My most depressing paper

October 6, 2015

I have a new preprint up at PeerJ (Taylor 2015), and have also submitted it simultaneously for peer review. In a sense, it’s not a paper I am happy about, as its title explains: “Almost all known sauropod necks are incomplete and distorted“.

Taylor 2015: Figure 10. Manipulation of consecutive sauropod vertebrae by hand. Cervicals 2 and 3 of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SI). I attempted to articulate these two vertebrae, and empirically determine the feasible range of motion. Due to subtle distortion of the zygapophyses of these vertebrae, it was not possible to articulate C2 in a more extended position relative to C3 than shown here. Photograph by Mathew J. Wedel.

Taylor 2015: Figure 10. Manipulation of consecutive sauropod vertebrae by hand. Cervicals 2 and 3 of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2181 (formerly HMN SI). I attempted to articulate these two vertebrae, and empirically determine the feasible range of motion. Due to subtle distortion of the zygapophyses of these vertebrae, it was not possible to articulate C2 in a more extended position relative to C3 than shown here. Photograph by Mathew J. Wedel.

This paper has been a while coming, and much of the content will be familiar to long-time readers, as quite a bit of it is derived from three SV-POW! posts: How long was the neck of Diplodocus? (2011), Measuring the elongation of vertebrae (2013) and The Field Museum’s photo-archives tumblr, featuring: airbrushing dorsals (2014). It also uses the first half of my 2011 SVPCA talk, Sauropod necks: how much do we really know? (and the second half became the seed that grew into our 2013 neck-cartilage paper.)

So in one sense, publishing this is a bit of a mopping up exercise. But it’s also more than that, because I think it’s important to get all these observations (and the relevant literature review) down all in one place, to help us recognise just how serious the problem is. There are, to a first approximation, no complete sauropod necks in the published literature.  And the vertebrae of the necks we do have are crushed to the point where trying to articulate them is close to meaningless.

Taylor 2015: Figure 8. Cervical vertebrae 4 (left) and 6 (right) of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2180 (previously HMN SI), in posterior view. Note the dramatically different aspect ratios of their cotyles, indicating that extensive and unpredictable crushing has taken place. Photographs by author.

Taylor 2015: Figure 8. Cervical vertebrae 4 (left) and 6 (right) of Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2180 (formerly HMN SI), in posterior view. Note the dramatically different aspect ratios of their cotyles, indicating that extensive and unpredictable crushing has taken place. Photographs by the author.

I’m not happy about this. But I think it’s important to face the reality and be honest with ourselves about how much we can really know about sauropod necks. There’s a lot we can do in a qualitative way, but most quantitative results are going to be swamped in supposition and error.


Taylor, Michael P. 2015. Almost all known sauropod necks are incomplete and distorted. PeerJ Preprints 3:e1767. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.1418v1

Preprints are in the air! A few weeks ago, Stephen Curry had a piece about them in the Guardian (Peer review, preprints and the speed of science) and pterosaur palaeontologist Liz Martin published Preprints in science on her blog Musings of Clumsy Palaeontologist. The latter in particular has spawned a prolific and fascinating comment stream. Then SV-POW!’s favourite journal, PeerJ, weighed in on its own blog with A PeerJ PrePrint – so just what is that exactly?.

Following on from that, I was invited to contribute a guest-post to the PeerJ blog: they’re asking several people about their experiences with PeerJ Preprints, and publishing the results in a series. I started to write my answers in an email, but they soon got long enough that I concluded it made more sense to write my own post instead. This is that post.

As a matter of fact, I’ve submitted four PeerJ preprints, and all of them for quite different reasons.


1. Barosaurus neck. I and Matt submitted the Barosaurus manuscript as a preprint because we wanted to get feedback as quickly as possible. We certainly got it: four very long detailed comments that were more helpful than most formally solicited peer-reviews that I’ve had. (It’s to our discredit that we didn’t then turn the manuscript around immediately, taking those reviews into a account. We do still plan to do this, but other things happened.)


2. Dinosaur diversity. Back in 2004 I submitted my first ever scientific paper, a survey of dinosaur diversity broken down in various ways. It was rejected (for what I thought were spurious reasons, but let it pass). The more time that passed, the more out of date the statistics became. As my interests progressed in other directions, I reached the point of realising that I was never going to get around to bringing that paper up to date and resubmitting it to a journal. Rather than let it be lost to the world, when I think it still contains much that is of interest, I published it as a pre-print (although it’s not pre- anything: what’s posted is the final version).


3. Cartilage angles. Matt and I had a paper published on PLOS ONE in 2013, on the effect that intervertebral cartilage had on sauropod neck posture. Only after it was published did I realise that there was a very simple way to quantify the geometric effect. I wrote what was intended to be a one-pager on that, planning to issue it as a sort of erratum. It ended up much longer than expected, but because I considered it to be material that should really have been in the original PLOS ONE paper, I wanted to get it out as soon as possible. So as soon as the manuscript was ready, I submitted it simultaneously as a preprint and onto the peer-review track at PeerJ. (It was published seven weeks later.)


4. Apatosaurine necks. Finally, I gave a talk at this year’s SVPCA (Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy), based on an in-progress manuscript in which I am second author to Matt. The proceedings of the symposium are emerging as a PeerJ Collection, and I and the other authors wanted our paper to be a part of that collection. So I submitted the abstract of the talk I gave, with the slide-deck as supplementary information. In time, this version of the preprint will be superseded by the completed manuscript, and eventually (we hope) by the peer-reviewed paper.

So the thing to take away from this is that there are lots of reasons to publish preprints. They open up different ways of thinking about the publication process.

A quick note to say that I got an email today — the University of Bristol Staff Bulletin — announcing some extremely welcome news:


(Admittedly it was only the third item on the bulletin, coming in just after “Staff Parking – application deadline Friday 18 September”, but you can’t have everything.)

This is excellent, and the nitty-gritty details are encouraging, too. Although HEFCE recently wound back its own policy, as a transition-period concession, to requiring deposit only at the time of publication, Bristol has quite properly gone with the more rigorous requirement that accepted manuscripts be deposited at the time of acceptance. This is wise for the university — it’s future-proofed against HEFCE’s eventual move back towards the deposit-on-acceptance policy that it wanted — and it’s good for the wider world, too.



Wouldn’t it be great if, after a meeting like the 2015 SVPCA, there was a published set of proceedings? A special issue of a journal, perhaps, that collected papers that emerge from the work presented there.

Of course the problem with special issues, and edited volumes in general, is that they take forever to come out. After the Dinosaurs: A Historical Perspective conference on 6 May 2008, I got my talk on the history of sauropod research written up and submitted on 7 August, just over three months later. It took another five and a half months to make it through peer-review to acceptance. And then … nothing. It sat in limbo for a year and nine months before it was finally published, because of course the book couldn’t be finalised until the slowest of the 50 or so authors, editors and reviewers had done their jobs.

Taylor (2010: fig. 4). Marsh's reconstructions of Brontosaurus. Top: first reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1883, plate I). Bottom: second reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1891, plate XVI).

Taylor (2010: fig. 4). Marsh’s reconstructions of Brontosaurus. Top: first reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1883, plate I). Bottom: second reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1891, plate XVI).

There has to be a better way, doesn’t there?

Rhetorical question, there. There is a better way, and unsurprisingly to regular readers, it’s PeerJ that has pioneered it. In PeerJ Collections, papers can be added at any time, and each one is published as it’s ready. Better still, the whole lifecycle of the paper can (if the authors wish) be visible from the collection. You can start by posting the talk abstract, then replace it with a preprint of the complete manuscript when it’s ready, and finally replace that with the published version of the paper once it’s been through peer-review.

Take a look, for example, at the collection for the 3rd International Whale Shark Conference (which by the way was held at the Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, which has awesome whale sharks on view.)


As you can see from the collection (at the time of writing), only one of the constituent papers — Laser photogrammetry improves size and demographic estimates for whale sharks — has actually been published so far. But a dozen other papers exist in preprint form. That means that the people who attended the conference, saw the talks and want to refer to them in their work have something to cite.

The hot news is that Mark Young and the other SVPCA 2015 organisers have arranged for PeerJ to set up an SPPC/SVPCA 2015 Collection. I think this is just marvellous — the best possible way to make a permanent record of an important event.

The collection is very new: at the time of writing, it hosts only five abstracts (one of them ours). We’re looking forward to seeing others added. Some of the abstracts (including ours) have the slides of the talk attached as supplementary information.


Although I’m lead author on the talk (because I prepared the slides and delivered the presentation), this project is really Matt’s baby. There is a Wedel et al. manuscript in prep already, so we hope that within a month or two we’ll be able to replace the abstract with a complete manuscript. Then of course we’ll put it through peer-review.

I hope plenty of other SVPCA 2015 speakers will do the same. Even those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to publish their work in PeerJ, can use the collection as a home for their abstracts and preprints, then go off and submit the final manuscript elsewhere.

The 5 stages of PeerJ

July 16, 2015

I have watched several people go through this sequence.

  1. DENIAL. PeerJ? What even is this thing? I’ll send my work to a real journal, thanks.
  2. THAWING. Huh, so-and-so published in PeerJ, it must not be that bad.
  3. GRUDGING SUBMISSION. Oh, okay, I’ll send them this one thing. I still have reservations but I want this out quickly. And I’m tired of getting rejected because some asshat thinks my paper isn’t sexy enough.
  4. AWAKENING. Wow, that was a lot faster, easier, and less painful than I expected. And the result is awesome.
  5. ACCEPTANCE. Why would I send my work anywhere else? No, really, I’m trying to think of a reason.


You know what’s wrong with scholarly publishing?

Wait, scrub that question. We’ll be here all day. Let me jump straight to the chase and tell you the specific problem with scholarly publishing that I’m thinking of.

There’s nowhere to go to find all open-access papers, to download their metadata, to access it via an open API, to find out what’s new, to act as a platform for the development of new tools. Yes, there’s PubMed Central, but that’s only for work funded by the NIH. Yes, there’s Google Scholar, but that has no API, and at any moment could go the way of Google Wave and Google Reader when Google loses interest.

Instead, we have something like 4000 repositories out there, balkanised by institution, by geographical region, and by subject area. They have different UIs, different underlying data models, different APIs (if any). They’re built on different software platforms. It’s a jungle out there!


As researchers, we don’t need 4000 repos. You know what we need? One Repo.

Hey! That would be a good name for a project!

I’ve mentioned before how awesome and pro-open my employers, Index Data, are. (For those who are not regular readers, I’m a palaeontologist only in my spare time. By day, I’m a software engineer.) Now we’re working on an index of green/gold OA publishing. Metadata of every article across every repository and publisher. We want it to be complete, in the sense that we will be going aggressively for the long tail as opposed to focusing on some region or speciality, or things that are easily harvestable by OAI-PMH or other standards. We want it to be of a high, consistent quality in terms of metadata. We want it to be up to date. And most importantly, we want it to be fully open for all and any kind of re-use, by any other actor. This will include downloadable data files, OAI-PMH access, search-retrieve web services, embeddable widgets and more. We also envisage a Linked Data representation with a CRUD interface that allows third parties to contribute supplemental information, entity reconciliation, tagging, etc.

Instead of 4000 fragments, one big, meaty chunk of data.


Because we at Index Data have spent the last ten years helping aggregators and publishers and others getting access to difficult-to-access information through all kinds of crazy mechanisms, we have a unique combination of the skills, the tools, and the desire to pursue this venture.

So The One Repo is born. At the noment, we have:

  • Harvesting set up for an initial set of 20 repositories.
  • A demonstrator of one possible UI.
  • A whitepaper describing the motivation and some of the technical aspects.
  • A blog about the project’s progress.
  • An advisory board of some of the brightest, most experienced and wisest people in the world of open access.

We’ve been flying under the radar for the last month and a bit. Now we’re ready for the world to know what we’re up to.

The One Repo is go!

[I am using the term “megajournal” here to mean “journal that practices PLOS ONE-style peer-review for correctness only, ignoring guesses at possible impact”. It’s not a great term for this class of journals, but it seems to be becoming established as the default.]

Bo-Christer Björk​’s (2015) new paper in PeerJ asks the question “Have the “mega-journals” reached the limits to growth?”, and suggests that the answer may be yes. (Although, frustratingly, you can’t tell from the abstract that this is the conclusion.)

I was a bit disappointed that the paper didn’t include a graph showing its conclusion, and asked about this (thanks to PeerJ’s lightweight commenting system). Björk’s response acknowledged that a graph would have been helpful, and invited me to go ahead and make one, since the underlying data is freely available. So using OpenOffice’s cumbersome but adequate graphing facilities, I plotted the numbers from Björk’s table 3.


As we can see, the result for total megajournal publications upholds the conclusion that megajournals have peaked and started to decline. But PLOS ONE (the dark blue line) enormously dominates all the other megajournals, with Nature’s Scientific Reports the only other publication to even be meaningfully visible on the graph. Since Scientific Reports seems to be still in the exponential phase of its growth and everything else is too low-volume to register, what we’re really seeing here is just a decline in PLOS ONE volume.

It’s interesting to think about what the fall-off in PLOS ONE volume means, but it’s certainly not the same thing as megajournals having topped out.

What do we see when we expand the lower part of the graph by taking out PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports?


Here, the picture is more confused. The numbers are dominated by BMJ Open, which is still growing, but its growth has levelled off. Springer Plus grew quickly, but seems to be falling away — perhaps reflecting an initial push, followed by author apathy for a megajournal run by a legacy publisher. AIP Advances (which I admit I’d not heard of) and SAGE Open both seem to have modest but healthy year-on-year growth. And of course PeerJ is growing fast, but it’s too young for us to have a meaningful sense of the trend.

What does it all mean?

The STM Report for 2015 (Ware and Mabe 2015) estimates that 2.5 million scholarly articles were published in English-language journals in 2014 (page 6). Björk’s data tells us that only 38 thousand of those were in megajournals — that’s less than 1/65th of all the articles. I find it very hard to believe that 1.5% of the total scholarly article market represents saturation for megajournals.

I suspect that what this study really shows us — and I’m sure the PLOS people would be the first to agree with this — is that we need a lot more megajournals out there than just PLOS ONE. Specifically:

  • It’s well established that pure-OA journals offer better value for their APCs than hybrid ones.
  • It’s at least strongly suspected (has there been a study?) that OA megajournals offer better value than selective OA journals.
  • We want to get the APCs of OA megajournals down.
  • PLOS ONE needs competition on price, to force down its increasingly unjustifiable APC of $1350.
  • It’s a real shame that the eLIFE people have fallen into the impact-chasing trap and show no interest in running an eLIFE megajournals.
  • I think the usually reliable Zen Faulks is dead wrong when he writes off what he calls “Zune journals“.

So the establishment of new megajournals is very much a good thing, and their growth is to be encouraged. Many of the newer megajournals may well find (and I hate to admit this) that their submission rates increase when they’re handed their first impact factor, as happened with PLOS ONE.




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