Methodology (2): The description proper
Gross morphology: size and shape – This is described before the formal description to acquaint the reader with an idea of how big the organism might be. Overall measurements can be given here although they are not obligatory, but details of component parts are preferably left to the relevant section. Indeed, illustration(s) at some easily recognisable scale (for example, × 1, × 5, × 100), in conjunction with these details in the text, will do more to convey the gross morphology at this stage than too many measurements.
Morphological description of the taxon – The component parts of a taxon are described under easily located sub-headings, following a regular and consistent order, dependent on the group being described. A checklist is developed for each main group of structures that may be met in that group of organisms (). This not only ensures that the writer can describe the taxon quickly and know that all the relevant information has been given, but also that the reader can compare individual taxa quickly and easily. Such a checklist will aid observers in realising what is absent as much as what is present.
The essence of a good description is to keep it clear and simple. Remember that some readers have to translate using a dictionary. Technical terms may be unavoidable or preferable because they act as scientific ‘shorthand;’ for example, “adambitally” meaning “towards the ambitus” or the widest part of an echinoid test. When simpler alternatives are available they should be used; for example, rather than write ‘cothurniform,’ if a fossil is ‘boot-shaped,’ then say so.
Plates, figures and tables – An old adage says that a good photograph is worth a thousand words. The purpose of good illustrations in a systematic description is to acquaint the reader with what the taxon actually looks like, and helps to bring to the attention of the reader all the relevant characters of the species. This can be achieved with photographs and artwork. Specimens are photographed with the lighting conventionally biassed from the top left hand side (colloquially know as ‘top left lighting’). Hand-drawn artwork is useful to emphasise a feature not necessarily obvious in a photograph. Standard views of the taxon are needed, for example, top, bottom, side, front, back and various close-ups; all should be included whenever possible.
Whether the illustrations are published as plates or text figures, or both, depends on the journal style. Whichever style is used, adequate explanations of the figures are needed, and should at least include the name of the image, its view, its museum or institution reference number, if appropriate, and a scale. More detailed information can also be included (for example, the locality and geological information), but that may also depend on journal policy. It is a general rule that a good figure can only be further enhanced by an informative caption.
The scale can be expressed either as a magnification of the original specimen (for example, × 5), or as a scale-bar of given length. Magnification can be an unreliable expression, because a journal article may be photocopied to a different size or the publication’s page may appear on a computer screen at another size to the original; in both cases a magnification given as, say, ‘× 5’ may be very inaccurate. Scale bars are arguably preferable because the reader can determine the size of a feature by direct observation and comparison with the scale bar. Thus, if a bar represents 10 mm, it is simple enough to subdivide the bar into smaller millimetre units and use it to judge the size of a feature. This is not as easy to do ‘by eye’ with a magnification.
Comparisons and discussion/remarks – Comparisons between similar taxa are made to justify the decisions made by the author. For example, in describing a new species, an author should explain the unique features that differentiate it from closely related and other taxa within the same major group that occur in the same bed or suite of beds. Species may be compared on the basis of a number of other criteria, as considered appropriate by the author.
The discussion deals with other items relevant to the taxonomic descriptions and comparisons. Here there may be information, for example, about the possible phylogenetic relationships or why a character should be seen as important. Stratigraphic position and/or geographic distribution may be discussed, with a range extended or reduced. Similarities and differences between species from different geographic locations may throw light on the evolution of the taxon. There are many points which can be talked about here, depending on the bias of the paper, whether it be primarily taxonomic or stratigraphic.
Conclusions – This is the final section of the science of the paper and summarises the content as well as drawing together conclusions, if any, from the discussion. Thus, the main conclusion of this paper is that, if authors follow the suggestions given herein, the structure and layout of their papers will be clear, and organised so that information can be retrieved quickly and easily.
Acknowledgements – This pays tribute to any help the author has received from anyone during the progress of the work, including sources of financial support.
Bibliography/References – This gives a complete listing of all the references used by the author in the paper. All references that appear in the text must also be included in the reference list and vice versa. The journal style dictates how these are expressed. For example, some journals require the title of a referenced publication to be given in full, whereas others ask for an abbreviation to be used, for example, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London is abbreviated Proc. R. Soc.
And finally... – Journals produce guidelines as to how an author needs to set out the paper. This is usually known as ‘Instructions to Authors’ and can be found printed on parts of the cover pages of the journal, as a separate guide or on a website. Authors are well-advised to follow these, because re-formatting manuscripts is time consuming, and a poor initial format could result in rejection of the paper.