Today should be a day of rejoicing, as it brings us a new sauropod: Arackar licanantay Rubilar-Rogers et al. 2021., a small titanosaur from Chile.

It’s not, though. Because not only is this paper behind a paywall in Elsevier’s journal Cretaceous Research, but the paywalled paper is what they term a “pre-proof” — a fact advertised in a tiny font half way down the page rather than in a giant red letters at the top.

“Pre-proof” is not a term in common usage. What does it mean? It turns out to be an unformatted, double-spaced, and line-numbered manuscript. In other words, this is an AAM (author’s accepted manuscript) of the kind that the authors could have deposited in their institutional repository for anyone to read for free.

But wait — there’s more! By way of “added value”, Elsevier have slapped a big intrusive “journal pre-proof” watermark across the middle of every single page, to make it even less readable than a double-spaced line-numbered manuscript already is:

Sample page from “pre-proof” of Rubilar-Rogers et al. 2021. Reproduced under the Fair Dealing doctrine as non-commercial research, criticism / review / quotation, and news reporting (sections 29, 30, 178 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988). Get back in your box, Elsevier copyright lawyers.

If you want to see this for yourself, Elsevier will let you download it for $37.95:

Yeah. Thirty-seven dollars and 95 cents.

And now, the punchline. You may be wondering why, when a new sauropod has been announced, I didn’t lead with a nice image of one of the vertebrae? After all, are we not Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week?

It’s because there are no images of the vertebra. There are no images of any of the fossil material. In fact, there are no images at all.

Yes. This “pre-proof” omits all twelve illustrations. (We know there are twelve images, because all the figure captions appear at the end.) I have no idea what Arackar licanantay looks like. None at all. And for this, let’s just remind ourselves again, they charge $37.95.

I want to be careful throwing words like “fraud” around, but what I will say is that this is behaviour unbecoming of a major and once-respected multinational corporation. If a publisher’s behaviour ever merited the label “predatory”, surely this is it.

 

References

  • Rubilar-Rogers, David, Alexander O. Vargas, Bernardo González Riga, Sergio Soto-Acuña, Jhonatan Alarcón-Muñoz, José Iriarte-Díaz, Carlos Arévalo and Carolina S. Gutstein. 2021. Arackar licanantay gen. et sp. nov. a new lithostrotian (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of the Atacama Region, northern Chile. Cretaceous Research 104802 (pre-proof). doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2021.104802

 

A sauropod on Mars

February 24, 2021

This is old news, for those who have been following NASA’s Perseverance rover since before it left Earth, and it’s also not my find–my friend, colleague, and sometime co-author Brian Kraatz send me a heads-up about it this morning.

NASA posted the image above a couple of days ago, in a post called “Mastcam-Z looks at its calibration target“. If you zoom in, you can just make out a tiny silhouette of a sauropod on the ring around the MarsDial (what we call a sundial on Mars).

Here’s a much clearer pre-launch image from the Planetary Society (link), which helped design the calibration targets. Starting at about 7:00 and going around clockwise, there’s an image of the inner Solar System, with the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, then DNA, bacteria, a fern, a sauropod, humans (same silhouettes as on the Pioneer probes), a retro-style rocket ship, and finally a motto, “Two worlds, one beginning”, which may be a sly nod to the hypothesis that life in the inner Solar System started on Mars and was later seeded to Earth on meteorites–or possibly vice versa.

What’s with all this bling? It’s all about calibrating the cameras on Perseverance. The MarsDial gives the position and angle of the sun, and the colored dots help calibrate the color output of the cameras. There are other calibration targets for other cameras on board Perseverance, as well as some other technological ‘Easter eggs’ from the folks who designed and built the rover–read more about them here (link).

Perseverance is up there to explore “the potential of Mars as a place for life” (source), both past and future. Its four science objectives are:

  1. Looking for Habitability: Identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
  2. Seeking Biosignatures: Seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time.
  3. Caching Samples: Collect core rock and “soil” samples and store them on the Martian surface. [For a future sample-return mission.–MJW]
  4. Preparing for Humans: Test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

Personally, I have my fingers firmly crossed that Perseverance finds something like this sticking out of a Martian rock:

(That one is actually from Utah, not Mars–see this post.) I don’t see any other way that my particular skill set is going to contribute to the exploration of the Solar System, which I’d really like to do. So I’ll wait, and watch Perseverance send back pictures, and wait some more. Sigh.

Anyway, there’s at least one sauropod on Mars, and that will have to do (for now!).

Bonus: if you haven’t watched the video of the rocket skycrane delivering the car-sized Perseverance to the surface of Mars, you need to. And if you have watched it, who cares, watch it again:

Figure 3. BIBE 45854, articulated series of nine mid and posterior cervical vertebrae of a large, osteologically mature Alamosaurus sanjuanensis. Series is estimated to represent the sixth to fourteenth cervical vertebrae. A, composite photo-mosaic of the cervical series in right lateral view; identification of each vertebra indicated by C6 to C14, respectively. B, line drawing based on the photo-mosaic in A. C, line drawing in B with labels shown and vertebral fossae indicated by solid grey fill; cross-hatching represents broken bone surfaces and reconstructive material. Abbreviations: C, cervical vertebra; cdf, centrodiapophyseal fossa; clf, centrum lateral fossa; pocdf, postzygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; prcdf, prezygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; prcdf1, dorsal prezygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; prcdf2, ventral prezygapophyseal centrodiapophyseal fossa; sdf, spinodiapophyseal fossa; spof, spinopostzygapophyseal fossa; sprf, spinoprezygapophyseal fossa. (Tykoski and Fiorillo 2016)

Have you been reading Justin Tweet’s series, “Your Friends the Titanosaurs“, at his awesomely-named blog, Equatorial Minnesota? If not, get on it. He’s been running the series since June, 2018, so this notice is only somewhat grotesquely overdue. The latest installment, on Alamosaurus from Texas and Mexico, is phenomenal. I have never seen another summary or review that pulled together so much of the relevant literature and explained it all so well. Seriously, that blog post deserves to be a review paper; it could be submitted pretty much as-is, although it would be even better with his two other Alamosaurus posts integrated (this one, and this one). It’s great work, is what I’m saying, and it needs to be acknowledged.

In particular, I was struck by the note by Anonymous in 1941 on the discovery of a cervical vertebra 1.2 meters long. I’d never heard of that ref, and I’ve never seen that vert, but at 120cm it would be in the top 7 longest cervical vertebrae on the planet (see the latest version of the list in this post), narrowly beating out the 118-cm cervical of Puertasaurus. In fairness, the preserved cervical of Puertasaurus is probably a posterior one, and more anterior cervicals might have been longer. Then again, in the big Alamosaurus neck the longest verts are pretty darned posterior, so…we need more Puertasaurus.

EDIT a few hours later: Thanks to the kind offices of Justin Tweet, I’ve now seen Anonymous (1941), and the exact wording is, “A single vertebra, or neck joint bone, is three feet across, only two inches less than four feet long, and in its present fossilized state weighs 600 pounds.” ‘Two inches less than four feet long’ is 46 inches or a hair under 117cm, which puts the supposed giant cervical just behind Puertasaurus after all, but still firmly in the top 10. And depending on how one interprets the passage in Anonymous (1941), it might not have been any bigger than BIBE 45854–see this comment for details.

Big cervical showdown. From the top left: BYU 9024, originally referred to Supersaurus but more likely representing a giant Barosaurus (137cm); the single available cervical of Puertasaurus (118cm); a world-record giraffe neck (2.4m); Alamosaurus referred cervical series BIBE 45854, longest centra are ~81cm; Sauroposeidon holotype OMNH 53062, longest centrum is 125cm. This image makes it very clear that whatever Sauroposeidon was doing, it was a way different thing from Alamosaurus.

Crucially, the longest vertebrae in the BIBE 45854 series are about 80 or 81 cm long, which means that a 1.2-meter cervical would be half again as large. That is a pretty staggering thought, and that individual of Alamosaurus–assuming it was the same taxon as BIBE 45854, and not some other, longer-necked critter–would definitely be a contender for the largest sauropod of all time.

Illustrations here are of the big Alamosaurus cervical series from Big Bend, which was comprehensively described by Ron Tykoski and Tony Fiorillo in 2016, and which we have covered in these previous posts:

References

  • Anonymous. 1941. Find dinosaur neck bone nearly four feet long. The Science News-Letter 39(1):6–7.
  • Tykoski, R.S. and Fiorillo, A.R. 2016. An articulated cervical series of Alamosaurus sanjuanensis Gilmore, 1922 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from Texas: new perspective on the relationships of North America’s last giant sauropod. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 15(5):339-364.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my and Matt’s paper in Qeios about why vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods is so variable. (Taylor and Wedel 2021). We were intrigued to publish on this new platform that supports post-publication peer-review, partly just to see what happened.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: figure 3). Brontosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980, caudal vertebrae 7 and 8 in right lateral view. Caudal 7, like most of the sequence, has a single vascular foramen on the right side of its centrum, but caudal 8 has two; others, including caudal 1, have none.

So what has happened? Well, as I write this, the paper has been viewed 842 times, downloaded a healthy 739 times, and acquired an altmetric score 21, based rather incestuously on two SV-POW! blog-posts, 14 tweets and a single Mendeley reader.

What hasn’t happened is even a single comment on the paper. Nothing that could be remotely construed as a post-publication peer-review. And therefore no progress towards our being able to count this as a peer-reviewed publication rather than a preprint — which is how I am currently classifying it in my publications list.

This, despite our having actively solicited reviews both here on SV-POW!, in the original blog-post, and in a Facebook post by Matt. (Ironically, the former got seven comments and the latter got 20, but the actual paper none.)

I’m not here to complain; I’m here to try to understand.

On one level, of course, this is easy to understand: writing a more-than-trivial comment on a scholarly article is work, and it garners very little of the kind of credit academics care about. Reputation on the Qeios site is nice, in a that-and-two-bucks-will-buy-me-a-coffee kind of way, but it’s not going to make a difference to people’s CVs when they apply for jobs and grants — not even in the way that “Reviewed for JVP” might. I completely understand why already overworked researchers don’t elect to invest a significant chunk of time in voluntarily writing a reasoned critique of someone else’s work when they could be putting that time into their own projects. It’s why so very few PLOS articles have comments.

On the other hand, isn’t this what we always do when we write a solicited peer-review for a regular journal?

So as I grope my way through this half-understood brave new world that we’re creating together, I am starting to come to the conclusion that — with some delightful exceptions — peer-review is generally only going to happen when it’s explicitly solicited by a handling editor, or someone with an analogous role. No-one’s to blame for this: it’s just reality that people need a degree of moral coercion to devote that kind of effort to other people’s project. (I’m the same; I’ve left almost no comments on PLOS articles.)

Am I right? Am I unduly pessimistic? Is there some other reason why this paper is not attracting comments when the Barosaurus preprint did? Teach me.

References

 

What if I told you that when Matt was in BYU collections a while ago, he stumbled across a cervical vertebra — one labelled DM/90 CVR 3+4, say — that looked like this in anterior view?

I think you would say something like “That looks like a Camarasaurus cervical, resembling as it does those illustrated in the beautiful plates of Osborn and Mook (1921)”. And then you might show me, for example, the left half of Plate LXII:

And then you might think to yourself that, within its fleshy envelope, this vertebra might have looked a bit like this, in a roughly circular neck:

Reasonable enough, right?

But when what if I then told you that in fact the vertebra was twice this wide relative to its height, and looked like this?

I’m guessing you might say “I don’t believe this is real. You must have produced it by stretching the real photo”. To which I would reply “No no, hypothetical interlocutor, the opposite is the case! I squashed the real photo — this one — to produce the more credible-seeming one at the top of the post”.

You would then demand to see proper photographic evidence, and I would respond by posting these three images (which Matt supplied from his 2019 BYU visit):

BYU specimen DM/90 CVR 3+4, cervical vertebra of ?Camarasaurus in anterior view. This is the photo from which the illustration above was extracted.

The same specimen in anteroventral view.

The same specimen in something approaching ventral view.

So what’s going on here? My first thought was that this speicmen has to have been dorsoventrally crushed — that this can’t be the true shape.

And yet … counterpoint: the processes don’t look crushed: check out the really nice 3d preservation of the neural spine metapophyses, the prezygs, the transverse processes, the nice, rounded parapophyseal rami, and even the ventral aspect of the centrum. This vertebra is actually in pretty good condition.

So is this real? Is this the vertebra more or less as it was in life? And if so, does that mean that the flesh envelope looked like this?

Look, I’m not saying it isn’t ridiculous; I’m just saying this seems to be more or less where the evidence is pointing. We’ve made a big deal about how the necks of apatosaurines were more or less triangular in cross-section, rather than round as has often been assumed; perhaps we need to start thinking about whether some camarasaur necks were squashed ovals in cross section?

Part of what’s crazy here is that this makes no mechanical sense. A cantilevered structure, such as a sauropod neck, needs to be tall rather than wide in order to attain good mechanical advantage that can take the stress imposed by the neck’s weight. A broad neck is silly: it adds mass that needs to be carried without providing high anchors for the tension members. Yet this is what we see. Evolution doesn’t always do what we would expect it to do — and it goes off the rails when sexual selection comes into play. Maybe female camarasaurus were just really into wide-necked males?

Final note: I have been playing fast and loose with the genus name Camarasaurus and the broader, vaguer term camarasaur. Matt and I have long felt (without having made any real attempt to justify this feeling) that Camarasaurus is way over-lumped, and probably contains multiple rather different animals. Maybe there is a flat-necked species in among them?

(Or maybe it’s just crushing.)

This is RAM 1619, a proximal caudal vertebra of an apatosaurine, in posterior view. It’s one of just a handful of sauropod specimens at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. It’s a donated specimen, which came with very little documentation. It was originally catalogued only to a very gross taxonomic level, but I had a crack at it on a collections visit in 2018, when I took these photos. I told Andy Farke and the other Alf folks right away, I just never got around to blogging about it until now.

Why do I think it’s an apatosaurine? A few reasons: 

  • it’s slightly procoelous, which is pretty common for diplodocids, whereas caudals of Haplocanthosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Brachiosaurus are all either amphicoelous or amphiplatyan;
  • it has big pneumatic fossae above the transverse processes, unlike Haplo, Cam, and Brachio, but it lacks big pneumatic fossae below the transverse processes, unlike Diplodocus and Barosaurus
  • and finally the clincher: the centrum is taller than wide, and broader dorsally than ventrally.

In the literature this centrum shape is described as ‘heart-shaped’ (e.g., Tschopp et al. 2015), and sometimes there is midline dorsal depression that really sells it. That feature isn’t present in this vert, but overall it’s still much closer to a heart-shape than the caudals of any non-apatosaurine in the Morrison. Hence the literal 11th-hour Valentine’s Day post (and yes, this will go up with a Feb. 15 date because SV-POW! runs on England time, but it’s still the 14th here in SoCal, at least for another minute or two).

RAM 1619 in postero-dorsal view.

Back to the pneumaticity. Occasionally an apatosaurine shows up with big lateral fossae ventral to the transverse processes–the mounted one at the Field Museum is a good example (see this post). And the big Oklahoma apatosaurine breaks the rules by having very pneumatic caudals–more on that in the future. But at least in the very proximal caudals of non-gigantic apatosaurines, it’s more common for there to be pneumatic fossae above the transverse processes, near the base of the neural arch. You can see that in caudal 3 of UWGM 15556/CM 563, a specimen of Brontosaurus parvus:

I don’t think I’d figured out this difference between above-the-transverse-process (supracostal, perhaps) and below-the-transverse-process (infracostal, let’s say) pneumatic fossae when Mike and I published our caudal pneumaticity paper back in 2013. I didn’t start thinking seriously about the dorsal vs ventral distribution of pneumatic features until sometime later (see this post). And I need to go check my notes and photos before I’ll feel comfortable calling supracostal fossae the apatosaurine norm. But I am certain that Diplodocus and Barosaurus have big pneumatic foramina on the lateral faces of their proximal caudals (see this post, for example), Haplocanthosaurus and brachiosaurids have infracostal fossae when they have any fossae at all in proximal caudals (distally the fossae edge up to the base of the neural arch in Giraffatitan), and to date there are no well-documented cases of caudal pneumaticity in Camarasaurus (if that seems like a hedge, sit tight and W4TP). 

RAM 1619 has asymmetric pneumatic fossae, which is pretty cool, and also pretty common, and we think we have a hypothesis to explain that now–see Mike’s and my new paper in Qeios.

And if I’m going to make my midnight deadline, even on Pacific Time, I’d best sign off. More cool stuff inbound real soon.

References

Fiona made me a cake for tomorrow.

She asked me if the flowers were OK. I said there were flowering plants at the end of the Cretaceous, so this is acceptable so long as we interpret the sauropod as a titanosaur.

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

Here are cervicals 4 and 8 from MB.R.2180, the big mounted Giraffatitan in Berlin. Even though this is one of the better sauropod necks in the world, the vertebrae have enough taphonomic distortion that trying to determine what neutral, uncrushed shape they started from is not easy.

Wedel and Taylor 2013b: Figure 3. The caudal vertebrae of ostriches are highly pneumatic. This mid-caudal vertebra of an ostrich (Struthio camelus), LACM Bj342, is shown in dorsal view (top), anterior, left lateral, and posterior views (middle, left to right), and ventral view (bottom). The vertebra is approximately 5cm wide across the transverse processes. Note the pneumatic foramina on the dorsal, ventral, and lateral sides of the vertebra.

Here’s one of the free caudal vertebrae of an ostrich, Struthio camelus, LACM Ornithology Bj342. It’s a bit asymmetric–the two halves of the neural spine are aimed in slightly different directions, and one transverse process is angled just slightly differently than the other–but the asymmetry is pretty subtle and the rest of the vertebral column looks normal, so I don’t think this rises to the level of pathology. It looks like the kind of minor variation that is present in all kinds of animals, especially large-bodied ones.

This is a dorsal vertebra of a rhea, Rhea americana, LACM Ornithology 97479, in posteroventral view. Ink pen for scale. I took this photo to document the pneumatic foramina and related bone remodeling on the dorsal roof of the neural canal, but I’m showing it here because in technical terms this vert is horked. It’s not subtly asymmetric, it’s grossly so, with virtually every feature–the postzygapophyses, diapophyses, parapophyses, and even the posterior articular surface of the centrum–showing fairly pronounced differences from left to right.

That rhea dorsal looks pretty bad for dry bone from a recently-dead extant animal, but if it was from the Morrison Formation it would be phenomenal. If I found a sauropod vertebra that looked that good, I’d think, “Hey, this thing’s in pretty good shape! Only a little distorted.” The roughed-up surface of the right transverse process might give me pause, and I’d want to take a close look at those postzygs, but most of this asymmetry is consistent with what I’d expect from taphonomic distortion.

Which brings me to my titular question, which I am asking out of genuine ignorance and not in a rhetorical or leading way: can we tell these things apart? And if so, with what degree of confidence? I know there has been a lot of work on 3D retrodeformation over the past decade and a half at least, but I don’t know whether this specific question has been addressed.

Corollary question: up above I wrote, “It looks like the kind of minor variation that is present in all kinds of animals, especially large-bodied ones”. My anecdotal experience is that the vertebrae of large extant animals tend to be more asymmetric than those of small extant animals, but I don’t know if that’s a real biological phenomenon–bone is bone but big animals have larger forces working on their skeletons, and they typically live longer, giving the skeleton more time to respond to those forces–OR if the asymmetry is the same in large and small animals and it’s just easier to see in the big ones.

If either of those questions has been addressed, I’d be grateful for pointers in the comments, and thanks in advance. If one or both have not been addressed, I think they’re interesting but Mike and I have plenty of other things to be getting on with and we’re not planning to work on either one, hence the “Hey, you! Want a project?” tag.

References

Bonaparte’s (1999) description of the Early Cretaceous sauropod Agustinia ligabuie was notable for its identification of nine bony fragments as representing dermal armour, which he classified into Types 1–4. Here are some examples:

Bonaparte 1999: figure 3. Agustinia ligabuei gen et sp. nov. Osteoderms. A, Type 1. B, Type 2. C, Type 3. Abbrev.: po, thick proximal ossification.

Consequently, Augustinia was for many years restored as uniquely spiky, a sort of “stegosaur sauropod”:

But Bellardini and Cerda (2017) showed that the so-called “osteoderms” are probably no such thing, but represent other, more normal, bony elements. Bonaparte’s types 1, 3 and 4 were all reinterpreted as complete or partial dorsal ribs, and type 2 as a portion of the iliac blade:

Bellardini and Cerda 2017: figure 6. Bony element type 2 (MCF-PVPH-110/08) of A. ligabuei, in medial (A1–2), and lateral views (B1–2) with interpretive line drawings. In this work we propose that MCF-PVPH-110/08 is a dorsal portion of the left iliac blade, centered above the acetabulum (C). Abbreviations: dmil dorsal margin of iliac blade, poap post-acetabular process, prap pre-acetabular process, sr sacral rib. Dashed lines indicate missing bone. Asterisks indicate the hypothetical position of morphological features.

However, careful re-examination of Bellardini and Cerda 2017: figure 6: part A1 shows clearly that the so-called type-2 osteoderm is in fact a sheep:

This is a significant finding, as the origin of Artiodactyla is generally held to have occurred in the early Eocene, with the earliest known representatives being from Europe, Asia, and North America (Rose 1996). The reidentification of the A. ligabuei type-2 osteoderm as a sheep pushes back the origin of artiodactyls by some 60 million years to the Aptian or Albian, and locates South America as the continent of origin.

References

  • Bellardini, Flavio, and Ignacio A. Cerda. 2017. Bone histology sheds light on the nature of the “dermal armor” of the enigmatic sauropod dinosaur Agustinia ligabuei Bonaparte, 1999. The Science of Nature 104(1):1-13. doi:10.1007/s00114-016-1423-7
  • Bonaparte, Jose F. 1999. An armoured sauropod from the Aptian of northern Patagonia, Argentina. pp. 1-12 in Y. Tomida, T. H. Rich and P. Vickers-Rich (eds.), Proceedings of the Second Gondwanan Dinosaur Symposium, Tokyo National Science Museum Monograph 15. Tokyo National Science Museum, Tokyo. x+296 pp.
  • Rose, Kenneth D. 1996. On the origin of Artiodactyla. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93(4):1705-9. doi:10.1073/pnas.93.4.1705

 

Picture is unrelated. Seriously. I’m just allergic to posts with no visuals. Stand by for more random brachiosaurs.

Here’s something I’ve been meaning to post for a while, about my changing ideas about scholarly publishing. On one hand, it’s hard to believe now that the Academic Spring was almost a decade ago. On the other, it’s hard for me to accept that PeerJ will be only 8 years old next week–it has loomed so large in my thinking that it feels like it has been around much longer. The very first PeerJ Preprints went up on April 4, 2013, just about a month and a half after the first papers in PeerJ. At that time it felt like things were moving very quickly, and that the landscape of scholarly publishing might be totally different in just a few years. Looking back now, it’s disappointing how little has changed. Oh, sure, there are more OA options now — even more kinds of OA options, and things like PCI Paleo and Qeios feel genuinely envelope-pushing — but the big barrier-based publishers are still dug in like ticks, and very few journals have fled from those publishers to re-establish themselves elsewhere. APCs are ubiquitous now, and mostly unjustified and ruinously expensive. Honestly, the biggest changes in my practice are that I use preprint servers to make my conference talks available, and I use SciHub instead of interlibrary loan.

But I didn’t sit down to write this post so I could grumble about the system like an old hippie. I’ve learned some things in the past few years, about what actually works in scholarly publishing (at least for me), and about my preferences in some areas, which turn out to be not what I expected. I’ll focus on just two areas today, peer review, and preprints.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Peer Review

Surprise #1: I’m not totally against peer review. I realize that the way it is implemented in many places is deeply flawed, and that it’s no guarantee of the quality of a paper, but I also recognize its value. This is not where I was 8 years ago; at the time, I was pretty much in agreement with Mike’s post from November, 2012, “Well, that about wraps it up for peer-review”. But then in 2014 I became an academic editor at PeerJ. And as I gained first-hand experience from the other side of the editorial desk, I realized a few things:

  • Editors have broad remits in terms of subject areas, and without the benefit of peer reviews by people who specialize in areas other than my own, I’m not fit to handle papers on topics other than Early Cretaceous North American sauropods, skeletal pneumaticity, and human lower extremity anatomy.
  • Even at PeerJ, which only judges papers based on scientific soundness, not on perceived importance, it can be hard to tell where the boundary is. I’ve had to reject a few manuscripts at PeerJ, and I would not have felt confident about doing that without the advice of peer reviewers. Even with no perceived importance criterion, there is definitely a lower bound on what counts as a publishable observation. If you find a mammoth toe bone in Nebraska, or a tyrannosaur tooth in Montana, there should probably be something more interesting to say about it, beyond the bare fact of its existence, if it’s going to be the subject of a whole paper.
  • In contentious fields, it can be valuable to get a diversity of opinions. And sometimes, frankly, I need to figure out if the author is a loony, or if it’s actually Reviewer #2 that’s off the rails. Although I think PeerJ generally attracts fairly serious authors, a handful of things that get submitted are just garbage. From what I hear, that’s the case at almost every journal. But it’s not always obvious what’s garbage, what’s unexciting but methodologically sound, and what’s seemingly daring but also methodologically sound. Feedback from reviewers helps me make those calls. Bottom line, I do think the community benefits from having pre-publication filters in place.
  • Finally, I think editors have a responsibility to help authors improve their work, and reviewers catch a lot of stuff that I would miss. And occasionally I catch something that the reviewers missed. We are collectively smarter and more helpful than any of us would be in isolation, and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a good thing.

The moral here probably boils down to, “white guy stops bloviating about Topic X when he gains actual experience”, which doesn’t look super-flattering for me, but that’s okay.

You may have noticed that my pro-peer-review comments are rather navel-gaze-ly focused on the needs of editors. But who needs editors? Why not chuck the whole system? Set up an outlet called Just Publish Everything, and let fly? My answer is that my time in the editorial trenches has convinced me that such a system will silt up with garbage papers, and as a researcher I already have a hard enough time keeping up with all of the emerging science that I need to. From both perspectives, I want there to be some kind of net to keep out the trash. It doesn’t have to be a tall net, or strung very tight, but I’d rather have something than nothing.

What would I change about peer review? Since it launched, PeerJ has let reviewers either review anonymously, or sign their reviews, and it has let authors decide whether or not to publish the reviews alongside the paper. Those were both pretty daring steps at the time, but if I could I’d turn both of those into mandates rather than options. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I think almost all of the abuses of the peer review system would evaporate if reviewers had to sign their reviews, and all reviews were published alongside the papers. There will always be a-holes in the world, and some of them are so pathological that they can’t rein in their bad behavior, but if the system forced them to do the bad stuff in the open, we’d all know who they are and we could avoid them.

Femur of Apatosaurus and right humerus Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype on wooden pedestal (exhibit) with labels and 6 foot ruler for scale, Geology specimen, Field Columbian Museum, 1905. (Photo by Charles Carpenter/Field Museum Library/Getty Images)

Quo Vadis, Preprints?

Maybe the advent of preprints was more drawn out than I know, but to me it felt like preprints went from being Not a Thing, Really, in 2012, to being ubiquitous in 2013. And, I thought at the time, possibly transformative. They felt like something genuinely new, and when Mike and I posted our Barosaurus preprint and got substantive, unsolicited review comments in just a day or two, that was pretty awesome. Which is why I did not expect…

Surprise #2: I don’t have much use for preprints, at least as they were originally intended. When I first confessed this to Mike, in a Gchat, he wrote, “You don’t have a distaste for preprints. You love them.” And if you just looked at the number of preprints I’ve created, you might get that impression. But the vast majority of my preprints are conference talks, and using a preprint server was just the simplest way to the get the abstract and the slide deck up where people could find them. In terms of preprints as early versions of papers that I expect to submit soon, only two really count, neither more recent than 2015. (I’m not counting Mike’s preprint of our vertebral orientation paper from 2019; he’s first author, and I didn’t mind that he posted a preprint, but neither is it something I’d have done if the manuscript was mine alone.)

My thoughts here are almost entirely shaped by what happened with our Barosaurus preprint. We put it up on PeerJ Preprints back in 2013, we got some useful feedback right away, and…we did nothing for a long time. Finally in 2016 we revised the manuscript and got it formally submitted. I think we both expected that since the preprint had already been “reviewed” by commenters, and we’d revised it accordingly, that formal peer review would be very smooth. It was not. And the upshot is that only now, in 2021, are we finally talking about dealing with those reviews and getting the manuscript resubmitted. We haven’t actually done this, mind, we’re just talking about planning to make a start on it. (Non-committal enough for ya?)

Why has it taken us so long to deal with this one paper? We’re certainly capable — the two of us got four papers out in 2013, each of them on a different topic and each of them substantial. So why can’t we climb Mount Barosaurus? I think a big part of it is that we know the world is not waiting for our results, because our results are already out in the world. We’re the only ones being hurt by our inaction — we’re denying ourselves the credit and the respect that go along with having a paper finally and formally published in a peer-reviewed journal. But we can comfort ourselves with the thought that if someone needs our observations to make progress on their own project, we’re not holding them up. Just having the preprint out there has stolen some of our motivation to the get the paper done and out, apparently enough to keep us from doing it at all.

Mike pointed out that according to Google Scholar, our Barosaurus preprint has been cited five times to date, once in its original version and four times in its revised version. But to me, the fact that the Baro manuscript has been cited five times is a fail. Because all of my peer-reviewed papers from 2014-2016, which have been out for less long, have been cited more. So I read that as people not wanting to cite it. And who can blame them? Even I thought it would be supplanted by the formally-published, peer-reviewed paper within a few weeks or months.

Mike then pointed me to his 2015 post, “Four different reasons to post preprints”, and asked how many of those arguments still worked for me now. Number 2 is good, posting material that would otherwise never see the light of day — it’s basically what I did when I put my dissertation on arXiv. Ditto for 4, which is posting conference presentations. I’m not moved by either 1 or 3. Number 3 is getting something out to the community as quickly as possible, just because you want to, and number 1 is getting feedback as quickly as possible. The reason that neither of those move me is that they’re solved to my satisfaction by existing peer-reviewed outlets. I don’t know of any journals that let reviewers take 2-4 months to review a paper anymore. I don’t know how much credit for the acceleration should go to PeerJ, which asks for reviews in 10 to 14 days, but surely some. And I don’t usually have a high enough opinion of my own work to think that the community will suffer if it takes a few months for a paper to come out through the traditional process.

(If it seems like I’m painting Mike as relentlessly pro-preprint, it’s not my intent. Rather, I’d dropped a surprising piece of news on him, and he was strategically probing to determine the contours of my new and unexpected stance. Then I left the conversation to come write this post while the ideas were all fresh in my head. I hope to find out what he thinks about this stuff in the comments, or ideally in a follow-up post.)

Back to task: at least for me, a preprint of a manuscript I’m going to submit anyway is a mechanism to get extra reviews I don’t want*, and to lull myself into feeling like the work is done when it’s not. I don’t anticipate that I will ever again put up a preprint for one of my own manuscripts if there’s a plausible path to traditional publication.

* That sounds awful. To people who have left helpful comments on my preprints: I’m grateful, sincerely. But not so grateful that I want to do the peer review process a second time for zero credit. I didn’t know that when I used to file preprints of manuscripts, but I know it now, and the easiest way for me to not make more work for both of us is to not file preprints of things I’m planning to submit somewhere anyway.

So much for my preprints; what about those of other people? Time for another not-super-flattering confession: I don’t read other people’s preprints. Heck, I don’t have time to keep up with the peer-reviewed literature, and I have always been convinced by Mike’s dictum, “The real value of peer-review is not as a mark of correctness, but of seriousness” (from this 2014 post). If other people want me to part with my precious time to engage with their work, they can darn well get it through peer review. And — boomerang thought — that attitude degrades my respect for my own preprint manuscripts. I wouldn’t pay attention to them if someone else had written them, so I don’t really expect anyone else to pay attention to the ones that I’ve posted. In fact, it’s extremely flattering that they get read and cited at all, because by my own criteria, they don’t deserve it.

I have to stress how surprising I find this conclusion, that I regard my own preprints as useless at best, and simultaneously extra-work-making and motivation-eroding at worst, for me, and insufficiently serious to be worthy of other people’s time, for everyone else. It’s certainly not where I expected to end up in the heady days of 2013. But back then I had opinions, and now I have experience, and that has made all the difference.

The comment thread is open. What do you think? Better still, what’s your experience?