Authors versus publishers

September 30, 2011

You don’t need to read this. You can read Scott Aaronson’s Review of The Access Principle and Tim O’Reilly’s Piracy is Progressive Taxation and connect the blindingly obvious dots.

OTOH, Aaronson and O’Reilly wrote their pieces for the same reason I’m writing this one: some things are not blinding obvious to everyone. And sometimes the situation makes me mad enough to take a swing. So here goes.

Duty Versus Selfishness

Aaronson writes, “the most important idea in the The Access Principle is that scholars have a duty to make their work available, not only to their colleagues, but ideally to anyone who wants it.”

Now, I agree with this, totally; it’s basically the underpinning for the entire OA movement. But you don’t need to invoke a sense of duty to encourage researchers to make their work universally available. In fact, you don’t need to invoke any higher motive at all. Pure selfishness will do.

Here’s the deal: if you’re a publishing scientist, then once a paper is out the door the only ways in which you should care about it are (1) hoping it’s not discredited, and (2) hoping that it is read as widely as possible. Most of the formulae used to calculate impact factors, the H-index, and so on, don’t pay any attention to whether the citation is coming from inside your field or not (though a few are field-specific). And if you can get a group of bird feather biomechanists or insect development people interested in your work, at a minimum you’ll have a new citation cash cow, and possibly opportunities for collaboration.

Crucially, you want students to be able to get hold of your papers, because those students  are going to be tomorrow’s publishing scientists, and if you hook ‘em early you’ll have another source of inflowing citations, potential collaborations, and possibly fawningly positive peer reviews (remember, we’re temporarily setting aside higher motives). But students are very good at maximizing return for effort invested (or, as some would have it, “lazy”), and if they find Dr. O. Penn Akzess’s papers before they find yours–or if they are able download her papers for free while yours are locked behind a paywall–you get nothing.

It’s not just students, though, or people in other fields. One of your colleagues might be working on a manuscript at home, and he needs a boilerplate citation on wasp-farming in a particular paragraph. He has your 2007 paper on insect husbandry in mind, but after a brief search it turns out that the PDF is on the computer in his office, and he can’t get access to the online version without going through some complicated process involving proxy servers and other such folderol. But, hey, look, there’s Dr. Akzess’s (2008) paper on alternative agriculture on PLoS ONE, which will serve just fine for this non-critical citation. Guess who gets cited, and who gets zip?

And if you’re in academia, getting and keeping a job means that your work needs to be well-regarded in a way that the administrative bean-counters can understand (i.e., cited, or the subject of high-profile publicity).

So even if you’re a completely selfish bastard who cares about nothing other than ruthless self-advancement, it’s to your advantage to have all of your work immediately available to anyone who wants it with a minimum of hassle. You may also have other, higher motives for desiring the same outcome, but it’s all the same in the end: the primary interest of authors is to have their work read by others. As many others as possible, with a minimum of fuss.

You’re Not Helping

The primary interest of non-OA publishers is to get paid. Forget whatever crap they put in their brochures and mission statements about serving the broader community and performing a vital service for science. They’re all businesses, almost all corporations, they have an ardent desire and a legal mandate to maximize profits, and their PR departments will say anything at all to help that happen, even outright lies.

Non-OA publishers get paid by subscribers and the unfortunates who actually pony up $30 per article online (because they haven’t read Tutorial 9, don’t have a public library nearby for ILL, or absolutely must have the PDF right this minute and have no other options). In other words, they don’t want anyone to be able to read your work who hasn’t paid. Now that the problem of publishing has been solved, and infinitely many zero-cost perfect copies can be immediately distributed worldwide for free, one of the primary goals of non-OA publishers is to prevent people from reading your work. Their “publishing” your work isn’t helping you, it’s hurting you. Their imprimatur might look nice on your CV or be a source of bragging rights among your colleagues, and you might decide that the value of the imprimatur is greater than the value of having your work easily available to most of the rest of the planet. But the publisher isn’t helping you get your work read any more widely than you could on your own.* All you need for that is a PDF and an internet connection (a blog helps, and that’s free, too).

* I know that a zillion people have access to Nature ‘n Science. And the number of them outside your narrow field who will actually read your paper on wasp farming is probably comparable to the number of N&S papers on buckytubes and hadrons that you actually read: zilch. Many more people who actually care about your field will read your N&S paper after one of their friends with access sends it to them, but those that are actually going to read it under those circumstances wouldn’t care if it was published in The Journal of Small, Boring Fossils. And if it was in The OA JSBF, they wouldn’t have to bug their friends for copies.

Let’s figure out how the non-OA publishers are “helping” you.

  • Printing, binding, and shipping hard copies of your work to those academic libraries that can afford their outrageous prices. Analysis: so Twen-Cen. Wake up and smell the internet. That tree you’re reading could be out there sequestering carbon. Not helping.
  • Putting your work online behind their paywall. Analysis: great, they’ve made it available to subscribers, who already had it, and a handful of unfortunates who couldn’t or wouldn’t get it any other way (Tutorial 9, ILL, etc.)–and keeping everyone else out. Not helping.
  • Giving you a PDF to freely distribute to colleagues who write to ask for it. Analysis: It’s 2011. Providing the author with a PDF of their own work isn’t a service, it’s a utility: the only time you should even have to think about this is when it’s not working. Making PDFs is actually easier and vastly cheaper than making print copies–OpenOffice does it natively, for free–so if your favorite journal isn’t doing it, go elsewhere until they extract their heads from their backsides. Anyway, this is something you can do for yourself with the accepted manuscript. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.
  • Giving you a limited number of PDF reprints. No, really, you read that right. Here’s how the Geological Society words it: “We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish.” The idea apparently being that you can send the PDF to colleagues, but only 20 times (19, I guess, if you want to keep one for yourself). The words simply don’t make any sense. It’s as if the session moderator told you were allowed to use vowel sounds in your talk, but you couldn’t use any one more than 20 times. You might go along with it just for the humor potential, but you, the moderator, and the audience would all know that it was a highly artificial game, whose strictures you could step outside of at any moment. (The tragedy of academic publishing is that the players have been tricked into thinking that they are pawns.) Not helping, or even making sense.
  • Stopping bad people from pirating your content, by tracking down unauthorized copies. Yes, there is a “service” for this (thanks to Andy Farke for the heads up). But wait–in case you’re waiting for Neuron #2 to catch up with Neuron #1, as an author you care about getting your work read, not about piracy. As O’Reilly said, “being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement.” What Attributor and other similar services are actually good for is checking to see whether you’ve been undermining the publishers’ blockade by posting copies of your own work outside their paywall (hey, over here!). That would be good for you–perfect, in fact–but bad for them. I don’t know if publishers are actually going to start cracking down on authors who do this (see also: victories, Pyrrhic)–that might deserve a post of its own. I do know that this “service” of detecting copyright infringement is directly opposed to your interests as an author (if it’s just plagiarism you’re worried about, Google has been around for a while). It’s ironic that the only commercial publisher I’ve heard of threatening to use this service has been caught illicitly duplicating its own articles (schadenfreudelicious!). Not helping.
  • Stopping bad people from getting your content, by blocking interlibrary loan. That’s right–for-profit academic publishers are now fighting ILL. Yeah, because faculty and students at small institutions and interested laypeople are such a huge threat to their multi-billion-dollar businesses. Analysis: not just not helping, this is straight up a-hole behavior.

I guess that leaves:

  • Typesetting your manuscript and making a nice-looking PDF. Yep, there’s no way you’d ever be able to master that on your own. Oh wait. Physicists and mathematicians–you know, those alleged brainheads with no stylistic sensibility–have been doing this for themselves for ages with LaTeX. Yes, biologists and earth scientists, prior to submission. If the rest of us just got on board, we could pull the last creaking support out from the Jenga tower of piled-high feces that is for-profit academic publishing. Now, you may whine that you don’t want to have to waste time formatting your own manuscript, but if you’ve actually submitted anything to a journal, ever, you’ve had to spend time formatting your own manuscript to fit whatever arbitrary submission format the journal wanted. You could have spent that time making it look like something other than a reject from Microsoft Word 101. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.

Naming Names

Through new corporate masters Taylor & Francis, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology will now you let you make your article Open Access for a mere $3250. You should feel flattered–your article is as valuable to them as 25 fully-paid regular memberships in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology ($130 a pop at the time of this writing). Each regular membership brings a year’s subscription to JVP, which is running upwards of 1200 pages a year. Probably 1500 pages soon, if it’s not there already. The annual page count of JVP is about 100 times the length of a long-ish article (most articles are shorter), and Taylor & Francis want 25 times that amount, so the OA deal is basically charging you for the equivalent of 2500 hundred people reading your work. Er, except that 25 regular memberships in SVP would pay for all kinds of genuinely valuable work that the society does–students grants, public education, support for legislation to protect fossil resources–whereas AFAICT buying the Open Access deal through Taylor & Francis only supports Taylor & Francis (someone please correct me if I’m wrong).

It’s an outrageous ripoff in either case.

You might feel that the OA fee at Taylor & Francis is a bit high, given that PLoS ONE only charges $1350 and gives you unlimited pages and unlimited high-resolution color figures. Wait, let me shout that for those hard of reading: UNLIMITED PAGES and UNLIMITED HIGH-RESOLUTION COLOR FIGURES. That’s what an organization can do when it decides to serve authors and readers instead of shareholders. And we might even expect that the OA publication fee at PLoS ONE is a bit inflated, since it represents “bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize [a] handful of high-quality flagship journals“–totally unlike what the Nature Publishing Group is doing with Scientific Reports. (Curious, NPG wants your kidneys in exchange for actual science, but they’ll let you read about the evils of PLoS for free.) As long as I’m here, I might as well note that the OA publication fee at NPG’s Scientific Reports is $1700 ($1700 – $1350 = shareholder cut, I’ll wager). Not sure why Taylor & Francis needs twice as much as NPG–maybe NPG have something left to learn about corporate greed, after all.

Just as a point of comparison, let’s consider Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Like JVP and most other journals, they have page charges for long manuscripts, but like JVP and most other journals, those page charges are not a barrier to publication for people who can’t afford to pay. Printed figures are usually black and white but figures in the PDFs–which are what really matters these days, to the vast majority of readers–are in full color, for free. There is a length limit, but it’s high, and they have a sister publication, Palaeontologia Polonica, for those longer works. They offer subscriptions and send hardbound copies to libraries worldwide, but they also make all of their papers available for free online. Heck, they even encourage authors to post PDFs of their own works on their own websites.

What’s wrong with those people!?

Seriously, just giving everything away for free? Not even asking authors to pay a dime to publish shorter papers? How do they stay in business?

Ah, well. There you have it. They’re not in business. APP is published by the Institute of Paleobiology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (so, state supported) and they’re out to make a name for themselves. That means visibility, which means distribution–instantly, everywhere, for free. In other words, their desires are aligned perfectly with those of authors. That’s why they don’t charge for publishing, and that’s why they encourage you to post PDFs of your own papers. What’s good for you is also good for them.

(Preemptive strike: before someone points out that JVP currently has a shorter lag time from submission to publication than APP, let me say two things: the situation was precisely reversed a couple of years ago, and thanks, Taylor & Francis, for having the courtesy to  screw over your authors and readers quickly.)

I don’t know if APP will be able to keep this up forever. I wouldn’t bet against them. Producing the journal can’t be much harder than it was in the decades before they gained their current global prominence, and I imagine that prominence has brought them enough new subscribers to offset the cost (a year’s subscription is 65 Euros, or a little less than $90 as of this writing). If free distribution eventually costs them subscribers, they ought to be able to recoup the loss by cutting or at least curtailing the printing, binding, and shipping of dead trees (although those of us in the West should remember that not all of the world is wired yet).

To recap, a sample of current open access publication fees in journals that handle vertebrate paleontology papers:

  • Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology: $3250
  • Nature Scientific Reports: $1700
  • PLoS ONE: $1350
  • Acta Palaeontologica Polonica: $0

If You’re Not Outraged…

I fully expect that this will piss off some people in the SVP. Which would be excellent. Maybe they’ll get mad enough to explain to me why Taylor & Francis charges twice what Nature Publishing Group does for OA publishing, and more than two and a half times what PLoS does, for a demonstrably inferior product (page limits, no free color figures, etc.). And why their per-article download fees are so egregiously high, and why they charge for electronic access to supplementary data (thanks to Andy again for documenting these lunacies). And all of this on behalf a society whose stated goal is “to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology”. Maybe–just maybe–a critical mass of people in the society will get mad enough to demand a better deal next time around. Or, as long as I’m dreaming, maybe we can find a publisher whose actual behavior is aligned with our ideals (I hear Poland is nice this time of year). As Aaronson said,

Once we’ve mustered a level of anger commensurate with what’s happening, we can then debate what to do next, which journals are overpriced and which aren’t, what qualifies as “open access,” and so on. But the first step is for a critical mass of us to acknowledge that we are being had.

A month ago today, George Monbiot’s piece Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist was published in The Guardian.  It stirred up a lot of debate, and has garnered 365 comments so far, most of them strongly supportive.  When we wrote about his article here at SV-POW!,I concluded with this declaration:

From now on, I plan to stop freely volunteering expertise and labour to non-open journals.  When I’m asked to review a manuscript, I’ll reply saying that I’ll be happy to do it for free if the final published version is going to open-access (as it will be at, say, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, PLoS ONE or Palaeontologia Electronica); but that if it’s going to be paywalled, I am available at a reasonable consultancy rate of say £100 per hour.

That caught the eye of the Times Higher Education editors, and I was asked to write a short piece for them on this subject.  I’m pleased to say that it’s in today’s issue, and also available online.  Hopefully it will reach a very different constituency from the one that usually reads Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week.

Read the article: Peers, review your actions.

And if you feel strongly about the hijacking of academic publishing by for-profit corporations, please consider leaving a comment on that article instead of, or as well as, here.  (No registration is required.)

What you can do

If you are a researcher and don’t like the stranglehold that commercial publishers have on our work — if you object to the fact that much of your institution’s funds goes to pay these unappointed gatekeepers for subscriptions, rather than on funding research — if you agree that work funded by your government should be freely available to citizens — then please join me in refusing to review for non-open journals.  It’s the right thing to do.  Leave a comment if you want to register your support.

Preparing a talk is a time-consuming process, and there’s no question that getting the slides ready is where the bulk of that time goes.  But unless you understand exactly what it is that you’re going to talk about, even the best slides won’t rescue your talk from mediocrity, so before you fire up PowerPoint, go and read part 1 of this tutorial, on finding the narrative.  Seriously.  The slides are how you convey your message, and they’re important.  But not as important as what your message is.

Assuming you know what story you’re trying to tell, here is the overriding principle of slide design: make yourself understood.  Remember again that you have something less than twenty minutes in which to make your rich, complex research project understood to a hall full of strangers who have just sat through five or ten or fifteen other presentations.  They will be mentally tired.  Help them out.  Make every slide tell a clear story.

The slides for a conference talk are science, not art.  That doesn’t mean they have to be ugly — of course it doesn’t.  But it does mean that whenever you find yourself facing a choice between clarity and beauty, go with clarity.

That means you do not want your slides to look like this:

OK, that is not even beautiful.  But it does illustrate some horrible mistakes, and we’ll touch on all of them  in what follows.  For now, just remember that the purpose of a Results slide is to help the audience know what your results were.

So how do you make yourself understood?

1. Use the full size of the screen

Most importantly, don’t “frame” your content.  You have a specific amount of space in which to present your work.  Don’t throw any of it away.  Although the super-bad slide above may look extreme, I have seen plenty to slides that present, say, specimen photos in about the same amount of space as the graph above occupies.  So, then:

  • No picturesque borders.
  • We don’t need the talk title, or your name or address on every slide.  You can tell us once at the start of the talk and then, if you like, once more at the end.  If we truly forget who you are in the middle, we can always look at the programme.  If we forget what you’re talking about, then your talk has more profound problems.
  • That goes double for logos.  We do not need to see the following more than once (or indeed once):
    • Your institution’s crest
    • The conference logo
    • Logos of funding bodies

We don’t need any of that stuff, and all of it wastes precious real-estate.  Space that you could be using to tell your story.

Most important of all: use as much space as you can for your images.  Specimen photographs, interpretive drawings, reproduced figures from the literature, graphs, cladograms, strat sections — whatever you’re showing us, let us see it.

In my own talks, I like to make the picture fill the whole slide.  You can usually find a light area to put a dark text on, or vice versa.  I often find it’s useful to give the text a drop-shadow, so that it stands out against both light and dark background.  (You can find that option in Format -> Character… -> Font Effects if you use OpenOffice, and no doubt somewhere similar in PowerPoint.)

If the aspect ratio of an image that I want to use is not the 4:3 that projectors give you, then I will often crop it down to that aspect ratio, if some of the edges of the image are dispensable, so that the cropped version is properly shaped to fill the screen.

(On image resolution: most projectors seem to be 1024 x 768, maybe some these days are 1280 x 960.  There’s no point using images at a higher resolution than that: your audience won’t see the additional information.)

2. Legibility

Hopefully you won’t need too many words on your slides, since you’ll be talking to us about what we can see.  But what words you use, we need to see.  Specifically, this means:

  • Use big fonts.  There is absolutely no point in showing us an eighty-taxon phylogenetic tree: we just won’t be able to read the taxon names.  I tend to make my fonts really big — 32-point and up, which actually is probably bigger than you really need.  But you don’t want to be smaller than 20-point at the absolute minimum.
  • Use high contrast between the text and background.  That usually means black on white, or (if you must) white on black.  Well, OK — it doesn’t literally have to be black, but it needs to be a very dark colour (I often use very dark blue).  And it doesn’t literally have to be white, but it needs to be a very light colour.  (I occasionally use a very pale yellow “parchment”-type colour, but less often.)  Do not use grey text or a grey background.  Especially do not use grey text on a grey background, even if they are fairly different greys and the muted effect looks classy.  You’re not shooting for “classy”, you’re shooting for “legible”.  Because you remember the prime directive that you’re trying to make yourself understood.
  • If for some reason you must use a non-black, non-white text or background, don’t make it a highly saturated colour.  Some combinations, such as a red on blue, and virtually impossible to read.
  • No vertical writing (with the possible exception of short y-axis labels on graphs).  If your cladogram’s taxon names are vertical, turn your cladogram around.  Redraw it if necessary.  If the audience have their heads on one side, you’re doing it wrong.

3. Font Choice

Apart from size, what else matters about fonts?

  • Avoid elaborate fonts, such as the URW Chancery L Medium Italic that I used for my name and affiliation in the Bad Slide at the top.  They’re hard to read, and at best they draw attention away from the message to the medium.
  • Pick a single font and stick with it for consistency.  Or if you wish, one serifed font (for body text) and one sans-serif (for headings).  But you should have little enough text on your slides that it’s practically all headings.
  • Stick to standard fonts which you know will be on the computer that will be displaying your presentation.  In practice, the safest approach is it stick to Microsoft’s “core fonts for the web” — which is plenty enough choice.
  • You might want to avoid Arial, which is widely considered particularly ugly.  Other ubiquitous sans-serif fonts include Trebuchet and Verdana, which are both rather nicer than Arial (though Verdana’s glyphs are too widely spaced to my eye).
  • Do not use MS Comic Sans Serif, or no-one will take anything you say seriously.  I don’t just mean your talk, I mean ever, for the rest of your life.

Why is it important to stick to standard fonts?  Because of size, spacing and positioning.  Your computer may have the super-beautiful Font Of Awesomeness and it might make your slides look beautiful; but when you run your PowerPoint file on the conference computer, it won’t have Font Of Awesomeness, so it will substitute whatever it thinks is closest — Arial or Times or something.  Not only will you not get the visual effect you wanted, but the glyphs will be different sizes, so that your text will run off the edge of the page, or fall right off the bottom.

(Handy household hint for users of Debian GNU/Linux and variants such as Ubuntu.  Make sure that you have the MS core fonts installed on your computer, so that OpenOffice can properly display your slides as you’re designing them, rather than substituting.  sudo apt-get install ttf-mscorefonts-installer, restart OpenOffice, and you’re good to go.)

4. How many slides?

I need to mention this issue, if only to say that there’s no right answer.  I don’t say that lightly: for most slide-design issues, there is a right answer.  (Example: should you use MS Comic Sans Serif?  Answer: no.)  But number of slides has to vary between people to fit in with presentation styles.

I tend to use a large number of slides and whiz through them very quickly — my SVPCA 2011 talk had 80 slides, and in 2010 I had 92 slides.  Lots of them are parenthetical, sometimes just a silly joke to make in passing a point that I am already making.  If you miss such a slide, it doesn’t really matter: it’s just light relief and reinforcement, not an integral part of the narrative.

.

But that many-slides-slipping-quickly-past style doesn’t suit everybody. In the eighteen minutes or so that you get to give a talk (allowing a minute for messing about getting set up and a minute for questions), getting through 80 slides in those 1080 seconds gives you an average of 13.5 seconds per slide.

Lots of people prefer to use fewer slides and talk about them for longer. You can give an excellent talk with very few slides if that approach comes naturally to you: step slowly through nine slides, talk about each one for two minutes.

Once you’ve given a few talks you’ll know which approach works best for you, and you can design accordingly. For your first talk, you’re probably best off aiming initially somewhere in the middle — thirty or so slides — and then seeing what happens when you dry-run the talk. (We’ll discuss that next time around.)

5. Miscellaneous

I’ve touched on this one already, but it’s best to use as little text as possible. That’s because you want your audience listening to your story, not reading your slides. I used to put a lot of text in my slides, because I wanted the PowerPoint file to stand alone as a sort of a record of the talk. But I don’t do that now, because a talk involves talking (clue’s in the question). I include enough text to remind myself what I want to say about each slide (sometimes just one or two words; often none at all). And I try to make sure there’s enough to let the audience know what they’re looking at if I zoom straight past it. For example:

.

I used this slide to briefly tell a typical taphonomic story of a sauropod neck.  But I didn’t need to say that I was using diagrams of the neck of Sauroposeidon taken from Wedel et al. 2000, so I just shoved that information on the slide for anyone who was interested.  That way I didn’t have to break the flow of my narrative to impart this information.

Use a consistent colour palette.  If you’ve used dark blue text on white for half of your slides, don’t switch to black on pale yellow for the other half.  It’s not a hugely important point, but it all contributes to helping the talk go down smoothly.  You’re getting rid of mental speed-bumps that could stop your audience from giving their full attention to the story you’re telling.

Where possible, avoid putting important information at the bottom — in, say, the lower 10-15% of the slide.  That’s because the lower part of the screen can sometimes be obscured by the heads of the people in the front rows.

Avoid hatching, which can look terrible on a screen, in a way that’s very hard to predict.  In the Sauroposeidon taphonomy slide above, for example, the lost bones are “greyed out” using a flat grey colour rather the close diagonal lines of the original.  I knew it would look right on the screen.

Skip the fancy slide transitions, animated flying arrows, and suchlike. It’s just distracting nonsense that no one in the audience (or anywhere else, for that matter) needs to be exposed to. It’s just gross. Also, as with fonts, you may end up giving your talk from a machine with an older version of PowerPoint that doesn’t support the turning of animated pages and the bouncing arrival of arrows and clipart, and then your presentation will either look stupid or fail to run entirely.

You might want to draw highlighting marks on your slides, e.g. circles around the relevant parts of a specimen photos.  That will save you having to mess about with the laser pointer later.  (I will have much to say about the laser pointer in part 4).  I like to show two consecutive slides: one of the unadorned photo, then one that’s identical apart from the addition of the highlight, like this:

Then as I am talking about the first slide, “in order to mount the vertebrae in something approaching a straight line, they had to leave a huge gap between consecutive centra”, I’ll step on to the next one, which highlights what I’m saying.  Slick, no?  (This is part of why I end up with such high slide counts.)

A pet hate: don’t write “monophyletic clade”.  If it’s a clade, it’s monophyletic by definition.  “Monophyletic clade” is like “round circle”, “square square” or “boring ornithopod”.

And finally …

Show us specimens.  We are vertebrate palaeontologists, and we love vertebrate fossils.  No-one goes into the field because of a deep and abiding passion for graphs or for tables of numbers.  We understand that from time to time you’ll need to show us those things in order to tell the story, but nothing makes an audience happier than big, clean photos of beautiful specimens.

Well, that’s it — how to make good slides.  Next time we’ll look at rehearsing the talk.  (It’ll be a much shorter post than this one.)

Matt, Darren and I were all in Lyme Regis last week for SVPCA 2011, the Symposium of Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy — an excellent technical conference similar in some ways to SVP, but much nicer because it’s small enough that you can see all the talks and meet all the people.

This is the seafront, from the Cobb (harbour wall) at the west end of the beach, looking east.  The tiny white building that you can see at far right is the Marine Theatre, where the scientific sessions took place.  Many of the other buildings are pubs, where unscientific sessions took place.

It was an excellent conference, and you can read more about it in Darren’s accounts over on Tetrapod Zoology (part 1, part 2).  But in any conference where you watch and listen to more than fifty talks, you’re going to get a range of quality from the inspiring to the … not-quite-so-inspiring.  Having seen both good and bad (and some ugly), I found myself thinking about what makes a good talk.

The result is this: a series of four articles, which should appear over the next couple of weeks:

  1. Planning: finding a narrative
  2. The slides: presenting your information to be understood
  3. Rehearsal: honing the story and how it’s told
  4. Delivery: telling the story

And this is the first of those.

Planning a talk

Here is rule number one: make us care about your project.  We’re going to hear eighteen talks today, and we’re probably not even particularly interested in hybodont sharks or rare earth elements or whatever it is that you work on.  So make us interested.

Obviously some of this is about how your slides look, how well you prepare, and your delivery.  But it all starts here, with how you select your material.  And rule number two is that you need to tell us a story.

Does this mean that you have to dumb your work down?  No, not at all.  The conference audience is intelligent, and they are quite capable of following you if you say complicated things.  But they can’t do that if they’re asleep, which means that (especially in the session directly after lunch) you have to give them something to cling onto, a way to follow you through the maze of information that you’ve gathered through your work this year, and to reach the middle of that maze with a clear appreciation of the journey.  Stories are the way to do that.  They engage us, hold our attention.  It’s just the way people are wired.

If you’ve shown us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #1 in the last slide but one, and the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #2 in the last slide; and if now you’re showing us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #3, don’t be surprised if we lose interest when in the next slide you show us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #4.  (Yes, I’ve really seen this done.  And there were a lot more than four of them.)

(Note: the Consecutive Mastoton Tooth Stable Isotope Ratio Graph talk was not given at the Lyme Regis SVPCA.  Just to be clear)

How do you find a compelling story that summarises the research you want the world to know about?  Well, start by accepting that it’s going to mean you won’t be able to talk about everything you’ve done this year.  Even if you could fit it all into the twenty-minute slot, it wouldn’t work as a talk.  It would be a mere aggregation of facts.  You, who are the specialist on your topic, have had whole a year to absorb all this information and make sense of it; but we, in the audience, have only twenty minutes.  So we need you to be our expert guide.

Once more, understand that this means you will have to omit much that is relevant.  That’s because your actual research is like a tree, branching out all over the place and giving rise to tiny baby new projects, some of which might develop for long enough to become independently viable.  But you can’t walk us across the tree of your research: there isn’t time, and we wouldn’t be able to digest it anyway.  Instead, you need to pick a single narrative, concentrate on that, and explain it to us as linearly as you can.

Here’s an analogy that might help.  When you’re trying to explain human evolution to someone, you know that evolution “doesn’t work in straight lines” and that it produces a tree rather than an ascent of man.  You are a sophisticated evolutionary biologist, and you know that diagrams like this one are misleading:


… except that they’re not.  I know that Gould loathed this picture, but it’s actually a perfectly good representation of the evolution of a single branch of the tree of life.  Yes, other branches forked off along the way.  But depending on what group we’re concentrating on, we can temporarily ignore those — just as I habitually ignore the negligble offshoots of the tetrapod tree that led to lissamphibians, mammals, turtles, lizards, crocs, ornithischians, theropods, diplodocoids and titanosaurs.  The truth is that every single organism on this planet descended in a direct line from the ancestral organism.

So: that maligned diagram has to be your model as you plan the content of your talk.  You have to ruthlessly prune — not only the branches of your research that didn’t go anywhere interesting; but also, and more painfully, the many branches that did go somewhere interesting, but not the place that your talk is focussed on.  Those branches may be interesting, they may be important; but they don’t contribute to your goal here, which is to make us understand the story of your project in twenty minutes.

It can be hard to figure out what is core to the story and what is a side-branch.  I know that I’ve been seduced into including fascinating-but-distracting side-branches into my own talks often enough.  But I do know of one good strategy for figuring out what your narrative through-line is.

Take an intelligent friend to a pub.  Have a beer, and buy one for your friend.  Heck, buy him two.  Now try to explain your project to him.

In the pub, you won’t have the crutch of slides to fall back on, so you will have to think about the story itself.

In the pub, your friend will interrupt with questions that help you clarify your own thinking, rather than leaving an audience mystified.

In the pub, you’ll be told immediately if you wander off into Irrelevant Land, rather than ploughing blindly on, getting further and further away from the point, as an audience too polite to interrupt quietly disengages.

Whether you mean to or not, you and your friend will be workshopping the core of your talk, figuring out what the narrative core is, slicing away the fat, slicing away as well the irrelevant meat, and gradually homing in on a structure that begins at the beginning, tells a single coherent story from beginning to end, and then stops.

And then you’re ready to start thinking about the slides.  Or maybe better leave it till the morning.

Jeff Liston at Lyme Regis. SVPCA for scale.

Next time: the slides.

With our baby’s appearance in National Geographic this week, she’s now been in four mainstream magazines:

That’s National Geographic at top left, Macleans  next to it; The Scientist at bottom left, and National Geographic Kids next to that.  (The articles in the first three of these are available online here, here and here, but I can’t find anything on the NG Kids web-site.)

There is a point to this post, beyond gloating celebrating Brontomerus: it’s that diligent preparation improves a study’s chance of getting good coverage.  A few people have asked us to write a bit about what we did, so at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, here it is.

Most of Brontomerus‘s visibility is due to the hard work of the UCL Publicity team, and especially the excellent and widely-reproduced video that they made in the Grant Museum.  But we made it easy for UCL to take an interest by preparing a bunch of materials ahead of time, before they even knew that there was a paper coming out.  We called it the Brontomerus press pack, and made sure it contained everything anyone could need for writing and illustrating stories about our animal:

In short, we tried to give journalists, and radio and TV researchers, everything they needed to put together a story aimed at their own audience.  More than that — we tried to make it easy for them.  They have plenty going on, after all: Brontomerus came out on the day that the Libyan protests really took off, so it’s not as though news editors were short of material to fill their slots.  I suspect that if we’d not got all the ducks in such a neat row, Brontomerus would have disappeared from the news schedule in double-quick time.

Another important thing you can do to make news editors’ jobs easier: make sure that the images you provide are in high resolution, so they don’t pixellate when they’re blown up to fill a screen; and be explicit about image/video credit, copyright and permissions.  Let them know what they can use and under what conditions.  If you make them hunt for that information, or even chase you for it, they’ll probably lose interest and do a different piece instead.  And we really wanted the artist who’d done the Brontomerus work to be credited: Paco Gasco did a fantastic job, and deserved to be known for it.

Equally important, by getting as much material as possible ready before even contacting the university publicity people, we made their job easier.  Once they were on board, we were able to extend the page with extras like an official press release and the video, but the framework was all in place ahead of time.

In short, there is a whole load that you can do to prepare a study for media coverage.  Not much of it is rocket-science.  It’s basically just about getting the work done.  And it is work, plenty of it.

Still.  It’s worth it.

And another thing …

You should all get across to Heinrich Mallison’s new blog and check it out.  Lots of excellent palaeo-photography, even if today’s post is about a stinkin’ mammal.

Addendum (from Matt)

First, some credit where it’s due. We didn’t figure all of this out on our own. For Brontomerus in particular, we took a lot of cues from  the fact sheet that Irmis et al. put together for their 2007 “rise of dinosaurs” paper that made the cover of Science.

Second, we did figure some of it out on our own, but not all at once. If you look at Mike’s unofficial online press packs for Xenoposeidon (2007), our neck posture paper (2009), and Brontomerus (2011), you’ll see that each one is better than the one before.

Finally, you may be saying to yourself, “Okay, I understand that I’m supposed to make things easy for journalists and have a bunch of stuff queued up for them. But where do I put it?”

Well, online, obviously. If you don’t already have a blog, WordPress and Blogger and probably a zillion other services give them out for free, and you can make an ad hoc, one-shot blog for every press-release-worthy paper, as Mark Witton and Darren did for their azhdarchid paleobiology paper in PLoS ONE.

But let me wax preachy for a minute. If you’re a young researcher and you’re trying to make an impact, why aren’t you blogging? It’s not an intolerable commitment. Sure, regular posting brings more readers, but irregular posting brings more readers than not having a blog at all.

We started SV-POW! as a joke, and continued it during the actually-posting-weekly-about-sauropod-vertebrae phase (which lasted for 2.5 years) because it was fun and challenging, and maintain it now because it’s fun, we enjoy the wacky discussions that get going from time to time in the comments, and, frankly, we’re addicted to having a soapbox where we can say pretty much whatever we want. We didn’t explicitly plan it as a way to funnel readers to our scientific work, but that has been one of its great exaptive benefits. I’d be shocked if the same isn’t true for other researchers who blog.

So, moral of the story: if you’re a researcher and you’re not blogging, you’re missing out. Your work is reaching fewer people than it might. Come out and play. Join the conversation. Interact. Your future self will thank you.

Brontomerus by Mauricio Antόn, copyright National Geographic

The October 2011 issue of National Geographic is out, and in the ‘Now’ section near the front there is a one-page feature on Brontomerus (in the US version anyway).  The whole thing is can be viewed online here.  It’s page 30 in the hardcopy, but NG seems pretty cavalier about printing page numbers.

The art is by Mauricio Antόn and we’re super happy with it; as before we had the opportunity to go back and forth a lot and arrive at a finished piece that shows essentially everything we wanted. The author of the piece, Catherine Zuckerman, was also very patient in distilling down the reams of information Mike and I sent her about the story. Many thanks to both Mauricio and Catherine for their interest and hard work!

Okay, special dissection post, coming to you live from the Symposium  of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic coast of England, well past my bedtime. First, check out this comment from Neil and see the linked image of some neck muscles in the anhinga. Here’s a small version I’m swiping. There are a couple of short, single-segment muscles shown, but the big long ones in this image are longus colli ventralis (on the ‘front’ or ‘bottom’ of the neck) and longus colli dorsalis (on the ‘back’ or ‘top’).

Now, grok these photos of the same dorsal muscle. Or muscle group, if you prefer. Note that in all cases shown here and in the link–anhinga, rhea, and turkey–the muscle inserts on the anterior cervical vertebrae, and not on the skull.

In Rhea:

In Meleagris (turkey):

The rhea was dissected by Vanessa back at Western a couple of weeks ago, the turkey by me on Mike’s dining room table on Monday. Full story to follow…at some point.

In the meantime, go buy your own turkey and cut up its neck. It’s cheap and you’ll learn a ton.

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