Just a quick note that my article Academic publishers have become the enemies of science is now up on the Guardian’s Science Blog.  Spread the word!

(You’re welcome to comment here, of course, but if you post your comments on the Guardian site, they will be much more widely read.  Registration is very quick and free.)

Rebbachisauridae incertae sedis MMCH-Pv 49, anterior cervical vertebra (MMCH-Pv 49/11) in right lateral (reversed) and anterior views (Haluza et al. 2012:fig 2A-B)

In an article that many of you will now have seen, Heather Morrison demonstrated the enormous profits of STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) scholarly publishers.  The figures are taken from her in-progress dissertation which in turn cites an article in The Economist.  It all checks out.  I emphasise this because I found the figures so hard to believe.  Here they are again: profits as a percentage of revenue for commercial STM publishers in 2010 or early 2011:

  • Elsevier: £724m on revenue of £2b — 36%
  • Springer‘s Science+Business Media: £294m on revenue of £866m — 33.9%
  • John Wiley & Sons: $106m on revenue of $253m — 42%
  • Academic division of Informa plc: £47m on revenue of £145m — 32.4%

So it’s evident that profits on the order of 35% are pretty typical for commercial STM publishers, and that Elsevier’s figures are not an aberration.  Not only that, but all four of these companies’ profits as a proportion of revenue are still increasing — by 2.4%, 4%, 13% and 3.3% respectively.  The U.K. Office of Fair Trading noted back in 2002 that “the overall profitability of commercial STM publishing is high, not only by comparison to ‘non-profit’ journals (which is not surprising), but also by comparison to other commercial journal publishing”.

I wanted to be sure that I was assessing this fairly, so I looked through Elsevier’s annual reports for the last nine years — happily, they make them available, if not particularly easy to find.  What I found is that they have been consistently bringing in profits in the region of 33% throughout the last decade.  Specifically:

  • 2002: £429m profit on £1295m revenue – 33.18%
  • 2003: £467m profit on £1381m revenue – 33.82%
  • 2004: £460m profit on £1363m revenue – 33.75%
  • 2005: £449m profit on £1436m revenue – 31.25%
  • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
  • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
  • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
  • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
  • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%
  • UPDATE (14 March 2012) The 2011 figures are out: £768M on £2058M revenue – 37.3%

(I have not been through the same exercise for Springer, Wiley or Informa, but there is no reason to expect that the results would be any different.)

What does it all mean?

Yes, publishers have a right to make a living.  Not only that, but they have a right to make as big a profit as the market can bear (though of course when they form a cartel that distorts the market monopolistically, that changes things).

But here’s what it means to scientists that Elsevier’s profit is 35.74% of revenue:

You just have to ask yourself whether that’s where you want your money going.

Most of you will know that the major US science-funding agencies require the work they fund (from the public purse) to be made available as open-access to the public that funded it.  And it’s hard for me to imagine anyone sees that requirement as anything other than straightforwardly just.

But you may not know about the Research Works Act, a truly vile piece of legislation being proposed by two Elsevier-funded shills in the US Congress, which would make it illegal for funding bodies to impose this perfectly natural requirement.  It may not be surprising that a corporation as predatory as Elsevier wants legal protection for its exploitative business model of stealing publicly funded research; but it shocked me to find that this preposterous Act ever got out of committee (unlike two earlier failed attempts to overturn open-access mandates).

The good news is that there is something we can do.  The Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) has issued a Request For Information — basically, it wants your opinion — on public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research.  You can read about this in (too much) detail here, but the bottom line is that you should email your comments to publicaccess@ostp.gov, before the extended deadline of 12th January.

Here is what I just sent:

From: Mike Taylor <mike@miketaylor.org.uk>
To: publicaccess@ostp.gov
Date: 9 January 2012 11:26
Subject: RFI: Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research

Dear Science and Technology Policy Office,

Thank you for extending the deadline for comments on Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research.  The Research Works Act has only very recently come to the notice of scientists, and it is because of this extraordinary proposal that it is now apparent to us that we need to reaffirm what we thought was settled: that OF COURSE scientific work funded by the public should be freely accessible to the public.  I do not understand how this can even be a matter for discussion.  The public pays: the public should benefit in every way possible.

The language in the RWA is highly misleading, attributing to publishers far more input into the scientific process than they really have.  The truth is that scientists (often funded by public money) provide the underlying research, the writing and the figure preparation that result in a manuscript submitted for publication.  Other scientists then provide the editorial services and (contra publishers’ claims, as can be easily verified) the peer review.  Publishers’ contributions are limited essentially to typesetting, the provision of web hosting, and sometimes a very limited amount of compensation for senior editors only (usually not the handling editors who actually deal with authors’ works).  The notion that such a minor contribution should suffice to hand publishers, rather than the public, the right to determine how, where and under what regime the resulting works are disseminated, is ludicrous.  It would be laughable if it were not so iniquitous.

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ

Much more about the Research Works Act here, here, here, here, and all over the Internet.  Please, do your bit today: send your comments to the OSTP.  Don’t let Elsevier and their cartel steal publicly funded science.


Matt here. Emailing the OSTP takes all of 5 minutes and you should do it right away if you haven’t yet. They ARE listening; in my initial message I mentioned that the profits from a handful of the big commercial publishers could fund all scholarly publishing worldwide, and cited this post. Within 19 minutes I received a personal response from someone in the OSTP, saying, “Thank you Mathew. Would you be so kind as to submit your linked evidence in the body of an email to ease processing and ensure it is fully considered?”

So I did. If you’d like the same ammo, see the post linked above and especially updates and comments, and this post on the insane profit margins of the big commercial publishers (hat tip to Mike). You should also include Peter Murray-Rust’s argument that open access saves lives, outlined in this post and more briefly in this comment.

As long as I have your ear, I am curious at the absence of leverage being brought to bear on the politicians to sponsored the Research Works Act: Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

Issa is a corporate lackey and social policy atavism of the first order, and as long as the publishers keep the campaign funds flowing he’s unlikely to budge–unless his followers start asking why he is sponsoring legislation that would allow a mostly-foreign-based publishing industry to monopolize the results of US-funded research. Maybe someone should. Issa’s webpage is here; in a crowning irony, the big banner at the top currently says, “keep the web #OPEN”.

Carolyn Maloney is a Democrat from New York, she ought to know better. Like Issa, according to her Facebook page Maloney has maxed out on friends and isn’t accepting any more. Not surprisingly, things are dead silent there, and mostly just dead. Fortunately you can reach her at her official House of Representatives webpage. Maloney sponsored the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act; since she cares about health care, it would be worthwhile to point out that open access saves lives. One of the rotating photos on Maloney’s webpage shows her touring a small business incubator, so it would also be a good idea to emphasize the plight of the scholarly poor.

Two things: obviously comments from these politicians’ constituents will carry the most weight, so if you’re in their districts, please take the time to write to them. That said, if you’re a US citizen you are in the legislative footprint of these people, and you should let them know what you think. And if the RWA passes the repercussions would be global, so don’t stay quiet just because you’re outside the US.

Second, if you do write to either politician, please be respectful, on point, and brief. Sure, they may be craven corporate shill morons, but you won’t do our cause any favors by pointing that out in those terms. Don’t soft-pedal the immorality of the proposed legislation, but don’t be a name-calling abusive jerk, either. That’s what blogs are for ;-).

We’re starting the new year with a new feature, in which we answer questions that have come our way. We never had a policy about not answering questions, it’s just that previous ones have tended to arrive in the comments section and have been dealt with there. But suddenly in the last few days I’ve gotten two questions from extrabloggular sources, and rather than hide the replies I thought I’d make them available to all.

One of my cohort at Berkeley texted me the other day with the following questions:

OK, phylobuddy: can you suck the marrow from a chicken bone? If they have hollow bones, where’s the marrow?!? Google is getting me nowhere.

Short answer: yes, one can get marrow from chicken bones, from those bones that contain marrow rather than air. In most fully mature chickens, the pneumatic bones include the braincase, the cervical, dorsal, and most or all synsacral vertebrae, some of the dorsal ribs, the central portion of the sternum, the coracoids, and the humeri (if you’re not a regular and some of these terms are unfamiliar, check out these handy guides [1, 2] to the vertebrate skeleton). That leaves marrow in everything else, although the only bones with large marrow cavities–as opposed to tiny trabecular spaces, which also house marrow–are the radii, ulnae, femora, tibiotarsi, and tarsometatarsi. So if you want to actually see large amounts of chicken marrow, or suck the marrow out of chicken bones, you’re basically stuck with the big distal bones of the wing, the thigh, and the drumstick (tibiotarsus). If you are boiling chicken bones to get stock for soups or stews, might as well throw them all in; even the pneumatic bones will still have bits of adhering meat, cartilage, and ligaments that will give up molecules and flavor to the stock.

The long answer is that the expression “hollow bones” has caused no end of confusion, because there are at least two ways to interpret hollow: filled with air, or not filled with bone (the former is a subset of the latter). If you mean “not filled with bone”, then the bones of almost all amniotes* are hollow, and the spaces inside are occupied by marrow (most commonly) or air. If filled with air, the bones are referred to as pneumatic, and an accessible introduction to them is here.

* At least; I know less about amphibians and fish, although at least one osteoglossomorph (IIRC) pneumatizes its vertebrae from its swim bladder!

The reasons it gets confusing are twofold. First, sometimes authors describe bones as hollow and mean only that they have chambers inside, but later readers see ‘hollow’ and infer ‘pneumatic’. Not all hollow bones are pneumatic; in fact, the vast majority of them are not, including the long bones of your arms and legs. The criteria for inferring pneumaticity from dry bones are more strict, and are explored in this paper and this one. Anyway, this point is just confusion caused by an ambiguous term.

The second case is more interesting, because it involves real unknowns. In the fossil record we can almost always tell if a bone is hollow, sensu lato, but sometimes it is not possible to say for certain whether the hollow space(s) inside were filled with marrow or air. Particularly vexing and intriguing examples include the humerus of Eotyrannus and the iliac chambers of some sauropods, which are discussed in this paper. My guess is that the iliac chambers of sauropods are genuinely pneumatic, because they only occur in sauropods that already have sacral pneumaticity, and we know from broken ilia of more basal sauropods and sauropodomorphs that large marrow-filled chambers are not present in those taxa. Conversely, I suspect that the humerus of Eotyrannus was apneumatic (marrow-filled), given that humeral pneumaticity is otherwise unknown in non-avian theropods, although the pneumatic furcula of Buitreraptor at least shows that the necessary clavicular air sac was present in some.

Next question! This one came to me on Facebook, from ReBecca Hunt-Foster, whom you may know from her awesome Dinochick Blogs. You should also envy her and hubby John Foster for getting the most awesome wedding present of all time: a 1/12 scale skeleton of Apatosaurus sculpted by Phil Platt, which you can read about here. That’s cool enough that I am stealing it for this otherwise picture-challenged post.

ANYWAY, ReBecca wrote on my FB wall today to ask:

Random question: Have you seen many tooth marks on sauro cervical verts? I am debating on whether something I have is a dessication crack or really some tooth marks. Thanks :)

In all the 15 years that I have spent looking at sauropod remains in the bowels of many, many museums, I have never seen a single tooth mark on a sauropod vertebra.

[Update the next day: Er, except for the bitten Apatosaurus tail on display in the AMNH! Many thanks to reptilianmonster and steve cohen for reminding me about this in the comments. I’m going to go hide for a while now.]

Now, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Truth be told, I’ve never looked for them, and my usual mental search pattern for pneumatic traces (large, irregular) would probably exclude tooth scratches (small, linear) as noise. But I’ve certainly never seen any vertebrae with easily recognizable signs of predation or scavenging or with obvious bites removed.

People also sometimes ask me what kinds of healed traumas I’ve seen in pneumatic sauropods bones. That’s easy: apart from vertebral fusions, most of which probably have nothing to do with trauma, I’ve seen zip. Nada. Null set. The wingspan of the average tadpole. I’ve seen some pretty cool pneumatic bones from extant birds that were broken and later healed, including a eagle femur in the UCMP comparative collection that is now shaped like the letter Z, but nothing in sauropods.

I can think of three possible reasons for this, which sort of flow into each other. The first is that apart from the very solid and blocky centra of apneumatic vertebrae, sauropod verts were pretty fragile, and prone to getting distorted and busted up even when they started out intact, and those verts that started out broken just had a tougher time with the taphonomic lottery.

The second is that pneumatic sauropod bones would been nothing to most predators other than a mouthful of relatively dry bone shards, so either carnivores left them alone, or if they were osteovores like T. rex, they ate the shards and whatever is left over is unrecognizable. I have seen, and mostly ignored, plenty of vert-shrapnel in quarries and in collections, and maybe sharper eyes than mine could have discerned evidence of predation from those bits. To me it mostly looked like trampling, hydraulic transport, erosion, and other mundane ways to explode a vertebra.

The third is that in addition to a preservation bias against half-destroyed verts, there is probably also a collection bias against them. I’m probably not the only one would pass up a few shards of excellence to dig out the complete fibula sitting next to them in the quarry, and I love this stuff. That said, we did get a LOT of blasted vert bits out of the Wolf Creek quarry in the Cloverly, so if you want to pore over sauropod shards looking for tooth marks, visit the OMNH.

And, if you do know of tooth marks on sauropod vertebrae, please let us know in the comments. And consider publishing them, given the apparent vacuum of such things.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2012

Lots of love from the SV-POW!sketeers, and best wishes for 2012!