with one major advantage of course - 100% of my output has strong LGBTQ+ representation - but how have I performed in other areas?

So, I've been through my publications list and broken it down in various respects - and I challenge my colleagues to do the same to see how they fare also. 

The data

I've looked at gender, LGBTQ+ representation and disability, but in most of the following lists and statistics people are not mentioned by name as I've not received their explicit permission to publish these personal details in this context. For the same reason, I am not making the full version of my data set publicly available, although I would be willing to share it for academic studies with sufficient personal data safeguards. There are some areas where the numbers will not be entirely accurate: my LGBTQ+ and disability figures include only those people where I know personally that they identify in this way and so I could be under-counting in these categories. Also, there are some coauthors whose sex/gender is unknown as I've never met them and whom I can't easily find online (mainly some East Asian coauthors on very large multi-authored papers). Similar comments also apply to BAME authors, where I am unaware of how some mixed heritage colleagues self-identify. In all of the theses cases, where the answer isn't clear I have either not included the name or erred on the most conservative view of assuming that they are white, straight, etc. in order to give the most critical view of the data. Finally, this data set draws on a subset of my total publications list: it includes all papers in peer-reviewed international journals, those in edited books and those in conference proceedings volumes. It excludes books that I have edited/authored, abstracts, popular articles, commentaries, web publications, encyclopedia articles, etc. It also includes three papers with >20 authors. Initially, I considered excluding these in case they introduced major biases, but in the in end I included them, again to stack the odds for the least diverse scenario (and also many of these papers include coauthors that were already included in my dataset for other reasons).

The breakdown

The dataset includes 199 published papers (1994–2020), of which 183 were coauthored with at least one other author (average number of coauthors 3.21). Of these I am first or senior author of 116 publications, for which I should assume the majority of responsibility for the composition of the group forming the collaboration. I had a total number of 341 coauthors (only six of whom lack gender information).

In terms of male/female balance (including at least one trans man who identifies as male):
Number of male coauthors = 255
Number of female coauthors = 81
So, a 76% to 24% male to female bias (similar to the overall results from the Pal Ass survey)

Taking a view of all authors has the following results for other categories of individuals:
BAME coauthors = 47 (14% of total)
LGBTQ+ coauthors = 10 (3% of total)
Disabled coauthors = 2 (0.5% of total)

Of the 199 papers, 88 had female coauthors (44% of total) of which 39 had female senior or first authors (20% of total).

Many of my papers have been published with a relatively small number of individuals:

>10 papers coauthored - six people
5-8 papers coauthored - 14 people
2-4 papers coauthored - 69 people
1 paper coauthored - 252 people (skewed by several mega-authored papers)

Delving into this reveals some good news in terms of balance as two of my top five coauthors are female:

1.         Richard Butler (29; M; UK)
2.         Paul Upchurch (27; M; UK)
3.         Susannah Maidment (22; F; UK)
4.         Roger Benson (16; M; UK)
5.         Emily Rayfield (13; F; UK)

However, only two other female coauthors currently fall into the 5+ category (Angela Milner  [6, UK] and Kimi Chapelle [5, South Africa]). Also, it should be noted that all of my top 5 coauthors were either former students, postdocs or close contemporaries (and were all based at Cambridge, although most of the papers have been produced while we've held posts elsewhere). The majority of other 5+ authors are not from the UK and include representatives from South Africa, China, Canada, Switzerland and USA.

In terms of other diversity, I also tabulated the countries where I have coauthors (though note this is generally based on country where they are based, not country of origin, and for simplicity some international moves have been ignored in favour of the country where most of this work was carried out.

By country:

Argentina: 4
Australia: 11
Austria: 1
Brazil: 1
Canada: 13
China: 16
Finland: 2
France: 11
Germany: 3
Hungary: 3
India: 3
Japan: 12
Malawi: 1
Morocco: 1
Netherlands: 1
Poland: 1
Russia: 2
South Africa: 16
Spain: 1
Sweden: 2
Switzerland: 4
UK: 134
USA: 91
Zimbabwe: 7
Finally, although not publication related, it's also possible to look at these issues with respect to students and postdocs. In my case, I've had seven postdocs (4 M, 3F) and 24 PhD students that I've advised or co-advised (16 M, 9 F, 1 trans).

So, what next? I'm glad to see that my stats do reflect at least some diversity (in terms of top coauthors, lab membership, geographic diversity), but can see many other areas where it would be open to criticism. I think, at least, this has given me a clearer idea of some of the issues that are being highlighted by broader studies and the stream of comments I see, though I would be most interested in seeing comparative data from other colleagues at similar career stages. Also, I can see definite trends in my own data towards greater inclusion, largely as my own networks have grown (for example, the majority of my South African collaborators are female) and as projects have become more multidisciplinary (rather than narrowly focused). Having data in hand makes me more aware of the issue from a very personal perspective and is certainly making me think more about how future networks might be opened up.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Obituary: Professor Jennifer A. Clack FRS (1947–2020)

A close friend and colleague to many at the NHM and elsewhere, Jenny Clack, passed away after a long, brave battle with cancer in the early hours of Thursday 26th March 2020. Jenny would have been a familiar figure to many of you, not least in her roles in the NHM as an Honorary Research Fellow, a Scientific Associate and a member of the NHM's Science Advisory Board. She was a confidant and collaborator of many in the Fossil Vertebrates team and had long friendships stretching back over decades with several current and former members of staff.

Jenny was at the cutting edge of palaeontological research for nearly four decades. She was, without doubt, the world’s leading expert on the fish-tetrapod transition and made numerous seminal contributions that significantly advanced our knowledge of this critical event in the history of life. This work set new benchmarks that have enabled the field to progress in new and unexpected directions and she has had a far-reaching influence on the subject.

Her interest began with detailed studies of Coal Measure amphibians from the UK (an interest she maintained throughout her career), which also led to important new insights into the evolution of tetrapod ears. Indeed, the evolution of hearing, as revealed by changes in braincase and stapedial anatomy, unravelling the various transformations that occurred in the evolution of the impedance-matching ear, was a major passion, as also displayed through her wide assortment of tetrapod-based, homemade jewellery.

However, Jenny is most famous for her exquisitely detailed anatomical work on the earliest tetrapods and, in particular, on Acanthostega. Following suggestions that East Greenland would be a rich hunting ground, she led several expeditions there to collect important new material of these animals and spent many years documenting the fundamental changes that occurred to jaws, ears, braincases and limbs across the fish-tetrapod transition. This relied on exceptional anatomical skills and Jenny also went on to integrate this morphological work with information from evo-devo to reveal the processes by which these changes took place.

Jenny & Rob Clack, pictured after Jenny was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009. Photograph courtesy of Andrew & Angela Milner, close friends of Jenny & Rob, who’ve both been working with Jenny since the 1980s. All were graduates of Alec Panchen’s group based at the University of Newcastle.

In addition to this work, Jenny continued detailed studies of the taxonomy and biology of a range of other Palaeozoic tetrapod groups (notably anthracosaurs and baphetids) and occasionally ventured into the world of sarcopterygian fish. Latterly, she had been doing important work to close ‘Romer’s Gap’ a mysterious period in tetrapod evolution with few fossils. Her last major project (nicknamed TWEED) found numerous new tetrapod localities in the Scottish Borders and placed them within rigorous chronostratigraphic and environmental contexts: work that is currently ongoing thanks to the extended team that she built.

Many of Jenny’s most impactful papers appeared in Nature, but these were only the tip of a productive iceberg and were accompanied by numerous other papers in more specialist venues, dealing with subjects ranging from taxonomy to evo-devo to biomechanics. Her book on tetrapod origins – Gaining Ground – has been translated into many languages and offers the broadest introduction to the subject available.

In addition to her academic contributions, Jenny mentored a large number of undergraduate and graduate students while she taught at Cambridge (me included). Although she did not produce many MSc/PhD students (a constraint of her curatorial, rather than academic, position) several went on to become leaders in the field (Per Ahlberg, Paul Upchurch, Michael Lee, Matthew Friedman), with others continuing work in either the museum sector or academic publishing.

Jenny’s achievements were recognized during her lifetime by the award of an honorary DSc from Cambridge, the Lapworth Medal of the Palaeontological Association and by election to the Royal Society. Indeed, Jenny was one of only two vertebrate palaeontologists to receive the latter honour over the past 20 years, confirming her preeminent international status.

Jenny is survived by her husband Rob, who is also well-known to many in the Department as a frequent presence on field trips and at conferences. Given current circumstances, the funeral will be small and private but a memorial service and celebration of her life is already being planned for a later date in Cambridge: more details will follow as they become available in future. Jenny will be greatly missed by all who worked with and knew her and we are all sending our collective sympathy to Rob at this difficult time.