If the internet has any underlying monomyth, or universally shared common ground, or absolute rule, it is this:

People love to see the underdog win.

This rule has a corollary:

When you try to censor someone, they automatically become the underdog.

I say “try to censor” someone, because on the internet that is remarkably difficult to achieve. I’m not going to argue that the attention paid to the range of stories told on the internet is fairly distributed–being published is not the same as being read, and people seem to prefer cat pictures to reading about genocide. But it’s awfully hard to shut someone up, and any attempt to do so may backfire spectacularly.

If you work for an organization of any size, or have amassed any considerable power, reputation, or influence personally, you need to keep that at the forefront of your mind in every interaction you ever have with anyone, anywhere, ever. The reason for this constant attention is to keep you from becoming the overdog and thereby making an ass of yourself (and your organization, if you belong to one). Go read about the Streisand Effect and think proactively about how to keep that from happening to you.

Now, for the purposes of this tutorial I am going to arbitrarily sort the full range of possible messages into four bins:

  1. Those that make the teller look good.
  2. Those that make the teller look bad.
  3. Those that make someone else look good.
  4. Those that make someone else look bad.

Two and three are dead easy and often go hand in hand. If you want to spread messages of that type, all you have to do is find someone with less power, reputation, or influence–a prospective underdog, in other words–and be a jerk to them, thus turning them into an actual underdog. Coercion, threats, employment termination–these are all pretty good and may eventually pay off. But if you really want to look like a complete tit, and make the other party an instant hero, you gotta go for censorship. Out here in bitspace, it is the ne plus ultra of suicidal moves. It’s like Chuck Norris winding up for a roundhouse kick to someone’s face, only somehow his foot misses the other person’s face and hits him right in the junk instead. We will click and tap on that until they pry the mice and touchscreens from our cold, dead hands.

The first one–positive messages about yourself–is tricky. You can’t just go around telling people that you’re awesome. Anyone with any sense will suspect advertising. The only sure-fire method I know of is to do good work where people can see it. One thing you will just have to accept is that reputations are slow-growing but fast-burning. So, again, try to avoid burning yours down.

The last one–making someone else look bad–is also surprisingly tricky. If you just broadcast negatives to the world, that will probably backfire. At the very least, people start thinking of you as a negative force rather than a positive one. If the person you want to make look bad has ever lied or falsified data or oppressed anyone, use that. If they’ve ever tried to censor someone, or are actively trying to censor you, rejoice, they’ve done most of the work for you.

The upside of that last one is that, provided you’re not actively nasty, it is hard for others to hurt your reputation. If they just spew vitriol, it will probably backfire. If they lie about you, it will definitely backfire. About the only way to really trash your reputation is through your own actions. Your fate is in your own hands.


So, this is transparently a meditation on the DNLee/Biology Online/Scientific American story.

I would really like to know the backstory. Did someone at Biology Online contact SciAm and ask them to take down DNLee’s post? If so, well, geez, that was stupid. Why does anyone ever expect this to work anymore? I mean, the actual event from which the Streisand Effect got its name happened a decade ago, which may seem short in human terms but is an eternity online (it’s two-thirds of the lifespan to date of Google, for example).

If someone at SciAm did it unilaterally to protect their valued financial partner, it was doubly stupid, because not only did the censorship act itself fail, but now people like me are wondering if Biology Online asked for that “protection”. In other words, people are now suspecting Biology Online of something they might not have even done (although what they did do–what their employee did on their behalf, which amounts to the same thing–was bad enough).

So all in all the affair is like a tutorial on how to royally cock things up on the internet. And in fact it continues to be–Mariette DiChristina’s “apology” is a classic non-apology, that uses a torrent of words to say very little. Her self-contradictory tweets are much more revealing, despite being under 140 characters each. And in fact her loudest message is the complete lack of communication with DNLee before she pulled the post. So meaning scales inversely with message length for DiChristina–not a great quality in an Editor-In-Chief. And, OMG does she need to learn about the Asoh defense.

In the end, the whole thing just saddens me. I’m sad that SciAm made the wrong call immediately and reflexively. It says to me that they don’t care about transparency or integrity. They may say otherwise, but they are belied by their actions.

I’m sad that, having not even known that Biology Online exists, my perception of them now starts from a position of, “Oh, the ones that called that science writer a whore.” (If you’re a BO fan, please don’t write in to tell me how wonderful BO actually is; doing so is just admitting that you didn’t read this post.)

I’m sad that this happened to DNLee. I hope that going forward her reputation is determined by the quality of her work and the integrity of her actions, and not by words and circumstances inflicted on her by others.

… I wonder if I could make it as a corporate consultant if I put on a suit, walked into rooms full of pointy-haired bosses, and just explained the Streisand Effect and the Asoh Defense as if they were novel insights. I’ll bet I could make a killing.

Suppose, hypothetically, that you worked for an organisation whose nominal goal is the advancement of science, but which has mutated into a highly profitable subscription-based publisher. And suppose you wanted to construct a study that showed the alternative — open-access publishing — is inferior.

What would you do?

You might decide that a good way to test publishers is by sending them an obviously flawed paper and seeing whether their peer-review weeds it out.

But you wouldn’t want to risk showing up subscription publishers. So the first thing you’d do is decide up front not to send your flawed paper to any subscription journals. You might justify this by saying something like “the turnaround time for traditional journals is usually months and sometimes more than a year. How could I ever pull off a representative sample?“.

Next, you’d need to choose a set of open-access journals to send it to. At this point, you would carefully avoid consulting the membership list of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, since that list has specific criteria and members have to adhere to a code of conduct. You don’t want the good open-access journals — they won’t give you the result you want.

Instead, you would draw your list of publishers from the much broader Directory of Open Access Journals, since that started out as a catalogue rather than a whitelist. (That’s changing, and journals are now being cut from the list faster than they’re being added, but lots of old entries are still in place.)

Then, to help remove many of the publishers that are in the game only to advance research, you’d trim out all the journals that don’t levy an article processing charge.

But the resulting list might still have an inconveniently high proportion of quality journals. So you would bring down the quality by adding in known-bad publishers from Beall’s list of predatory open-access publishers.

Having established your sample, you’d then send the fake papers, wait for the journals’ responses, and gather your results.

To make sure you get a good, impressive result that will have a lot of “impact”, you might find it necessary to discard some inconvenient data points, omitting from the results some open-access journals that rejected the paper.

Now you have your results, it’s time to spin them. Use sweeping, unsupported generalisations like “Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured.”

Suppose you have a quote from the scientist whose experiences triggered the whole project, and he said something inconvenient like “If [you] had targeted traditional, subscription-based journals, I strongly suspect you would get the same result”. Just rewrite it to say “if you had targeted the bottom tier of traditional, subscription-based journals”.

Now you have the results you want — but how will you ever get through through peer-review, when your bias is so obvious? Simple: don’t submit your article for peer-review at all. Classify it as journalism, so you don’t need to go through review, nor to get ethical approval for the enormous amount of editors’ and reviewers’ time you’ve wasted — but publish it in a journal that’s known internationally for peer-reviewed research, so that uncritical journalists will leap to your favoured conclusion.

Last but not least, write a press-release that casts the whole study as being about the “Wild West” of Open-Access Publishing.

Everyone reading this will, I am sure, have recognised that I’m talking about  John Bohannon’s “sting operation” in Science. Bohannon has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Oxford University, so we would hope he’d know what actual science looks like, and that this study is not it.

Of course, the problem is that he does know what science looks like, and he’s made the “sting” operation look like it. It has that sciencey quality. It discusses methods. It has supplementary information. It talks a lot about peer-review, that staple of science. But none of that makes it science. It’s a maze of preordained outcomes, multiple levels of biased selection, cherry-picked data and spin-ridden conclusions. What it shows is: predatory journals are predatory. That’s not news.

Speculating about motives is always error-prone, of course, but it it’s hard not to think that Science‘s goal in all this was to discredit open-access publishing — just as legacy publishers have been doing ever since they realised OA was real competition. If that was their goal, it’s misfired badly. It’s Science‘s credibility that’s been compromised.

Update (9 October)

Akbar Khan points out yet more problems with Bohannon’s work: mistakes in attributing where given journals were listed, DOAJ or Beall’s list. As a result, the sample may be more, or less, biased than Bohannon reported.




For a palaeontology blog, we don’t talk a lot about geology. Time to fix that, courtesy of my middle son Matthew, currently 13 years old, who made this helpful guide to the rock cycle as Geology homework.




As the conference season heaves into view again, I thought it was worth gathering all four parts of the old Tutorial 16 (“giving good talks”) into one place, so it’s easy to link to. So here they are:

  • Part 1: Planning: finding a narrative
    • Make us care about your project.
    • Tell us a story.
    • You won’t be able to talk about everything you’ve done this year.
    • Omit much that is relevant.
    • Pick a single narrative.
    • Ruthlessly prune.
    • [You want to end up with] a structure that begins at the beginning, tells a single coherent story from beginning to end, and then stops.
  • Part 2: The slides: presenting your information to be understood
    • Make yourself understood.
    • The slides for a conference talk are science, not art.
    • Don’t “frame” your content.
    • Whatever you’re showing us, let us see it.
    • Use as little text as possible.
    • Use big fonts.
    • Use high contrast between the text and background.
    • No vertical writing.
    • Avoid elaborate fonts.
    • Pick a single font.
    • Stick to standard fonts.
    • You might want to avoid Ariel.
    • Do not use MS Comic Sans Serif.
    • Use a consistent colour palette.
    • Avoid putting important information at the bottom.
    • Avoid hatching.
    • Skip the fancy slide transitions.
    • Draw highlighting marks on your slides.
    • Show us specimens!
  • Part 3: Rehearsal: honing the story and how it’s told
    • Fit into the time.
    • Become fluent in delivery.
    • Maintain flow and momentum.
    • Decide what to cut
    • Get feedback
  • Part 4: Delivery: telling the story
    • Speak up!
    • Slow down!
    • Don’t panic!


It turns out that G. K. Chesterton conveniently summarised all of my advice on slide preparation more than a century ago:

This is the sort of [slides] we like
(For you and I are very small),
With pictures stuck in anyhow,
And hardly any words at all.

You will not understand a word
Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble; you can see,
And all directness is divine.

Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
       That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

(Inscribed in the front of a child’s picture book, around 1906.)

It’s five to ten on Saturday night. Matt and I are in New York City. We could be at the all-you-can-eat sushi buffet a couple of blocks down from our hotel, or watching a film, or doing all sorts of cool stuff.

Instead, we’re in our hotel room. Matt is reformatting the bibliography of our neck-elongation manuscript, and I am tweaking the format of the citations.

Just sayin’.

I am finalising an article for submission to Palaeontologia Electronica. Regarding the acknowledgements, the Contrubutor Instructions say: “Initials are used rather than given names.”

WHY?! What on earth is gained by forcing authors to thank R. Cifelli instead of Rich Cifelli for access to specimens?

And of course this is the tiniest tip of the pointless-reformatting iceberg. Do not get me started on citations and reference, tables, figure captions, headings and all the rest.

The utter, utter pointlessness of such rules is irking me more with each submission I make. It’s indicative of the long-entrenched power-balance that we’ve all internalised, where authors are supplicants to journals, of whom we craved the boon of publication.

This. Is. Stupid.

We take highly trained scientists and put them to work doing tedious, time-consuming, error-prone clerical work which has the net result of reducing the utility of the paper.

Bring on the revolution.


Question. I am supposed to be meeting up with Mike Taylor at the conference, but we’ve not met before and I won’t recognise him.  Do you know what he looks like?

Candidate Answer #1. He’s a bit overweight and has white hair.

Candidate Answer #2. He exhibits mild to moderate abdominal hypertrophy and accelerated ontogenetic degradation in the pigmentation of the cranial integument.

You wouldn’t use answer #2 in Real Life, so don’t use it in your papers.  It’s not big, and it’s not clever.

My new favourite blog

March 6, 2012

Folks, you should all stop reading this blog right now, and get yourselves across to What’s In John’s Freezer?, the awesome new blog of biomechanics wizard and brachiosaur-cervical scan facilitator John Hutchinson.

Oh, and if you wonder about the blog title, and can’t see how the contents of someone’s freezer could be very interesting, here’s a photo of two of John’s many freezers that I took when I was visiting:

In among all the open-access discussion and ostrich-herding, we at SV-POW! Towers do still try to get some actual science done.  As we all know all too well, the unit of scientific communication is the published paper, and getting a submission ready involves a lot more than just the research itself.  One of the most important aspects is preparing the illustrations — indeed Matt once told me that he thinks one of the best ways to put a paper together is to start with the illustrations, then write the text around them.

[Illustrations are often referred to as "figures".  I don't know how the tradition got started, but since that term also means numbers, I will try to avoid it.  If I tell you "I am working on the figures for my diversity paper", you don't know if I am accumulating statistics or preparing illustrations.]

Done well, illustrations can be things of beauty as well as scientifically informative.

Taylor et al. 2011b:fig. 1 -- Sauropod neck gallery

Taylor et al. (2011b: figure 1). Sauropod necks, showing relationships for a selection of species, and the range of necks lengths and morphologies that they encompass. Phylogeny based on that of Upchurch et al. (2004: fig. 13.18). Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (neck 9.5 m long) modified from Young & Zhao (1972: fig. 4); Dicraeosaurus hansemanni (2.7 m) modified from Janensch (1936: plate XVI); Diplodocus carnegii (6.5 m) modified from Hatcher (1903: plate VI); Apatosaurus louisae (6 m) modified from Lovelace, Hartman & Wahl (2008: fig. 7); Camarasaurus supremus (5.25 m) modified from Osborn & Mook (1921: plate 84); Giraffatitan brancai (8.75 m) modified from Janensch (1950: plate VIII); giraffe (1.8 m) modified from Lydekker (1894:332). Alternating grey and white vertical bars mark 1 m increments.

There are a few things to be said about preparing good illustrations, so we’re kicking off a short series on the subject.  This is the first.

But the zeroth was published here a couple of years ago.  Since the most important illustrations in many palaeontology papers are those of the specimens, the base you’re working from is your specimen photographs.  So you might want to refresh your memory by reading Tutorial 8: how to photograph big bones before we proceed.

There are various steps in getting from a photo to a finished, publishable figure, and we’ll look at those along the way.  But somewhere along the line, if you’re publishing in a conventional journal such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, you’re going to flatten your colour images down to greyscale. Postpone that step till the last possible moment.

That should be too obvious to need saying, but I’ve got it wrong myself.  When I was preparing the specimen photographs for the Xenoposeidon paper, destined for Palaeontology, I flattened the images too early in the process, with the result that the greyscale versions of the figures that were included in the paper are the only versions in existence.  The upshot is that if you look at the full-resolution illustrations in the unofficial supplementary information, you’ll see that the version of Figure 3 available there is greyscale, just like the one in the paper.

By the time the three of us did our neck-posture paper in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, we weren’t quite so dumb.  So although the illustrations in the published paper are all greyscale, the two that are based on specimen photographs, rather than assembled from previously published greyscale components, were prepared in full colour, then flattened as the very last process before submission.  As a result, the full-resolution illustrations in the unofficial supplementary information have figures 1 and 2 in colour:

Taylor et al. (2009: Figure 1). Cape hare Lepus capensis RAM R2 in right lateral view, illustrating maximally extended pose and ONP: skull, cervical vertebrae 1-7 and dorsal vertebrae 1-2. Note the very weak dorsal deflection of the base of the neck in ONP, contrasting with the much stronger deflection illustrated in a live rabbit by Vidal et al. (1986: fig. 4). Scale bar 5 cm.

So we were pretty happy with that.  But by the time we came to submit the Brontomerus description a couple of years later, we’d had a rather obvious (in retrospect) thought: just because we can’t have colour in the printed journal, does that mean we can’t have it in the PDF?  We asked the good people at Acta Pal. Pol., and they agreed that we could submit colour illustrations, they’d use them in the PDF, and then flatten them to greyscale themselves for the printed edition.

Since about fifty times as many people see the PDF as see the printed journal [yes, I just made than number up out of my head], that solution suited us very well.  The outcome was the the PDF has gorgeous figures like this one:

Taylor er al. 2011a: fig. 4 -- Brontomerus caudal vertebra

Taylor et al. (2011a: figure 4). Mid-caudal vertebra of the camarasauromorph sauropod Brontomerus mcintoshi from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah, OMNH 61248 in dorsal (A), anterior (B), left lateral (C), posterior (D) and ventral (E) views.

(I’m slightly sorry to be displaying all our own illustrations here, but they do make the point and frankly I like looking at them.  Especially that beautiful caudal vertebra.)

Why am I making such a big deal about colour?  Because colour is information, and as scientists we love information.  When you flatten a colour image to greyscale, you lose information, and that should never be done without regret.  It’s perfectly possible that adjacent regions of a fossil will be a different hue but the same brightness: flatten the image and the two colours look the same, but in the original you can see a distinction.  That’s valuable.

So in this day and age, The Right Thing is:

  • Prepare your figures in colour
  • Submit them in colour
  • If the journal has a printed edition (and charges extra for colour printing, as most do), tell them to flatten to greyscale.

On the other hand, if you’re submitting to an open-access journal — and you should be, if you want to be widely read — there’s a good chance that it’s online-only (as with PLoS ONE and Palaeontologia Electronica), in which case the use of colour is a complete non-issue.  The only reason to prepare monochrome figures then is (as with the Taylor et al. 2011b sauropod-neck bestiary above) when you’re constructing them from pre-existing greyscale images.


Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2):213-230.

Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Richard L. Cifelli. 2011a. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi: 10.4202/app.2010.0073

Taylor, Michael P., David W. E. Hone, Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2011b. 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


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