As I was clearing out some old documents, I stumbled on this form from 2006:

This was back when Paul Upchurch’s dissertation, then only 13 years old, contained much that still unpublished in more formal venues, notably the description of what was then “Pelorosaurusbecklesii. As a fresh young sauropod researcher I was keen to read this and other parts of what was then almost certainly the most important and comprehensive single publication about sauropods.

I remember contacting Paul directly to ask if he could send a copy, but he didn’t have it in electronic form. So I wrote (on his advice, I think) to Cambridge University Library to request a copy from them. The form is what I got back, saying sure I could have a copy — for £160.08 if I wanted a photocopy, or £337.80 for a microfilm. Since inflation in the UK has run at about 2.83% per year since 2006, that price of £160.08 back then is equivalent to about £243 in today’s money.

Needless to say, I didn’t pursue this any further (and to my shame I’m not even sure I bothered replying to say no thanks). To this day. I have never read Paul’s dissertation — though 28 years after it was completed, it’s obviously less relevant now than it was back in the day.

What is the point of this story? What information pertains?

My point isn’t really “Look how exploitative Cambridge University Library’s pricing is” — I have no experience in running a library, and no realistic sense of what it costs in staff time and materials to make a photocopy of substantial dissertation. Perhaps the price was only covering costs.

The point instead is: look how things have changed. newly minted Ph.Ds now routinely deposit copies of their dissertations in repositories where they can be freely read by anyone, anywhere. Here is one recent example from my own university: Logan King’s 2021 dissertation, Macroevolutionary and Ontogenetic Trends in the Anatomy and Morphology of the Non-Avian Dinosaur Endocranium.

This is important. I often think about the Library Loon’s 2012 blog-post Framing Incremental Gains. It’s easy, if you’re in open-access advocacy, to feel the burden of how ssslllooowwwlllyyy things seem to change. Sometimes I’ve heard people claim that nothing has changed in the last 30 years. I completely understand the frustration that leads people to say such things. But it’s not true. Things have changed a lot, and are still changing fast. We seem to be past the tipping point where more than half of all newly published papers are open access. There is a lot to celebrate.

Of course that’s not to deny that there’s plenty more work to be done, and plenty of other ways our present scholarly publishing infrastructure desperately needs changing. But in pushing for that, let’s not neglect how much things have improved.

Back in June, I saw a series of tweets by sculptor and digital artist Ruadhrí Brennan, showing off the work he’d been doing on sculpting brachiosaurid skulls: Giraffatitan, Brachiosaurus (based on the Felch Quarry skull USNM 5730) and Europasaurus. Impressed, I asked if he would send a Giraffatitan skull, and here it is!

Right lateral view

You can immediately see two things: one, it’s good. (I’ll have more to say about this.) And second, it’s small, It’s leaned up against a stack of smallish coins in this photo, to give me the true lateral perspective I wanted, and those coins (10p, 20p, 20p, 5p) also make a decent ad-hoc scalebar.

In fact, it’s sculpted at 1:10 scale — about 9 cm from the tip of the premaxilla to the rearmost projection of the parietals, implying about 90 cm total length for the skull MB.R.2223.1 (“t 1”) — a figure surprisingly difficult to find in the literature (can anyone help?) but consonant with how big it seems in real life.

Anterior view

At that scale, the detail is pretty amazing. Its not just that the overall proportions of the skull are so true, but the visible junctions between the bones — as for example between the paired ascending processes of the two premaxilae, as apparent in anterior view — but the texture of the bone, including things like vascular foramina for the lips but also just straight-up bone surface. It’s a lovely job.

Right anterodorsolateral view

This view is a pretty good match for what we used in the second Shedloads of Awesome post back in 2008 — in fact, let’s just put them side by side so we can compare more easily.

As you can see, I slightly muffed the photography of the model — I could do a better job of matching the aspect I tried. But we’re in the ballpark, and it’s easy to see from this angle how much the model skull really couldn’t be anything other than what it is. That said, there are a few places where it seems the bone junctions don’t quite match those of the real skull. Most obviously, in the real skull the lacrimal seems to laterally overlap the nasal dorsally and the maxilla/jugal ventrally, whereas in the model it fits in more neatly with both. But I am inclined to think this is not so much a mistake as a correction to allow for poor articulation and distortion in the original — a restoration, in other words.

Here’s a different oblique view:

Left anterodorsolateral view, from a rather more dorsal and less lateral perspective than the previous image.

The story here really is just what an odd shape this familiar skull is when viewed in this perspective, and a valuable reminder that we should all try to avoid getting too suckered in by the over-familiar lateral views of various things. 3D objects are weird. They trick you. That’s why, for example, two scapulae that look very different in photos might actually be very similar in reality: the difference is in the angle of the photograph, not in the photographed bones.

Anyway, moving on from that cautionary tale …

The key takeaway is really just that this Giraffatitan skull is very nice, and it leaves me wishing I also had the Camarsaurus one for comparison … even though camarsaurs are ugly and stupid.

Oh, what’s that you say? You want a Giraffatitan skull of your very own? Well, you can have one: get it from the Scaled Beasts shop!

FMNH P13018 with me for scale. Photo by Holly Woodward.

Some of the Burpee Museum folks and PaleoFest speakers visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago after the 2020 ‘Fest. I hadn’t been there since 2012, and a lot had changed. More on that in future posts, maybe. Here I am with FMNH 13018, a right femur referred by von Huene (1929) to Argyrosaurus superbus (note, though, that Mannion and Otero 2012 considered this specimen to be Titanosauria indet., hence the hedge in the title of the post). It’s 211cm long, which is pretty darn big but still well short of the record.

Speaking of the record, here’s a list of the largest sauropod femora (as always, updates in the comments are welcome!):

  1. 250cm – Argentinosaurus huinculensis, MLP-DP 46-VIII-21-3 (estimated when complete)
  2. 238cm – Patagotitan mayorum, MPEF-3399/44
  3. 236cm – Patagotitan mayorum, MPEF-PV 3400/27
  4. 235cm – Patagotitan mayorum, MPEF-PV 3400/27
  5. 235cm – “Antarctosaurus” giganteus, MLP 26-316
  6. 214cm – Giraffatitan brancai, XV1
  7. 211cm – cf. Argyrosaurus superbus, FMNH P13018
  8. 203cm – Brachiosaurus altithorax, FMNH P25107
  9. 200cm – Ruyangosaurus giganteus, 41HIII -0002 (estimated when complete)
  10. 191cm – Dreadnoughtus schrani, MPM-PV 1156

The list is necessarily incomplete, because we have no preserved femora for Puertasaurus, Notocolossus, Futalognkosaurus, or the largest individuals of Sauroposeidon and Alamosaurus, all of which probably had femora in the 210-250cm range. For that matter, most elements of the giant Oklahoma apatosaurine are 25%-33% larger than the equivalent bones in CM 3018, which implies a femur length of 223-237cm (scaled up from the 178.5cm femur of CM 3018). I’m deliberately not dealing with Maraapunisaurus or horrifying hypothetical barosaurs here.

In any case, it’s still a prodigious bone, and well worth spending a moment with the next time you’re at the Field Musuem.

References

  • Mannion, P.D. and Otero, A., 2012. A reappraisal of the Late Cretaceous Argentinean sauropod dinosaur Argyrosaurus superbus, with a description of a new titanosaur genus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32(3):614-638.
  • Von Huene, F. 1929. Los saurisquios y ornitisquios del Creta´ceo Argentino. Anales del Museo de La Plata 3:1–196.

Starlings are amazing

October 29, 2021

Back in May, Amy Schwartz posted a photo of a starling that shethat had ringed that morning:

Impressed by the subtlety of the coloration, I wondered what would happen if I increased the colour saturation. I did this very simply: in the free image editor GIMP, I selected the parts of the photo that were starling (omitting the human hand and the background), and using the Hue-Saturation tool I wound the saturation up to 100%. Then I did the same thing again. Here is the result, with no other editing at all:

What an extraordinary riot of colour, in a bird that we mostly think of as “basically black with dots.”

So I thought I’d try the same trick on another starling photo, this one from the All About Birds page on the European Starling. Here is the original:

And here is the result of saturating the colours — this time through three cycles.

So my question is this: can other starlings see all this colour? In their own closed starling-centric world, are they fabulously colourful? Is this something close to what is perceptually apparent to animals whose eyes are attuned to different wavelengths from ours?that

I whipped up these doodles with a handwritten list of characteristics during office hours recently, and then realized that this should be a tutorial post.
 
Most of the stuff listed in the image is pretty self-explanatory, but I want to expand a bit on the textures. Nerves are bundles of axons, bound together in sheets of connective tissue. As you follow nerves outward, from the central nervous system toward the axon targets or receptive nerve endings, they will branch and branch, again and again, down to the level of individual axons. So although the axons themselves are too small to see in a gross dissection, the collected bundles of axons inside each nerve often give nerves a striated texture. 
 
In contrast, arteries are hollow muscular tubes that carry blood, and they look like hollow muscular tubes. A weird and IMHO under-appreciated fact is that arteries can’t be nourished directly by the blood that they carry; their walls are too thick. So they have tiny vessels in and on their walls, called vasa vasorum, or “vessels of the vessels”. The vasa vasorum are hair-fine when they are visible at all, and they squiggle just like macro-scale arteries, so texturally arteries often look vaguely hairy, with fine reddish threads winding across their surfaces.
 
In practice, though, the directness of the course — or lack thereof — and branching pattern is usually enough to make the call. Basically, nerves do not have time for your crap. They are hell-bent on getting where they are going with a minimum of farting around. In contrast, arteries never travel in straight lines if they can avoid it. They’re always throwing in a saucy swoop or curve, for no other reason than because it looked fun.
 
Why haven’t I talked about veins? By rights I should, since arteries usually travel with veins, and complete neurovascular bundles — each consisting of a nerve, an artery, and a vein — are common in vertebrate bodies. But in my experience students are almost never confused about the difference between arteries and veins. But for the sake of completeness, veins tend to be dark-colored in embalmed bodies, because they don’t completely empty of blood, and they are visibly thin-walled and floppy. Because veins are thin-walled, if they do empty out they can also flatten out, and look wider than the neighboring arteries. On the other hand, it’s not unusual to see a bifurcated vein, with one branch running on either side of the corresponding artery.
 
A couple of caveats about all of the above:
  • I made the infographic specifically for med students working with embalmed tissue. The colors in particular may be different in fresh tissue, and in my experience less vibrant and therefore harder to tell apart. The other factors are much less affected by the embalming process.
  • Most of these differences break down to some extent in very small vessels and nerves. If you can track them back to larger, more proximal parent vessels or nerves, it’s easier to tell, but sometimes you run across a tiny little thread and can’t tell if it’s a tube or a wire — in which case, good luck.

My Oct. 13 National Fossil Day public lecture, “Lost Giants of the Jurassic”, for the Museums of Western Colorado – Dinosaur Journey is now up on their YouTube channel. First 48 minutes are talk, last 36 minutes are Q&A with audience, moderated by Dr. Julia McHugh. New stuff from the 2021 field season — about which I’ll have more to say in the future — starts at about the 37-minute mark. Hit the 44-minute mark (and this and this) to find out what to do with all of the unwanted bird necks that will be floating around at the upcoming holidays.

Finally, big thanks to Brian Engh for finding our brachiosaur and for letting me use so much of his art, to John Foster, Kaelen Kay, Tom Howells, Jessie Atterholt, Thierra Nalley, and Colton Snyder for such a fun field season this year, and to Julia McHugh for giving me the opportunity to yap about one of my favorite dinosaurs!

 

The last time we saw the sauropod femur that Paige Wiren discovered sticking out of a riverbank, it had been moved into the prep lab at the Moab Museum, with the idea that it would eventually go on exhibit as a touch specimen for the public to enjoy and be inspired by. That has come to pass.

I was in Moab last month with Drs. Jessie Atterholt and Thierra Nalley and we stopped in the Moab Museum to digitize some vertebrae from SUSA 515, an unusual specimen of Camarasaurus that I’ve blogged about before, and will definitely blog about again. While we were there, we got to see and touch the Wiren femur. The museum folks told us that femur has been the first dinosaur bone that a lot of schoolkids and tourists have seen up close, or gotten to touch. As a former dinosaur-obsessed kid who never stopped being excited about touching real dinosaur bones–and as one of the lucky folks that got to rescue this particular fossil from erosion or poaching–that pleases me deeply. 

So, obviously, you should go see this thing. And the rest of the museum–as you can see from the photos above, the whole place has been renovated, and there are lots of interesting fossils from central and eastern Utah on display, not to mention loads of historical artifacts, all nicely presented in a clean, open, well-lit space that invites exploration. Go have fun!

Last time, we looked at the difference between cost, value and price, and applied those concepts to simple markets like the one for chairs, and the complex market that is scholarly publication. We finished with the observation that the price our community pays for the publication of a paper (about $3,333 on average) is about 3–7 times as much as its costs to publish ($500-$1000)?

How is this possible? One part of the answer is that the value of a published paper to the commnity is higher still: were it not so, no-one would be paying. But that can’t be the whole reason.

In an efficient market, competing providers of a good will each try to undercut each other until the prices they charge approach the cost. If, for example, Elsevier and Springer-Nature were competing in a healthy free market, they would each be charging prices around one third of what they are charging now, for fear of being outcompeted by their lower-priced competitor. (Half of those price-cuts would be absorbed just by decreasing the huge profit margins; the rest would have to come from streamlining business processes, in particular things like the costs of maintaining paywalls and the means of passing through them.)

So why doesn’t the Invisible Hand operate on scholarly publishers? Because they are not really in competition. Subscriptions are not substitutable goods because each published article is unique. If I need to read an article in an Elsevier journal then it’s no good my buying a lower-priced Springer-Nature subscription instead: it won’t give me access to the article I need.

(This is one of the reasons why the APC-based model — despite its very real drawbacks — is better than the subscription model: because the editorial-and-publication services offered by Elsevier and Springer-Nature are substitutable. If one offers the service for $3000 and the other for $2000, I can go to the better-value provider. And if some other publisher offers it for $1000 or $500, I can go there instead.)

The last few years have seen huge and welcome strides towards establishing open access as the dominant mode of publication for scholarly works, and currently output is split more or less 50/50 between paywalled and open. We can expect OA to dominate increasingly in future years. In many respects, the battle for OA is won: we’ve not got to VE Day yet, but the D-Day Landings have been accomplished.

Yet big-publisher APCs still sit in the $3000–$5000 range instead of converging on $500-$1000. Why?

Björn Brembs has been writing for years about the fact that every market has a luxury segment: you can buy a perfectly functional wristwatch for $10, yet people spend thousands on high-end watches. He’s long been concerned that if scholarly publishing goes APC-only, then people will be queuing up to pay the €9,500 APC for Nature in what would become a straightforward pay-for-prestige deal. And he’s right: given the outstandingly stupid way we evaluate reseachers for jobs, promotion and tenure, lots of people will pay a 10x markup for the “I was published in Nature” badge even though Nature papers are an objectively bad way to communicate research.

But it feels like something stranger is happening here. It’s almost as though the whole darned market is a luxury segment. The average APC funded by the Wellcome Trust in 2018/19 was £2,410 — currently about $3,300. Which is almost exactly the average article cost of $3,333 that we calculated earlier. What’s happening is that the big publishers have landed on APCs at rates that preserve the previous level of income. That is understandable on their part, but what I want to know is why are we still paying them? Why are all Wellcome’s grantees not walking away from Elsevier and Springer-Nature, and publishing in much cheaper alternatives?

Why, in other words, are market forces not operating here?

I can think of three reasons why researchers prefer to spend $3000 instead of $1000:

  1. It could be that they are genuinely getting a three-times-better service from the big publishers. I mention this purely for completeness, as no evidence supports the hypothesis. There seems to be absolutely no correlation between price and quality of service.
  2. Researchers are coasting on sheer inertia, continuing to submit to the journals they used to submit to back in the bad old days of subscriptions. I am not entirely without sympathy for this: there is comfort in familiarity, and convenience in knowing a journal’s flavour, expectations and editorial board. But are those things worth a 200% markup?
  3. Researchers are buying prestige — or at least what they perceive as prestige. (In reality, I am not convinced that papers in non-exceptional Elsevier or Springer-Nature journals are at all thought of as more prestigous than those in cheaper but better born-OA journals. But for this to happen, it only needs people to think the old journals are more prestigious, it doesn’t need them to be right.)

But underlying all these reasons to go to a more expensive publishers is one very important reason not to bother going to a cheaper publisher: researchers are spending other people’s money. No wonder they don’t care about the extra few thousand pounds.

How can funders fix this, and get APCs down to levels that approximate publishing cost? I see at least three possibilities.

First, they could stop paying APCs for their grantees. Instead, they could add a fixed sum onto all grants they make — $1,500, say — and leave it up to the researchers whether to spend more on a legacy publisher (supplementing the $1,500 from other sources of their own) or to spend less on a cheaper born-OA publisher and redistribute the excess elsewhere.

Second, funders could simply publish the papes themselves. To be fair several big funders are doing this now, so we have Wellcome Open Research, Gates Open Research, etc. But doesn’t it seem a bit silly to silo research according to what body awarded the grant that funded it? And what about authors who don’t have a grant from one of these bodies, or indeed any grant at all?

That’s why I think the third solution is best. I would like to see funders stop paying APCs and stop building their own publishing solutions, and instead collaborate to build and maintain a global publishing solution that all researchers could use irrespective of grant-recipient status. I have much to say on what such a solution should look like, but that is for another time.

We have a tendency to be sloppy about language in everyday usage, so that words like “cost”, “value” and “price” are used more or less interchangeably. But economists will tell you that the words have distinct meanings, and picking them apart is crucial to understand economic transaction. Suppose I am a carpenter and I make chairs:

  • The cost of the chair is what it costs me to make it: raw materials, overheads, my own time, etc.
  • The value of the chair is what it’s worth to you: how much it adds to your lifestyle.
  • The price of the chair is how much you actually pay me for it.

In a functioning market, the value is more than the cost. Say it costs me £60 to make the chair, and it’s worth £100 to you. Then there is a £40 range in which the price could fall and we would both come out of the deal ahead. If you buy the chair for £75, then I have made £15 more than what it cost me to make, so I am happy; and you got it for £25 less than it was worth to you, so you’re happy, too.

(If the value is less than the cost, then there is no happy outcome. The best I can do is dump the product on the market at below cost, in the hope of making back at least some of my outlay.)

So far, so good.

Now let’s think about scientific publications.

There is a growing consensus that the cost of converting a scientific manuscript into a published paper — peer-reviewed, typeset, made machine-readable, references extracted, archived, indexed, sustainably hosted — is on the order of $500-$1000.

The value of a published paper to the world is incredibly hard to estimate, but let’s for now just say that it’s high. (We’ll see evidence of this in a moment.)

The price of a published paper is easier to calculate. According to the 2018 edition of the STM Report (which seems to be the most recent one available), “The annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing are estimated at about $10 billion in 2017 […] collectively publishing over 3 million articles a year” (p5). So, bundling together subscription revenues, APCs, offsets deals and what have you, the average revenue accruing from a paper is $10,000,000,000/3,000,000 = $10,000/3 = $3,333.

(Given that these prices are paid, we can be confident that the value is at least as much, i.e. somewhere north of $3,333 — which is why I was happy earlier to characterise the value as “high”.)

Why is it possible for the price of a paper to be 3–7 times as high as its cost? One part of the answer is that the value is higher still. Were it not so, no-one would be paying. But that can’t be the whole reason.

Tune in next time to find out the exciting reason why the price of scholarly publishing is so much higher than the cost!

I have the honor of giving the National Fossil Day Virtual Lecture for The Museums of Western Colorado – Dinosaur Journey, next Wednesday, October 13, from 7:00 to 8:00 PM, Mountain Daylight Time. The title of my talk is “Lost Giants of the Jurassic” but it’s mostly going to be about Brachiosaurus. And since I have a whole hour to fill, I’m gonna kitchen-sink this sucker and put in all the good stuff, even more than last time. The talk is virtual (via Zoom) and free, and you can register at this link.

The photo up top is from this July. That’s John Foster (standing) and me (crouching) with the complete right humerus of Brachiosaurus that we got out of the ground in 2019; that story is here. The humerus is in the prep lab at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal, and if you go there, you can peer through the tall glass windows between the museum’s central atrium and the prep lab and see it for yourself.

If you’ve forgotten what a humerus like that looks like in context, here’s the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton at the North American Museum of Ancient Life with my research student, Kaelen Kay, for scale. Kaelen is 5’8″ (173cm) and as you can see, she can just get her hand on the animal’s elbow. The humerus–in this case, a cast of the right humerus from the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype–is the next bone up the line. Kaelen came out with us this summer and helped dig up some more of our brachiosaur–more on that story in the near future.

Want more Brachiosaurus? Tune in next week. Here’s that registration link again. I hope to see you there!