[Note added in press: Matt published his last post just as I was finishing this one up, so I am posting it without having read his beyond seeing that he also mentions All Yesterdays.]

It was back at the Lyme Regis SVPCA in 2011 that I first saw the material that’s now available as the new palaeoart book All Yesterdays [amazon.comamazon.co.uk]. It was the first talk of the conference, billed as an ice-breaker, and presented by John Conway with typical eccentricity using an old-fashioned slide-projector. In a pub.

In his talk, Conway presented beautiful paintings he had done of extinct animals — mostly dinosaurs — restored in ways very different from what we’re used to seeing.

Conway’s stated goal was to make the animals look as unconventional as possible – consistent with his speculations not actually being contradicted by the evidence. The result was a sequence of strangely beautiful and very memorable images.

You could argue that a pub in a seaside town on the first night of a conference is not the ideal time and place to launch a dozen novel palaeobiological hypotheses, but actually I suspect it worked well. As best I remember, the general response to the presentation was a lot of laughter, and some dismissive head-shaking, but also some thoughtful nodding — people thinking to themsleves “that might not be too far off, actually”.

And so we saw lekking elasmosaurs, their necks extending vertically into the air; we saw camarasaurs rolling in the mud like elephants; we saw tree-climbing goat-mimic protoceratopsids; we saw therizinosaurus looking more like triffids than dinosaurs. Lots of ideas, most of them perfectly reasonable but — it maybe seemed at the time — a little far-fetched.

Having opened SVPCA 2011 with his All Yesterdays presentation, it fell to Conway to close 2012’s meeting with All Todays — a complementary talk in which he showed paintings of modern animals as they might be reconstructed by far-future palaeontologists if they had only fossilised bones to work from.

So we had shrink-wrapped reptilian-looking cats, their jugal arches picked out in dermal scutes; we had hornless rhinos with sails; we had vultures reconstructed not with feathers (who would even come with such an idea, if we didn’t have modern birds as a reference point?) but with a much more obvious wing construction — a simple membrane.

Again, the timing of the talk encouraged delegates to see it as something lighthearted — a dessert to follow all the solid meat of the main sessions. But a few months on, now that the ideas have had time to percolate, they seem to me to be much more powerful. All Todays was an important reframing of All Yesterdays, a demonstration of just how easy it can be to misinterpret fossils — or, rather, to misinterpret live animals when working from fossils. In light of the shrink-wrapped cat, the fat Parasaurolophus from the earlier presentation seemed much more believable. In light of the naked-skinned vulture, the little-ball-of-fluff Leallynosaura didn’t feel like a stretch.

That’s why I am particularly delighted that the new book combines John Conway’s art  from both of these presentations (along with new pieces and text by Memo Kosemen, an introduction by Darren Naish and skeletal reconstructions by Scott Hartman). They belong together, complementing each other and making the whole more than the sum of its parts.

What’s happening here is in fact something much more significant than fodder for beer-fuelled discussions. It’s nothing less than a radical and wholly feasible re-imagining of prehistoric life. The quick, agile dinosaurs illustrated by Bakker and his followers in the late 1960s and 1970s revolutionised the ponderous image that had been perpetuated by Knight, Zallinger and Burian. But Bakkerian dinosaurs quickly became a new orthodoxy, adhered to just as strongly as the old had been. The Jurassic Park raptors of 1993 were direct descendants of Bakker’s 1969 drawing (above). And although details have changed since then — orientation of the hands, the addition of feathers — the general body shape has survived largely unchanged in all nearly all palaeoart.

It takes art as radical as that of All Yesterdays to show us just how locked-in we have all become to the Bakker-and-Paul school of life restoration. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that Conway’s work is the first truly new approach to depicting extinct animals since Bakker’s — which means that All Yesterdays is not only the most beautiful but also the most important palaeoart book of the last four decades. Up to this point in history, we’ve had two dynasties of dinosaur art. I think All Yesterdays is the launch of the third.

And it is beautiful. There are some superb palaeoartists working in the field at the moment — it’s never been more dynamic and, in the best sense, competitive. But while the work even of some excellent practitioners is rather interchangeable, Conway’s work is always instantly recognisable because he is an artist first and a palaeoartist second. Others may be more accomplished or have better technique, but for my money Conway’s palaeoart has an evocative and even poignant quality that is very rare, maybe unique.

Of course, none of this is to say that all the speculation in All Yesterdays is correct. But the crucial point is this: neither is the speculation in all the other palaeoart of the last forty years. It encodes assumptions and speculations just as much as Conway’s does: but those assumptions and speculations have been invisible precisely because they have been so ubiquitous. Part of the value of All Yesterdays is that it gives us a proper perspective, for the first time, on ideas that we’ve accepted too readily through repetition and lack of challenge. So even when All Yesterdays is wrong, it performs a valuable function. Hopefully it will push the second-dynasty artists to raise their games.

Anyone who loves dinosaurs, science or art will find this book intensely rewarding. Anyone who loves all three will find it a necessity. Enthusiasts will probably want a printed copy rather than the e-Book.

The more I think about All Yesterdays, the more I think it’s the book of which, in 20 years’ time, freshly minted Ph.Ds being interviewed on blogs will say “That was the book that got me started as a kid.”

Hi folks,

It’s been a while since I posted here. I haven’t gone off SV-POW! or anything, just going through one of my periodic doldrums (read: super-busy with Other Stuff). I’m writing now to draw your attention to two books that I’m pretty darned excited about.

The first is All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by John Conway, Memo Kosemen, and Darren Naish, with skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman (lulu, Amazon). This is sort of an SV-POW! love-fest, in that Darren is One Of Us, John and Scott let us use their art a lot–even the goofy stuff–and get a shout-out now and then, and I’ve been awed by the work of Memo–a.k.a. Nemo Ramjet–for longer than SV-POW! has existed (he also created Brontosapiens!). But wait–there’s more! One of the first people to review the book is Emily Willoughby, who was also as far as we know the first person after Paco Gasco to illustrate Brontomerus–that image is still Bronto‘s flagship portrait on Wikipedia.

But enough navel-gazing. The book is based around the mind-blowing presentations “All Yesterdays” and “All Todays” at SVPCA 2011 and 2012, both delivered by John Conway. True story: “All Yesterdays” was the intro to the icebreaker/mixer thing at Lyme Regis, so right after the talk people jumped up to grab pints and socialize. Sometime in the next few minutes, John was separately approached by three different paleontologists who thought that “All Yesterdays” should be a book, and wanted to help write it. Those three hopefuls were Darren, Mike, and me. I’m extremely happy that Darren is the one on the book. Mike and I can wrangle sauropods and we’re both “All [Some]days” fanboys, but the book really needed someone approaching tetrapod omniscience, and that’s obviously Darren.

Whoops, that was actually just another paragraph of navel-gazing. Anywho, I knew after this year’s SVPCA that there would be a book, but I had no idea it would be out so soon. I can’t tell you much about the book itself, for two reasons. First, my dead-tree copy is still en route from lulu.com. Second, I wouldn’t tell you much about the book if I could, because you should see it for yourself. It’s firmly in the tradition of speculative zoology but also has a serious point to make about the memes that drive a lot of paleoart. That’s all you need to know–get the book and prepare to be surprised, amused, amazed, and moved to wonder.

The other new book I’m all het up about is Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals, by Becky Crew (Amazon, New South Books). My mutual admiration pact with Bec goes back to 2009. She blogged about one of my posts, I blogged about how indescribably wonderful her blog was, she published something I wrote–my first paying gig as a writer, I think. Now she’s blogging at SciAm, which is great, because although she’s smart, irreverent, and freakin’ hilarious, she’s also mortal, and we need to get as much of that good stuff out of her head and into general circulation as possible while she’s still around. (She’s not sick or anything, she’s just going to die sometime in the next century, and if you read her blog I think you’ll agree that that’s too damn soon.) Zombie Tits does not seem to be available stateside yet, but I will keep a weather eye on things and post an update when that changes.

I’ll probably review both books here in due time, if by “review” one means “alternately drool over and hyperbolically gush about with no attempt at objectivity whatsoever”. And I do mean precisely that.

It’s been a while since we’ve served you up a sauropod, so, finally and fittingly, here’s John Conway’s playful Camarasaurus taking a mud bath. Or maybe just trying to hide its hideousness; as the authors of All Yesterdays note, “Camarasaurus […] is considered by some experts to be among the ugliest of all sauropods”.

Today, PeerJ announced that it will open for submissions on December 3rd — next Monday. That’s great news for anyone who cares about the future of academic publishing: it’s out to make dramatic changes to the publishing workflow, including an integrated preprint server so that people can read your work while it’s in review. And it has every chance of succeeding because it’s run by people with an astonishing track record who know more about how to make open-access publishing successful than anyone in the world, and it has a stellar editorial board.

Oh, and it’s free to publish in forever once you’ve paid a one-off membership fee.

But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because today they also released the instructions for authors, and they contain the following glorious passage:

Formatting tip!

We want authors spending their time doing science, not formatting.

We include reference formatting as a guide to make it easier for editors, reviewers, and PrePrint readers, but will not strictly enforce the specific formatting rules as long as the full citation is clear.

Styles will be normalized by us if your manuscript is accepted.

Having previously ranted extensively about the submission-time reference-formatting burden of every other journal, I can hardly overstate how happy this makes me. I am a scientist, not a secretary. And in 2012, PeerJ is the first journal to acknowledge that.


Update 1 (an hour later)

Ian Mulvaney pointed out that eLife also does not require a specific style at submission.

And an anonymous commenter pointed me to Free Radical Biology & Medicine‘s “Your Paper, Your Way” approach, which apparently is being piloted before expansion to other Elsevier journals.

So my apologies to both earlier examples that I missed, and kudos to both eLife and Elsevier. What I’d love to see now is the PLOS journals, and others, following the fine examples of these pioneers.

The best open-access publishers make their articles open from the get-go, and leave them that way forever. (That’s part of what makes them best.) But it’s not unusual to find articles which either start out free to access, then go behind a paywall; or that start out paywalled but are later released; or that live behind a paywall but peek out for a limited period.

Let’s talk about these.

Initial “open access”

You’ll sometimes come across journals where articles are free to read for some initial period after their publication. For example, the announcement of the Journal of Photonics for Energy says “The journal will be available as open access for the first year”; and the 2008/9 progress report for the Journal of Nutrition says “We will continue to restrict open access for one year, as per current procedure”.

Despite the good intentions of the journals, these articles are not open access in any useful sense. The point of an open-access article is that it’s there when you need it. If it’s there this week, but I need to read and cite it next week when I can’t get it any more, then that’s no good.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that publishers have a mandate to keep articles up on their web-sites forever (although we would prefer that they do). What it means is that, if they want to be open access, they can’t prohibit others from mirroring and archiving those papers, and continuing to make them available after they’ve disappeared from the publisher’s site.

Note that any article published with a Creative Commons licence — even the most restrictive of those licences — is safe from this kind of disappearance. Those licences guarantee third parties’ rights to archive, replicate and redistribute the articles.

Delayed open access

it’s probably more common to take the opposite approach. Some journals, including Science and Proceedings B, make articles free to read, and so “gratis open access”, after an embargo period during which they are available only to subscribers.  This period is one year in the case of both these journals; that seems to be typical.

Are such journals open access? I would say that the journals themselves are not open access, but that the articles become open access once they cross the release line. So for example, Raichlen and Polk’s new neurobiology paper in Proc B. is not open access, but Anderson et al.’s seed-dispersal paper (which is a year older) is. On that basis you might choose to refer to Proc B. as a “delayed open access” journal.

[Unfortunately, Science is not truly open access even for older articles such as Stevens and Parrish’s DinoMorph. That’s because it requires registration/login before you can get to the papers. The BOAI FAQ does not accept registration-required content as open access, specifying “without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself”.]

Transitory “open access”

And then you have the worst of both worlds. Every now an then a journal or a publisher has a special offer where they open up access to their articles for a limited period — for example, this one where the Royal Society opened up all their content for two weeks, or this where an issue of European Physical Journal D was opened for a week.

It seems churlish to criticise a generous action like this, but I find it close to useless, and I think most other researchers will, too. When I am working on a paper, I don’t choose what to cite based on which journal or publisher the papers are from: I would never think, “Oh, let’s see, European Physical Journal D is open at the moment, I’ll cite something from there”. I cite what’s relevant and appropriate, irrespective of its source; and if I can’t get the papers I need at that time there’s a problem.

I sometimes wonder what publishers think will be the result of this kind of limited-time-only offer. One obvious outcome is that people will batch-download the transitorily available content — either to store up for themselves in case they even happen to need it (which is wasteful of both bandwidth and storage); or to post openly elsewhere for permanence (which is usually a violation of copyright).

To summarise: I think that making articles open access after a delay is a good thing (though obviously not as good as making them open access immediately!). But that making them free to read for a limited time — either when first published or as part of some special event later — is of very limited value, and can’t really be described as open access.

[See part 1, part 2 and part 3 from a few months ago.]

I’m horrified, but not as surprised as I would like to be, by a new paper (Welch 2012) which analyses peer-reviewer recommendations for eight prestigious journals in the field of economics.

The principal finding is that the reviewers’ recommendations were made up of 1/3 signal (i.e. consistent judgements on the quality of the manuscript) and 2/3 noise (i.e. randomness). Of that 2/3 noise, 1/3 was down to reviewer bias (some are nicer, some are nastier) and 2/3 seemed to be purely random.

And to quote directly from the study:

The bias measured by average generosity of the referee on other papers is about as important in predicting a referee’s recommendation as the opinion of another referee on the same paper.

What this means is that the likelihood of a submission being accepted depends more on a coin-toss than it does on how good your work is. Which seems to validate my earlier speculation that

The best analogy for our current system of pre-publication peer-review is that it’s a hazing ritual. It doesn’t exist because of any intrinsic value it has, and it certainly isn’t there for the benefit of the recipient. It’s basically a way to draw a line between In and Out. Something for the inductee to endure as a way of proving he’s made of the Right Stuff.

So: the principal value of peer-review is that it provides an opportunity for authors to demonstrate that they are prepared to undergo peer-review. 

There’s more discussion of this over on the Dynamic Ecology blog.

It’s also well worth reading Brian McGill’s comment on that post: he quotes multiple reviewers of a manuscript that he submitted, completely contradicting each other. Yes, this is merely anecdote, not data; but I have to admit that it chimes with my own experience.

If this research is correct, and if it applies to science as as it does to economics, then here is one horrible consequence: it suggests that best way to get your papers into the high-impact journals that make a career (Science, Nature, etc.) is not necessarily to do great research, but just to be very persistent in submitting everything to them. Keep rolling the dice till you get a double six. I would hate to think that prestige is allocated, and fields are shaped, on that basis.

I’d be really interested to know, from those of you who’ve had papers published in Science or Nature, roughly how many submissions you’ve made for each acceptance in those venues; and to what extent you feel that the ones that were accepted represent your best work.


Welch, Ivo. 12 October, 2012. Referee Recommendations. Social Science Research Network. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2137119.

In the previous section, we discussed the various licences that can be used for open-access articles. But that may have been premature, because licences are agreements whereby copyright holders waive some of their rights, and we hadn’t actually talked about copyright first. So let’s do that now.

(This post is relevant to subscription publishing as well as open access.)

Who owns copyright in a new work?

In general, whenever you do any creative work, you own the copyright of that work — whether it’s painting a picture, composing a tune or writing an academic paper. You don’t need to do anything special to obtain copyright (although back in the day registration used to be necessary in some jurisdictions).

There are a couple of exceptions to this general rule. One of the most important is a work for hire. When you are paid to create a copyrightable work, the terms of the contract under which you do it may stipulate that your employer owns the work. This is common, and quite reasonable, in some situations: for example, my day-job employer Index Data owns the copyright to the code I write for them. It’s much less common in other situations — in particular, I have never heard of a university taking copyright for its researchers’ works.

Another important exception to the usual you-wrote-it-you-own-it rule is that all work created by the US Government is public domain: that is, no-one owns it, there is no copyright, and anyone can do whatever they like with it.

By the way, anything that you own the copyright for, including your manuscripts, you can place in the public domain. (The Creative Commons CC0 tool exists to help you do this unambiguously.)

Copyright transfer

When your manuscript is accepted by a journal for publication, many publishers will ask you to transfer copyright to them, often insisting that it is an absolute requirement for publication. They have a form for you to sign; once you have done this, you no longer own your work. (Since this post is supposed to be purely expository and not at all evangelistic, I will refrain from comment on this issue.)

There are a few alternatives to copyright transfer.

First, if the work is already in the public domain — for example because it was created by an employee of the US Government as part of their job — then there is no copyright to transfer. In this case, the journal is already free to publish the work (as indeed is any other journal), and they will usually just ask the author to make a statement certifying the PD status of the work. (JVP’s form has this option.) I don’t know how such journals would react to non-Government employees who had dedicated their work to the public domain. It would be interesting to find out.

Second, some journals do not require the author to transfer copyright, but to give them a licence to publish. Although this can be a liberal option, such licences often impose many restrictions on the author, so that you’re not allowed (because of having signed the contract) to do things that you might, as copyright holder, expect to do. In some cases, the value of having retained copyright is very small.

Finally, most open-access journals that use a true open-access licence such as CC BY allow authors to retain copyright because, well, it makes no difference to them who holds it. Whoever the copyright holder is, third parties are in the exact same situation: they are free to do whatever they want with it provided that they acknowledge the authorship.

Note that authorship is a different matter from holding copyright. Even if you transfer copyright of your work to a publisher, you still have the right to be identified as the author (unless of course you waive that separately).

How licences work with copyright

If you hold copyright in a work, I have essentially no rights regarding it, beyond what you give me. I can’t print it, I can’t make copies for myself or others, I can’t post it on my web-site, I can’t translate it, I can’t make derived works, I can’t use images from it on Wikipedia, and so on.

So in that state, it’s essentially useless.

This is why you release your work under a licence. Licences waive some of the copyright holder’s rights (i.e. some of the restrictions placed on others’ use of your work). You may do this for financial gain (“you can sell copies of my book provided you pay me 10% of the cover price as a royalty”), or out of the goodness of your heart (“public money paid me to do this research, so I am giving the result to the world.”)

The specific set of rights that you give varies with the license. Restrictive licences may give the right only to read the work. Others may allow various forms of re-use, perhaps limited as to extent or field of applicability. Some licences allow certain forms of use in non-commercial contexts, and less in commercial contexts. Choosing an appropriate licence is an art-form: we’ll talk more about it in a subsequent post.

Only the copyright holder can grant someone a licence to their work. The holder may choose to give different licences to different people. For example, you might make your paper available under CC BY-NC, which forbids commercial use; then if someone wants to use your work commercially, they might offer you money in exchange for furnishing the work to them on terms that allow commercial use.

Epilogue: a note on patents and trademarks

Patents, copyrights and trademarks are often referred to under the blanket term “intellectual property”, or IP for short. This is unfortunate: they are actually three very different branches of law, and have little in common. That’s one reason that I avoid the misleading term “intellectual property”.

Patents cover inventions, or increasingly often ideas. They must be applied for and paid for, and have a strictly limited term — 20 or 14 years in the US — after which they expire and anyone can use the invention.

Copyrights cover specific works, which may use inventions but differ from them in having a specific fixed form. They apply automatically and don’t need to be applied for; and they last much longer than patents. (The details of copyright terms are complicated, but generally anything you create now will remain under copyright in the US until 70 years after your death.)

Trademarks cover names and logos and exist to prevent consumer confusion that could arise if two similarly named organisations or products exist in the same space. They must be applied for.

Here are some examples. I might have patented the idea of using CT scanning to look inside sauropod vertebrae, if I’d thought of it first. (I’d have had to write the description in terms that sound like an invention, an actual device for using CT.) I couldn’t copyright or trademark that idea. I would hold copyright in any specific paper I wrote using that technique, but could not patent or trademark that paper. And if I started a company to do CT scanning of sauropod vertebrae, I could register its name as a trademark, but I couldn’t patent or copyright it.

For the purposes of academic publishing, copyrights are by far the most important of these areas; patents can arise from research, and introduce their own issues, which we won’t discuss here; trademarks are irrelevant.

I hope it’s clear to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while that I do try to be fair to Elsevier (and indeed to everyone). Although I’ve often had occasion to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society publishing, among others; and I have praised Elsevier when they’ve done good things.

Against that backdrop, I hope no-one will feel it’s unreasonable for me to comment on Elsevier’s new “Open Access Articles” page. Let’s quote this (short) page in full, so we’ll still have the current version to hand if it changes tomorrow:

Open Access Articles

Open Access articles have unrestricted access and will remain permanently free for the public to read and download.

When you publish in an Elsevier journal, as an author, you retain the right to use your article for a broad range of purposes, including use by your institute or company, without the need to obtain specific permission from Elsevier. For further details see our posting policy.

What you can do with Open Access articles?

Readers are permitted to read, download, print out, extract, reuse, archive, translate and distribute the article provided the appropriate credit is given to the authors and source of the work. For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission via our permission system.

Visit our universal access pages for more information on our other public access initiatives and information on our access policies.

[An aside: you will notice that the “public access initiatives” link is broken. It’s not a copying error on my part — that’s how it is on Elsevier’s own site, too. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of carelessness. Does no-one click on these things?]

Anyway. The point is, this falls short of the original meaning of “open access”, and makes Elsevier’s “open access” journals unacceptable venues for work funded by RCUK and other bodies.

The very clear statement “will remain permanently free for the public to read and download” is laudable, but that “unrestricted access” part at the start is quickly undermined when we reach the detail: “For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission”. This is a non-commercial clause, making Elsevier’s terms roughly congruent with the CC BY-NC licence — whereas RCUK funding requires the less restrictive CC BY, which allows use of articles in commercial contexts.

But in fact it’s worse than CC BY-NC, because of that “systemic distribution” clause. Let’s leave aside the fact that Elsevier don’t seem to know what “systemic” means, and assume that they meant “systematic”. What can they mean by prohibiting systematic distribution? Well, for one thing, it means the “open access” articles can’t be mirrored in another archive. They can’t be conveniently torrented. You may or may not be allowed to distribute them on USB sticks at conferences — who can tell what counts as “systematic”? You may or may not be allowed to make a better search engine for them that what Elsevier provide.

[This clause is inexplicable to me. By making the articles freely available for viewing and download, they are already committed to not charging access fees. So what can they possibly lose by allowing others to mirror them? If anything, it’s to their benefit, saving them bandwidth.]

Anyway …

The reason this is all so frustrating is that it’s so close to being The Right Thing. My sense is that Elsevier really is making an effort to change, and that particular people within Elsevier are pushing for it to be done right. These “open access” terms a are good thing. The very fact that Elsevier is using the term “open access” is an important step forward. But it would have been so easy to go one or two steps further and make them right.

This would be in researchers’ interests, of course; but also in Elsevier’s interests, for two reasons. First, it would make their open-access journals usable by RCUK and other grant recipients. And second — more important in the long term — it would send a signal that Elsevier is embracing open access, rather than grudgingly conceding ground.

Come on, Elsevier — step up to the plate!