A first paper - and what that's about

Opening doors

Last month, I submitted my first paper to a scholarly journal.

This paper grew out of my work on LinEpig, the reference gallery of dwarf spiders I have been building online. As I was photographing the anatomical structures of one species, they looked familiar. It was one of those "Wait, I've seen this before!" moments. And sure enough, there was already an image in the gallery that seemed identical, with a different species name attached.

To explore whether it was the same, we had to ask to borrow the "type" from Oxford University. The type is the actual individual organism that the species description was based on. This species was described in 1874. When the specimens arrived, I had to work very carefully to avoid damaging these 1-millimeter long pale, bleached, little spiders that had been sitting in a vial in alcohol for 140 years. I also compared them against specimens sent from other museums. In the end, my coauthors and I could find no consistent differences. So in our paper, we declare the more recent species to be the same as the older one - a "synonym" - rather than a separate species.

As I have explained to curious friends, this being a spider paper, we submitted it to the Journal of Arachnology. It has now been logged, gotten a number, and is being sent to spider scientists in the taxonomy and systematics field (which deals with classification of organisms) for review. If the paper is accepted for publication, the reviewers will typically have some questions and suggestions for revisions, which I will then need to incorporate or respond to. This is the "peer review" process, similar to what happens with papers in medical journals and other scientific publications. It is essentially the same, whether the field is large or small.

There is a long tradition in entomology and other natural sciences of amateur scientists making contributions. A famous example is the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was a respected lepidopterist (studied butterflies). Here at the Field, Sid Camras, a retired medical doctor, is a world authority on conopid flies.

For me, and others like me in these parts, it is really the Field Museum that makes all this happen. While anyone is free to do research and field work, and to write up their findings if they come across something of interest, if there is no scientific institution in the picture, that can be awfully tough. My project is simple and humble (you can read about it here). But it would not be possible without the research microscope, digital imaging equipment, the vast scholarly library, the tray after tray of specimens in the collection, the chance to work with experts. And there is the institutional backing that would make a place like Oxford University willing to send me irreplaceable material to study.

And this is just one of the many less-known ways that a great museum fosters science and knowledge.