Always two there are…

October 31, 2011

…a master and an apprentice.

Here’s how the Wedel Lab rolls on Halloween:

Check out that padawan braid. It’s official, I have the world’s coolest grad student. Although Vanessa’s choice of lightsaber is a bit worrying. Great danger I foresee in her training.

Back when Darren and I did the Xenoposeidon description, we were young and foolish, and only illustrated the holotype vertebra NHM R2095 in four aspects: left and right lateral, anterior and posterior.  No dorsal or ventral views.

Also, because the figure was intended for Palaeontology, which prints only in greyscale, I stupidly prepared the figure in greyscale, rather than preparing it in colour and then flattening it down at the last moment.  (Happily I’d learned that lesson by the time we did our neck-posture paper: although it was destined for Acta Palaeontologia Polonica, which also prints in greyscale, and though the PDF uses greyscale figures, the online full-resolution figures are in colour.)

As if that wasn’t dumb enough, I also composited the four featured views such that the two lateral views were adjacent, and above the anterior and posterior views — so it wasn’t easy to match up features on the sides and front/back between the views.  Since then, I have landed on a better way of presenting multi-view figures, as in my much-admire’d turkey cervical and pig skull images.

So, putting it all together, here is how we should have illustrated illustrated Xenoposeidon back in 2007 (click through for high resolution):

(Top row: dorsal view, with anterior facing left; middle row, from left to right: anterior, left lateral, posterior, right lateral; bottom row, ventral view, with anterior facing left.  As always with images of NHM-owned material, this is copyright the NHM.)

Of course, if we’d published in PLoS ONE, then this high-resolution (4775 x 4095), full colour image could have been the published one rather than an afterthought on a blog somewhere.  But we didn’t: back then, we weren’t so aware of the opportunities available to us now that we live in the Shiny Digital Future.

In other news, the boys and I all registered Xbox Live accounts a few days ago.  I chose the name “Xenoposeidon”, only to find to my amazement that someone else had already registered it.  But “Brontomerus” was free, so I used that instead.

In a comment on an previous post, wycx articulated a position that sounds all too familiar:

Until the impact factors and prestige/credibility of open access journals are as high as their closed equivalents AND university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, I do not see much changing.

I have heard a lot of people say things like this in the last couple of months.  It makes pretty depressing reading.

“Non-open scholarly publishing? Don’t talk to me about non-open scholarly publishing. Oh God, it’s so depressing.”

But how true is it?  And can we do anything to change it?

Well, first up that big AND in wycx’s comment should be an OR.  When the prestige/credibility of open access journals is as high as their closed counterparts OR university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, the push to publish in non-open venues will go away.  Either open access journals will start winning the assessment game; or, better still, we can all stop playing that stupid game and just place our papers where they’ll be read by the relevant people.

But there’s a more fundamental issue here.  That kind of comment sees researchers as passive victims.  The story it tells (whether or not this was wycx’s intention) is that there’s nothing we can do to change the situation.

But that’s not true.  There are actually quite a few things we can do.

Preferentially submit to open-access journals

This is the big one, of course.  It’s been pointed out many times in the comments to these posts, rightly, that not everyone has the luxury of academic freedom that comes from being a professional programmer, and I do accept that career academics may have circumstances that make non-open venues very attractive — especially when they have something that might get into Science or Nature.

But just because someone is not in a position to implement a blanket ban on submitting to non-open venues, that’s no reason not to favour open-access venues — even to favour them very strongly.  I have the sense that openness is at least a factor for more and more people; I would love to see it become a more significant factor for more researchers.

I strongly suspect that nothing else we do is more important than favouring open-access venues for our own papers.  The attractiveness of certain non-open venues comes from the quality of the work that is published in them, and because of that attractiveness, people send more good work into those silos.  But once that circle begins to break, things will move quickly.  There’s that open-access journals can’t be as highly cited (and so as prestigious) as S&N — in fact, one of the big landmark days that I am looking forward to is when an open journal has the highest Impact Factor in science.

Do not review for non-open journals

I’ve written about this a lot, so I won’t rehash the arguments in detail.  In short: your unpaid volunteer work should be in the service of the whole world, not the dividends of commercial publishers’ shareholders.

Do not edit for non-open journals

This follows on not reviewing for non-open journals.  Again, I understand why some researchers need to do this: I have a friend who edits for an Elsevier journal, frankly because he or she needs the money.  But these can be, and should be, the exception.

And we’re starting to see this happening.  My friend is keen to stop working for Elsevier as soon as it’s financially possible.  Steve Wheeler recently resigned as co-editor of Interactive Learning Environments, a Taylor and Francis journal.  Peter Suber once compiled a list of entire editorial boards that have resigned en masse to start open-access journals.

As with reviewing, the point is of course not just to withdraw effort from non-open publishers; it’s to redirect that effort to open publishers, so that the whole world benefits from it.

Influence conferences to make proceedings open access

It was great that the the Geological Society hosted the excellent conference Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective (written up at Tetrapod Zoology [part 1], [part 2]).  But as we’ve noted before, the proceedings volume is non-open and absurdly expensive: $190 at£95 at  The result is obvious: no-one is going to buy it, and the papers will not get read.  (Exception: my own contribution is freely available, but only because I played a trick with the Geol Soc’s copyright assignment mechanism.)

I have another conference coming up soon that will generate a proceedings volume.  So this time, I have been in contact with the conference organisers ahead of time to express my preference for open-access proceedings.  Happily, they are in agreement that this is desirable and even important, so hopefully we should see a special issue of a well-regarded journal at some point in the next few years.  (Sorry to be vague, but the details are not yet settled.  We’ll let you know when it happens.)

Influence funding bodies to mandate open access

This is one for academics much more senior and influential than I am.  But we know that several of the big funding bodies, including the Wellcome Trust (UK) and the National Institutes of Health (USA), are mandating as a condition of awarding grants that the research outputs must be freely available.  This is a big win: those of us with enough influence can encourage other funding bodies to adopt similar policies.

Influence universities to mandate open access

An increasing number of universities also have, or are adopting, open-access mandates for their research outputs, including MIT (USA) and UCL (UK).  I wonder what influence each of us has on the policies of our own universities?  Some of us much more than others, of course.  I will at least be asking questions around the University of Bristol, to see whether moves can be made in that direction.

Spread the word!

… and finally, there is one thing that we can all do to help, and that is simply to spread the word.  Blog about open-access papers, tell your friends which are the good publishers, talk about the importance of open access in the pub.  Let the world know that the status quo can be and must be shifted!

Perhaps even more important, as I hope I have shown, it is shifting.  Universities like MIT and UCL are not minor-league (in fact the most recent Times Higher Education rankings list them at number 7 and number 17 in the world).  Contra the negative tone of the comment that I quoted at the start of this article, open access is becoming an increasingly important issue not just among a few malcontents such as myself but with the most influential and important researchers and institutions.

We live in exciting times.

One step at a time, gets there in the end

Finally: it may seem strange, but I only found out today that this is Open Access week (Ocotober 24-30), so it’s appropriate that I’ve found myself writing so much about it.

In celebration of, or at least in resonance with, Open Access Week, the Royal Society has just announced that it is permanently open-accessing all of its articles that are 70 years old and more.  That makes a very important historical resource available to the world.  Good times.

The best part of a month ago, we posted the first two articles in a series of four on giving good talks: part 1 on planning, and part 2 on preparing the actual slides.  Then we got distracted and posted a whole sequence of articles on Open Access ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]).  If that seems like an intimidating sequence to catch up, you should just read the last one, which shows that the money Elsevier alone takes out of academia is enough to fund every research article in every field in the world as open access at PLoS ONE’s rate.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

If you followed the advice in the first part of this series, your talk has a clear story that it means to tell, and your slides illustrate the story with maximum clarity.  As you’ve been assembling the slides, you’ve also been figuring out what you want to actually say.  So are you ready to give the talk now?

Not if you want it to be the best it can be.  And why wouldn’t you?

A few years ago, when I was still a student, I was talking with a well established and respected professional about preparing talks.  He was very casual about it.  “That’s one of the big differences between an old pro and a student”, he told me.  “Students take a long time over preparing their talks, but the pros just throw it together on the plane on the way over.”  I nodded and smiled politely; and said to myself, “so that’s why students’ talks are usually better.”

So why do you need to rehearse your talk?

1. Fitting into the time

One of the most unprofessional things you can do is run over your time-slot.  If you do this, then you’d better hope you have a good session moderator, who will cut you off dead.  The alternative is that all the people who are scheduled to follow you in that session will hate you forever, for eating into their time.

You also don’t want to fall short of filling your time — it’s rarer, but I’ve seen it done that someone gives a talk that takes maybe eleven minutes, and then has to squirm at the podium taking a sequence of increasingly irrelevant questions for nine minutes.

You want to aim to come in about a minute before the end of your slot, maybe two minutes max.  That allows time for a couple of questions; or in emergencies, allows you a little bit of slop, in case you misjudge your pace.

With experience it becomes possible to estimate roughly how long your talk is going to take just from the slides.  But you never really know until you actually give it.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a grad student giving your first talk, an established researcher, or an emeritus professor: be a pro, rehearse your talk, and hit your mark.

2. Becoming fluent in delivery

A simple one.  You don’t want to be one of those speakers who keeps having to stop and think “Now what was I going to say next?” or “Why did I put that slide in again?”  You want to talk clearly, confidently and fluently.  How does that happen?  Practice!

3. Maintaining flow and momentum

This isn’t the same thing as mere fluency.  That’s about how you speak, but this is about what you’re going to say.  You already know the Big Picture of the story you’re going to tell from way back in the planning stage, and you know much of the detail because it’s in the slides.  But you will never know how well it works until you actually give the talk.  In my experience there is always something that needs changing to keep the story moving, and to keep it engaging.

It may be that I start talking about the perforated anterior centroparapophyseal laminae of Giraffatitan without having said what a centroparapophyseal lamina is.  I need another slide showing what this is.

Or it may be that some slides I have later in my talk need to be pulled up closer to the front, because they lay out background information.

Or, conversely, I have a sequence of slides near the start of the talk that don’t really follow from what preceded them or lead into what follows; but they make sense when I shift them further back in the talk.

It’s amazing how often it is that you only find these problems by actually running the talk.  No amount of paging through the slides and frowning thoughtfully will reveal these structural gaffes.  You need to actually use the slides, in the context of giving a talk, to see where the structure is off.

In fact, it can be useful to think in terms of building two talks. When you make the slides, you’re really piling up raw material, which will hopefully be close to everything you’ll end up needing, but will almost certainly not be an exact fit. It’s often necessary to rebuild the talk to some extent during rehearsal, as you learn by experience what you don’t need, what you do, and what order it should come in.  The talk you end up with, even if it uses nearly all the same material, can be different in fundamental ways from the one you started with.

4. Deciding what to cut

This is a special case of  maintaining flow, but I want to treat is separately because it’s so painful to do.

I hate cutting slides that I have expended valuable effort on.  But I end up doing it in nearly every talk that I give.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the slides: they just don’t fit the flow of the talk.  Maybe they’re off on a tangent that isn’t in the direction you need to go; sometimes they are just redundant.

In my last talk, I had a sequence of slides showing that the sequence of cervicals in the AMNH Camarasaurus specimens were not complete or articulated or even necessarily each from a single animal.  They were beautiful slides, including cleaned up plates from Osborn and Mook 1921, the single greatest ever publication on sauropods.  But when I ran the talk, it was apparent that they just weren’t necessary.  They followed slides when I showed that the necks of Giraffatitan HMN SII, Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018 and and Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis CCG V 20401 were incomplete, disarticulated or distorted.  If I’d then gone on to do the same for Camarasaurus, the audience would have been saying “All right, we get it already, can we move on now?”

So I cut the slides.  It hurt to do it.  But it made a better talk.

Pro tip: it’s easier to make too many slides, and decide what to cut after a rehearsal run or two, than to make too few slides, come in short, and have to pad things out. And when you cut slides, don’t actually delete them out of the presentation file. Move them to the very end, after your conclusion and acknowledgment slides. That serves two purposes: first, those slides are still around in case you decide later you need them back in the talk (because you ditched something else, for example), and second, it’s worth leaving them even in the final version, because they might come in handy during the post-talk Q&A. Sometimes you only have room to discuss n points in the talk, and if point n+1 is covered in a post-conclusion slide and someone in the audience fortuitously sets you up to talk about that with their question, you can sneak a little more presenting into the Q&A time (don’t force it though).

5. Getting feedback

So far I’ve not said who to rehearse your talk to.  For much of what I’ve discussed above, it suffices to run it on your own, with only a stopwatch for company.  That can help you with timing, fluency and flow.

But it’s not really a talk until you give it to someone.  So I strongly encourage you to find a victim, and deliver the talk exactly as you will at the conference.  Get your victim to make notes as you speak, then go through them afterwards.  (Do not stop to discuss as you’re giving the talk: not only will it mess up the timings, it will break the flow that you’re trying to understand.)

There are plenty of reasons to do this.

  • The pace of your delivery will be different when you are talking to a real human being.
  • Speaking with an audience will show you whether you truly know the material well enough to cruise confidently through it.
  • Someone who is new to the material will spot flaws that you have become overfamiliar with and can’t see any more.
  • Someone who doesn’t know the material as well as you do will go “huh?” when you suddenly start talking about centroparapophyseal laminae without so much as a by-your-leave.

In a completely ideal world, you’d run the talk on your own, then with a fellow expert in your own field, and finally with an intelligent layman — either someone who works in a different subfield, or perhaps a different field altogether.  That’s how you discover whether you’ve included the right background information for non-specialists to follow your argument.

Do all this, make the relevant tweaks to your slides, and you will — finally! — be ready to actually deliver the talk at the conference.  We’ll discuss that next time.

[This post is mostly a rehash of a comment I made on the last one, but I guess more people see posts than comments.  Oh, and I will try to post something about sauropod vertebrae Real Soon Now.]

Last time out, Michael Richmond suggested that one way towards an open-access world is pointing out to decision makers that open-access publishing/reading is cheaper, and commented “that approach will only work if the open-access journals are much less expensive. Are they?”

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the difficulty in shifting to author-pays open access is that universities’ libraries and research departments are funded separately, so that when the extra costs to the latter result in savings for the former, it doesn’t look like a good deal (in the short term) for the research departments.

But let’s ignore that for now, and imagine a perfect economy where universities could shift money from the subscriptions that libraries buy to the publication fees that departments pay. If we could reassign all that money, would the universities spend more or less in total?

The answer may surprise you. A recent article on the Poetic Economics blog shows that Elsevier’s 2009 profits of more than $2.075 billion, divided by the world’s total scholarly output of 1.5 million articles per year, comes out to $1383 per article.

Now as it happens, PLoS ONE’s publication fee is $1350 — $33 less.

So think about it. That means the money that Elsevier alone takes out of academia — not its turnover but its profits, which are given to shareholders who have nothing to do with scholarly work — is enough to fund every research article in every field in the world as open access at PLoS ONE’s rate.

(And remember that PLoS is now making a profit at that rate — no longer living off the grants that helped to get it started.  At a rate of $1350 per article, it’s not just surviving but flourishing, so we know that that’s a reasonable commercial rate to charge for handling an open-access academic article with no limits on length or on number of high-resolution colour figures.)

Isn’t that … astonishing?

Isn’t it … scandalous?

ONE COMMERCIAL PUBLISHER is taking out of the system enough money for everything to be open to the world.  Everything.  In the world.  Open to the world.

if we all stopped buying Elsevier journals — just Elsevier, no other publisher — and if we threw away the proportion of the savings that Elsevier spends on costs, including salaries; then the profits alone would have been sufficient to fund every single research article in the world to be published in PLoS ONE — freely available to the whole world.

What would this mean?  Dentists would be able to keep up with the relevant literature.  Small businesses would be able to make plans with full information.  The Climate Code Foundation would have a sounder and more up-to-date scientific basis for its work.  Patient groups would be able to understand their diseases and give informed consent for treatment.  Medical charities, amateur palaeontologists, ornithologists and so many more would have access to the information they need.  Researchers in third-world countries could have the information they need to cope with life-threatening issues of health, food and water.

We can have all that for our $2.075 billion per year.  Or we can keep giving it to Elsevier’s shareholders.  Giving it, remember: not buying something with it. Don’t forget, this is not the money that Elsevier absorbs as its costs: salaries, rent, connectivity, what have you.  This is their profit.  It’s pure profit.  This is the money that is taken out of the system.

So, yes, open access is cheaper. Stupidly cheaper. Absurdly, ridiculously, appallingly cheaper.

Update (later the same day)

In an article posted just an hour ago, Cambridge research-group head Peter Murray-Rust comes right out and says it: closed access means people die.  That’s the bottom line.  Follow his syllogism:

  • Information is a key component of health-care
  • Closed access publishers make money by restricting access to information.
  • The worse the medicine and healthcare, etc. the more people die.

Are any of those statements false?  And if not, is there any way to construe them that doesn’t lead by simply logic to the conclusion that closed access means people die?  I don’t see one.

CORRECTION (Monday 24th)

Please see Jeff Hecht’s comment below for an important correction: Elsevier’s annual profits are “only” 60% of the figure originally cited.  Which means we’d need to throw in Springer’s profits, too, in order to open-access everything.  My bad — thanks for the correction, Jeff.


Regular readers will know that, as part of a broader strategy favouring open-access publishing, I no longer perform peer-reviews for non-open journals.  (I mentioned a recent example in a comment on the last article.)  I’ve had support for this stance from some impressive quarters; but also a fair bit of criticism from people who I respect.  That includes some strong open-access advocates who agree with me on where we want to land up, but don’t like the tactics I’m using to get there.

The most detailed of those criticisms in an article entitled Should we review for any old journal? by Andy Farke, and I think it deserves a detailed response.  Andy’s open-access credentials are impeccable — he writes about the issue in detail on his blog, and is an editor for PLoS ONE, by most metrics the leading open-access journal.  So when he has a criticism, it’s worth hearing.

Andy has several concerns.  Let’s look at them in turn.

I argue that, unless carefully constructed, such reviewing boycotts may never be noticed by some of the concerned parties. A typical journal editor will think “oh, Reviewer 1 refused to review. . .on to Reviewer 2.” Even if the refusal to review is accompanied by a note explaining the reasoning behind the refusal, only the editor will ever see it (and potentially the publishing admins – who have little vested interest in changing the status quo).

This is an excellent point.  A protest that no-one knows about is not going to be an effective protest.  From now on, whenever I turn down a non-open review, I will send a message to the editor, the publisher and the authors.  (Andy suggests this as one candidate strategy later on in his article.)

Second, when the pool of qualified reviewers is small to begin with, this could have the consequence of letting some really bad stuff slip into publication.

I’m not sure I buy this.  If a journal can’t find reviewers for an article, the only honourable thing for them to do is return it to the author and say so, not give it a free pass.  At any rate, it looks like a purely hypothetical problem to me.  If and when the day comes that a paper comes out that I was asked to review and declined, and I see that it’s bad and should have been blocked in review — on that day I will start to try assessing the damage.  At the moment, though, the apparent damage is zero.

I am not — not quite — going to say “never”.  For example, suppose someone found a more complete specimen of Xenoposeidon and submitted the description to Cretaceous Research, a non-open Elsevier journal that is actually a good match for the subject matter.  That truly is a paper that would benefit most from being reviewed by the person who has spent an order of magnitude more time looking at and thinking about NHM R2095 than anyone else on the planet.  In such a situation I might waive my policy.

But I’m hesitant about even admitting that.  Once you start to admit that there may be extra-special circumstances, it’s easy to start making more and more exceptions.  I’m not going to do that.

Anyway …  Back to Andy:

Third, the journals are not the ones hurt most directly by review boycotts; it is the authors. The journal will almost always find someone else to review the paper (with a delay as these reviewers are recruited); and if not, the manuscript will be returned for lack of qualified reviewers (with a delay as the paper is prepared for submission elsewhere). Rightly or wrongly, publications are a primary currency of academia. If getting that publication delayed means my friend or colleague doesn’t get a job, or a grant, or tenure, I have hurt them, not just the profits of the journal.

Here we come to the real issue — the “collateral damage” that Andy mentioned in his title.

First, let’s say that he’s right — there is damage.  A reviewing boycott is going to hurt authors.  It’s regrettable.  If I could hurt the non-open journals without hurting the authors, I surely would.  So this is a tough situation.  It’s a tough decision.

But as Matt has ably pointed out, we’re in a war.  A combination of historical accidents have manoeuvred us into a position where the interests of authors are directly opposite to those of publishers: in short, authors want their papers to be read by everyone with maximum convenience, and publishers want to prevent them from being read except by an elite few who are able and willing to pay.  My judgement is that whatever damage I may do to authors through a reviewing boycott is a tiny, tiny proportion of the damage that non-open publishers do to them every time they give away their work to a corporation that hides it away in a walled garden.

In short: there is no wholly good solution here.  It’s a matter of finding the least bad solution.  In the long term it is, unquestionably, to the advantage of all authors for open access to become ubiquitous.  Without a doubt we will need to make sacrifices to reach that future, including passing up opportunities to place our work in higher impact venues.  This is one more such sacrifice.

… and at this point, I’m a bit nonplussed.  What did we expect?  That it would just fall into our laps?  That the gigantic multinational corporations that eat our work would happily hand it all back to us?  That they would cheerfully give up the anti-science business model that has made them record profits year on year?  Did we think there would be no fight?  That we wouldn’t have to give anything up along the way?

And so on to Andy’s constructive suggestions.

1) Refuse to review the paper, but fully explain why in a letter submitted directly and separately to the editor, journal, and authors. This way everyone gets the message – not just a select few.

This is definitely the way to go.  To be clear: it’s not the only strategy we should be pursuing, but it’s the best way I’ve heard to handle the problem of reviewing.

(Might journals object to an invited reviewer contacting the authors directly?  I can’t think of a legitimate reason why they might, but I suppose it’s possible.  Anyone have any experience of this?)

2) Review the paper, but include a message with the review (perhaps both in the review text and in a direct letter to the authors) on the shame of the work being locked behind a paywall. Make the authors think twice about whether or not the intended audience will ever see the paper.

This strikes me as weak sauce.  I think of it as an emergency backup plan for the very rare cases where there really is a compelling reason to review something in a non-open journal, such as the Xenoposeidon example above.

But even then, aren’t there better alternatives?  Like simply contacting the authors directly, and explaining why you think it’s important that they send the work elsewhere?  Realistically, no author having gone successfully through peer-review is then going to pull the paper on a reviewer’s recommendation and submit it elsewhere.  Better to raise that possibility before the review has happened.

3) Submit your own work to open access journals, cite work in open access journals, and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Oh!  Let me be very clear here: I certainly never meant to suggest a reviewing boycott as a substitute for a submission boycott!  No, it’s meant to accompany a proper open-access submission policy.

Again, I am not going to say “never”.  There are situations where no doubt I will be more or less forced to allow my work to appear in non-open venues — for example, when I speak at a conference, contribute a paper for the proceedings volume, and find that the volume is going to be non-open.  But even then, there are other approaches to be taken.  For example, when exactly this happened with my sauropod history paper being published in a non-open and ludicrously expensive Geological Society special volume, I found a way to retain the right to freely redistribute copies of my chapter.  (I have not used the SPARC Addendum yet, but may be useful in such situations … even if it does sound like a John Grisham novel.)

OK, last lap.  Here we go.  Andy says:

I sympathize with the sentiment that we academics shouldn’t be propping up the questionable practices of some publishers, but we also need to avoid shooting ourselves (and our colleagues) in the foot as a result.

I have to disagree.  Foot damage is regrettable, but it’s better than slavery.  What’s maybe got lost in this pragmatic discussion of ways and means is that the status quo is wrong.  Everyone has to make their own moral choices, but for me it would be Just Plain Wrong to perpetuate the corporate incarceration of publicly funded science.

It’s hard to write about these things without coming across as overwrought and hysterical, but let me try an analogy here.  The economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s, intended to bring about the end of apartheid, most certainly hurt the very citizens that they were intended ultimately to help.  But most people would agree that history has vindicated those sanctions.  It was a hard decision to make.  No doubt there were plenty of anti-apartheid activists who, with the best intentions, opposed the sanctions because of their immediate negative effect on people on the ground.  But, happily, longer-term thinking won out.  We need to be similarly far-sighted.

Is it hyperbole to compare paywalled research with institutionalised racism?  Yes, of course.  But maybe not by so much as you think.  The developing world is beset by appalling diseases that we in the West don’t even need to think about, and suffers constant famines.  Who knows what fruitful research might have been done — both by professional scientists in those countries and by unaffiliated amateurs in the West — if only the foundational research was available to them?  Open Access isn’t just a First World Problem: it potentially affects health and access to food and water for millions, or even billions, of people.

So, yeah.  I am cool with a bit of collateral damage.

I was directed to an article entitled Rookie Review on Nature Jobs by a tweet from Andy Farke (author of the Open Source Palaeontologist and an editor at PLoS ONE).  It has a lot of good stuff in it, once you get past the opening section.  But getting past that opening was difficult for me, because my blood was boiling by the time I reached the end of the third paragraph.

Here, then, is the opening of the article, with my translation.

Claudio Casola had no idea that journal editors had consistently rated his manuscript reviews highly. Then he received an award from Amsterdam-based publisher Elsevier for his “exceptional contribution to the quality of the journal Gene”.

Translation: Casola has been suckered into investing a huge amount of time and expertise, over and over again, into improving the work of other scientists, funded from the public purse, in order to increase the profits of a foreign-owned corporation that locks away the resulting science from the people who funded it.  He has done this so often and so well, that the corporation has very generously given him “an award”.  Anyone care to guess the cash value of that award?

(Notice by the way that most reviewers don’t even get the courtesy of feedback from the publisher.  Casola is a very rare exception.)

Casola, a postdoc in evolutionary genetics at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that his first review, in 2006, was typical of rookie referees. He spent more than 10 hours on the manuscript, poring over the details and asking faculty members for advice. After reviewing more than two dozen papers in the past five years, he has been able to cut the process down to three hours, quickly assessing the originality and merit of a paper. “Reviewing manuscripts makes me feel like I’m a fully fledged member of the scientific community,” says Casola.

There is it, folks.  The actual reason he gives all this work to a profiteering corporation?  They’ve managed to persuade him that they are the Scientific Community rather than a parasite that clings to it.  Fished in.

 “Young scientists should get involved in the process as they start building their careers, particularly since reviewers are harder and harder to find,” says Bart Wacek, an executive publisher in charge of Elsevier’s genetics portfolio based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Translation: “Young scientists should give us free professional work, and establish the habit early in their careers”, says Bart Wacek, an executive publisher at Elsevier.  “Only by getting started young can researchers hope to develop fully-fledged Stockholm Syndrome.  We need them to put in enough effort early on that the sunk cost fallacy begins to pervade their thinking: then they will invent reasons to justify to themselves why it’s a good thing to give this work to profiteers instead of to the wider scientific community.  Better still, in some cases they will even evangelise on our behalf!”

Young reviewers are certainly sought after. “The best referees are postdocs,” says Leslie Sage, a senior physical-sciences editor at Nature in Washington DC. “They are at the top of their game, well versed in the literature and politically naive enough to tell the truth.”

“… and sufficiently in awe of Real, Grown-Up Journals that they will do whatever we tell them in exchange for the oxygen of acceptance.  Catch ’em while they’re young!”

Despite all this, the Nature Jobs article is worth reading because it does contain some useful hints about what makes a good review — especially this nugget: “Reviewers should avoid concentrating on what the study could show in principle. The focus should be on what it actually shows.”  A big amen on that.  Nothing is more frustrating than getting back a review that says “Well, you should have written this other paper instead.”

Still and all, folks.  You can choose where to direct your reviewing effort.  You can give it to open-access journals that let the whole world benefit from your work (and more important, from the author’s work and the nation’s funding).  Or you can give it to Elsevier shareholders.

It’s on the record that I think it’s stupid to do the latter — immoral, even, in an “all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing” way, because donating to paywalled journals helps to prop up their corrupt business and therefore keeps research out of the hands of the people who pay for it.  (Who are these people who want access but can’t get it?  See Peter Murray Rust’s excellent ongoing series on “The Scholarly Poor” — Dentists, Industry, The Climate Code Foundation, Patient groups, so many different types.)

So again I urge you — join me in refusing to do free work for paywalled journals.

Update (Sunday 16th October 2011)

Andy Farke offers a counterpoint over on the Open Source Paleontologist.  He raises important points that deserve to be properly addressed: I’ll probably do that in a new post here rather than as a comment.  Stay tuned!


Smoking Kraken

October 12, 2011

Folks.  Just don’t do this.  Just don’t.

McMenamin and Schulte McMenamin’s crack-smoking GSA abstract Triassic kraken: the Berlin ichthyosaur death assemblage interpreted as a giant cephalopod midden isn’t going to do anything for them except attract well-deserved ridicule; and it’s not going to do anything for the field of palaeontology except attract undeserved ridicule.  It’s a lose-lose.

So just don’t, OK?

Oh, and, Geological Society of America?  Don’t do this, either.  A reputation is a valuable and fragile thing.

And mainstream media: we understand that you feel you should be able to trust the Geological Society of America, but can please have just a little common-sense?

(Actual analysis, if anyone wants it, can be found here on Brian Switek’s Wired blog.)

Acknowledgements: public domain Brachiosaurus altithorax and Histioteuthis reversa images from Wikipedia.  Originals here and here.

The gloves are off!

October 12, 2011

A package!  A package has arrived!

What can it be?

All right!  Let’s get down to business?

Now, where did I leave that monitor-lizard neck skeleton?  Ah yes …

That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Stay tuned for exciting news about turkey zygapophyses.


Sauropod sighting

October 10, 2011

But where? You tell us. All will be revealed shortly.