Over at the Paleo Errata blog Jeff Martz has an excellent discussion on what it means to make scientific contributions to the field of paleontology regardless of the possession of degrees, chosen scientific major, or even if you get paid to do paleontology full-time. As he states pretty clearly, science and scientific publication can be done by anyone who has questions and takes the time to reason out these ideas, support them with carefully collected data, and most importantly realize that the test of their ideas often involves intense scrutiny that can sometimes be uncomfortable. I have also touched upon this recently, but not as clearly as Jeff has. Science is not necessarily about degrees or jobs, it is about presenting the best thought out and supported work that you can to add to current attempt to figure things out. As Jeff states, "In the process of doing this work and fostering an intellectually honest attitude about themselves and what the produce, they earn the respect of the scientific community. These people are SCIENTISTS…regardless of whether they have degrees or not."
Jeff also throws my name out there in a list of persons he considers to do good scientific work (I do try) without have obtaining specific degrees. It is true that my highest attained degree is a Masters of Science, and I just only recently entered into a PhD program (this past Spring at the University of Texas in Austin). Despite this, between 2003 and the present I have published more than 25 peer reviewed papers, edited or co-edited four volumes, organized 3 scientific symposia, have provided my services as a reviewer for many manuscripts, and developed a successful research program at a major paleontological national park. I am proud of these accomplishments and have often tried to use my example to encourage others that one doesn't need an advanced degree to contribute to science (which I hope that I have), you just have to work hard and be willing to face criticism of your ideas. This criticism will actually strengthen your work if you allow.
Likewise, during my time at the Petrified Forest I have been fortunate to have hired personnel whom I would consider to be some of the best fossil preparators in the field. I have never made the possession of a degree a requirement for these positions as I am only concerned in their technical and intellectual abilities, things that do not necessarily require degrees. I've spoken out in the past how it has always amazed me that fossil preparator positions often come with a Geology degree requirement as in my opinion this requirement automatically disqualifies many of the best preparators in the business. Note that this is not meant to criticize or lessen preparators who have taken the time to get science degrees as hopefully the attainment of the degree provided them with much acquired expertise (this is what degree programs are designed to do); however, expertise can also be developed through hard work. In my eyes both paths are acceptable and I have yet to be let down by this approach.
Nonetheless, publishing is still not something to be taken lightly; however, as you need to first develop a strong foundation of the problem that you are interested in. This is done mainly through thorough reading of the literature and detailed first-hand examination of relevant specimens. Another fact I am proud of is that I did not produce my first publications on aetosaurs (the main group of fossils organisms I like to figure out) until around six years after I started really studying them. I've always encouraged my student interns to learn one thing really well to address problems within that discipline, and then branch out afterwards (I'm not sure if they listened ;)). This gives you expertise on a specific scientific subject, and can establish you in the community. There are actually quite a few "amateurs" on the various mailing lists who have always impressed me with the breadth and depth of their scientific knowledge on various subjects that appears to go way beyond a mild interest. I always wonder if these individuals will publish their ideas someday, especially as unfortunately some of their co-listers with only a seemingly mild interest have figured out various ways to put stuff out (and appear quite proud of this). I always wonder if these much more knowledgeable "amatuers" do not publish out of disinterest or because they have no been encouraged to do so by their peers.
Another major point that Jeff makes in his post is the idea that if someone who is considered to be an "amateur" (or even a degreed individual) publishes something in the non-peer-reviewed (or gray literature) then it is seen by some as acceptable to simply ignore that publication, presumably because it is unworthy of publication. I agree with Jeff that in a sense this is the "elitist" attitude that conflagrates the whole "professional vs. non-professional" discussion because it presupposes that an "amateur" cannot make a worthy scientific contribution. Instead, someone who decides to skip the steps of peer-review and self-publish should be prepared to face the intense scrutiny of their ideas that all scientists deal with, and if your self-published ideas are poorly supported, then be prepared for the heavy criticism. Like Jeff said, science doesn't care about your ego, just about the value of your ideas. However, everyones' ideas should be held up to the same scrutiny whether they have a PhD and have published dozens of papers or if they have no degree and this is their first offering. In a nutshell, science is a process of continuous building and it shouldn't matter who is doing the construction as long as the materials are sound. Come and join us.
Post-script: Why am I getting a PhD then if the degree is not necessary to do science? Simple, as I stated earlier the purpose of a degree program is to provide opportunities to acquire expertise from peers (we call them professors in the university setting). Networking is one of the most powerful tools available to us a scientists and the university setting allows for one to be submersed in a think tank constantly around people (students and teachers) with influential great ideas. Collaboration and consultation are remarkable learning tools that can take you very far in your career. Paleontology is a science that is not done well on an "island". We constantly need the input (including criticism) of our peers to see through the loopholes in our thinking and strengthen our ideas and their presentation. I felt that I had reached an intellectual "wall" in my career and returning to the university and exposing myself to a whole new cadre of peers was intellectually stimulating. I hope to continue.
Child rearing - cartoons and oldies rock
1 minute ago in The Phytophactor