The purpose of this communication is to demystify the description of fossils, using the echinoids as an example, and to explain some of the steps involved on the path to publication. Although other papers with broadly similar aims have been published widely (e.g., Riedel, 1978; van der Hammen, 1986), our experiences show that some, perhaps many, authors would still benefit from more instruction in this, one of the basic methodologies of our science. In part, it should be regarded as a supplement to the ‘Instructions to Authors’ of Scripta Geologica, although we trust that it will be of wider use for the authors of systematic papers in neontology and palaeontology.
Geology is a descriptive science. Description - and curation of the material - starts in the field with the ubiquitous field notebook (Tucker, 1982, pp. 12-13). This is used to record diverse details of, for example, the surface geomorphology of an area - a hillside, beach, quarry or whatever - as well as the solid geology. Measured sections through sedimentary sequences, orientation data pertaining to structure or palaeocurrent directions would be included, together with first impressions and interpretations of specimens found, collected and safely wrapped up for transport. All these data help with the analysis of the specimens and interpretation of what they mean.
Description continues in the laboratory, whether it be a research facility in a museum or university, or the corner of a room at home where you keep your rock collection. More detailed observations can be made using a stronger lens than you had in the field or, if available, a microscope. Those specimens that are significant, unusual and unique demand our special attention, and are worthy of detailed description(s). The process of description itself gives a rigour to our methodology of observation, and can lead, following further research and perhaps the hunt for additional specimens, to publication in the scientific literature.
The main purpose of a scientific paper is to spread information to others working in that field, in this case palaeontology. In order to achieve this, the information has to be easily accessible and in an intelligible form, for we write both for those who speak our own language, and for those who do not and have to rely on translations using a dictionary. If the task can be made simpler by a standard presentation, information dissemination and retrieval will be much easier, and rapid comparisons can be made between taxa.
It is also important for curators in museums to be able to extract information from geological and palaeontological publications, in order to bring their databases (both electronic and paper) of specimens up-to-date. Having to search undifferentiated, sometimes turgid, descriptions looking for such elementary data as a locality or a geological horizon is irritating and time-consuming. It is, therefore, desirable to establish a standard layout for this kind of information. There is also a need to develop a standard layout ‘pro forma’ checklist for each group of taxa, in which all possible characters are listed in a regular order and each character is dealt with in turn (Table 1).