Blogs, papers, etc.: some more random thoughts, from Mike this time

June 13, 2009

I have a much less realised view of the digital future than Matt does, so I won’t be making a lot of predictions here.  But I do have some questions to ask, and — predictably — some whining to do.

What counts, what doesn’t, and why?

Assuming you have made some science (e.g. a description of fossil, a palaeobiological hypothesis supported by evidence, a taxonomic revision), there are plenty of different ways you can present it to the world.  I may have missed some, but here are the ones I’ve thought of, in roughly descending order of respectability/citability/prestige:

  • Peer-reviewed paper/book chapter
  • Unreviewed paper/book chapter
  • Peer-reviewed electronic-only paper
  • Published abstract (e.g. for SVP)
  • Conference talk
  • Conference poster
  • Dissertation
  • Online supplementary information
  • Blog post
  • Blog comment
  • Email to the DML (which is archived on the web)
  • Personal email
  • Chat over a beer

How many of these are Science?  Where is the line?  Is the line hard or fuzzy?  Why is it OK to cite SVP abstracts but not so much SVPCA abstracts?  And other such questions. I think a very good case can be made that dissertations — provided they are made available — are better sources than conference talks, posters and abstracts; and a pretty good case can be made that blog posts are (especially when webcitation’ed — see below).  Both dissertations and (good) blog posts have the advantage over talks and posters that they have a permanent existence, and over abstracts the simple fact that they are substantial: a 200-word abtract cannot, by its very nature, say anything much.

Zoological nomenclature

Unfortunately, for nomenclatural purposes, the ICZN’s Article 8 currently says that only publications on paper count, period, which counts out dissertations.  I say unfortunately because were it not for this rule, then at least part of Aetogate would never have happened: the ramifications of Bill Parker’s case would not have been so awful if the perfectly good description of Heliocanthus in his (2003) dissertation had been allowed priority over Lucas et al.’s (2006) rush-job which attached the name Rioarribasuchus to the same specimen. Happily, the ICZN is as we write this considering an amendment to recognise nomenclatural acts in electronic-only publications.  There has already been some published discussion of the pros and cons of this amendment, and the Commission is actively soliciting further comments, so those of you with strong feelings should put them in writing and send them to the Executive Secretary.  (I will certainly be doing so.)


We all know that blog entries are Not Sufficiently Published to be citable, at least in most journals; but are they Too Published to let you re-use the same material?  When you submit to most journals, they ask you to formally state “this material has not previously been published” — is that true if we’ve blogged it?  I am guessing different editors would answer that differently. For what it’s worth, we’ve been reasonably careful up till now not to blog anything that we’re planning to make into a paper — which is why we were so mysteriously silent on the obviously important topic of sauropod neck posture during the first 19 months of SV-POW!.  We’ve not been 100% pure on this: for example, I have a paper on Brachiosaurus in press that mentions in passing the spinoparapophyseal laminae, absence of an infradiapophyseal laminae and perforate anterior centroparapophyseal laminae of the 8th dorsal vertebra of the Brachiosaurus brancai specimen HMN SII — the features that I have blogged here in detail, with illustrations that would certainly never have been given journal-space.  Since the relevant passage in my paper accounted for half a manuscript page (of a total of 75 pages), I’m assuming no-one’s bothered about that.  In a case like this, I guess the SV-POW! posts are best thought of as pre-emptive and unofficial online supplementary information.

Counts for what purpose?

We’ve already mentioned that dissertations, blog entries and suchlike don’t count for nomenclatural purposes.  Whether they count in the sense of being citable in published works is up for debate right now (and again, see below on webcitation).  It seems pretty clear that these forms of “grey publication” do count in establishing people’s reputations among their peers — dissertations are obviously important in this regard, and Darren’s ridiculously broad knowledge of tetrapods extant and extinct is near-universally recognised largely because of his blogging efforts (although you could argue — and Matt and I often have argued — that he might have been able to enhance his reputation even more if he’d taken some of that blogging time and invested it in formal publications). Conversely, it’s clear that blogs, however rigorous and scientific, count for squat when it comes to committees.  The world of dinosaur palaeontology is probably just as aware of Matt’s series of Aerosteon response articles here on SV-POW! as it would be if he’d put those together into a paper that was published in PLoS ONE; but when his tenure committee comes to count up the impact factors of the journals he’s published in, those articles will count for nothing.  One day that might change, but not while impact factors still exert their baleful influence.

Deciding what to blog and what to write up as a “proper paper”

Matt posted his response to the Aerosteon paper as a sequence of three blog entries even though he knew that what he had to say was substantial enough to make a paper.  Why throw away a potential publication that would look good on the CV?  Because he wanted to get it out there ASAP, and didn’t want to wait until all the media dust had settled.  So he fought people off when they pestered him to publish it as a paper.  He doesn’t really need to do it now, and he doesn’t really have time (especially since I keep badgering him about all the papers we’re supposed to be collaborating on).  If we were starving for publications, we could turn a lot of SV-POW! posts into LPUs — but we’re not starving.

Let me explain this by taking a digression though the economics of file-sharing and the way labels persistently — maybe deliberately — misunderstand them.  Let’s imagine for the sake of an example that a while back, I sent Matt the MP3s that make up Blue Oyster Cult’s awesome Fire Of Unknown Origin album.  Now anyone with their brain switched on can see that the net effect of this on his music-buying pattern would be positive: if he really liked Fire, there is a fair chance that he would then have gone and bought a BOC album or two, or three — just as I’ve been buying Dar Williams albums like crazy since someone slipped me MP3s of Mortal City.  The labels’ perception, however, is that instead I would have denied them a sale: that if I’d not sent the Fire of Unknown Origin MP3s, Matt would of course have bought his own legitimate copy, and so I’ve stiffed them out of $6.99 less whatever tiny slice they pass on to the artist.  The misunderstanding here is that they think — or would like to think, who knows if they really believe this themselves? — that people’s music consumption is limited by the time we have available to listen to music, and that one way or another we will obtain enough music to fulfil that need: for free if possible, but by paying for it if necessary.  But the truth is completely different: there would be zero chance of Matt’s ever buying any BOC album, since he’d never even heard of them (beyond Don’t Fear The Reaper, I guess) whereas in the hypothetical universe where I sent him the Fire MP3s, there is a non-zero chance.  And the labels’ failure to understand that is because of a wholly incorrect model of what factor limits music listening.

Digression ends.  Its relevance is this: in the same way, we are used to thinking that our ability to get papers published is limited by the number of publication-worthy ideas we have — so that every paper idea we “waste” on a blog entry is a net loss.  In truth, ideas are cheap, and our ability to get papers published is actually limited by our throughput — our ability to find time to actually write those ideas up with sufficient rigour, prepare high-resolution figures, format the manuscripts for journals, wait through the review period, deal with the reviews, revise, resubmit, handle editorial requests, and so on and on.  (That is especially true when the journal takes six months to come up with a rejection.) This is why Matt and I, like everyone else I know in palaeo who I’ve discussed this with, have huge stacks of POOP that we’ve not yet found time to convert into papers.  So when we spend a paper-worthy idea on a blog entry, we’re not wasting it: we’re putting it out there (in an admittedly inferior format) when otherwise it would never have made it out there at all. The remaining issue is whether the time we spend on blogging an idea would have been better spent on moving a paper further towards publication.  Maybe, sometimes.  But you have to stop and smell the roses every now and again.  So the real cost of SV-POW! for us is not the “waste” of paperable ideas, but the time we spend on writing it.  I am guessing that in the time I’ve put into SV-POW! so far, I could have got two more papers out — certainly one.  Has it been worth it?  I think so, but it’s not a no-brainer.  On the other hand, SV-POW! probably acts as a reader-funnel, so that when I do get a paper out, more people read it than otherwise would.  How big that effect is, I don’t know, and I can’t think of a way to measure it.

How to cite blog entries: WebCite

One of the great things about writing for SV-POW! is that you can learn some really useful stuff from the comments; and the most useful comment I’ve seen so far is the one in which Cameron Neylon pointed us at WebCite (  This is a superbly straightforward site that makes permanent archive copies of web-pages, and mirrors them around the world.  In doing so, it deals with the problems of web pages being vulnerable to disappearance and prone to change.  (In off-list emails with Matt, I had suggested that I might build something like this myself, as I am software engineer in my day job; I am delighted that these guys have done it properly instead.) So if you ever want to cite Matt’s second Aerosteon post in a journal, use the archive URL — and if you want to cite any other SV-POW! article, just submit its URL to WebCite yourself, and get back an archive URL which you can use. And tell all your friends about WebCite!

Oh, and by the way …

Here’s that photo of a monitor lizard getting its arse kicked by an elephant that you ordered:

Monitor lizard postcranium, aerial. Photograph by Hira Punjabi, downloaded from National Geographic.

Monitor lizard postcranium, aerial, strongly inclined. Photograph by Hira Punjabi, downloaded from National Geographic


  • Lucas, S. G., Hunt, A. P. and Spielmann, J. A. 2006. Rioarribasuchus, a new name for an aetosaur from the Upper Triassic of north-central New Mexico. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Bulletin 37: 581-582.
  • Parker, W. G. 2003a. Description of a new specimen of Desmatosuchus haplocerus from the Late Triassic of Northern Arizona. Unpublished MS thesis. Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. 315 pp.

13 Responses to “Blogs, papers, etc.: some more random thoughts, from Mike this time”

  1. Coturnix Says:


    I am confused by #3 on your list. At this point in time it makes no difference if the paper exists only online, or if it was printed by a traditional publisher, or if the online published printed out 50 copies of the PDF, or if it was printed by a user at home on a personal computer printer. With the printing costs high, more and more journals will be online only and the physical dead-tree paper will become an anachronism pretty soon (look at the dying newspaper industry for a sign of things to come).

    Thus, the medium – paper vs. Web – is completely irrelevant for the purpose of ranking outlets at this moment in history, and will become increasingly so in the near future as all journals stop printing and move online.

  2. Vertebrat Says:

    How many of these are Science?

    None of them. Science is the part about evidence and reasoning and sharing. The various forms of publication differ in prestige and circulation, but those are not what makes science! That scientists already seem to respect a good blog post as much as the same thing in paper form suggests this is generally understood.

    I think the trouble in situations like tenure committees comes because they’re really evaluating the candidate’s prestige, not their scientific ability, so they judge based on what they think other people think – but their model of what other scientists respect is out of date. I wonder how much this could be ameliorated by just talking about it.

    Institutions’ beliefs change even slower than those of individuals. Coturnix, I think the reason electronic-only journals are mentioned separately is that ICZN doesn’t officially believe in them, so people naming taxa are reluctant to publish in them for fear they wouldn’t get taxonomic credit.

    Actually, what happens if someone names a taxon in a non-ICZN-recognized format like an online journal, and then other users, including “official” ones, cite it? Does ICZN give credit to the first “official” publication, even when that author credits the actual source?

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Bora wrote: “it makes no difference if the paper exists only online, or if it was printed by a traditional publisher, or if the online published printed out 50 copies of the PDF, or if it was printed by a user at home on a personal computer printer.” That is only true if we don’t care about nomenclature. As PLoS ONE found out the hard way with Darwinius, an electronic-only publication has no standing whatsoever with the ICZN, and names proposed in such publications are not nomenclaturally valid. It may be dumb, but it’s true.

    (I don’t at all disagree with your broader point; I think paper is a pretty silly medium in many ways. But right now, printing on actual paper is still important in that respect.)

    Vertebrat asks “what happens if someone names a taxon in a non-ICZN-recognized format like an online journal, and then other users, including “official” ones, cite it? Does ICZN give credit to the first “official” publication, even when that author credits the actual source?” No, for ICZN purposes a name is established only when certain provisions are fulfilled, e.g. a type specimen designated — things that are not generally done in papers that merely refer to the name.

  4. Many journals allow citation of web pages, as long as they are relevant sources of information. Since blog posts can be referenced as simple web pages it does not require any change in journal policy to include them as references. We have used both blog posts and wiki pages as references in our last publication in a peer reviewed journal.

    Also if you systematically record presentations as screencasts and embed or link to them in a blog post they do form a permanent record and can be cited. I use this blog for that purpose.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jean-Claude says that “many journals allow citation of web pages, as long as they are relevant sources of information.” No doubt some do, but plenty do not. For example, the Instructions for Contributors for Paleobiology ( state that “unpublished data and manuscripts in review or otherwise unpublished are not” cited, and even adds “avoid citing unpublished theses or dissertations.” This is not unusual.

  6. Mike,
    That is absolutely true that some journals will not allow various features that we might want as authors (citing blog posts, pre-prints, not transferring copyright, etc.) and we have the choice of not submitting manuscripts to them if we feel strongly about some of these issues. When I started in academia my only criterion was the impact factor of the journal. Now I have come to value other features. It will be interesting to see how journals change their policies in response to the demands of their authors and readers. Natural selection will determine the outcome.

  7. Scott Hartman Says:

    “In truth, ideas are cheap, and our ability to get papers published is actually limited by our throughput — our ability to find time to actually write those ideas up with sufficient rigour, prepare high-resolution figures, format the manuscripts for journals, wait through the review period, deal with the reviews, revise, resubmit, handle editorial requests, and so on and on.”

    Amen Mike, amen.

  8. I guess ICZN is keeping the taxonomy literature behind the times, insisting on paper. I was talking in general, for all of science, where paper vs. Web is now meaningless. Perhaps Darwinius sped up the process at which ICZN will move forward and taxonomy journals will then follow and join the rest of the world?

  9. […] What counts? (Yes, that again.) Google-ranking works well for blog posts, because they are web pages, and Google can spider web […]

  10. […] others have already said or getting things backwards, ap[ologis if this is the case), but the comments of Mike Taylor especially hit partly on one point that I’d like to expand on. The issue is one of trust, that […]

  11. […] to include a link to SV-POW!.  Probably Nature‘s guidelines don’t allow that — they wouldn’t be alone — and in any case we’ve hardly been a friend to the Nature Publishing Group, so maybe […]

  12. […] vegetation: accurate. Elephant beating the hell out of a monitor lizard for no apparent reason: accurate. Depictions of elephants doing these things might not be familiar–at least to those of us who […]

  13. […] information that is not published [in the traditional sense]?”–or, in short, “what counts?” And the answer is, we don’t know yet. Both questions are symptoms of the ongoing […]

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