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Art in the service of science: You get what you pay for

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Last week, a very prominent artist in the paleontology community somewhat publicly blew a gasket. His tirade started a conversation that has been sorely in need of attention for some time now. At issue is a fundamental conflict of interests: between science and its tradition of cumulative knowledge, and the rights of the artists who contribute so heavily to such knowledge. It’s a conflict that has irked both artists and researchers, but as budgets tighten and opportunities dwindle, artists are increasingly getting the short end of the stick.

The paleoartist is Greg S. Paul. Over the course of his massively influential career, he had the unfortunate good fortune of coming up with an ingenious way to illustrate dinosaur skeletons for scientific papers. The style is known in the community as his and appropriately bears his name. He spent years perfecting it and its novelty was enough to build his reputation and sustain his career for close to 30 years.

Skeletal reconstruction of Camarasaurus supremus by Greg S. Paul from his book, the Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. Image © Greg S. Paul, used with permission.

Paleontologists depend heavily on conventions so that they may compare scientific papers side-by-side and have some reliable way of making sense of a data set jumbled by millions of years. This has led to the adoption of standards when publishing bones and reconstructions so specimens may be seamlessly compared no matter where the fossils are located. Greg Paul’s style of dinosaur illustration combines multiple pieces of information: the skeletal anatomy, the body outline, and the missing parts of the skeleton in several standard views: lateral (side), dorsal (top), ventral (rear). It is so good at conveying this information intuitively that it has been widely adopted/imitated.

Skeletal reconstruction of Brontomerus mcintoshi. As far as I can tell, the image was "adapted" by Mike Taylor (see slightly confusing credit line in the Brontomerus press pack) from an illustration of Scott Hartman’s Camarasaurus grandis. Since Greg Paul’s outburst, Hartman has graciously conceded his point and has pledged to redraw his library of 100 or so skeletal reconstructions.

From a strict copyright perspective, this is illegal. Paul spent years developing this technique and his genius at combining disparate information into a clean, concise illustration should be rewarded with piles of work and mountains of cash (cue maniacal laughter, all the way to the bank.) From a scientific perspective, Paul invented a convention, and an invaluable one at that. It’s a convention that should be used widely to standardize the discourse that would otherwise be a jumble of hapless musings on fossil fragments scattered across the globe. Without convention, much information (and thus, progress) would be lost in the ensuing chaos.

As a staff illustrator, I defer my intellectual property claims on such matters in exchange for a regular paycheck and steady flow of work. In these cases where the interests of science conflict with my own interests as a business person (as all self-employed artists are), science wins, no contest. Simply put, I am an artist in the service of science. If I come up with such a good way of portraying information that it makes it all the way to the mythical status of convention, then hot-dog, I’ve just made a name for myself (hey boss, how ‘bout a raise?)

Greg Paul, or any other self-employed artist (read: small business owner), does not have that luxury. He must defend his copyrights and his intellectual property fiercely or lose valuable income in an extremely competitive field. And this territoriality is what shocks and irritates scientists who expect a culture of sharing information in exchange for merely being credited.

Unfortunately, being credited doesn’t pay the bills. And staff illustration positions, which strike a nice compromise for both parties, are increasingly rare. As staff illustrators retire at reputable institutions they are simply not being replaced. One of the more spectacular shows of illustration elimination happened last year at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as three illustration positions were eliminated out of a total of four. This trend is bringing the science/art conflict to a head as researchers are forced to hire contractors to perform their illustrations. They pay a similar hourly rate as they would have their staff illustrators forgetting that contractors have to buy their own equipment, health insurance, and pay rent, not to mention find clients. To compensate, the artists give up fewer rights to their work which in turn infuriates the scientists. When they can’t simply modify the figure they paid for last year for a new paper this year they resent the artist. It’s a relentless cycle that puts everybody’s blood pressure on the rise.

At the beginning of last century, universities adopted tenure as a way to protect their professors and allow them to freely express ideas that may be unpopular, but ultimately revolutionary. Who in turn will stand up for artists in the service of science and protect their ability to move science forward without fear of starving? Science depends on it.

Links:

Greg S. Paul Illustration

Paul’s letter to artists, researchers and producers

Scott Hartman’s Skeletal Reconstructions

ART Evolved: Pandora's Pencil Box: are there limits to artists' intellectual property defenses?

Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs: The Great Debate in Paleoart

THE PALEO KING: Greg Paul threatens legal smackdown!

The Bite Stuff: Skeletal Posture

GSP statement on use of my dinosaur restorations, by Gregory Paul. Keep clicking on the "Thread Next" tab to see the rest of the discussion.

 

About the author: Kalliopi Monoyios is a scientific illustrator at the University of Chicago. Her work has appeared on the covers of Nature, Science, and Genesis and been ripped off by South Park (season 10, episode 12: "Go God Go"). She has illustrated two best-selling popular nonfiction books, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin, and Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne. She is convinced that by creating intriguing, intuitive imagery targeted to the right audience, scientists can make their research both interesting and accessible, ultimately leading to a more engaged and scientifically literate public. She blogs at An Eye for Science. Her portfolio can be found at www.kalliopimonoyios.com.

 The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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