An open letter to Palaeontologia Electronica

November 23, 2010

For anyone who doesn’t already know, Palaeontologia Electronica is an on-line, open-access palaeontology journal — the only one in the world (unless you count Acta Pal Pol, which is freely available online and also published on paper.) PE is sponsored by the Palaeontological Association, the Paleontological Society and the Society of Vertebrtate Paleontology, the big three professional associations, so you can see that it’s a serious journal, not just some glorified blog. Among much else, it has published important sauropod papers such as Gomani (2005), Schwarz et al. (2005) and Rose (2007).  PE is A Good Thing.

The new issue 13(3) of PE came out yesterday and was introduced by a post on the newish PE blog.  In response I was moved to post a comment on that blog post.  But because the blog is pretty new, it doesn’t seem to have attracted many readers yet, at least judging by the low number of comments, so I realised that what I’d said needed saying in a more widely read venue.  Hence this SV-POW! article.

I am absolutely in awe of the Boltovskoy et al. World Atlas — my hat is off to everyone who worked on it, and it’s great that a reference work this comprehensive is freely available to the world.

But PE‘s tiny images are becoming more and more of an embarrassment: something has got to be done about this. It’s true that the maps in the PDFs are pretty high resolution (I can’t see exactly how high because my usual extract-images-from-PDF program isn’t working on these files for some reason). But the versions of the figures on the web-site are really inadequate — see for example Figure 6, which is a feeble 711×358 pixels — 1/4 Mp.

Compare that with, for example, Figure 10 (dorsal vertebrae) of the paper published in PLoS ONE today on new American iguanodonts. That image is 2067×2776 pixels — 5+3/4 Mp, or 22 times the size of the PE image.

Folks, I love PE and I really want it to succeed. But the PLoS journals, among others have raised the game. Hosting large images is so cheap now that it’s hard even to measure the cost: there is no excuse for PE to continue providing its figures only in what amounts to a thumbnail. Why shouldn’t the original image files submitted by the author be made available?

For me, and I am sure many other people, this is a deal-breaker. I simply can’t and won’t send any descriptive papers to PE, because when I prepare a 4100×3966 pixel figure like the one above [cervical rib "X1" of the Archbishop -- click through that images for the full-size version], I can’t tolerate having it shrunk to 711×688 to fit PE’s 711-pixel width limit — a 33-fold drop from 16 Mp to 1/2 Mp.

Please, PE. Fix this. Surely it can’t be hard?


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15 Responses to “An open letter to Palaeontologia Electronica

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Rowan, JP – Research Lab. JP – Research Lab said: An open letter to Palaeontologia Electronica: For anyone who doesn’t already know, Palaeontologia Electronica is… [...]

  2. My experience with PlosOne was overall positive, in that the reviewing process took place fairly promptly, and I am happy with the published product. However, I have two minor gripes:

    1. The formatting instructions are somewhat vague. In order to get it formatted correctly, you basically have to scroll through PlosOne papers until you figure out how certain things were done. JVP probably sets the bar as far as presenting formatting instructions so deatiled and explicit as to avoid confusion; PlosOne needs to get someone to rewrite thiers.

    2. The in-paper citations are given as numbers, rather than listing the authors and date. This is completely retarded. This may be a useful space saver for a big paper journal for which space is at a premium, but not for an online journal. I want to know what the paper is being cited while reading without having to flip into the reference section to jog my memory. It would also greatly simplify the formatting process if the references could simply be alphabetized, as the addition of any additional reference totally screws everything up and you have to renumber everything after it.

  3. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    Jeff, I agree that the sciencenatureohhowimportantweare-style system of numbering in-text citations is not really helpful. However, you can at least ease your task as author if you use a reference manager program. There is, e.g., zotero ( – free, fully customizable, and entirely capable of handling this sorry task of numebring refs for you :)

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Heinrich, that’s fine for authors. It doesn’t help the poor reader, who has to go scrabbling to find out what [165] is when “Wilson and Sereno 1998″ would tell you all you need to know.

  5. 220mya Says:

    Mike, in addition to posting a blog comment, I suggest you email the editors, to affect real change:

    In particular, you should email the managing editor, as she’s largely involved in the mechanics of formatting and uploading the HTML and PDF versions of the published papers.

  6. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    Mike, as I said: it can ease your task as an author. No more, no less.

  7. [...] An open letter to Palaeontologia Electronica [...]

  8. Nick Gardner Says:

    One thing you could do Mike, is post high-resolution versions of the figure on a supplemental webpage for the paper, like Casey Holliday does for all his papers. Great example here for Holliday and Witmer (2009).

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nick, in fact I do post high-resolution version of the figures of my papers: see the “Unofficial supplementary information” links in my bibliography at

    That is a decent workaround for the current broken situation. But, really, there is no reason why the journals themselves, which are usually the first port of call when looking for papers, should not provide the full-resolution figures. Especially when they are online-only journals to start with.

  10. Brian Beatty Says:

    You state:
    “Palaeontologia Electronica is an on-line, open-access palaeontology journal — the only one in the world (unless you count Acta Pal Pol, which is freely available online and also published on paper.)”

    But what about PalArch’s Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology? Though it is only focused on vertebrates, it is still an open-access, online paleo journal.

    As for the gripe about hi-res images, I agree. I would like to improve the quality of the images in PalArch, which is more complicated than making a pdf of a paper in InDesign. It’s worth working on, and this blog post is going to help that move along with the pressure it needs. THANKS!

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Brian, thank for the reminder. You are of course completely correct: PalArch’s Journal of VP is indeed another online open-access palaeo journal, and I’m sorry not to have given it the namecheck and link-love that it deserves. For anyone who’s not familiar with it, here is it:

  12. Graham King Says:

    Thanks Mike! For pushing for improved access and quality, and for highlighting here these online journals (both now added to my toolbar Bookmarks).

    Such access allows interested ‘outsiders’ such as myself to dip in occasionally, sampling the extraordinary range of study going on into the creatures of the past we love…

    Mind-expanding! Life-enhancing!

  13. [...] on, PLoS people — sort it out.  (I called out Palaeontologia Electronica on their lame image resolutions, so it’s only fair that I spread [...]

  14. Thanks for writing to the editors at Palaeontologia Electronica about your thoughts on image resolutions. Authors at Palaeontologia Electronica have, and always have had, the option of publishing high-resolution images if they choose to do so.

    We have two minimum level requirements for resolution of all figures, which are based on the least-common-denominator specs of screens currently in use around the world.

    (1) FIrst, for the HTML version we create screen-resolution figures images sized to fit on low end screens (i.e., 72 dpi at low-end screen width). We ask authors to create figures that will be intelligible on the screens of such readers. Some authors are more successful than others at meeting that suggestion. The images in the Boltovskoy atlas were discussed at length with the authors, specifically regarding the pros and cons of their legibility in the HTML version of the paper. The in-page thumbnails don’t get there (but, after all, their only purpose is to help the reader decide whether to click on the figure link or not). The full-sized HTML figures are certainly very legible on my screen, thanks to the hard work of both the authors and our managing editor Jennifer Rumford.

    (2) Second, we create print-resolution figures that fit on standard printed page size for the PDF/print version (i.e., 300 dpi at standard paper width). Most, but not all, authors are successful at meeting this suggestion. If the authors have properly formatted their vector images in EPS, the images in the PDF should be almost infinitely zoomable. Raster images are another matter, of course, but the ones in our PDFs meet or exceed the resolutions of personal and commercial printers.

    In addition to these two required levels of figure resolution, authors also have the option of adding figures with higher resolutions or larger size if they so choose. We remind authors that most readers choose the PDF version for reading and recommend that the figure be presented in such a way that the relevant details be visible in that format (e.g., two figures, one that shows and overview and another that is focussed in to show details). However, authors who wish to present a figure like the one you created above are, and have always been, welcome to do so.

    With best wishes,

  15. [...] Although I’ve often had occasion to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society publishing, among others; and I have praised Elsevier when they’ve [...]

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