Are our collections relevant to modern science? How do we know?

During a conversation with colleagues recently, the topic of “How can we judge that our collections are useful” came up. We can measure the number of visitors into the collections and we can keep tabs on the loans that we send to researchers at different institutes, but is this ever useful. I tasked myself this afternoon to finding out, for just one collection that I care for, just how much our collections are used for relevant science.

For my afternoon task, I chose to use the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology (JWIP) as my example collection. The JWIP is a database using old-style cards (over 250 000 cards in fact) of the written literature on organic-walled microfossils (spores, pollen and algal cysts are a few such things). Many researchers on these organic-walled microfossils (called palynologists) visit the Museum to look through this resource every year. Read more about this collection

Picture 1 A fossil dinoflagellate cyst (Apectodinium augustum) barely the size of a grain of sand, one of several groups of organic-walled microfossil

To find out how useful the collection has been for the visiting palynologists, I searched the internet for all of the published scientific papers that acknowledge/cite the JWIP. To my surprise, there were many more articles than I was expecting in the last 10 years alone. Twenty-three scientific papers and three PhD theses (there is also another from 2003 that appears on the first page of the search engine) have presented data that they found using the JWIP. There are possibly more that I have yet to find or have not acknowledged the data (Please researchers, acknowledge where your data comes from!). The current list of publications citing JWIP can be found by clicking here

The research in these publications is quite varied. They range from climate change through the Cenozoic Era to diversity changes over extinction events to understanding new species concepts in some of the oldest organic-walled fossil groups.

This is timely as a piece of work has just been published in the journal Nature Communications by Dr. Hendrik Nowak and his colleagues on the greatest extinction event of all time – the Permian/Triassic mass extinction ~250 million years ago. This study uses extensive data collected during a two-week visit that Hendrik had to the JWIP in 2017. You can read about his work in this blog

Simply acknowledging museum collections might not be on the front of all researchers’ minds, but it does help advocate the use of these important scientific materials. It is fantastic to see that in the last ~10 years, one of our collections has contributed so much and that people have felt the need, without pressure to do so, to acknowledge the resource.

We are trying to put as much information about our collections online, so that researchers understand more about what there really is to study here. Hopefully, this will be a positive step in making even more use of the museum and its incredibly vast resources.

Picture 2 Dr. John Williams in part of his index (Picture taken around 2005)