It was Enrique Jardiel Poncela who said that “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing”. I would have guessed at someone like Mark Twain, or maybe G. K. Chesterton, but there you go.
A couple of months ago, I sent an eight-page submission to the House of Commons BIS Committee’s inquiry into the Goverment’s Open Access policy. That was a ratbag to write, and the fear is that such a dry document will be a ratbag to read as well. I work very hard to prevent it being boring — to craft it so that the sentences flow, and so a coherent story emerges from the sequence of individual arguments. It’s tough work.
Here are two pages of my first complete draft, with the markup that I added as I read it through. You can see how much I had to change to get it into a satisfactory state.
Let’s just hope the BIS committee actually reads it.
This very morning, the BIS Committee (Business, Innovation and Skills) is conducting its inquiry, based in part on submissions such as mine — and you can watch it, live, from 9:30am. The list of witnesses looks less unbalanced than in the recent Lords inquiry: on the side of the angels, Cameron Neylon and Martin Eve will appear — as will Stevan Harnad, which could be a positive or a negative. They will of course be countered as always by representatives of the publishing industry, including ALPSP and Elsevier, who will no doubt be once more pushing to extend embargoes and preserve their own continuing government subsidies.
Let’s see what happens.
I’ll finish by quoting the last paragraph of the Executive Summary from my submission:
The government must make decisions on the basis of what benefits the UK as a whole, not what benefits any single industry. The government should allow both Gold and Green OA; should require the CC BY licence, whichever route is taken; should tolerate no embargo on Green OA; and should not fully fund exploitatively high APCs.
April 3, 2013
Just like the last time I tried to post a comment on Richard Van Noorden’s piece on open-access economics, the comment I posted has been rejected with a fatuous “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service” message.
SERIOUSLY, NATURE PUBLISHING GROUP. HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
You will notice that neither WordPress-hosted blogs such as SV-POW!, nor Blogger-hosted blogs such as Mark Witton’s offering – nor indeed PLOS-hosted blogs such as The Integrative Paleontologists — consistently throws away perfectly good comments.
It’s 2013. There is no excuse for running a non-functional blog. None. If you aspire to be a hub of meaningful discussion, you have to make your software work right. It’s not good blowing it off with a snort and a giggle, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time, ha ha”. It’s contemptible — worse, it’s comtemptuous of your readers and of the people who spend time and effort to provide you with free content.
Sort it out.
For anyone who cares, here is the actual comment that I tried to post:
My thanks to Richard Van Noorden and David Crotty for useful criticisms of my simple calculations.
If both sets of figures are correct — that average profit-margins for the Big Four are 36% but the average across the industry is “only” 20-30% then it’s clear that the great majority of the parasitism that currently infests academia can be laid at the doors of the Big Four.
Is the Big-Four number correct? All we have to go on is the figures that those corporations themselves publish — and those are what I used in the linked blog post. If Wiley have now changed what they report, then we can use their new number instead. What we can’t legitimately do is look at what they say they make, then use a different number of our own choosing.
And here is where we reach the real problem: the appalling lack of transparency. David Crotty rightly points out “the assumption that the entirety of the $9.4 billion brought in by the publishing industry comes from subscriptions”. But I have tried very hard to get a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions, and not been able to get answers from Big-Four publishers. One of them explicitly told me to stop even asking. In the face of such obscurity, all we can do is work with what numbers we do have.
If any of the Big Four would like to reveal the true numbers, I would be delighted to hear them, and to revise my calculations accordingly.
Meanwhile here is my least bad re-calculation. If industry average profit margins are 20-30%, we’ll use the middle of the range, 25%. That means that 1/4 of the annual $9.4 billion revenue is profit — 2.35 billion. By coincidence, this is almost exactly equal to the price of publishing the year’s 1.8 million articles as Gold OA at a PLOS ONE price-point of $1350, namely $2.43 billion. Remember, this is not saying that what we spend on subscriptions would fund 100% Gold OA. It’s saying that what we throw away as sheer profit for publishers would fund it.
If that doesn’t make anyone absolutely furious, then that person’s outrage-meter is badly in need of recalibration. We’re supposed to be doing science here, not enriching shareholders with public money.
Thanks for listening.
March 28, 2013
My thanks for Richard Van Noorden for drawing my attention to his new piece Open access: The true cost of science publishing in Nature. I wrote a detailed comment on this article, but when I went to post it, I was told “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service”:
This news to me. No-one at Nature thought to tell me, or anything. Their system said nothing about when I logged in, nor when I started entering my comment. Just waited till I’d finished, then trashed it.
I have no idea why I am banned. How can I have, when I’ve never received any notification?
I can only assume it’s for posting opinions that are at odds with what NPG would prefer we all thought — at least, in the absence of any actual data, that’s the best hypothesis I can come up with. Update 40 minutes later: turns out it was a glitch in the spam-filter. Richard got it fixed, and my comment is now up on the article.
Listen up, Nature Publishing Group: you will never get meaningful dialogue in your comments if you silently ban
everyone who expresses a non-party-line opinion random people for no discernable reason. You should be aspiring to be a hub of civilised discourse on these important issues, not an echo-chamber. (If you want that, you can just go and read The Scholarly Kitchen.)
Anyway: I am paranoid enough that I copied my comment before submitting it — I’ve been screwed in too many ways by too many commenting systems to trust anything but my own. So here is that comment, stripped of its context but still IMHO important.
Perhaps someone who has not been banned from commenting at Nature could post it for me?
Thanks for this useful post, Richard. I am provoked by this statement:
“Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry.”
Where do such low numbers come from? As is by now well known, the profit margins for the Big Four publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa) are between 32.4 and 42 percent — not one of them has a margin as low as the highest end of the range you cite. Not only that, but commercial academic publishers’ profit margins continue to rise year on year.
The average profit margin among the Big Four is 36%, which means that of the $9.4 billion spent on subscriptions in 2011, $3.39 billion was simply poured down the academic drain. Note that this profit alone would be enough to pay APCs for 2.5 million PLOS ONE articles, 40% more than the world actually produced in that year.
So to spell it out, subscription profits alone would be enough to fund OA publication of ALL research, with just under a billion dollars left over to fund additional research. It’s not just idiotic that we keep paying this ludicrously inflated subscriptions, it’s iniquitous.
February 17, 2013
If you found the hypothetical Amphicoelias fragillimus cervical in a recent post a bit too much to swallow, I won’t blame you. But how big do we know Morrison diplodocoid cervicals got?
The longest centrum of any specimen of anything, anywhere, is that of the cervical vertebra BYU 9024 that’s part of the Supersaurus vivianae holotype. It’s 138 cm long, which means that composited at scale with an MTSRSU, it looks like this:
This is not hypothetical. It’s an actual fossil.
January 22, 2013
Our friends Tim and Michelle Williams moved into a local house a few months ago. In the garage, they found a jam jar containing the bones of a squirrel and the remains of its rotting flesh, dated 1985: presumably a zoologist lived in that house 28 years ago, began preparing a specimen, and moved out before finishing.
Tim was inexplicably lacking in excitement over this discovery, and passed the jar to me. I cleaned the bones (holding my nose) and am now the proud owner of a plastic tub full of tiny, tiny bones. Among the most interesting are the mandibles, and here’s why. First, I’ll show you the right mandible in medial view, with its incisor sitting in its socket as it would have done in life:
The bones were clean enough that the teeth all came out of their sockets, so here is the same mandible in the same aspect to the same scale, but with the tooth removed:
I know! It’s ridiculous! You wouldn’t think it would ever fit inside the bone of the jaw! But it does — just. Here are the tooth and the jaw juxtaposed:
So there is it: the tooth literally could not be any bigger.
Rodents: they’re not quite as dull as you think.
January 16, 2013
This photograph is of what I consider the closest thing to the Platonic Ideal sauropod vertebra: it’s the eighth cervical of our old friend the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181. (previously known as “Brachiosaurus” brancai HM S II — yes, it’s changed genus and specimen number, both recently, but independently.)
And if you look very carefully, down at the bottom, you can see the same vertebra, C8, of the prosauropod Plateosaurus. Pfft.
This photo was taken down in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, on the same 2008 trip where Matt took the “Mike in Love” photo from two days ago. For anyone who didn’t recognise the specific vertebra I was in love with in that picture, shame on you! It is of course our old friend the ?8th dorsal vertebra of the same specimen, which we’ve discussed in detail here on account of its unique spinoparapophyseal laminae, its unexpectedly missing infradiapophyseal lamina and its bizarre perforate anterior centroparapophyseal laminae.
October 2, 2012
Here’s a blast from the past:
This alleged Compsognathus is a card from the “Flesh” card-game that was printed across several progs (issues) of the comic 2000 AD in 1977. This one is from the back cover of Prog 9. (Click through the picture for the whole back cover.)
“Flesh” was one of the half-dozen or so stories that appeared each week in those early months of 2000 AD. It was the story of how cowboys of the future travelled back to the Mesozoic to harvest dinosaurs for their meat, and was the subject of Jeff Liston’s chapter in the recentish Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur research.
Compsognathus made another pop-culture appearance in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, of course, as the cute little “compys” that tear one of the nastier human characters to pieces.
Why does the 2000 AD Compsognathus have actinopterygian-like fins for arms? According to Wikipedia, The idea comes from Bidar et al. (1972), who supposed that the French specimen had webbed forefeet, which would look like flippers in life — an idea illustrated as part of a larger scene by Halstead (1975):
John Ostrom’s (1978) Compsognathus monograph showed that this was nonsense, but of course that was too late for the early issues of 2000 AD.
Bidar, A.; Demay L., Thomel G. 1972. Compsognathus corallestris, une nouvelle espèce de dinosaurien théropode du Portlandien de Canjuers (Sud-Est de la France). Annales du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Nice 1:9–40.
Halstead L.B. 1975. The evolution and ecology of the dinosaurs. Eurobook. ISBN 0-85654-018-8.
Ostrom, J.H. 1978. The osteology of Compsognathus longipes. Zitteliana 4:73–118.
Update 1 (the next day)
In a comment below, Andrea Cau points to this post on his blog Theropoda (“the most inclusive blog containing Allosaurus fragilis but not Saltasaurus loricatus) which contains two more flippered-Compsognathus illustrations. Here they are: one from David Lambert’s book Dinosaur! …
… and one from David Norman’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs.
Update 2 (two days later)
Silly me, I should of course have posted Bidar et al.’s (1972) own life restoration of Compsognathus. It’s not great art, but it’s … actually, I’m not sure what it is. But anyway, here it is:
July 16, 2012
July 11, 2012
June 24, 2012
Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.
You may recall a story from the Onion Our Dumb Century book, allegedly from 1904, about the skeleton of Satan being discovered in Wyoming. Mike used his occult powers to put together this scan from freely available online sources:
If you scrutinize the above image carefully, you’ll see that ‘Satan’ is an Allosaurus (I’m no theropod booster, but I always thought that was a little harsh on T. rex).
Why am I telling you this? Because last week Mike and I were toiling in the big bone room in the basement of the AMNH when we came across AMNH 666.
It’s an ilium. (Of course it would have to be an appendicular element. Vertebrae are from on high [or dorsal, if you prefer].)
The stomach-churning color here could be a manifestation of diabolical power, or just what happens when you try to photograph a pink specimen label on a yellow-orange forklift.
After this harrowing encounter, we cleansed our bodies, minds, and souls with street-vendor hot dogs and The Avengers.* That particular mode of exorcism may not be the most effective–I felt distinctly dodgy that evening. But the next day we received illumination at the Altar of Sauropod Awesomeness and were soon back to what we jokingly refer to as normal.
* The best way to see The Avengers is by going up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building shortly beforehand, so big swathes of the Manhattan skyline will still be in your mental RAM during the big final battle. I understand it’s not an option for everyone.