I guess pretty much all researchers must suffer from Imposter Syndrome every now and then — the sense of not really belonging, not knowing enough, not getting enough done to justify our position. I particularly remember feeling this after being awarded my Ph.D: the sense that I couldn’t possibly know enough about enough to be worthy of it. Even now, several years down the line, I sometimes look at my papers and think, pfft, there’s nothing to them, anyone could have done that.

I thought of this tonight because of a a tweet I just saw from M. J. Suhonos, Digital Technologies Development Librarian at Ryerson University:


And the advice I gave in response:

The reason I say this is because a few days ago I did a phone interview for a news piece, and was sort of surprised to find myself talking confidently and fluently, just like someone who knows what he’s talking about. Until I realised that’s what always happens when I do an interview. And that’s because, well, heck, I do know my subject (otherwise why would they even be talking to me?)

And I bet you know your subject, too. You just need to see your own knowledge against the backdrop of what a normal person knows.

Meanwhile, as a contribution to John Conway’s superb “grumpy Hypsilophodon” meme, I give you: this.


Back in 2010, SVPCA was held in Cambridge. (It was the year that I gave the “why giraffes have short necks” talk [abstract, slides].)

While we were there, I took a lot of photos in the excellent Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, which was just across the courtyard from the lecture theatre where the scientific sessions were held.

In light of the recent discussion here on how many cervical vertebrae giraffes have (spoiler: seven), I thought it would be good to air the sloth photos, since the two genera of sloths constitute 66% of all the mammals have that a cervical count other than seven. (The third is the manatee Trichechus, with six cervicals.)


Three-toed sloth, Bradypus tridactylus. This specimen has nine cervicals vertabrae, but apparently the count can vary between eight and ten in different individuals.


Three-toed sloth, Bradypus tridactylus, full skeleton.


Two-toed sloth, Choloepus didactylus. Six cervical vertebrae.


Two-toed sloth, Choloepus didactylus, full skeleton.


LACM Deinonychus claw

All I want to do in this post is make people aware that there is a difference between these two things, and occasionally that affects those of us who work in natural history.

In one of his books or essays, Stephen Jay Gould made the point that in natural history we are usually not dealing with whether phenomena are possible or not, but rather trying to determine their frequency. If we find that in a particular population of quail most of the birds eat ants but some avoid them, then we know some things: that quail can tolerate eating ants, that quail are not required to eat ants, and that both strategies can persist in a single population.

This idea has obvious repercussions for paleoart, especially when it comes to “long-tail” behaviors. I dealt with that in this post, and also in the comment thread to this one. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Sometimes it is useful to talk about things that never happen, or that have at least never occurred in the sample of things we know of. Obviously how certain you can be in these cases depends on the intensity of sampling and the inherent likelihood of a surprising result, which can be hard to judge. If you argued right now that T. rex lacked feathers because no T. rex specimens have been found with feathers, you’d most likely be wrong; it is almost certainly just a matter of time before someone finds direct evidence of feathers in T. rex, given the number of T. rex specimens waiting to be found and the strength of the indirect evidence (e.g., phylogenetic inference, analogy: ornithomimids are known to be feathered even though most specimens are found without feather impressions). If you argue that sauropods are unique among terrestrial animals in having necks more than five meters long, you’re most likely right; being wrong would imply the existence of some as-yet undiscovered land animal of sauropod size, or with seriously wacky proportions (or both), and our sampling of terrestrial vertebrates is good enough to make that extremely unlikely.

LACM baby rex snout

The reason for this post is that sometimes people confuse that last argument, which is about sampling and induction, with the argument from personal incredulity.

For example, in our no-necks-for-sex paper (Taylor et al. 2011), we included this passage:

Sauropoda also had a long evolutionary history, originating about 210 million years ago in the Carnian or Norian Age of the Late Triassic, and persisting until the end-Cretaceous extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs about 65 millions years ago. Thus the ‘necks-for-sex’ hypothesis requires that this clade continued to sexually select for exaggeration of the same organ for nearly 150 million years, a scenario without precedent in tetrapod evolutionary history.

One of the reviewers argued that we couldn’t include that section, because it was just the argument from personal incredulity writ large, like so:

There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore we don’t believe that the case in question is the sole exception.

…with the second part of that unstated (by us) but implied. But we disagreed, and argued (successfully) that it was an argument based on sampling, like so:

There are no other known cases of X in tetrapod evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that the case in question is the sole exception.

Now, it is perfectly fair to criticize arguments like that based on the thoroughness of the sampling and the likelihood of exceptions, as discussed above for T. rex feathers. Just don’t mistake arguments like that for arguments from personal incredulity.* On the flip side, if someone makes an argument from personal incredulity, see if the same thing can be restated as an argument about sampling. Maybe they’re correct but just expressing themselves poorly (“I refuse to believe that the moon is made out of cheese”), and maybe they’re wrong and restating things in terms of sampling will help you understand why.

* If you want to get super pedantic about it, they’re both arguments from ignorance. But one of them is at least potentially justifiable by reference to sampling. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but it may get to be that way as the sampling improves (e.g., there is no evidence of planets closer to the sun than Mercury, and at this point, that is pretty persuasive evidence that no such planets exist).

LACM brachiosaur humerus with Wedels for scale

Parting shot: one thing that has always stuck in my head from Simberloff (1983) is the bit about imagining a large enough universe of possible outcomes. And I’ve always had a perverse fascination with Larry Niven’s “Down in Flames”, in which he pretty much demolished his Known Space universe by assuming that every basic postulate of that universe was false. Neither of these follow directly on from the main point of the post, but they’re not completely unrelated, either. Because I think that they yield a pretty good heuristic for how to do science: imagine what it would take for you to be wrong–imagine a universe in which you are wrong–and then go see if the thing that makes you wrong, whatever it is, can be shown to exist or to work. If not, it doesn’t mean you’re right, but it means you’re maybe less wrong, which, if we get right down to it, is the best that we can hope for.

The photos have nothing to do with the post, they’re just pretty pictures from the LACM to liven things up a little.


It was Enrique Jardiel Poncela who said that “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing”. I would have guessed at someone like Mark Twain, or maybe G. K. Chesterton, but there you go.

A couple of months ago, I sent an eight-page submission to the House of Commons BIS Committee’s inquiry into the Goverment’s Open Access policy. That was a ratbag to write, and the fear is that such a dry document will be a ratbag to read as well. I work very hard to prevent it being boring — to craft it so that the sentences flow, and so a coherent story emerges from the sequence of individual arguments. It’s tough work.

Here are two pages of my first complete draft, with the markup that I added as I read it through. You can see how much I had to change to get it into a satisfactory state.


Let’s just hope the BIS committee actually reads it.

This very morning, the BIS Committee (Business, Innovation and Skills) is conducting its inquiry, based in part on submissions such as mine — and you can watch it, live, from 9:30am. The list of witnesses looks less unbalanced than in the recent Lords inquiry: on the side of the angels, Cameron Neylon and Martin Eve will appear — as will Stevan Harnad, which could be a positive or a negative. They will of course be countered as always by representatives of the publishing industry, including ALPSP and Elsevier, who will no doubt be once more pushing to extend embargoes and preserve their own continuing government subsidies.

Let’s see what happens.

I’ll finish by quoting the last paragraph of the Executive Summary from my submission:

The government must make decisions on the basis of what benefits the UK as a whole, not what benefits any single industry. The government should allow both Gold and Green OA; should require the CC BY licence, whichever route is taken; should tolerate no embargo on Green OA; and should not fully fund exploitatively high APCs.


Giraffe neck FMNH 34426 articulatedThe cervical series of Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis FMNH 34426, articulated by Mike and me and photographed by Mike back in the summer of 2005, cropped and composited by me recently, not previously posted because there’s just too much cool stuff, man. But we’re working on it.

By the way, if you want the details on this critter:

FMNH 34426 specimen tag

UPDATE April 23, 2014: What a maroon–I completely forgot to report the size of this thing! When we articulated all the centra and measured them (without cartilage, obviously), we got a length of 171 cm. When we measured the centra individually, leaving off the anterior condyles, we got a length of 164 cm. I think the discrepancy can be explained by the relative shallowness of the posterior cotyles of the vertebrae–as you can see in the big image above, the condyles do not nest completely within the cotyles, so each one does contribute a little bit to the length of the neck.

The measurements of each vertebra, as recorded by Mike in my notebook in the FMNH mammalogy collections in 2005, are here:

Giraffa FMNH 34426 cervical and dorsal measurements

Just for completeness, I should note that in our neck cartilage paper (Taylor and Wedel 2013b), we found that cartilage added considerably to the length of the articulated neck in many amniotes. Based on the intervertebral spacing in horses, 1-2 cm of cartilage between these giraffe vertebrae doesn’t seem unreasonable, which would bring the length of the neck to perhaps 1.8 meters. Amazingly, this is only 75% of the longest giraffe necks on record, which are up to 2.4 meters (Toon and Toon 2003).


I think the most painful part of the Elsevier-eats-Mendeley deal has been watching good people acting as apologists for Elsevier and then feeling hurt when people don’t accept their protestations. You can see a good example (but far from the only one) in the comments to Danah Boyd’s post on her #mendelete.

I don’t know what Elsevier have been feeding their new minions, but whatever it is it seems to be working. They seem to have swallowed the party line uncritically. Yes, Elsevier have been making nice statements about what their intentions are with respect to Mendeley. They are exactly the sort of statements you’d expect them to make. And there is not one whit of a reason why anyone should believe them. Time and again, Elsevier have shown that the truth is just another tool for them, to be used when it’s useful and discarded when it’s not. (Fake journals, bribing reviewers, equating open access with lack of peer-review, the list goes on.)

Who will bet that Elsevier aren’t at least involved in, if not the prime movers behind, the New York Times’s recent open-access slander? It’s 100% in keeping with the Dezenhall strategy and the history of the PRISM Coalition (“scientific censorship” indeed).

The only question here is why the Mendeley folks seem so convinced that this time will be different, this time Elsevier really have changed, they really do have our best interests at heart.

Really, Mendeley people? Really?

Now look. We all understand that Mendeley was always a commercial operation. It was always a for-profit, and it was started not only to advance OA but also to make money for its founders and investors. There’s nothing wrong with that. And Mendeley did some great pro-OA work before its acquisition. The founders and investors deserve their pay-day, and good luck to them. But Mendeley, the Elsevier subsidiary, is dead to me, and should be to anyone else who is about openness. Mendeley did some good work, and now that’s finished.

You can’t have your cake and eat it, Mendeley people.

So in his comments on the Dana Boyd article, William Gunn rightly points out that “We participated in the SOPA/RWA blackout, we wrote comments to the OSTP, we campaigned vigorously for the wh.gov petition”. All true, and all commendable. It’s great that the old Mendeley did all that stuff. But anyone who believes that the Elsevier subsidiary Mendeley is going to do these things is sadly mistaken.

Elsevier may not have bought Mendeley to shut it down. But who can seriously doubt that they are going to defang it?

Update (eight hours later)

Let me be 100% clear that I am not saying any of the Mendeley people are lying. I think they genuinely believe the stories that Elsevier have told them. And I think they are dead wrong, just as Celebrimbor and the elves of Eregion were when they believed that Sauron, in his fair guise as Annatar, had repented of his history as lieutenant to Morgoth Bauglir the oppressor. All I’m saying is, don’t come running to me when you find that those pretty rings you’re forging with Elsevier’s counsel turn out to be under the command of the One Ring, and a Second Darkness covers the land.

I was really excited to get an invitation to the evolution-or-revolution debate in Oxford, partly for historical reasons. I thought the Oxford Union was where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their friends held various debates. Sadly, it turns out I was mistaken, and it was merely the stomping ground for a bunch of lame politicians.

But anyway … It was a great experience — not only for the chance to meet online friends for the first time and make a strong opening statement, but also to hear important ideas batted back and forth — not only between the eight panel members (four on each team) but also with the audience.


The debating teams. From left to right: EVOLUTION: David Tempest (Elsevier), Graham Taylor (ex Publishers’ Association), Jason Wilde (Nature) and Cameron Neylon (PLOS). CHAIR: Simon Benjamin. REVOLUTION: Mike Taylor (University of Bristol), Jason Hoyt (PeerJ), Amelia Andersdotter (Swedish Pirate Party MEP) and Paul Wicks (Patientslikeme).

Apparently, video of the debate (and of all the talks) will shortly be available. Until then, here is a brief tour of some highlights.

Opening statements

First, we each had four minutes or so to make an opening statement. It was my privilege to go first, and I used essentially the essay from the last post — though in an effort to avoid bloke-reading-from-a-sheet-of-paper syndrome I allowed myself to drift a bit — not really to good effect. One addition was a mention of the steering-a-supertanker analogy.

Cameron Neylon then spoke for evolution, referring to a poem about South American revolutions entitled “Only the beards have changed” — warning that throwing out an old order can result in a new one that is essentially unchanged.

Jason Hoyt gave a short speech about how PeerJ is practically addressing some of the major failures of the prevailing system: slowness, secrecy surrounding review, and enormous overcharging. Those guys aren’t waiting for a revolution, they’re hosting one.

Jason Wilde, like Cameron, emphasised that revolutions historically have a habit of leaving things no better than they found them — to be fair, a point that I have also made at times. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of his statement I agreed with, and look forward to seeing it again when video comes out.

Amelia Andersdotter gave unquestionably the most impassioned, and bluntest, speech — which I had to admit warmed my heart with its clear-sightedness and honesty. She made the point that a revolution has already happened, and not to our advantage, as publishers have seized control of science and driven restrictive IP laws. Amelia’s contention is that the necessary revolution will be easier to achieve without publishers than with their help, and she would happily do away with them all. Tough stuff.

Graham Taylor‘s contribution made quite a contrast. At its core lay the statement “science needs publishing, and publishing needs publishers”. The first half of that statement is unarguable. The second half does not follow, and its truth remains to be demonstrated. And of course even if it is true, it wouldn’t follow that we need the publishers we have now. (By the way, despite my history of eviscerating Taylor in print, he was very pleasant in person, and evidently didn’t bear a grudge.)

Paul Wicks‘s opening line to the evolutioneers was “I’m here from the Internet to negotiate the terms of your surrender”. He laid out an essentially unanswerable case for access to research as a foundation of advances in heath science. If I remember correctly, his opening statement got the biggest round of applause — and rightly so.

Finally in this first phase of the debate, David Tempest was left with the unenviable task of defending Elsevier’s actions as evolutionary rather than reactionary. Rather to my surprise, he adopted the unflattering (but apposite) metaphor of a supertanker heading for the rocks, but said that Elsevier have been engineering tugs to change its direction. (Is Mendeley meant to be one of those tugs?) Well, I wasn’t persuaded — but then I am increasingly of the opinion that the supertanker is not such a great analogy anyway, since the tanker doesn’t disgorge its cargo of poisonous filth until it hits the rocks.

The opening statement.

The opening statement.


The discussion period was based on four questions, each of which was initially addressed by a member of each team, then thrown open to the floor — at least, that was the intention, but it was pretty flexible. The questions:

  • Does the public need access to academic publications?
  • Are mandates good for science? Can we still have a journal “quality ladder”?
  • In light of content-mining, do we need a new attitude to copyright?
  • Will OA lead to higher or lower standards? Will it undermine peer-review?
  • What system do we want to see in ten years?

I don’t now remember what was said in response to which question, and of course they overlapped a lot. So here are some highlights from this period, in no particular order.

The most applauded observation was Paul Wicks’s, that publications getting professors promotions are not the end goal of science. It’s all too easy to forget this (especially if you are an academic seeking promotion). We think of publications as being for other researchers; but they’re not, they’re for the world.

The biggest laugh was for Jason Hoyt’s comment on the simplest way to achieve universal access to Elsevier’s content: let them go out of business, and LOCKSS will take care of it. (Sadly, I’m not sure it’s that simple.)

In a response to one of the questions, Jason Wilde noted that at both Nature’s Scientific Reports and at PLOS ONE — both of which review for technical correctness only, not for novelty or importance — the rejection rate is about 40%. (I heard informally from Jason Hoyt that the rate at PeerJ is similar, based on its so-far small sample.) Interesting that the rate seems so consistent, and distressing that so much of what gets submitted to journals is evidently just no darned good.

But the best moment was provoked by David Tempest’s mention of transparency in pricing. Stephen Curry, from the floor, asked Tempest to justify his librarian’s not being allowed to tell him what Imperial’s Elsevier subscriptions cost, due to a confidentiality agreement. Tempest gave an extraordinary response, in which excess verbiage was unable to conceal the core point “We do this to prevent prices from falling”. His explanation finished “otherwise prices would go down and down and down”, to which the eloquent Dr. Curry shrugged bemusedly. A big laugh, but also a lot of real anger.


At some stage near the end, the chair asked for a show-of-hands vote on whether the best approach to pursue is Gold or Green open access — not just as a long-term goal, but as the immediate short-term approach. The vote was about three to one in favour of Gold. (This was from a very mixed audience containing researchers, librarians and publishers in I would guess fairly equal numbers, and a fair few startup founders.)

At the end of the whole event, a vote was taken on who had “won” the debate. “Revolution” came out ahead by a factor of two or three, which was gratifying; but I don’t know how much that was because of the quality of the debating, and how much it was because that’s what people already thought. (I hope the latter.)

And finally …

At the dinner afterwards, the organisers had arranged for bottles of wine to be available at cost price (£7), on the basis that you just take a bottle when you want it, and later on they’ll come round and collect the money. A system very open to abuse, but it turned out that the open-access crowd paid for one more bottle than they drank.

So a happy ending.


The photos above were provided by Simon Bayly and Victoria Watson. My memories of the debate were supplemented by helpful tweets from Simon Bayly (again), Anna Sharman (and again), Victoria Watson (again and again and again), Bryan Vickery, Jonathan Webb (and again) and Andrew Miller,