In discussion of Samuel Gershman’s rather good piece The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing, I got into this discusson on Twitter with David Mainwaring (who is usually one of the more interesting legacy-publisher representatives on these issues) and Daniel Allingon (who I don’t know at all).

I’ll need to give a bit of background before I reach the key part of that discussion, so here goes. I said that one of David’s comments was a patronising evasion, and that I expected better of him, and also that it was an explicit refusal to engage. David’s response was interesting:

First, to clear up the first half, I wasn’t at all saying that David hasn’t engaged in OA, but that in this instance he’d rejected engagement — and that his previous record of engaging with the issues was why I’d said “I expect better from you” at the outset.

Now with all that he-said-she-said out of the way, here’s the point I want to make.

David’s tweet quoted above makes a very common but insidious assumption: that a “nuanced” argument is intrinsically preferable to a simple one. And we absolutely mustn’t accept that.

We see this idea again and again: open-access advocates are criticised for not being nuanced, with the implication that this equates with not being right. But the right position is not always nuanced. Recruiting Godwin to the cause of a reductio ad absurdum, we can see this by asking the question “was Hitler right to commit genocide?” If you say “no”, then I will agree with you; I won’t criticise your position for lacking nuance. In this argument, nuance is superfluous.

[Tedious but probably necessary disclaimer: no, I am not saying that paywall-encumbered publishing is morally equivalent to genocide. I am saying that the example of genocide shows that nuanced positions are not always correct, and that therefore it's wrong to assume a priori that a nuanced position regarding paywalls is correct. Maybe a nuanced position is correct: but that is something to be demonstrated, not assumed.]

So when David says “What I do hold to is that a rounded view, nuance, w/ever you call it, is important”, I have to disagree. What matters is to be right, not nuanced. Again, sometimes the right position is nuanced, but there’s no reason to assume that from the get-go.

Here’s why this is dangerous: a nuanced, balanced, rounded position sounds so grown up. And by contrast, a straightforward, black-and-white one sounds so adolescent. You know, a straightforward, black-and-white position like “genocide is bad”. The idea of nuance plays on our desire to be respected. It sounds so flattering.

We mustn’t fall for this. Our job is to figure out what’s true, not what sounds grown-up.

I hate to keep flogging a dead horse, but since this issue won’t go away I guess I can’t, either.

1. Two years ago, I wrote about how you have to pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles. I showed how their open-access articles claimed “all rights reserved”, and how when you use the site’s facilities to ask about giving one electronic copy to a student, the price is £10.88. As I summarised at the time: “Free” means “we take the author’s copyright, all rights are reserved, but you can buy downloads at a 45% discount from what they would otherwise cost.” No-one from Elsevier commented.

2. Eight months ago, Peter Murray-Rust explained that Elsevier charges to read #openaccess articles. He showed how all three of the randomly selected open-access articles he looked at had download fees of $31.50. No-one from Elsevier commented (although see below).

3. A couple of days ago, Peter revisited this issue, and found that Elsevier are still charging THOUSANDS of pounds for CC-BY articles. IMMORAL, UNETHICAL , maybe even ILLEGAL.This time he picked another Elsevier OA article at random, and was quoted £8000 for permission to print 100 copies. The one he looked at says “Open Access” in gold at the top and “All rights reserved” at the bottom. Its “Get rights and content” link takes me to RightsLink, where I was quoted £1.66 to supply a single electronic copy to a student on a course at the University of Bristol:

Screenshot from 2014-03-11 09:40:35

(Why was I quoted a wildly different price from Peter? I don’t know. Could be to do with the different university, or because he proposed printing copies instead of using an electronic one.)

On Peter’s last article, an Elsevier representative commented:

Alicia Wise says:
March 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm
Hi Peter,

As noted in the comment thread to your blog back in August we are improving the clarity of our OA license labelling (eg on ScienceDirect) and metadata feeds (eg to Rightslink). This is work in progress and should be completed by summer. I am working with the internal team to get a more clear understanding of the detailed plan and key milestones, and will tweet about these in due course.

With kind wishes,


Dr Alicia Wise
Director of Access and Policy

(Oddly, I don’t see the referenced comment in the August blog-entry, but perhaps it was on a different article.)

Now here is my problem with this.

First of all, either this is deliberate fraud on Elsevier’s part — charging for the use of something that is free to use — or it’s a bug. Following Hanlon’s razor, I prefer the latter explanation. But assuming it’s a bug, why has it taken two years to address? And why is it still not fixed?

Elsevier, remember, are a company with an annual revenue exceeding £2bn. That’s £2,000,000,000. (Rather pathetically, their site’s link to the most recent annual report is broken, but that’s a different bug for a different day.) Is it unreasonable to expect that two years should be long enough for them to fix a trivial bug?

All that’s necessary is to change the “All rights reserved” message and the “Get rights and content” link to say “This is an open-access article, and is free to re-use”. We know that the necessary metadata is there because of the “Open Access” caption at the top of the article. So speaking from my perspective as a professional software developer of more than thirty years’ standing, this seems like a ten-line fix that should take maybe a man-hour; at most a man-day. A man-day of programmer time would cost Elsevier maybe £500 — that is, 0.000025% of the revenue they’ve taken since this bug was reported two years ago. Is it really too much to ask?

(One can hardly help comparing this performance with that of PeerJ, who have maybe a ten-thousandth of Elsevier’s income and resources. When I reported three bugs to them in a course of a couple of days, they fixed them all with an average report-to-fix time of less than 21 hours.)

Now here’s where it turns sinister.

The PeerJ bugs I mentioned above cost them — not money, directly, but a certain amount of reputation. By fixing them quickly, they fixed that reputation damage (and indeed gained reputation by responding so quickly). By contrast, the Elsevier bug we’re discussing here doesn’t cost them anything. It makes them money, by misleading people into paying for permissions that they already have. In short, not fixing this bug is making money for Elsevier. It’s hard not to wonder: would it have remained unfixed for two years if it was costing them money?

But instead of a rush to fix the bug, we have this kind of thing:

I find that very hard to accept. However complex your publishing platform is, however many different modules interoperate, however much legacy code there is — it’s not that hard to take the conditional that emits “Open Access” in gold at the top of the article, and make the same test in the other relevant places.

As John Mark Ockerbloom observes:

Come on, Elsevier. You’re better than this. Step up. Get this done.

Update (21st March 2014)

Ten days layer, Elsevier have finally responded. To give credit where it’s due, it’s actually pretty good: it notes how many customers made payments they needn’t have made (about 50), how much they paid in total (about $4000) and says that they are actively refunding these payments.

It would be have been nice, mind you, had this statement contained an actual apology: the words “sorry”, “regret” and “apologise” are all notably absent.

And I remain baffled that the answer to “So when will this all be reliable?” is “by the summer of 2014″. As noted above, the pages in question already have the information that the articles are open access, as noted in the gold “Open Access” text at top right of the pages. Why it’s going to take several more months to use that information elsewhere in the same pages is a mystery to me.

Update 2 (24th March 2014)

As noted by Alicia in a comment below, Elsevier employee Chris Shillum has posted a long comment on Elsevier’s response, explaining in more detail what the technical issues are. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to link directly to the comment, but it’s the fifth one.


Although it would be nice to think that our site views have octupled in the last day because of Mike’s fine and funny posts about what search terms bring people to SV-POW!, the real reason is that we were blessed by incoming links from both pages of this article.

Now, as any person who has ever accomplished anything whatsoever knows, it is super-important to avoid or you’ll still be up 23 hours from now reading, “6 Mind-Blowing Ways that Comedy Writers are Secretly Destroying Your Productivity”. (I’m kidding, that article doesn’t really exist–but if it did, I’m sure it would consist entirely of descriptions and links to six other Cracked articles). But that’s only true because most of the articles there hit the sweet spot at the intersection of funny, surprisingly informative, mercifully short, and well-written. would be a more honest URL, but I assume it was taken.

Anyway, I’d like to return the favor, so here’s a list of the 6 SV-POW! Posts Most Likely to Blow the Minds of Readers. If I missed some goodies or recommended some stinkers, let me know–the comment thread is open.

Amphicoelias vert reconstruction by Mike

1.How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really?

Who doesn’t want to read about the bizarre real-world mystery surrounding what might have been the world’s largest dinosaur? If you’re not sold, consider that the picture above shows a single vertebra that was–or at least might have been–seven and a half feet tall.

long nerves of sauropods

2. Oblivious sauropods being eaten

The mercifully short version of this much longer post, in which I consider the consequences of the world’s largest animals having the world’s longest cells.


3. The sauropods of Star Wars

Weapons-grade anatomical pedantry.

Umbaran starfighters

4. CONFIRMED: the Umbaran Starfighter is an Apatosaurus cervical

Yes, there is a ship in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that is basically a flying dinosaur vertebra. It took us about five weeks to unravel that story–the post linked above has links to the rest of the saga.


5. SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales

Our original linkbait post. Don’t miss the shorter follow-up with more critters.

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

6. Friday phalanges: Megaraptor vs Saurophaganax

A deliberately goofy post in which I wax poetic about the largest predatory dinosaur claws ever discovered.

So, that was a big pile of superlatives and Star Wars. If you’re hungry for more substantial fare, you might start with our Tutorials page or our Things to Make and Do series on dissecting and skeletonizing modern animals. We also blog a lot about the evils of obstructive publishers and the need for open access to the scientific literature–you can find those posts on our Shiny Digital Future page.


A parting shot in my desperate quest for attention: this Star Wars ship flying around in the background in Firefly and Serenity is at least partly my fault–full story here. Oh, and my co-blogger Mike Taylor has written an insightful and affordable book about Doctor Who; read about it here.

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The Sauroposeidon stuff is cribbed from this post. For the pros and cons of scale bars in figures, see the comment thread after this post. MYDD is, of course, a thing now.

Previous posts in this series.


Wedel, M.J., and Taylor, M.P. 2013. Neural spine bifurcation in sauropod dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation: ontogenetic and phylogenetic implications. Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology 10(1): 1-34. ISSN 1567-2158.

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Link from second slide. Other posts in this series.


Osborn, Henry Fairfield, and Charles C. Mook. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, n.s. 3:247-387, and plates LX-LXXXV.

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Previous posts in this series are here.

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Somewhat lamely, this is the only slide I had in about lighting. I left it up while I talked about the most important points, which are:

  • Don’t use a flash unless you absolutely have to.
  • If you can swing it, the common convention is to have specimens illuminated from the upper left.*
  • If you have the time, it’s not a bad idea to bracket your Goldilocks shot with brighter and darker photos, by fiddling with your camera settings.

* I happily violate this convetion if illumination from another angle shows the specimen to better advantage–and if I have any control over illumination. Working with big bones in some collections, you basically have overhead florescent lights and that’s it. The NHM shot above may look not-so-hot, but there we at least had a desk lamp we could move around. In a lot of places I’ve worked, I didn’t have even that.

The other posts in this series are here.

Stop what you’re doing and go read Cameron Neylon’s blog. Specifically, read his new post, Improving on “Access to Research”.

Regular readers of SV-POW! might legitimately complain that my so-called advocacy consists mostly of whining about how rubbish things are. If you find that wearying (and I won’t blame you if you do), then read Cameron instead: he goes beyond critiquing what is, and sees what could be. Here is a key quote on this new post:

I did this on a rainy Saturday afternoon because I could, because it helped me learn a few things, and because it was fun. I’m one of tens or hundreds of thousands who could have done this, who might apply those skills to cleaning up the geocoding of species in research articles, or extracting chemical names, or phylogenetic trees, or finding new ways to understand the networks of influence in the research literature. I’m not going to ask for permission, I’m not going to go out of my way to get access, and I’m not going to build something I’m not allowed to share. A few dedicated individuals will tackle the permissions issues and the politics. The rest will just move on to the next interesting, and more accessible, puzzle.

Right! Open access is not about reducing subscription costs to libraries, or about  slicing away the absurd profits of the legacy publishers, or about a change to business models. It’s about doing new and exciting things that simply weren’t possible before.


Recently I had the opportunity to give a talk on photographing specimens and preparing illustrations in Jim Parham‘s phylogenetics course at Cal State Fullerton. Jim is having each student (1) write a description of a specimen, (2) run a phylogenetic analysis, and (3) do some kind of calibration on their tree. I think that’s rad.

Anyway, it was fun talk and I wanted to put it up for everyone, but Mike had the idea of posting a batch of slides at a time, to hopefully fire some discussion on different aspects of photography and illustration. So if you’re impatient to see the whole thing, blame him! I will post the whole talk at the end of the post series, and you can find all of the talk posts here.

And now, on with the show.

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From the files of J. K. Rowling.

Dear Ms. Rowling,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We will be happy to consider it for publication. However we have some concerns about the excessive length of this manuscript. We usually handle works of 5-20 pages, sometimes as much as 30 pages. Your 1337-page manuscript exceeds these limits, and requires some trimming.

We suggest that this rather wide-ranging work could usefully be split into a number of smaller, more tightly focussed, papers. In particular, we feel that the “magic” theme is not appropriate for our venue, and should be excised from the current submission.

Assuming you are happy to make these changes, we will be pleased to work with you on this project.

Correspondence ends.

Esteemed Joenne Kay Rowling,

We are delightful to recieve your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and we look forword to publish it in our highly prestigious International Journal of Story Peer Reviewed which in 2013 is awarded an impact factor of 0.024.

Before we can progression this mutually benefit work, we require you to send a cheque for $5,000 US Dollars to the above address.

Correspondence ends.

Dear J.R.R. Rowling,

We are in receipt of your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Unfortunately, after a discussion with the editorial board, we concluded that it is insufficiently novel to warrant publication in our journal, which is one of the leading venues in its field. Although your work is well executed, it does not represent a significant advance in scholarship.

That is not to say that minor studies such as yours are of no value, however! Have you considered one of the smaller society journals?

Correspondence ends.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Your submission Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has passed initial editorial checks and will now be sent to two peer-reviewers. We will contact you when we have their reports and are able to make a decision.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Re: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

We agree that eighteen months is too long for a manuscript to spend in review. On making inquiries, we find that we are unfortunately no longer able to contact the editor who was handling your submission.

We have appointed a new handling editor, who will send your submission to two new reviewers. We will contact you as soon as the new editor has made a decision.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Re: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Your complaint is quite justified. We will chase the reviewers.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am pleased to say that the reviewers have returned their reports on your submission Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and we are able to make an editiorial decision, which is ACCEPT WITH MAJOR REVISION.

Reviewer 1 felt that the core point of your contribution could be made much more succinctly, and recommended that you remove the characters of Ron, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid and Snape. I concur with his assessment that the final version will be tighter and stronger for these cuts, and am confident that you can make them in a way that does not compromise the plot.

Reviewer 2 was positive over all, but did not like being surprised by the ending, and felt that it should have been outlined in the abstract. She also felt that citation of earlier works including Lewis (1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956) and Pullman (1995, 1997, 2000) would be appropriate, and noted an over-use of constructions such as “… said Hermione, warningly”.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for your revised manuscript of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which it is our pleasure to accept. We now ask you to sign the attached copyright transfer form, so we can proceed with publication.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am sorry that you are unhappy about this, but transfer of copyright is our standard procedure, and we must insist on it as a prerequisite for publication. None of our other authors have complained.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for the signed copyright transfer form.

In answer to your query, no, we do not pay royalties.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Sadly, no, we are unable to make an exception in the matter of royalties.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Your book has now been formatted. We attach a proof PDF. Please read this very carefully as this is the last chance to spot errors.

You will readily appreciate that publishing is an expensive business. In order to remain competitive we have had to reduce costs, and as a result we are no longer able to offer proof-reading or copy-editing. Therefore you are responsible for ensuring the copy is clean.

At this stage, changes should be kept as small as possible, otherwise a charge may be incurred for re-typesetting.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Many thanks for returning the corrected proofs of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We will proceed with publication.

Now that the final length of your contribution is known, we are able to assess page charges. At 607 pages, this work exceeds our standard twenty free pages by 587. At $140 US per page, this comes to $82,180. We would be grateful if you would forward us a cheque for this amount at your convenience.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for you prompt payment of the page charges. We agree that these are regrettable, but sadly they are part of the reality of the publishing business.

We are delighted to inform you that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is now published online, and has been assigned the DOI 10.123.45678.

We thank you for working on this fine contribution with us, and hope you will consider us for your future publications.

Dear Dr. Rowling

You are correct, your book is not freely downloadable. As we explained earlier in this correspondence, publishing is an expensive business. We recover our substantial costs by means of subscriptions and paid downloads.

In our experience, those with the most need to read your book will probably have institutional access. As for those who do not: if your readers are as keen as you say, they will no doubt find the customary download fee of $37.95 more than reasonable. Alternatively, readers can rent online access at the convenient price of $9.95 per 24 hours.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am sorry that you feel the need to take that tone. I must reiterate, as already stated, that the revenues from download charges are not sufficient for us to be able to pay royalties. The $37.95 goes to cover our own costs.

If you wish for your book to be available as “open access”, then you may take advantage of our Freedom Through Slavery option. This will attract a further charge of $3,000, which can be paid by cheque as previously.

Dr. Rowling

Your attitude is really quite difficult to understand. All of this was quite clearly set out on our web-site, and should have been understood by you before you made your submission.

As stated in the copyright transfer form that you signed, you do not retain the right to post freely downloadable copies of your work, since you are no longer the copyright holder.

Dr. Rowling

We must ask you not to contact your handling editor directly. He was quite shaken by your latest outburst. If you feel you must write to us again, we must ask you to moderate your language, which is quite unsuitable for a lady. Meanwhile, we remind you that our publishing agreement follows industry best practice. It’s too late to complain about it now.

Correspondence ends.

Dear Pyramid Web-Hosting,

Copyright claim

We write on behalf of our client, Ancient Monolith Scholarly Publishing, who we assert are the copyright holders of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It has come to our attention that a copy of this copyrighted work has been posted on a site hosted by you at the URL below.

This letter is official notification under the provisions of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to effect removal of the above-reported infringement. We request that you immediately issue a cancellation message as specified in RFC 1036 for the specified posting and prevent the infringer, Ms. J. K. Rowling, from posting the infringing material to your servers in the future. Please be advised that law requires you, as a service provider, to “expeditiously remove or disable access to” the infringing material upon receiving this notice. Noncompliance may result in a loss of immunity for liability under the DMCA.

Please send us at the address above a prompt response indicating the actions you have taken to resolve this matter.

Correspondence ends.

Historical Note

Examination of Ms. Rowling’s personal effects established that she had written most of a seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. However, Rowling never sought to publish this final book in the series.


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