It’s five to ten on Saturday night. Matt and I are in New York City. We could be at the all-you-can-eat sushi buffet a couple of blocks down from our hotel, or watching a film, or doing all sorts of cool stuff.

Instead, we’re in our hotel room. Matt is reformatting the bibliography of our neck-elongation manuscript, and I am tweaking the format of the citations.

Just sayin’.

I am finalising an article for submission to Palaeontologia Electronica. Regarding the acknowledgements, the Contributor Instructions say: “Initials are used rather than given names.”

WHY?! What on earth is gained by forcing authors to thank R. Cifelli instead of Rich Cifelli for access to specimens?

And of course this is the tiniest tip of the pointless-reformatting iceberg. Do not get me started on citations and reference, tables, figure captions, headings and all the rest.

The utter, utter pointlessness of such rules is irking me more with each submission I make. It’s indicative of the long-entrenched power-balance that we’ve all internalised, where authors are supplicants to journals, of whom we crave the boon of publication.

This. Is. Stupid.

We take highly trained scientists and put them to work doing tedious, time-consuming, error-prone clerical work which has the net result of reducing the utility of the paper.

Bring on the revolution.


More from my flying visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I found this exhibition of bird eggs very striking. In particular, it was shocking how much bigger the elephant-bird egg is than that of the ostrich.

From smallest to largest, the eggs are those of:

  1. Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris
  2. Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea
  3. House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
  4. Eastern Screech Own Megascops asio
  5. Thick-billed Parrot Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncho
  6. Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegeno
  7. Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
  8. Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
  9. Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii
  10. Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
  11. Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus
  12. Wandering Albatross Diomedeo exulans
  13. Ostrich Struthio camelus
  14. Elephant bird Aepyornis sp.

As always, click through for full resolution.

Picture-of-the-day post: a couple of days ago I had the chance to spend an hour in a very brief visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Needless to say, that was a pathetically inadequate amount of time to look at even one of the public galleries properly. But here is one photo I took — skeletons of both extant monotremes, the platypus and the echidna:

Click through for full resolution.

I am briefly quoted in Times Higher Education‘s new article about the White House public access petition Since my response had to be quite dramatically cut for space, here is the full text of what I sent the writer, Paul Jump:

The success of this petition is important for several reasons. First, it puts paid to the pernicious lie that open access isn’t important because research is useless to non-specialists. Support for the petition has come from many non-academic quarters, including patient support group Patients Like MeWikipedia, Creative Commons, the American Association of Law Libraries, and the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Perhaps equally important, it’s attracted support from publishers — not only open-access publishers such as PLoS, BMC and InTechWeb, but also forward-thinking subscription publishers like Rockefeller University Press. It’s also featured widely in the non-academic media, appearing on the news-for-nerds sites SlashdotReddit, and Hacker News, in newspapers like the Guardian, and in magazines like Wired.

All of this makes the crucial point that open access isn’t just an esoteric preference of a few disgruntled academics, as the hugely profitable commercial subscription-based academic publishers have consistently tried to paint it. It’s something that has huge implications for all of our lives: for health care, education, legislative deliberations, small businesses, and ultimately the health of the planet.

Open-access advocates have seen this for a long time, but now the message is getting out. Irrespective of what response the Obama administration makes to the petition’s very rapid achievement of the required 25,000 signatures, what’s been said about it around the world lays waste the idea that open access is nothing more than an alternative business model for scholarly publishing. It’s a much bigger revolution than that.

(They managed to cut that down to 69 words!)

I don’t have time to write about this properly, but a few people have asked me about the new Sellers et al. (2012) paper on measuring the masses of extinct animals — in particular, the Berlin Giraffatitan — by having a CAD program generate minimal complex hulls around various body regions. Rather than write something new about it, I’m going to publish the comments that I sent Ed Yong for his Discover piece on the new technique:

Hi, Ed, good to hear from you. Yes, it’s a good paper: a useful new technique that has some useful properties, most importantly that it requires no irreproducible judgements on the part of the person using it, and that it’s ground-truthed on solid data from extant animals.

It’s a reassuring sanity-check to find that my (2009) mass estimate falls well within their method’s 95% confidence interval, and is in fact within 0.6% of their best estimate.

There are a couple of problems with this study, which I hope will be addressed in followups. The authors are honest enough to touch on all of these problems themselves, though! They are:

1. All the extant animals used to determine the fudge factor are mammals, which means they are not necessarily completely relevant to dinosaurs. In particular I would very much like to have seen regression lines and correlation coefficients for this method for birds and crocodilians, both of which are much more closely related to Giraffatitan.

2. Much depends on the reconstruction of the torso, particular the position of the ribs, which is very difficult to do well and confidently with dinosaurs. In my volumetric analysis (Taylor 2009:803) I found that the torso accounts for 70% of total body volume in Giraffatitan, so rib orientation will make a big difference to overall mass. Sauropod ribs that are well preserved and undistorted along their whole length are extremely rare.

3. Use of a single density value for the whole animal, while appropriate for mammals, really isn’t for brachiosaurs, in which the very long neck likely had a density no more than half that of the legs. I’m not sure what can be done about this, though, since any attempt to correct for density variation involves subjective guesswork. Then again, so do all guesses at overall body density in dinosaurs.

Issue 1 bothers me most, because the convex hulls of limb segments in mammals will be proportionally much larger than in sauropods, due to the complex shapes of mammalian long-bone ends. I worry that using mammals as a baseline will underestimate sauropod leg mass.

Still, even with these caveats, it’s a good exposition of an important new method which I expect to see widely adopted.

Hope that’s helpful.

In short: good work, widely applicable, and probably the best mass-estimation technique we now have available for complete and near-complete skeletons. It would be good to see it applied to (say) the Yale, AMNH and CM apatosaurs.

Composite illustration from Sellers et al.’s press release. Top left: bear skeleton from the Oxford University Natural History Museum, presumably Ursus maritimus: original skeleton, derived point cloud and convex hulls (also used as Sellers et al. 2012:fig. 1). Top right: shedloads of awesome. Bottom: complex hulls around body segments of Giraffatitan.


Sellers, W. I., J. Hepworth-Bell, P. L. Falkingham, K. T. Bates, C. A. Brassey, V. M. Egerton and P. L. Manning. 2012. Minimum convex hull mass estimations of complete mounted skeletons. Biology Letters, online ahead of print. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0263

Taylor, Michael P. 2009a. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.

Oh dear, this is depressing to watch.

The Problem

Last year (2011-12-01), Peter Murray Rust of Cambridge University published an article in BMC’s Journal of Cheminformatics — which, like all BMC journals, is owned by Springer. Note that the journal is open access, and that the “Open Access” button on the article’s page links to Springer’s open access page, which says:

All articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, enabling authors to retain copyright to their work.

And the PDF of the paper itself confirms:

© 2011 Jessop et al; licensee Chemistry Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons. org/l icenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Yesterday, Peter found that figures from this CC BY-licenced paper, to which the authors retained copyright, had been co-opted by Springer Images, with the following claim at the bottom of the page:


This image is copyrighted by BioMed Central Ltd.

This image is published with open access and made available for noncommercial purposes. For more information on what you are allowed to do with this image, please see the Creative Commons pages.

If you would like to obtain permissions for the re-use or re-print of this image, please click here.

This is a very, very bad thing. If you doubt it, consider what Springer’s attitude would be if I took material that they owned the copyright on and claimed that it was mine. It would not be pretty.

Peter looked around Springer Images some more. What he found there was also not pretty. He found that they had also wrongly claimed copyright for CC BY images from Wikipedia (more details) and from PLoS, Maybe more interesting still, Peter’s browsing in Springer Images shows that they have also pre-empted copyright on non-CC materials owned by rival Big Four academic publisher Wiley. Will Wiley pursue Springer for this violation? We can only hope so — after all, we’re often told that the reason for copyright transfers is that the publishers have the resources to do these things on our behalf.


I just found out that Klaus Graf reported this very problem back in 2009. [In German: English translation.] Nothing was done about it then, but let’s be charitable and assume that’s because it never came to Springer’s attention.

Springer’s Responses

First up, Bettina Goerner, Springer’ Science and Business Media Open Access Manager, who spoke with Peter:

Something has gone wrong. Springer is working very hard. They hope to fix it by July.

By July?! So what we’re being told is this: Springer have a grotesque attribution, licencing and copyright problem on their Images site, whether by design or accident, which results in their gaining revenue from material that is not theirs. And they intend to continue profiting from it for another month. Not acceptable! At the very least, the Springer Images site should immediately be modified to show a prominent banner stating “the copyright and licence information pertaining to these resources is wrong: contact the original creators for permissions” until the mistakes are all fixed.

But the one that provoked me to write this article is this thick wedge of doublespeak posted on Google+ by Wim van der Stelt, Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy. I’ll quote it in full so no-one thinks I am misrepresenting it:

Springer Statement on Springer Images
5 June 2012

We have contacted Peter Murray-Rust, a blogger, to discuss Springer Images. Mr Murray-Rust has drawn attention to problems with the website and Springer is working flat out to correct them. Mr Murray-Rust has, on his blog (, made allegations that are untrue and we would like to respond to them.

An image that shows up on Springer Images must first be published in a Springer book or journal via the normal publication process, including delivery into our publishing content system. The image is then delivered for display on Springer Images (with the appropriate copyright attribution as determined by the metadata).

We screen for keywords in the caption (in both English and German) that indicate that an image is “used with permission” or “copyright” of someone else to make a decision whether to include an image or not.

It is, however, possible that an image is used by an author without correct attribution, i.e. that correct attribution is not indicated in the caption. Unfortunately, as a result, the incorrect copyright attribution displays on Springer Images. However, we would like to make it very clear that, in every case where this is brought to our attention, we remove the images manually, usually on the same day the problem is reported.

This hardly constitutes “mass copytheft”.

Mr Murray-Rust not only attributes the problem incorrectly to Springer Images, but also insinuates that Springer is selling commercial rights to use images that are already open access. This is not only outrageous and blatantly false, it also damages our reputation.

Open access images on Springer Images are open access, full stop. They are available for use according to the relevant open access license of the publication.

In this particular case, the type of OA license is listed incorrectly and ensuring that it is listed correctly is what we are working on solving. Also, for some images coming from OA articles, the copyright reads Springer or BioMed Central but should read “The authors”. This is something we are in the process of fixing as well.

Licenses for Springer Images do not cover the OA content, only the content for which Springer owns the copyright.

The larger implication, that Springer is “stealing” copyright and the insinuation that Springer is attempting to profit from “ill-gotten gains” is false and we call upon Peter Murray-Rust to correct this allegation immediately.

Springer is one of the few large publishers that has enthusiastically embraced open access, and we are not in the business of hoodwinking our customers or the researchers we work with.

That said, we are addressing the problems as quickly as we can and are grateful to the scientific community for their help in pointing out the problem.

Wim van der Stelt
Executive Vice President
Corporate Strategy
Springer Science+Business Media

I won’t respond to this phrase by phrase — in part because Peter has already done so — but I will quote the response that I posted on SpringerOpen’s Google+ page:

Dear Springer,

ARE YOU COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MINDS? Have you not been watching what’s happened to Elsevier? You have screwed up royally on Springer Images. And your response is to blame Peter Murray-Rust for exposing your copytheft? If you want to come out of this with any shred of credibility intact, and not as the targets of the next Cost Of Knowledge boycott, you need to PROPERLY APOLOGISE RIGHT NOW: first, to the people whose work you stole, then to Peter for your contemptible blame-shifting. Once you’ve done that, we can start to think about whether we can move forward with you. Just calling yourselves “Springer Open” is not going to get the job done.

It’s shocking to me that, after all the developments of the last six months, with all the new awareness of what publishers are up to, and with all the active engagement with revolutionising scholarly publishing, Springer think they can make this go away by attacking the messenger.

it won’t work.

Springer now have a very narrow window in which to try to unwind this clodhopping manoeuvre. They need to undo all that they’ve done regarding the Springer Images debacle, and apologise unreservedly to Peter for their entirely baseless suggestion that he is somehow in the wrong for pointing out their wrongdoing. If they don’t do it, then I doubt the results will be spectacular; but they will be profound. All around the world, researchers will quietly classify Springer in the “just as bad as Elsevier” bucket. We’ll stop submitting to Springer journals. We’ll stop recommending them to our friends, colleagues and students. We’ll stop volunteering as editors and reviewers. Queitly but inexorably, the life-blood will be sucked out of Springer, just as it is being from Elsevier.

Oh, and Wiley? Take the chance now to get your house in order before someone notices something that you’re doing. There’s nowhere to hide misdeeds in 2012. Someone’s going to notice.

I just sent this letter to Matthew Cockerill, the co-founder of the open-access publisher BioMed Central, which was acquired by Springer a few years ago. It arose from a mistake on Springer’s part that was discussed on Twitter initially. As I wrote this I didn’t particularly intend it to be an open letter. But having written and sent it, it occurred to me that it would be more broader interest, so here it is

Hi, Matt, hope you don’t mind my chipping in here. It was me that initially pointed out Peter’s hijacked-image issue to you on Twitter — I now realise it would have been wiser to have stayed quiet and left it for Peter to report, saving a bit of confusion!

Since I’m on this thread, I just wanted to take this opportunity to say a few words about strategy to you and your Springer colleagues.

I’m sure it’s apparent to everyone involved in academic publishing that we stand at an important tipping point right now. The exponential growth of PLoS, the proliferation of other publishing experiments such as F1000 Research and PeerJ, the crushing defeat of the RWA, the progress of the FRPAA, the Cost of Knowledge boycott, the White House petition that is currently 95% of the way to its goal and the very broad coverage of these issues in mainstream media as well as the blogs of scholars and librarians, all add up to a time of massive change. Some publishers will emerge from this stronger, and some much weaker — if they emerge at all.

In that context, there’s no doubt that a sequence of bone-headed manoeuvres by Elsevier (some recent, some going back a few years) have cast them as the Bad Guys — an effect so strong that independent financial analysts such as Bernstein Research’s Claudio Aspesi and The Street’s Jared Woodward are predicting significant revenue loss.

In contrast, Springer has so far done an excellent job of positioning itself as the Good Guys, at least among the Big Four. (Wiley and Informa have not so far attracted much attention either way, but they will.) Crucial here has been the adoption of the CC BY licence for Open Choice articles — a true open access option that stands in stark contrast to Elsevier’s abjectly ill-defined and restrictive “Sponsored Article”. And it helps having a visible presence like Springer Open on Twitter: even though it doesn’t have many direct followers, those followers include a lot of influential people.

BUT Springer’s emerging good-guy status is fragile. The way I read developing opinions, there’s no set-in-stone notion that there has to be a Goodie and a Baddie among the big four. If Springer screw things up, it could very easily flip to a situation where all of the big four are seen as net losses, and the goal becomes to abandon all of them. There are good reasons for not wanting that to happen. And to avoid it, you’re going to need to get all of Springer — not just BMC — serious about open access. Not treating it just as a marketing word, a term that by throwing around liberally you hope to appease those irritating academics; but engaging wholeheartedly with what it means.

I’m not saying that the whole of Springer needs to convert to open access overnight — I am not a sufficiently foolish idealist to suggest that! What I’m saying is that whenever Springer says it’s doing something open access, it needs to be damned sure that it really is. I don’t know whether oversights like claiming copyright on others’ work, or republishing CC BY work as CC BY-NC, seem like little things to Springer; but I have to warn you they are not. There is a substantial and influential group out there that cares deeply and passionately about such things. This isn’t something that can be spun; it has to be actually done.

So please do expedite sorting out Peter’s specific problem; but beyond that put resources into ensuring that similar things don’t happen. Make sure that all of Springer carefully tracks who owns copyright to what — nothing irritates a scholar more than hearing someone else claim credit for his work — and be clear and correct about what licence covers various materials. (The simplest way to do the last part, by the way, is just to use CC BY for all your open material.)

That’s all, thanks for listening. Hope it was helpful, and taken in the spirit it was written. Please feel free pass this around within Springer as much as you wish, especially to people with the influence to set policy.

An article in Times Higher Education tells of a new report, The Potential Effect of Making Journals Free After a Six Month Embargo, prepared by Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf for the Association of Learned, Professional and Society Publishers [ALPSP] and our old friends The Publishers Association.

And this report contains very good news. They contacted 950 libraries around the world to ask what effect Green Open Access mandates would have on them, getting 210 replies of which 185 pertained to science holdings. Of these replies, 10% said they would cancel subscriptions for all journals whose articles were freely available after six months, and another 34% said they would cancel some journals. So in total, that means that Green OA mandates, such as the ones that the current White House petition advocates, would allow 44% of science libraries to save money on subscription — money which can be reinvested in staff, in technology, in development of new discovery systems, and more.

Thank you, publishers, for giving us this valuable information!

Two things puzzle me, though.

First, there seems to be a typo in Section VII, Recommendations, of the report. It says “It is strongly recommended that no mandate is issued on making all or most journal articles available free of charge after a six month embargo”. Looks like the word “no” was accidentally substituted for “a”. Because the obvious conclusion from the information in the report is that, for the sake of libraries, universities, the economy and citizens, open access should be implemented as quickly as possible.

Second, I don’t understand why the Times Higher Education article says that the report claims open access will bankrupt publishers. To assess that claim, let’s take another look at our buddies Elsevier. Their 2011 profit, remember, is 37.3% of revenue. Suppose 10% of their libraries cancelled all subscriptions — let’s pessimistically assume that that would cut off 10% of revenue. (That’s unrealistic because the big libraries that bring in the big bucks are not the ones likely to cancel, so the 10% of subscribers they lose would likely be the Little Guys; but let it slide.) Of the 34% that said they would cancel some journals, let’s assume an (again pessimistic) average cancellation rate of 50%: so Elsevier would lose another 17% of their revenue. In total, then, they’d lose 27% of revenue. That would bring them down to revenue of only £1502M. Assuming (again pessimistically) that they were unable to cut their costs now that they’re not serving those libraries, costs would stay at £1290M, meaning that their profit margin would be cut to 16.5%. Less than pharma and banks, but more than financial services, software, telecomms, or food & drink; and less double what oil & gas companies make.

So with all that taken into account, here is my gift to publishers: a corrected page 33 of their report:

VII. Recommendations

1. It is strongly recommended that a mandate is issued on making all or most journal articles available free of charge after a six month embargo.