March 17, 2015
I have a new paper out today in PeerJ: “Ecological correlates to cranial morphology in leporids (Mammalia, Lagomorpha)”, with coauthors Brian Kraatz, Emma Sherratt, and Nick Bumacod. Get it free here.
I know, I know, I have fallen from grace. First Aquilops, now rabbits. And, and…skulls! I know what you’re thinking: that maybe I’m not just experimenting with the non-vertebrae of non-sauropods anymore – maybe I have an actual problem. But I don’t. I can quit anytime! You’ll see.
Actually rabbits are the freakiest of all mammals and their skulls are wicked cool. They have double incisors, with the second set right behind the first, hence the name Duplicidentata for rabbits and their close relatives. They have weird fenestrations in their maxillae (pretty much all taxa) and parietal and occipital bones (some more than others) – I’ll come back to that in a bit. And, as we discuss in our new paper, you can tell something about how a rabbit runs by looking at its skull. I thought it would be fun to relate how we figured that out, and why.
A long time ago in a graduate seminar far, far away…
1950: DuBrul, Laskin, and Moss
I met Brian Kraatz at Berkeley, where he and I were part of the cohort of students that came into the Integrative Biology Department in the fall of 2001 (faithful readers may remember Brian from his work tracking oliphaunts from, gosh, three years ago already). We took a lot of classes together, including a seminar by Marvalee Wake on evolutionary morphology. I’m pretty sure that seminar was the first time I’d actually read DuBrul and Laskin (1961), “Preadaptive potentialities of the mammalian skull: an experiment in growth and form”, or as I think of it, “How to turn a rat skull into a pika skull for fun and profit.”
Pikas (Ochotonidae) are the sister group to rabbits (Leporidae) and together these groups make up crown Lagomorpha. If you’re not familiar with pikas, Brian describes them as starting with bunny rabbits and then making them even cuter and cuddlier. Seriously, go do an image search for ‘pika’ and try not to die of cute overload.
Pikas are interesting because in many ways their skulls are intermediate between those of rodents, especially rats, and rabbits. This is maybe not surprising since rodents are the sister group to lagomorphs and are united with them in the clade Glires. E. Lloyd DuBrul was all over this rat-pika-rabbit thing back in the mid-twentieth century. Here’s an illustration from DuBrul (1950: plate 2; labels added by me):
So DuBrul knew from pikas and in particular he had the idea that you could maybe just tweak a rat skull – say, by knocking out the basicranial sutures in a baby rat to limit the growth of the skull base – and produce a gently domed skull like that of a pika. That’s what DuBrul and Laskin (1961) is all about. They did that experiment and here are their results (DuBrul and Laskin (1961: plate 3). Normal rat skull on the right, and dotted in the bottom diagram; experimental “pika-morph” rat skull on the left, and solidly outlined below.
What’s going on here morphogenetically is that the facial skeleton is getting tilted down and away from the back end of the skull. DuBrul was hip to that, too – here’s a relevant image from his 1950 paper (plate 4; labels added by me):
The common reference point against which these skulls are registered is the cranial base (the floor of the braincase just forward of the foramen magnum). Again, the pika is a pretty good intermediate between the rat and a ‘normal’ rabbit, and the dang-near-dog-sized Flemish Giant rabbit takes the lagomorph face-tilting thing to its extreme. (‘Flemish Giant rabbit’ is another entertaining image search that I will leave you as homework.)
Turns out there’s another way you can get rat skulls with different geometries: you can cut off their legs and make them walk on two feet. In an experiment that you might have trouble getting past an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee today, Moss (1961) lopped off the forefeet or hindfeet in two experimental batches of rats, to see what effect this would have on their skulls. I’ll let Moss speak for himself on this one (Moss, 1961: pp. 301-303, emphasis in the original):
Circumnatal amputation of the forelimbs has successfully produced what are in essence “bipedal rats,” i.e., rats whose habitual mode of kinetic and static posture is permanently altered. […] The animals never became bipedal in the exact sense; that is, they never walked erect on two limbs at all times. […] Nevertheless, bipedal posture and motion were more frequently observed than in controls. […]
Animals whose hind limbs were removed represented another picture. They most certainly did not walk about on their intact forelimbs. Neither did they seem able to use their hind limb stumps as satisfactory substitutes. Their gait was not uniform and seemed to consist in a series of short pushes or hops. The most noticeable thing about them was, among other things, apparent accentuation of their cervical vertebral curvature. The sum of these changes was an upward rotation of the skull.
He wasn’t kidding: when the two groups of bipedal rats grew up, their facial skeletons were tilted relative to the control group, but in different directions (Moss, 1961: fig 3; ‘fore’ and ‘hind’ refer to which limbs the animals had left to locomote with):
Brian and I read Moss back at Berkeley, too. In fact, we were minor Moss junkies. If you’re interested in how living forms come into being, you owe it to yourself to read Moss (1968), “A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix”.
The upshot of all of this is that although neither Brian nor I had done anything with our deep (and, okay, deeply weird) knowledge of how to experimentally jack up rat skulls by the time we graduated from Berkeley, we were also primed to be thinking about how skulls attain their shapes – especially the skulls of rodents and rabbits.
2009: American Museum of Natural History
I went to the AMNH in February, 2009, to visit Brian, who was on a postdoc there at the time, and to spend one day looking at sauropods with Mike, who was over from England for a conference. What Brian and I planned to work on was the fenestration of rabbit skulls, because I’m always interested in the strategic loss of bone from skeletal structures. We spent probably half a day talking about that, and I filled a whole page in my notebook with related noodlings:
But as the sketch on the right shows, it didn’t take us long to figure out that there was something even more interesting to do with rabbit skulls. Brian had a whole shedload of rabbit skulls from different taxa sitting on his desk, and we noticed pretty quickly that one of the primary ways they varied was in the tilt of the facial skeleton relative to the back of the skull. Here’s the very next page of my notes from that trip:
The skull up top belongs to Caprolagus, the Hispid hare, which I tend to think of as the “bulldozer hare”. Seriously, it looks like a tank. It doesn’t bound or even hop, it scrambles. Here, stare into the abyss:
That rabbit will cut you, man. And just look at how flat its skull is. Even in life Caprolagus looks more rodent-y than rabbit-y. Or, more precisely, more Ochotona-y.
At the the other extreme are taxa like Bunolagus and Pronolagus, which really push the “I’m going to cute you to death by dint of my incredible bunnosity” thing:
As Brian and I started going through skulls of as many extant rabbits as we could, we noticed that the flatter-skulled taxa, with less pronounced facial tilt, tended to be the stolid, foursquare scramblers like Caprolagus, whereas the speed demons tended to have more strongly tilted skulls. It also seemed like the latter group were achieving that pronounced facial tilt by changing the geometry of the occipital region of the skull. Look back up at the red quadrilaterals I drew on the Caprolagus and Bunolagus skulls in my notebook – those mark the basioccipital ventrally and the dorsal exposure of the supraoccipital. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supraoccipital length is not the whole story; it turns out that some face-tilters get that way by having longer or more strongly arched parietals, BUT it remains true that if you find a rabbit skull with a long dorsal exposure of the supraoccipital, it will also have pronounced facial tilt.
ANYWAY, by my last night in New York, Brian and I decided that the best way to attack this would be to go down to the basement and stay up most of the night drinking beer and measuring rabbit skulls. We then tried to correlate the various measurements and angles with information on the locomotor and burrowing habits of each species. That was a big job, after a couple of years with little forward progress (to be fair, Brian was moving across the country and taking his first tenure-track job in this interval, and I was helping birth a sauropod) we brought in Brian’s graduate student, Nick Bumacod, to do most of it. Later on the three of us were forced to acknowledge that we knew enough statistics to get ourselves into trouble but not enough to get back out. Brian had taken a geometric morphometrics course for which Emma Sherratt was a TA, and he started bugging her for help with the stats. Emma has been involved in writing new software packages for R, and we realized that the paper would be a lot stronger if we just brought her on as an author and gave her free rein with the data. Along the way Brian and Nick were giving presentations on the project everywhere from the local Western Area Vert Paleo meeting to the World Lagomorph Conference in Vienna. I got my name on four abstracts along the way, which I think is record abstract-to-paper ratio for me (especially considering that 90% of my effort on the paper was invested in a single evening in 2009 over a couple of six-packs).
But enough navel-gazing, what did we find?
2015: Rabbit skulls reveal their mode of locomotion
Our results, which you can read for free, support the hunch that Brian and I had back in 2009: slow-moving rabbits that locomote by scrambling or scampering instead of hopping tend to have less facial tilt, and faster-moving saltatorial (hopping) and cursorial (leaping and bounding) rabbits have more facial tilt. Interestingly, facial tilt does not distinguish the saltators from the cursors. So the break here is between scrambling and any kind of hopping or leaping, but not between hoppers and leapers.
Why would that be so? We don’t for sure yet, but our top hypothesis is that if you’re moving fast, it pays to see the ground in front of you more clearly, and getting your nose down out of the way probably helps with that. This is pretty similar to the hypothesis that tyrannosaurs have pinched nasals for better binocular vision (Stevens, 2006). Rabbits are prey animals and probably can’t afford to point their eyes forward, and they may need wide nasal airways as air intakes while they’re sprinting. Tilting the nose down may be the next best thing.
Some circumstantial support for this comes from the Caviidae, the family of South American rodents that includes guinea pigs, cavies, maras, and capybaras. Here’s another plate from DuBrul (1950: plate 6) contrasting the flatter skull of the guinea pig (Cavia porcellus, top) with the decidedly arched skull of the mara or Patagonian hare (Dolichotis magellanica, bottom). Compare the mara skull to the sectioned rabbit skull in the other DuBrul plate, above – there aren’t a lot of obvious characters to separate the two (beyond the lack of double incisors in the mara).
Despite being commonly referred to as ‘hares’ and looking a lot like short-eared rabbits, maras are rodents that evolved their rabbit-like form independently. The acquisition of pronounced facial tilt in two separate lineages of small fast-moving herbivorous mammals is further evidence for the influence of locomotor mode on skull form. Irritatingly, I think we neglected to mention the guinea pig : mara :: pika : rabbit correspondence in the paper. Oh well, it wasn’t our novel observation, and we did cite DuBrul (1950).
We found lots of other interesting things, too. The PCA plots we produced from our data separate the living rabbits in unexpected ways. The length of the diastema (the toothless portion of the upper jaw) and the diameter of the auditory bulla seem to be particularly important. Diastema length isn’t too hard to figure out – most of the face-tilters have long diastemas, and the flat-heads tend to have short ones. We have no idea what bulla diameter means yet. I mean, obviously something to do with hearing, but we don’t have any ecological variables in our analysis to address that because we didn’t see it coming. So there’s a chunk of new science waiting to be done there.
Speaking of new science, or at least a relatively new thing in science, we published the full peer-review history alongside the paper, just as Mike and I did back in 2013 and as Mike did with his stand-alone paper last December. More than 80% of PeerJ authors elect to publish the peer review histories for their papers. I can’t wait until it’s 100%. PeerJ reviews are citeable – each one gets a DOI and instructions on how to cite it – and I’m tired of having my effort as a peer reviewer used once and then thrown away forever.
If you’ve been reading this whole post with gritted teeth, wondering why we were using linear measurements instead of geometric morphometrics, chillax. Brian and Emma are on that. They’ve been CT scanning the skulls of as many extant rabbits as possible and plotting landmarks for 3D morphometrics – if you were at SVP last fall, you may have seen their talk (Kraatz and Sherratt, 2014). So stay tuned for what will soon be a new ongoing series, Rabbit Skulls: The Next Generation.
I probably won’t be on that voyage. I’ve had fun getting acquainted with a completely different part of the tree of life, but there are an awful lot of shards of excellence – busted-up sauropod vertebrae, that is – crying out for my attention, and I need to stop neglecting them. I’m done with rabbit skulls, I promise. I’m going clean. (Wish me luck!)
- DuBrul, E. L. (1950). Posture, locomotion and the skull in Lagomorpha. American Journal of Anatomy, 87(2), 277-313.
- DuBrul, E. L., & Laskin, D. M. (1961). Preadaptive potentialities of the mammalian skull: an experiment in growth and form. American Journal of Anatomy, 109(2), 117-132.
- Kraatz, B., and Sherratt, E. (2014). Evolution, ecology, and modularity of the lagomorph skull. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35(3, Supplement), 162A.
- Kraatz, B.P., Sherratt, E., Bumacod, N., and Wedel, M.J. 2015. Ecological correlates to cranial morphology in leporids (Mammalia, Lagomorpha). PeerJ, 3:e844. https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.844
- Moss, M. L. (1961). Rotation of the otic capsule in bipedal rats. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 19(3), 301-307.
- Moss, M. L. (1968). A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix. Acta Biotheoretica, 18(1), 195-202.
- Stevens, K. A. (2006). Binocular vision in theropod dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 26(2), 321-330.
February 10, 2015
Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)
In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)
The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.
And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.
As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:
The London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.
There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.
So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.
Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.
I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.
The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.
Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.
One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.
There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.
Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?
The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:
Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?
All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.
I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.
(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)
So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.
December 23, 2014
Arriving as an early Christmas present, and coming in just a week before the end of what would otherwise have been a barren 2014, my paper Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs is out! You can read it on PeerJ (or download the PDF).
Yes, that posture is ludicrous — but the best data we currently have says that something like this would have been neutral for Diplodocus once cartilage is taken into account. (Remember of course that animals do not hold their necks in neutral posture.)
The great news here is that PeerJ moved quickly. In fact here’s how the time breaks down since I submitted the manuscript (and made it available as a preprint) on 4 November:
28 days from submission to first decision
3 days to revise and resubmit
3 days to accept
15 days to publication
TOTAL 49 days
Which of course is how it ought to be! Great work here from handling editor Chris Noto and all three reviewers: Matt Bonnan, Heinrich Mallison and Eric Snively. They all elected not to be anonymous, and all gave really useful feedback — as you can see for yourself in the published peer-review history. When editors and reviewers do a job this good, they deserve credit, and it’s great that PeerJ’s (optional) open review lets the world see what they contributed. Note that you can cite, or link to, individual reviews. The reviews themselves are now first-class objects, as they should be.
At the time of writing, my paper is top of the PeerJ home-page — presumably just because it’s the most recent published paper, but it’s a nice feeling anyway!
A little further down the front-page there’s some great stuff about limb function in ratites — a whole slew of papers.
Well, I’m off to relax over Christmas. Have a good one, y’all!
December 12, 2014
If you’ve been reading around about Aquilops, you’ve probably seen it compared in size to a raven, a rabbit, or a cat. Where’d those comparisons come from? You’re about to find out.
Back in April I ran some numbers to get a rough idea of the size of Aquilops, both for my own interest and so we’d have some comparisons handy when the paper came out.
I started with the much more completely known Archaeoceratops. The measurements of Scott Hartman’s skeletal recon (shown above and on Scott’s website – thanks, Scott!) match the measurements of the Archaeo holotype given by Dodson and You (2003) almost perfectly. The total length of Archaeoceratops, including tail, is almost exactly one meter. Using graphic double integration, I got a volume of 8.88L total for a 1m Archaeoceratops. That would come down to 8.0L if the lungs occupied 10% of body volume, which is pretty standard for non-birds. So that’s about 17-18 lbs.
Archaeoceratops has a rostrum-jugal length of 145mm, compared to 84mm in Aquilops. Making the conservative assumption that Aquilops = Archaeoceratops*0.58, I got a body length of 60cm (about two feet), and volumes of 1.73 and 1.56 liters with and without lungs, or about 3.5 lbs in life. The internet informed me that the common raven, Corvus corax, has an adult length of 56-78 cm and a body mass of 0.7-2 kg. So, based on this admittedly tall and teetering tower of assumptions, handwaving, and wild guesses, Aquilops (the holotype individual, anyway) was about the size of a raven, in both length and mass. But ravens, although certainly well-known, are maybe a bit remote from the experience of a lot of people, so we wanted a comparison animal that more people would be familiar with. The estimated length and mass of the holotype individual of Aquilops also nicely overlap the species averages (60 cm, 1.4-2.7 kg) for the black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, and they’re pretty close to lots of other rabbits as well, hence the comparison to bunnies.
Of course, ontogeny complicates things. Aquilops has some juvenile characters, like the big round orbit, but it doesn’t look like a hatchling. Our best guess is that it is neither a baby nor fully grown, but probably an older juvenile or young subadult. A full-grown Aquilops might have been somewhat larger, but almost certainly no larger than Archaeoceratops, and probably a meter or less in total length. So, about the size of a big housecat. That’s still pretty darned small for a non-avian dinosaur.
Although Aquilops represents everything I normally stand against – ornithischians, microvertebrates, heads – I confess that I have a sneaking affection for our wee beastie. Somebody’s just gotta make a little plush Aquilops, right? When and if that happens, you know where to find me.
- Dodson, P., and You, H.L. 2003. Redescription of neoceratopsian dinosaur Archaeoceratops and early evolution of Neoceratopsia. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48(2): 261-272.
- Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055
December 10, 2014
Today sees the description of Aquilops americanus (“American eagle face”), a new basal neoceratopsian from the Cloverly Formation of Montana, by Andy Farke, Rich Cifelli, Des Maxwell, and myself, with life restorations by Brian Engh. The paper, which has just been published in PLOS ONE, is open access, so you can download it, read it, share it, repost it, remix it, and in general do any of the vast scope of activities allowed under a CC-BY license, as long as we’re credited. Here’s the link – have fun.
Obviously ceratopsians are much more Andy’s bailiwick than mine, and you should go read his intro post here. In fact, you may well be wondering what the heck a guy who normally works on huge sauropod vertebrae is doing on a paper about a tiny ceratopsian skull. The short, short version is that I’m here because I know people.
The slightly longer version is that OMNH 34557, the holotype partial skull of Aquilops, was discovered by Scott Madsen back in 1999, on one of the joint Cloverly expeditions that Rich and Des had going on at the time (update: read Scott’s account of the discovery here). That the OMNH had gotten a good ceratopsian skull out of Cloverly has been one of the worst-kept secrets in paleo. But for various complicated reasons, it was still unpublished when I got to Claremont in 2008. Meanwhile, Andy Farke was starting to really rock out on ceratopsians at around that time.
For the record, the light bulb did not immediately go off over my head. In fact, it took a little over a year for me to realize, “Hey, I know two people with a ceratopsian that needs describing, and I also know someone who would really like to head that up. I should put these folks together.” So I proposed it to Rich, Des, and Andy in the spring of 2010, and here we are. My role on the paper was basically social glue and go-fer. And I drew the skull reconstruction – more on that in the next post.
Anyway, it’s not my meager contribution that you should care about. I am fairly certain that, just as Brontomerus coasted to global fame on the strength of Paco Gasco’s dynamite life restoration, whatever attention Aquilops gets will be due in large part to Brian Engh’s detailed and thoughtful work in bringing it to life – Brian has a nice post about that here. I am very happy to report that the three pieces Brian did for us – the fleshed-out head that appears at the top of this post and as Figure 6C in the paper, the Cloverly environment scene with the marauding Gobiconodon, and the sketch of the woman holding an Aquilops - are also available to world under the CC-BY license. So have fun with those, too.
Finally, I need to thank a couple of people. Steve Henriksen, our Vice President for Research here at Western University of Health Sciences, provided funds to commission the art from Brian. And Gary Wisser in our scientific visualization center used his sweet optical scanner to generate the hi-res 3D model of the skull. That model is also freely available online, as supplementary information with the paper. So if you have access to a 3D printer, you can print your own Aquilops – for research, for teaching, or just for fun.
Next time: Aquilöps gets röck döts.
Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055
November 22, 2014
Matt’s post yesterday was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read [archived copy]. Here is the key passage that we keep coming back to:
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.
… and of course as SV-POW! itself demonstrates, it doesn’t even need a WordPress install — you can just use the free online service.
This passage has made a lot of people very excited; and a lot other people very unhappy and even angry. There are several reasons for the widely differing responses, but I think one of the important ones is a pun on the word “publish”.
When Shirky uses the word, he is talking about making something public, available to the world. Which after all is its actual meaning.
But when academics use the word “publish” they usually mean something quite different — they mean the whole process that a research paper goes through between submission and a PDF appearing in a stable location (and in some cases, copies being printed). That process involves many other aspects besides actual publishing — something that in fact Shirky goes straight on to acknowledge:
The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.
And this is dead on target. Many writers need editors[*], to varying degrees. Fact-checking could be equated with peer-review, which we pretty much all agree is still very important. Most academic publishers do a certain amount of design (although I suspect that in the great majority of cases this is 99% automatic, and probably involves human judgement only in respect of where to position the illustrations).
But due to the historical accident that it used to be difficult and costly to make and distribute copies, all those other tasks — relatively inexpensive ones, back in the days when distribution was the expensive thing — have become bundled with the actual publishing. With hilarious consequences, as they say. You know, “hilarious” in the sense of “tragic, and breathtakingly frustrating”.
That’s why we’re stuck in an idiot world where, when we need someone to peer-review our manuscript, we usually trade away our copyright in exchange (and not even to the people who provide the expert review). If you stop and think about that for a moment, it makes absolutely no sense. When I recently wrote a book about Doctor Who, I had several people proofread it, but I didn’t hand over copyright to any of them. My ability to distribute copies was not hobbled by having had independent eyes look it over. There is no reason why it should have, and there is no reason why our ability to distribute copies of our academic works should be limited, either.
What we need is the ability to pay a reasonable fee for the services we need — peer-review, layout design, reference linking — and have the work published freely.
Well, wouldja lookit that. Looks like I just invented Gold Open Access.
Is publishing just a button? Yes. Making things public is now trivial to do, and in fact much of what so-called publishers now do is labouring to prevent things from being public. But we do need other things apart from actual publishing — things that publishers have historically provided, for reasons that used to make sense but no longer do.
Exactly what those things are, and how extensive and important they are, is a discussion for another day, but they do exist.
[*] Note: the whole issue of academic publishing is further confused by another pun, this one on the word “editor”. When Shirky refers to editors, he means people who sharpen up an author’s prose — cutting passages, changing word choices, etc. Academic editors very rarely do that, and would be resented if they did. In our world, an “editor” is usually the nominally independent third party who solicits and evaluates peer-reviews, and makes the accept/reject decision. Do we need editors, in this academic sense? We’ll discuss that properly another time, but I’ll say now that I am inclined to think we do.
November 18, 2014
I’ve been reading The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (Wood 1982) again. Here’s what he says on pages 98-99 about the strength of crocodiles, and what happens when they bite off more than they can chew.
The strength of the crocodile is quite appalling. Deraniyalga (1939) mentions a crocodile in N. Australia which seized and dragged into the river a magnificent 1 tonne Suffolk stallion which had recently been imported from England, despite the fact that this breed of horse can exert a pull of more than 2 tonnes, and there is at least one record of a full-grown black rhinoceros losing a tug-of-war with a big crocodile. Sometimes, however, even crocodiles over-estimate their strength. One day in the 1860s a hunted named Lesley was a witness when a saurian seized the hind-leg of a large bull African elephant while it was bathing in a river in Natal. The crocodile was promptly dragged up the bank by the enraged tusker and then squashed flat by one of its companions who had hurried to the rescue. The victorious elephant then picked up the bloody carcase with its trunk and lodged it in the fork of a nearby tree (Stokes, 1953). Oswell (1894) says he twice found the skeletons of crocodiles 15 ft 4.6 m up in trees by the river’s bank where they had been thrown by angry elephants. On another occasion a surprised crocodile suddenly found itself dangling 15 ft 4.6 m in mid-air when it foolishly seized a drinking giraffe by the head.
The idea of elephants lodging crocodile corpses up in trees seems too bizarre to be true, but seeing it independently attested by two witnesses makes me more ready to accept it. There’s plenty of Internet chatter about this happening, but I’ve not been able to find photos — or better yet, video — proving that it happens.
- Deraniyalga, P. 1939. The tetrapod reptiles of Ceylon, vol. 1: Testudinates and crocodilians. Colombo Nat. Mus., Ceylon.
- Oswell, W. Cotton. 1894. South Africa fifty years ago. Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes (Big Game Shooting), London.
- Stokes, C. W. 1953. Sanctuary. Cape Town.
- Wood, Gerald L. 1982. The Guinness Book of Animals Facts & Feats (3rd edition). Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex. 252 pp.