Can you answer this crucial scientific question?

“Where did you see that,” may not seem like the most crucial question, but for natural science, history, geography, archaeology, and many other fields, provenance is crucial information. The volunteers that keep eBird useful will challenge you if you claim to have seen a bird at a time or place it was rare. Fossils are not nearly as useful and are useless for many questions if they have been dug out of the rock layer they come from since that takes away age information. Some of my systematics friends are unwilling to identify samples that lack their GPS coordinates.

Every field biologist knows that putting the date and the location on notes and samples is an essential first step. We use GPS for our soil collections for our social amoebae, but even back in the salad days of research for me, I mapped things. I could tell you where each wasp nest was in a field, and where that field was on a map. I knew counties of states and countries. For some nests, I knew paces and compass directions.

Even researchers that never get outside need to know the provenance of their cell lines. How many studies have claimed one line but actually been on the overpowerful HeLa lines? The careful researcher verifies the provenance of their cell lines, assures themselves that the knockout is in the gene they think it is.

Why is provenance so important? It is because nothing is alone and everything happens in context. Provenance helps us understand that context. Provenance helps link the studies I do with the studies others do. Appreciating provenance is a characteristic of a careful researcher.

This is not just true for natural sciences. It is true for archaeology where relics without their context are lost of their meaning. It is why theft at archaeological sites is so terrible. It is particularly true for history. How can we know the why and what of events without clear documentation of when and where? Provenance is what allowed my husband’s father, Donald Queller, to make the links he made in his books on Venice and the Crusades.

So imagine my horror when I went downstairs and discovered my 90-year-old father, not senile at all, thought it would be a good idea to separate from their envelopes the letters my grandmother who was still in Germany wrote to her husband who had made it to the USA in 1936? The family soon followed, and those letters are history. The envelopes are their provenance. I sure do hope I can convince him to put them back together, but I’m not optimistic. Those of you who know me, will now know where I got my attitude.

For you, just be sure you can answer the crucial questions about your data and your samples and can tell the world exactly where and when you got them.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Communication, Field work, Research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Can you answer this crucial scientific question?

  1. From my father: I am proud that my daughter continues to master the nuances of scholarship. However, she still has to learn the difference between throwing an envelope away and keeping it in the same box as that containing the original letter. Now I hope that she continues her wonderful biological research. She must never forget the important slogan: “Better sometimes sorry than always safe.”

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