What is an ad-hominem attack?

September 4, 2013

I recently handled the revisions on a paper that hopefully will be in press very soon. One of the review comments was “Be very careful not to make ad hominem attacks”.

I was a bit surprised to see that — I wasn’t aware that I’d made any — so I went back over the manuscript, and sure enough, there were no ad homs in there.

There was criticism, though, and I think that’s what the reviewer meant.

Folks, “ad hominem” has a specific meaning. An “ad hominem attack” doesn’t just mean criticising something strongly, it means criticising the author rather than the work. The phrase is Latin for “to the man”. Here’s a pair of examples:

  • “This paper by Wedel is terrible, because the data don’t support the conclusion” — not ad hominem.
  • “Wedel is a terrible scientist, so this paper can’t be trusted” – ad hominem.

What’s wrong with ad hominem criticism? Simply, it’s irrelevant to evaluation of the paper being reviewed. It doesn’t matter (to me as a scientist) whether Wedel strangles small defenceless animals for pleasure in his spare time; what matters is the quality of his work.

Note that ad hominems can also be positive — and they are just as useless there. Here’s another pair of examples:

  • “I recommend publication of Naish’s paper because his work is explained carefully and in detail” — not ad hominem.
  • “I recommend publication of Naish’s paper because he is a careful and detailed worker” — ad hominem.

It makes no difference whether Naish is a careful and detailed worker, or if he always buys his wife flowers on their anniversary, or even if he has a track-record of careful and detailed work. What matters is whether this paper, the one I’m reviewing, is good. That’s all.

As it happens the very first peer-review I ever received — for the paper that eventually became Taylor and Naish (2005) on diplodocoid phylogenetic nomenclature — contained a classic ad hominem, which I’ll go ahead and quote:

It seems to me perfectly reasonable to expect revisers of a major clade to have some prior experience/expertise in the group or in phylogenetic taxonomy before presenting what is intended to be the definitive phylogenetic taxonomy of that group. I do not wish to demean the capabilities of either author – certainly Naish’s “Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight” is a praiseworthy and useful publication in my opinion – but I question whether he and Taylor can meet their own desiderata of presenting a revised nomenclature that balances elegance, consistency, and stability.

You see what’s happening here? The reviewer was not reviewing the paper, but the authors. There was no need for him or her to question whether we could meet our desiderata: he or she could just have read the manuscript and found out.

(Happy ending: that paper was rejected at the journal we first sent it to, but published at PaleoBios in revised form, and bizarrely is my equal third most-cited paper. I never saw that coming.)

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 4 - classes of bifurcation

Figure 4. Cervical vertebrae of Camarasaurus supremus AMNH 5761 cervical series 1 in anterior view, showing different degrees of bifurcation of the neural spine. Modified from Osborn & Mook (1921: plate 67).

Today sees the publication of my big paper with Mike on neural spine bifurcation, which has been in the works since last April. It’s a free download here, and as usual we put the hi-res figures and other supporting info on a sidebar page.

Navel-gazing about the publication process

This paper is a departure for us, for several reasons.

For one thing, it’s a beast: a little over 13,000 words, not counting tables, figure captions, and the bibliography. I was all geared up to talk about how it’s my longest paper after the second Sauroposeidon paper (Wedel et al. 2000), but that’s not true. It’s my longest paper, period (13192 vs 12526 words), and the one with the most figures (25 vs 22).

It’s the first time we’ve written the paper in the open, on the blog, and then repackaged it for submission to a journal. I have several things to say about that. First, it was more work than I expected. It turns out that I definitely do have at least two “voices” as a writer, and the informal voice I used for the initial run of blog posts (linked here) was not going to cut it for formal publication. So although there is very little new material in the paper that was not in the blog posts, a lot of the prose is new because I had to rewrite almost the whole thing.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, last May kinda sucked, because just about every minute that wasn’t spent eclipse chasing was spent rewriting the paper. On the other hand, as Mike has repeatedly pointed out to me, it was a pretty fast way to generate a big paper quickly, even with the rewriting. It was just over two months from the first post in the destined-to-become-a-paper series on April 5, to submission on June 14 (not June 24 as it says on the last page of the PDF), and if you leave out the 10 days in late May that I was galavanting around Arizona, the actual time spent working on the paper was a bit under two months. It would be nice to be that productive all the time (it helped that we were basically mining everything from previously published work; truly novel work usually needs more time to get up and going).

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 18 - Barosaurus and Supersaurus cervicals

Figure 18. Middle cervical vertebrae of Barosaurus AMNH 6341 (top) and Supersaurus BYU 9024 (bottom) in left lateral view, scaled to the same centrum length. The actual centrum lengths are 850 mm and 1380 mm, respectively. BYU 9024 is the longest single vertebra of any known animal.

You may fairly wonder why, if almost all the content was already available on the blog, we went to the trouble of publishing it in a journal. Especially in light of sentiments like this. For my part, it’s down to two things. First, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, what I wrote in that post was a yell, not a thought. I never intended to stop publishing in journals, I was just frustrated that traditional journals do so many stupid things that actually hurt science, like rejecting papers because of anticipated sexiness or for other BS reasons, not publishing peer reviews, etc. Happily, now there are better options.

Second, although in a sane world the quality of an argument or hypothesis would matter more than its mode of distribution, that’s not the world we live in. We’re happy enough to cite blog posts, etc. (they’re better than pers. comms., at least), but not everyone is, and the minimum bound of What Counts is controlled by people at the other end of the Overton window. So, bottom line, people are at least theoretically free to ignore stuff that is only published on blogs or other informal venues (DML, forums, etc.). If you want to force someone to engage with your ideas, you have to publish them in journals (for now). So we did.

Finally, ever since Darren’s azhdarchids-were-storks post got turned into a paper, it has bothered me that there is an icon for “Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research” (from ResearchBlogging.org), but not one (that I know of) for “Blogging Into Peer-Reviewed Research”. If you have some graphic design chops and 10 minutes to kill, you could do the world a favor by creating one.

Hey, you! Want a project?

One of the few things in the paper that is not in any of the blog posts is the table summarizing the skeletal fusions in a bunch of famous sauropod specimens, to show how little consistency there is:

Wedel and Taylor 2013 NSB Table 1 - sauropod skeletal fusions

(Yes, we know that table legends typically go above, not below; this is just how they roll at PJVP.)

I want this to not get overlooked just because it’s in a long paper on neural spine bifurcation; as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important part of the paper. I didn’t know that these potential ontogenetic indicators were all mutually contradictory across taxa before I started this project. Not only is the order of skeletal fusions inconsistent among taxa, but it might also be inconsistent among individuals or populations, or at least that’s what the variation among the different specimens of Apatosaurus suggests.

This problem cries out for more attention. As we say at the end of the paper:

To some extent the field of sauropod paleobiology suffers from ‘monograph tunnel vision’, in which our knowledge of most taxa is derived from a handful of specimens described decades ago (e.g. Diplodocus carnegii CM 84/94). Recent work by McIntosh (2005), Upchurch et al. (2005), and Harris (2006a, b, c, 2007) is a welcome antidote to this malady, but several of the taxa discussed herein are represented by many more specimens that have not been adequately described or assessed. A comprehensive program to document skeletal fusions and body size in all known specimens of, say, Camarasaurus, or Diplodocus, could be undertaken for relatively little cost (other than travel expenses, and even these could be offset through collaboration) and would add immeasurably to our knowledge of sauropod ontogeny.

So if you’re looking for a project on sauropod paleobiology and you can get around to a bunch of museums*, here’s work that needs doing. Also, you’ll probably make lots of other publishable observations along the way.

* The more the better, but for Morrison taxa I would say minimally: Yale, AMNH, Carnegie, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, Dinosaur National Monument, BYU, University of Utah, and University of Wyoming, plus Smithsonian, University of Kansas, OMNH, Denver Museum, Wyoming Dinosaur Center, and a few others if you can swing it. Oh, and Diplodocus hayi down in Houston. Check John Foster’s and Jack McIntosh’s publications for lists of specimens–there are a LOT more out there than most people are familiar with.

References

If you’ll forgive me a rather self-indulgent post, the neck-anatomy paper that I and Matt recently had published in PeerJ is important to me for three reasons beyond the usual satisfaction of getting a piece of work out in a good journal.

fig4

Taylor and Wedel (1023:figure 4). Extent of soft tissue on ostrich and sauropod necks. 1, ostrich neck in cross section from Wedel (2003, figure 2). Bone is white, air-spaces are black, and soft tissue is grey. 2, hypothetical sauropod neck with similarly proportioned soft-tissue. (Diplodocus vertebra silhouette modified from Paul 1997, figure 4A). The extent of soft tissue depicted greatly exceeds that shown in any published life restoration of a sauropod, and is unrealistic. 3, More realistic sauropod neck. It is not that the soft-tissue is reduced but that the vertebra within is enlarged, and mass is reduced by extensive pneumaticity in both the bone and the soft-tissue.

Three milestones

First, it brings a drought to an end. For one reason and another, I didn’t get a single paper published in 2012 — my last hit was the neck sexual-selection paper in September 2011, and I’d started to feel that I was drifting off into the distance a bit. Good to be back on the horse.

Second, amazing though it may seem, it’s the first Taylor/Wedel paper (in either order). Matt and I have been collaborating in one form or another for more than thirteen years now (even if the first couple of years of that were just me asking dumb questions and him telling me interesting things). Along the way, we’ve shared the authorship of a few papers with other authors (Taylor, Wedel and Naish 2009 on habitual neck posture; Taylor, Wedel and Cifelli 2011 on Brontomerus; and Taylor, Hone, Wedel and Naish 2011 on sexual selection) but of all the many Mike-’n’-Matt projects we’ve started, this is the first to make it out into the world.

(As it happens — and at the risk of leaving the stadium before the fat lady sings — we should be adding to that tally of one Real Soon Now. Further bulletins as events warrant.)

Third, and most important, it means that my entire Ph.D is now published. Chapter 1 (the sauropod-history review) was in the Geological Society dinosaur-history volume;  chapter 2 (the Brachiosaurus revision) was in JVP; chapter 3 (the Xenoposeidon description) was in Palaeontology; chapter 4 (the Brontomerus description) was in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and now chapter 5 (neck anatomy) is in PeerJ. I’m pretty happy with the selection of venues there: I’m pleased to have had papers in JVP and Palaeontology even though I won’t be going back to either until they’re open access.

Figure 1. Necks of long-necked non-sauropods, to scale. The giraffe and Paraceratherium are the longest necked mammals; the ostrich is the longest necked extant bird; Therizinosaurus and Gigantoraptor are the largest representatives of two long-necked theropod clades; Arambourgiania is the longest necked pterosaur; and Tanystropheus has a uniquely long neck relative to torso length. Human head modified from Gray’s Anatomy (1918 edition, fig. 602). Giraffe modified from photograph by Kevin Ryder (CC BY, http://flic.kr/p/cRvCcQ). Ostrich modified from photograph by “kei51” (CC BY, http://flic.kr/p/cowoYW). Paraceratherium modified from Osborn (1923, figure 1). Therizinosaurus modified from Nothronychus reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Gigantoraptor modified from Heyuannia reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Arambourgiania modified from Zhejiangopterus reconstruction by Witton & Naish (2008, figure 1). Tanystropheus modified from reconstruction by David Peters. Alternating blue and pink bars are 1 m tall.

Taylor and Wedel (2013:figure 1). Necks of long-necked non-sauropods, to scale. The giraffe and Paraceratherium are the longest necked mammals; the ostrich is the longest necked extant bird; Therizinosaurus and Gigantoraptor are the largest representatives of two long-necked theropod clades; Arambourgiania is the longest necked pterosaur; and Tanystropheus has a uniquely long neck relative to torso length. Human head modified from Gray’s Anatomy (1918 edition, fig. 602). Giraffe modified from photograph by Kevin Ryder (CC BY, http://flic.kr/p/cRvCcQ). Ostrich modified from photograph by “kei51” (CC BY, http://flic.kr/p/cowoYW). Paraceratherium modified from Osborn (1923, figure 1). Therizinosaurus modified from Nothronychus reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Gigantoraptor modified from Heyuannia reconstruction by Scott Hartman. Arambourgiania modified from Zhejiangopterus reconstruction by Witton & Naish (2008, figure 1). Tanystropheus modified from reconstruction by David Peters. Alternating blue and pink bars are 1 m tall.

Dissertation thoughts

Actually I have strangely conflicted feelings about my Ph.D all being published now. I like the feeling of closure, but I also feel a bit sad that the dissertation itself — by far the most substantial single piece of work I’ve produced in any field — is now wholly obsolete. Really, the only reason anyone would possibly want to read it now would be for the acknowledgements or the laughably incorrect predictions of what I’d be working on next. Happily, I don’t have to lament time wasted on the dissertation: all five chapters were originally written to be papers, and the versions in the dissertation are all formatted as for the journals they were initially submitted to. (Three of them ended up in different venues, having initially been rejected, but that’s another story.)

An oddity of my Ph.D is that all five chapters were side-projects. They’re all things that I worked on when I was supposed to be working on a core project to do with the Archbishop and the mechanics of neck support. Every one of them I thought would be a quick job that I could push out before returning to my main work. And every one of them “grew in the telling” until it was substantial enough to function as a chapter. I am sure there’s a moral to this story, but heck if I can figure out what it is.

For reasons that seemed to make sense to me at the time, I did not post my dissertation on the Internet when it was accepted. I feared scooping myself on the as-yet unpublished material (Brontomerus and neck anatomy). Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking. If I was doing it today I would certainly make it available from the moment it was okayed. As of just a couple of days ago it is now available — just in time to be of no interest to anyone.

xx

Taylor and Wedel (2013:figure 2). Full skeletal reconstructions of selected long-necked non-sauropods, to scale. 1, Paraceratherium. 2, Therizinosaurus. 3, Gigantoraptor. 4, Elasmosaurus. 5, Tanystropheus. Elasmosaurus modified from Cope (1870, plate II, figure 1). Other image sources as for Fig. 1. Scale bar = 2 m.

Co-authoring dissertation chapters

A final thing worth mentioning: as noted above, three of the chapters of my dissertation (Xenoposeidon, Brontomerus, neck anatomy) were co-authored. I think this is not particularly common, so it’s probably worth commenting on.

How does it work? For one of the papers, the Brontomerus description, I just excised Matt’s and Rich’s contributions, which were quite separate from the core of the paper, and used a sole-authored version as the chapter. For the other two, I put an explicit statement in the front-matter saying who did what:

Chapter 3 (description of Xenoposeidon): I was responsible for the anatomical part of the introduction, the systematic palaeontology section, description, comparisons and interpretation, phylogenetic analysis, length and mass calculations, diversity discussion, references, figures with their captions except figure 2, and both tables. Darren Naish of the University of Portsmouth was responsible for the geological and historical part of the introduction, the historical taxonomy section, and figure 2.

Chapter 5 (evolution of long necks): this chapter was written by me as a consequence of a series of discussions with Mathew J. Wedel. Dr. Wedel also contributed figure 5.

My sense was that the examiners were perfectly happy with this. Arguably it’s a good preparation for functioning as a researcher, since so many papers are co-authored. It’s not really realistic practice to sole-author all your work. That said, I doubt papers where I wasn’t lead author would have been welcomed.

I mention this because co-authoring may be a more widely available option than is recognised. My advice would be simple: check with your own supervisor first!

Posting palaeo papers on arXiv

September 28, 2012

Over on Facebook, where Darren posted a note about our new paper, most of the discussion has not been about its content but about where it was published. We’re not too surprised by that, even though we’d love to be talking about the science. We did choose arXiv with our eyes open, knowing that there’s no tradition of palaeontology being published there, and wanting to start a new tradition of palaeontology being routinely published there. Having now made the step for the first time, I see no reason ever to not post a paper on arXiv, as soon as it’s ready, before — or maybe even instead of — submitting it to a journal.

(Instead of? Maybe. We’ll discuss that below.)

The key issue is this: science isn’t really science until it’s out there where it can be used. We wrote the bulk of the neck-anatomy paper back in 2008 — the year that we first submitted it to a journal. In the four years since then, all the observations and deductions that it contains have been unavailable to the world. And that is stupid. The work might just as well never have been done. Now that it’s on arXiv, that’s over. I was delighted to get an email less than 24 hours after the paper was published, from an author working on a related issue, thanking us for posting the paper, saying that he will now revise his own in-prep manucript in light of its findings, and cite our paper. Which of course is the whole point: to get our science out there where it can do some damage.

Because the alternative is horrible, really. Horribly wasteful, horribly dispiriting, horribly retarding for science. For example, a couple of weeks ago in his SVPCA talk, David Norman was lamenting again that he never got around to publishing the iguanodont systematic work that was in his dissertation, I-don’t-know-how-many-years-ago. The result of that interminable delay is that others have done other, conflicting iguanodont systematic work, and Norman is now trying belatedly to undo that and bring his own perspective. A terrible an unnecessary slowing of ornithopod science, and a waste of duplicated effort. (Thankfully it’s only ornithopods.)

And of course David Norman is very far from being alone. Pretty much any palaeontologist you talk to will tell you of a handful of papers — many more in some cases — that were finished many years previously but have never seen the light of day. (I still have a couple myself, but there is no point in resurrecting them now because progress has overtaken them.) I wonder what proportion of all Ph.D work ever sees the light of day? Half? Less? It’s crazy.

Figure 8. Sauropod cervical vertebrae showing anteriorly and posteriorly directed spurs projecting from neurapophyses. 1, cervical 5 of Sauroposeidon holotype OMNH 53062 in right lateral view, photograph by MJW. 2, cervical 9 of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis holotype CCG V 20401 in left lateral view, reversed, from photograph by MPT. 3, cervical 7 or 8 of Omeisaurus junghsiensisYoung, 1939 holotype in right lateral view, after Young (1939, figure 2). (No specimen number was assigned to this material, which has since been lost. D. W. E. Hone personal communication, 2008.)

Publish now, publish later

So, please folks: we all need to be posting our work on preprint servers as soon as we consider it finished. It doesn’t mean that the posted versions can’t subsequently be obsoleted by improved versions that have gone through peer-review and been published in conventional journals. But it does mean that the world can know about the work, and build on it, and get the benefit of it, as soon as it’s done.

You see, we have a very fundamental problem in academia: publishing fulfils two completely separate roles. Its primary role (or at least the role that should be primary) is to make work available to the community; the secondary role is to provide a means of keeping score — something that can be used when making decisions about who to appoint to jobs, when to promote, who gets grants, who gets tenure and so on. I am not going to argue that the latter shouldn’t happen at all — clearly a functioning community needs some way to infer the standing of its participants. But I do think it’s ridiculous when the bean-counting function of publication trumps the actual publication role of publication. Yet we’ve all been in a position where we have essentially complete work that could easily go on a blog, or in the PalAss newsletter, or in a minor journal, or somewhere — but we hang onto it because we want to get it into a Big Journal.

Let me say again that I do realise how unusual and privileged my own position is: that a lot of my colleagues do need to play the Publication Prestige game for career reasons (though it terrifies my how much time some colleagues waste squeezing their papers into two-and-a-half-page format in the futile hope of rolling three sixes on the Science ‘n’ Nature 3D6). Let’s admit right now that most palaeontologists do need to try to get their work into Proc B, or Paleobiology, or what have you. Fair enough. They should feel free. But the crucial point is this: that is no reason not to post pre-prints so we can all get on with actually benefitting from your work in the mean time.

Actually, I feel pretty stupid that it’s taken me this long to realise that all my work should go up on arXiv.

Figure 11. Archosaur cervical vertebrae in posterior view, Showing muscle attachment points in phylogenetic context. Blue arrows indicate epaxial muscles attaching to neural spines, red arrows indicate epaxial muscles attaching to epipophyses, and green arrows indicate hypaxial muscles attaching to cervical ribs. While hypaxial musculature anchors consistently on the cervical ribs, the principle epaxial muscle migrate from the neural spine in crocodilians to the epipophyses in non-avial theropods and modern birds, with either or both sets of muscles being significant in sauropods. 1, fifth cervical vertebra of Alligator mississippiensis, MCZ 81457, traced from 3D scans by Leon Claessens, courtesy of MCZ. Epipophyses are absent. 2, eighth cervical vertebra ofGiraffatitan brancai paralectotype HMN SII, traced from Janensch (1950, figures 43 and 46). 3, eleventh cervical vertebra of Camarasaurus supremus, reconstruction within AMNH 5761/X, “cervical series I”, modified from Osborn and Mook (1921, plate LXVII). 4, fifth cervical vertebra of the abelisaurid theropod Majungasaurus crenatissimus,UA 8678, traced from O’Connor (2007, figures 8 and 20). 5, seventh cervical vertebra of a turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, traced from photographs by MPT.

Exceptions?

So are there any special cases? Any kinds of papers that we should keep dry until they make it into actual journals? I can think of two classes that you could argue for — one of them convincingly, the other not.

First, the unconvincing one. When I discussed this with Matt (and half the fun of doing that is that usually neither of us really knows what we think about this stuff until we’re done arguing it through), he suggested to me that we couldn’t have put the Brontomerus paper on arXiv, because that would have leaked the name, creating a nomen nudum. My initial reaction was to agree with him that this is an exception. But when I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s actually no compelling reason not to post such a paper on arXiv. So you create a nomen nudum? So what? Really: what is the negative consequence of that? I can’t think of one. OK, the name will appear on Wikipedia and mailing lists before the ICZN recognises it — but who does that hurt? No-one that I can think of. The only real argument against posting is that it could invite scooping. But is that a real threat? I doubt it. I can’t think of anyone who would be barefaced enough to scoop a taxon that had already been published on arXiv — and if they did, the whole world would know unambiguously exactly what had happened.

So what is the one real reason not to post a preprint? I think that might be a legitimate choice when publicity needs to be co-ordinated. So while nomenclatural issues should not have stopped us from arXiving the Brontomerus paper, publicity should. In preparation for that paper’s publication day, we did a lot of careful work with the UCL publicity team: writing non-specialist summaries, press-releases and FAQs, soliciting and preparing illustrations and videos, circulating materials under embargo, and so on. In general, mainsteam media are only interested in a story if it’s news, and that means you need to make sure it’s new when they first hear about it. Posting the article in advance on a publicly accessible archive would mess that up, and probably damage the work’s coverage in the press, TV and radio.

Publication venues are a continuum

It’s become apparent to us only gradually that there’s really no clear cut-off where a paper becomes “properly published”. There’s a continuum that runs from least to most formal and exclusive:

SV-POW! — arXiv — PLOS ONE — JVP — Nature

1. On SV-POW!, we write what we want and publish it when we want. We can promise you that it won’t go away, but you only have our word for it. But some of what we write here is still science, and has been cited in papers published in more formal venues — though, as far as I know, only by Matt and me so far.

2. On arXiv, there is a bit more of a barrier to clear: you have to get an existing arXiv user to endorse your membership application, and each article you submit is given a cursory check by staff to ensure that it really is a piece of scientific research rather than a diary entry, movie review or spam. Once it’s posted, the paper is guaranteed to remain at the same URL, unchanged, so long as arXiv endures (and it’s supported by Cornell). Crucially, the maths, physics and computer science communities that use arXiv uncontroversially consider this degree of filtering and permanence sufficient to constitute a published, citeable source.

3. At PLOS ONE, your paper only gets published if it’s been through peer-review — but the reviewing criteria pertain only to scientific soundness and do not attempt to evaluate likely impact or importance.

4. At JVP and other conventional journals, your paper has to make it through a two-pronged peer-review process: it has to be judged both sound scientifically (as at PLOS ONE) and also sufficiently on-topic and important to merit appearing in the journal.

5. Finally, at Nature and Science, your paper has to be sound and be judged sexy — someone has to guess that it’s going to prove important and popular.

Where along this continuum does the formal scientific record begin? We could make a case that all of it counts, provided that measures are taken to make the SV-POW! posts permanent and immutable. (This can be done submitting them to WebCite or to a service such as Nature Precedings used to provide.) But whether or not you accept that, it seems clear that arXiv and upwards is permanent, scientific and citeable.

This raises an interesting question: do we actually need to go ahead and publish our neck-anatomy paper in a more conventional venue? I’m honestly not sure at the moment, and I’d be interested to hear arguments in either direction. In terms of the progress of science, probably not: our actual work is out there, now, for the world to use as it sees fit. But from a career perspective, it’s probably still worth our while to get it into a journal, just so it can sit more neatly on our publication lists and help Matt’s tenure case more. And yet I don’t honestly expect any eventual journal-published version to be better in any meaningful way than the one on arXiv. After all, it’s already benefitted from two rounds of peer-review, three if you count the comments of my dissertation examiners. More likely, a journal will be less useful, as we have to cut length, eliminate illustrations, and so on.

So it seems to me that we have a hard choice ahead of us now. Call that paper done and more onto making more science? Or spend more time and effort on re-publishing it in exchange for prestige? I really don’t know.

For what it’s worth, it seems that standard practice in maths, physics and computer science is to republish arXiv articles in journals. But there are some scientists who routinely do not do this, instead allowing the arXiv version to stand as the only version of record. Perhaps that is a route best left to tenured greybeards rather than bright young things like Matt.

Figure 5. Simplified myology of that sauropod neck, in left lateral view, based primarily on homology with birds, modified from Wedel and Sanders (2002, figure 2). Dashed arrows indicate muscle passing medially behind bone. A, B. Muscles inserting on the epipophyses, shown in red. C, D, E. Muscles inserting on the cervical ribs, shown in green. F, G. Muscles inserting on the neural spine, shown in blue. H. Muscles inserting on the ansa costotransversaria (“cervical rib loop”), shown in brown. Specifically: A. M. longus colli dorsalis. B. M. cervicalis ascendens. C. M. flexor colli lateralis. D. M. flexor colli medialis. E. M. longus colli ventralis. In birds, this muscle originates from the processes carotici, which are absent in the vertebrae of sauropods. F. Mm. intercristales. G. Mm. interspinales. H. Mm. intertransversarii. Vertebrae modified from Gilmore (1936, plate 24).

Citing papers in arXiv

Finally, a practicality: since it’ll likely be a year or more before any journal-published version of our neck-anatomy paper comes out, people wanting to use it in their own work will need to know how to cite a paper in arXiv. Standard procedure seems to be just to use authors, year, title and arXiv ID. But in a conventional-journal citation, I like the way that the page-range gives you a sense of how long the paper is. So I think it’s worth appending page-count to the citations. And while you’re at it, you may as well throw in the figure and table counts, too, yielding the version that we’ve been using:

  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2012. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. arXiv:1209.5439. 39 pages, 11 figures, 3 tables.

Why giraffes have short necks

September 26, 2012

Today sees the publication, on arXiv (more on that choice in a separate post), of Mike and Matt’s new paper on sauropod neck anatomy. In this paper, we try to figure out why it is that sauropods evolved necks six times longer than that of the world-record giraffe — as shown in Figure 3 from the paper (with a small version of Figure 1 included as a cameo to the same scale):

Figure 3. Necks of long-necked sauropods, to the same scale. Diplodocus, modified from elements in Hatcher (1901, plate 3), represents a “typical” long-necked sauropod, familiar from many mounted skeletons in museums. Puertasaurus modified from Wedel (2007a, figure 4-1). Sauroposeidon scaled from Brachiosaurus artwork by Dmitry Bogdanov, via commons.wikimedia.org (CC-BY-SA). Mamenchisaurus modified from Young and Zhao (1972, figure 4). Supersaurus scaled from Diplodocus, as above. Alternating pink and blue bars are one meter in width. Inset shows Figure 1 to the same scale.

This paper started life as a late-night discussion over a couple of beers, while Matt was over in England for SVPCA back in (I think) 2008. It was originally going to be a short note in PaleoBios, just noting some of the oddities of sauropod cervical architecture — such as the way that cervical ribs, ventral to the centra, elongate posteriorly but their dorsal counterparts the epipophyses do not.

As so often, the tale grew in the telling, so that a paper we’d initially imagined as a two-or-three-page note became Chapter 5 of my dissertation under the sober title of “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”, weighing in at 41 1.5-spaced pages. By now the manuscript had metastatised into a comparison between the necks of sauropods and other animals and an analysis of the factors that enabled sauropods to achieve so much more than mammals, birds, other theropods and pterosaurs.

(At this point we had one of our less satisfactory reviewing experiences. We sent the manuscript to a respected journal, where it wasn’t even sent out to reviewers until more than a month had passed. We then had to repeatedly prod the editor before anything else happened. Eventually, two reviews came back: one of them careful and detailed; but the other, which we’d waited five months for, dismissed our 53-page manuscript in 108 words. So two words per page, or about 2/3 of a word per day of review time. But let’s not dwell on that.)

Figure 6. Basic cervical vertebral architecture in archosaurs, in posterior and lateral views. 1, seventh cervical vertebra of a turkey, Meleagris gallopavo Linnaeus, 1758, traced from photographs by MPT. 2, fifth cervical vertebra of the abelisaurid theropod Majungasaurus crenatissimus Depéret, 1896,UA 8678, traced from O’Connor (2007, figures 8 and 20). In these taxa, the epipophyses and cervical ribs are aligned with the expected vectors of muscular forces. The epipophyses are both larger and taller than the neural spine, as expected based on their mechanical importance. The posterior surface of the neurapophysis is covered by a large rugosity, which is interpreted as an interspinous ligament scar like that of birds (O’Connor, 2007). Because this scar covers the entire posterior surface of the neurapophysis, it leaves little room for muscle attachments to the spine. 3, fifth cervical vertebra of Alligator mississippiensis Daudin, 1801, MCZ 81457, traced from 3D scans by Leon Claessens, courtesy of MCZ. Epipophyses are absent. 4, eighth cervical vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch, 1914) paralectotype HMN SII, traced from Janensch (1950, figures 43 and 46). Abbreviations: cr, cervical rib; e, epipophysis; ns, neural spine; poz, postzygapophysis.

This work made its next appearance as my talk at SVPCA 2010 in Cambridge, under the title Why giraffes have such short necks. For the talk, I radically restructured the material into a form that had a stronger narrative – a process that involved a lot of back and forth with Matt, dry-running the talk, and workshopping the order in which ideas were presented. The talk seemed to go down well, and we liked the new structure so much more than the old that we reworked the manuscript into a form that more closely resembled the talk.

That’s the version of the manuscript that we perfected in New York when we should have been at all-you-can-eat sushi places. It’s the version that we submitted on the train from New York to New Haven as we went to visit the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. And it’s the version that was cursorily rejected from mid-to-low ranked palaeo journal because a reviewer said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript” — which was of course precisely what we’d intended.

Needless to say, it was deeply disheartening to have had what we were convinced was a good paper rejected twice from journals, at a cost of three years’ delay, on the basis of these reviews. One option would have been to put the manuscript back into the conventional “scientific paper” straitjacket for the second journal’s benefit. But no. We were not going to invest more work to make the paper less good. We decided to keep it in its current, more readable, form and to find a journal that likes it on that basis.

At the moment, the plan is to send it to PeerJ when that opens to submissions. (Both Matt and I are already members.) But that three-years-and-rolling delay really rankles, and we both felt that it wasn’t serving science to keep the paper locked up until it finally makes it into a journal — hence the deposition in arXiv which we plan to talk about more next time.

Table 3. Neck-elongation features by taxon.

In the paper, we review seven characteristics of sauropod anatomy that facilitated the evolution of long necks: absolutely large body size; quadrupedal stance; proportionally small, light head; large number of  cervical vertebrae; elongation of cervical vertebrae; air-sac system; and vertebral pneumaticity. And we show that giraffes have only two of these seven features. (Ostriches do the next best, with five, but they are defeated by their feeble absolute size.)

The paper incorporates some material from SV-POW! posts, including Sauropods were corn-on-the-cob, not shish kebabs. In fact, come to think of it, we should have cited that post as a source. Oh well. We do cite one SV-POW! post: Darren’s Invading the postzyg, which at the time of writing is the only published-in-any-sense source for pneumaticity invading cervical postzygapogyses from the medial surface.

As for the non-extended epipophyses that kicked the whole project off: we did illustrate how they could look, and discussed why they would seem to make mechanical sense:

Figure 10. Real and speculative muscle attachments in sauropod cervical vertebrae. 1, the second through seventeenth cervical vertebrae of Euhelopus zdanskyi Wiman, 1929 cotype specimen PMU R233a-δ(“Exemplar a”). 2, cervical 14 as it actually exists, with prominent but very short epipophyses and long cervical ribs. 3, cervical 14 as it would appear with short cervical ribs. The long ventral neck muscles would have to attach close to the centrum. 4, speculative version of cervical 14 with the epipophyses extended posteriorly as long bony processes. Such processes would allow the bulk of both the dorsal and ventral neck muscles to be located more posteriorly in the neck, but they are not present in any known sauropod or other non-avian dinosaur. Modified from Wiman (1929, plate 3).

But we found and explained some good reasons why this apparently appealing arrangement would not work. You’ll need to read the paper for details.

Sadly, we were not able to include this slide from the talk illustrating the consequences:

Anyway, go and read the paper! It’s freely available, of course, like all arXiv depositions, and in particular uses the permissive Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. We have assembled related information over on this page, including full-resolution versions of all the figures.

In the fields of maths, physics and computer science, where deposition in arXiv is ubiquitous, standard practice is to go right ahead and cite works in arXiv as soon as they’re available, rather than waiting for them to appear in journals. We will be happy for the same to happen with our paper: if it contains information that’s of value to you, then feel free to cite the arXiv version.

Reference

  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2012. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. arXiv:1209.5439. 39 pages, 11 figures, 3 tables. [Full-resolution figures]

Item 1: With his new piece at the Guardian,  “Persistent myths about open access scientific publishing”, Mike continues to be a thorn in the side of exploitative commercial publishers, who just can’t seem to keep their facts straight. This time Mike unravels some choice bits of nonsense that keep getting circulated about open access publishing: that OA publishing must necessarily cost as much as barrier-based publishing, that the peer review process is expensive for publishers, and that authors who can’t pay OA publication fees will be left out in the cold. It’s cleanly and compellingly argued–go read for yourself.

Item 2: The Yates et al. prosauropod pneumaticity paper is officially published in the latest issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and I have updated the citation and links accordingly. This may not seem like big news, in that the accepted manuscript has been available online for 13 months, and the final published version does not differ materially from that version other than being pretty. But it’s an opportunity to talk about something that we haven’t really addressed here before, which is the potential for prompt publication to accelerate research.

A bit of background: standard practice at APP is to post accepted manuscripts as soon as they’re, well, accepted, unless the authors ask otherwise (for example, because the paper contains taxonomic acts and the first public version needs to be the version of record). Not everyone likes this policy–I know Darren objects, and I’m sure there are others. The chief complaint is that it muddies the waters around when the paper is published. Is a paper published when a manuscript is posted to a preprint server like arXiv, or when the accepted manuscript is made freely available by a journal, or when the official, formatted version is published online, or when it arrives in printed hardcopy?

Now, this is an interesting question to ponder, but I think it’s only interesting from the standpoint of rules (e.g., codes governing nomenclature) and how we’re going to decide what counts. From the standpoint of moving science forward, the paper is published as soon as it is available for other researchers to use openly–i.e., not just to use in private in their own research, but also to cite. And since that’s the axis I care most about, I prefer to see accepted manuscripts made widely available as soon as possible, and I support APP’s policy. In the case of Yates et al. (2012), having the accepted manuscript online for the past year meant that it was available for Butler et al. (2012) to use, and cite, in their broad reassessment of pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs. If our manuscript has not been published, that might not have been the case; Adam gave a talk on our project at the 2009 SVP in Bristol, but Butler et al. might have been loathe to cite an abstract, and some journals explicitly forbid it.

So I say bring it on. Let’s really accelerate research, by letting people see the content as early as possible. Making other researchers wait just so they can see a prettier version of the same information seems to me to be a triumph of style over science.

References

The story so far …

Nature Precedings is, or was, a preprint server, somewhat in the spirit of an arXiv for biology.  It describes, or described, itself as “a permanent, citable archive for pre-publication research and preliminary findings”.

This is a very useful thing.  In our recentish paper on how sauropod necks were not sexually selected (Taylor et al. 2011), we wanted to mention in passing (as part of a much more involved argument about sauropod feeding ecology) that the DinoMorph results should not be taken as face value because “assumptions about the mobility of intervertebral joints are probably incorrect”.  The obvious thing to cite for this is an old SV-POW! post (Taylor 2009) and so we did.  (It’s gratifying to see an SV-POW! post sitting cheerfully in the bibliography of a conventionally published paper.  There have been a few of these now.)

But what happens if SV-POW! goes away?  What if Matt, Darren and I are all simultaneously run over by buses, and WordPress cancel the blog after a period of inactivity?  For that matter, what if WordPress goes bust and shuts down its servers, or starts charging for hosting so that we decided to go elsewhere?  Anyone trying to follow the reference in our necks-for-sex paper would by stymied.  It seemed to me that the professional thing to do was to post a copy somewhere more permanent.

The answer is, or was, Nature Precedings.  So a couple of months ago I made up an PDF containing the same text and images as the blog post, and submitted it to Precedings, where it can be found now (Taylor 2012).  Matt and I were talking about doing the same for all the SV-POW! posts we know of that have been cited in formal literature, and perhaps getting into the habit of repositing PDFs of all such articles whenever we want to cite them, and then citing the Precedings version instead.

Not so fast!

I got an email three days ago from Precedings:

Subject: Nature Precedings change in service

Dear registrant:

As you are an active user of Nature Precedings, we want to let you know about some upcoming changes to this service. As of April 3rd 2012, we will cease to accept submissions to Nature Precedings. Submitted documents will be processed as usual and hosted provided they are uploaded by midnight on April 3rd. Nature Precedings will then be archived, and the archive will be maintained by NPG, while all hosted content will remain freely accessible to all.

Be assured that Nature and the Nature research journals continue to permit the posting of preprints and there is no change to this policy, which is detailed here.

Nature Precedings was launched in 2007 as NPG’s preprint server, primarily for the Life Science community. Since that date, we have learned a great deal from you about what types of content are valued as preprints, and which segments of the research community most embrace this form of publication. While a great experiment, technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved since 2007 to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived.

Looking forward, NPG remains committed to exploring ways to help researchers, funders, and institutions manage data and best practices in data management, and we plan to introduce new services in this area. We have truly valued your contributions as authors and users to Nature Precedings and hope that you will actively participate in this research and development with us.

Nature Publishing Group

Well, let’s pick this apart.

  • “Change in service” means “end of service”.  A really pointless and insulting euphemism.  Come on, NPG, give it to us straight!  We can take it!
  • We have a promise that “the archive will be maintained by NPG, while all hosted content will remain freely accessible to all”.
  • The reason given for shutting down is that “technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved since 2007 to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived”.  I can’t start to understand what, if anything, that means.
  • What to make of “we plan to introduce new services in this area”?  What kind of new service can there be in this area that isn’t a preprint server?

Now I don’t want to be too harsh here, just because NPG have withdrawn a service that was free in the first place.  They were under no obligation to keep providing it, of course.  And the most important thing is that the papers already reposited there will live on.

But it’s just sad that this is going away.  We need it, or something like it.

Now what?

The number one question is, will the archived documents really stay around?  I want to trust that they will, but it’s harder to keep trusting a no-longer-live system than one that has blood circulating.  It would be ironic indeed if the original SV-POW! post turns out to be more durable than the Precedings version!

But going forward, the question is where to reposit future citation-worthy SV-POW! posts?  What are the alternative services to Precedings?

It’s at times like these that we biologists suffer from Physics envy.  They have arXiv, which does this right and has been doing it right since forever.  We really need an arXiv for biology.  Or better still, we need arXiv to expand to cover our field.

References

Taylor, Michael P.  2009. Range of motion in intervertebral joints: why we don’t trust DinoMorph. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, 30 May 2009. Available at http://svpow.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/range-of-motion-in-intervertebral-joints-why-we-dont-trust-dinomorph/

Taylor, Michael P.  2012.  Range of motion in intervertebral joints: why we don’t trust DinoMorph.  Nature Precedings.  doi:10.1038/npre.2012.6878.1

Taylor, Michael P., David W. E. Hone, Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285:150-161. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x

This year, I missed The Paleo Paper Challenge over on Archosaur Musings — it was one of hundreds of blog posts I missed while I was in Cancun with my day-job and then in Bonn for the 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism.  That means I missed out on my annual tradition of promising to get the looong-overdue Archbishop description done by the end of the year.

Brachiosauridae incertae sedis NMH R5937, "The Archbishop", dorsal neural spine C, probably from an anterior dorsal vertebra. Top row: dorsal view, anterior to top; middle row, left to right: anterior, left lateral, posterior, right lateral; bottom row: ventral view, anterior to bottom.

But this year, Matt and I are going to have our own private Palaeo Paper Challenge.  And to make sure we heap on maximum pressure to get the work done, we’re announcing it here.

Here’s the deal.  We have two manuscripts — one of them Taylor and Wedel, the other Wedel and Taylor — which have been sitting in limbo for a stupidly long time.  Both are complete, and have in fact been submitted once and gone through review.  We just need to get them sorted out, turned around, and resubmitted.

(The Taylor and Wedel one is on the anatomy of sauropod cervicals and the evolution of their long necks.  It’s based on the last remaining unpublished chapter of my dissertation, and turned up in a modified form as my SVPCA 2010 talk, Why Giraffes Have Such Short Necks.  The Wedel and Taylor one is on the occurrence and implications of intermittent pneumaticity in the tails of sauropods, and turned up as his SVPCA 2010 talk, Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus.)

We’re going to be realistic: we both have far too much going in (incuding, you know, families) to get these done by the end of 2011.  But we have relatively clear Januaries, so our commitment is that we will submit by the end of January 2012.  If either of us fails, you all have permission to be ruthlessly derisive of that person.

… and in other news …

Some time while we were all in Bonn, the SV-POW! hit-counter rolled over the One Million mark.  Thanks to all of your for reading!

 

Back when Darren and I did the Xenoposeidon description, we were young and foolish, and only illustrated the holotype vertebra NHM R2095 in four aspects: left and right lateral, anterior and posterior.  No dorsal or ventral views.

Also, because the figure was intended for Palaeontology, which prints only in greyscale, I stupidly prepared the figure in greyscale, rather than preparing it in colour and then flattening it down at the last moment.  (Happily I’d learned that lesson by the time we did our neck-posture paper: although it was destined for Acta Palaeontologia Polonica, which also prints in greyscale, and though the PDF uses greyscale figures, the online full-resolution figures are in colour.)

As if that wasn’t dumb enough, I also composited the four featured views such that the two lateral views were adjacent, and above the anterior and posterior views — so it wasn’t easy to match up features on the sides and front/back between the views.  Since then, I have landed on a better way of presenting multi-view figures, as in my much-admire’d turkey cervical and pig skull images.

So, putting it all together, here is how we should have illustrated illustrated Xenoposeidon back in 2007 (click through for high resolution):

(Top row: dorsal view, with anterior facing left; middle row, from left to right: anterior, left lateral, posterior, right lateral; bottom row, ventral view, with anterior facing left.  As always with images of NHM-owned material, this is copyright the NHM.)

Of course, if we’d published in PLoS ONE, then this high-resolution (4775 x 4095), full colour image could have been the published one rather than an afterthought on a blog somewhere.  But we didn’t: back then, we weren’t so aware of the opportunities available to us now that we live in the Shiny Digital Future.

In other news, the boys and I all registered Xbox Live accounts a few days ago.  I chose the name “Xenoposeidon”, only to find to my amazement that someone else had already registered it.  But “Brontomerus” was free, so I used that instead.

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.

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