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 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,

I mentioned earlier that I was in Oxford yesterday — mostly to participate in the debate at the Oxford Union, “Evolution or Revolution in Science Communication?” I was on the revolution side, with Jason Hoyt (PeerJ), Amelia Andersdotter (Swedish Pirate Party MEP) and Paul Wicks (Patientslikeme). The “evolution” side was represented by David Tempest (Elsevier), Graham Taylor (ex Publishers’ Association), Jason Wilde (Nature) and — rather surprisingly — Cameron Neylon (PLOS).

Here is my opening statement:

Evolution or Revolution In Science Communication

Mike Taylor, University of Bristol

“Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science” conference

Oxford, Thursday 11 April 2013.

In my academic life, I study the evolution of dinosaurs. I know a bit about evolution, and before I give my position in this evolution-or-revolution debate, I’d like to dispel a few evolutionary myths.

First, the Victorians liked to talk about the scala naturae, the great chain of being – a sequence beginning with the most primitive creatures, evolving their way up a ladder, in a neat straight line, to finally arrive at humans. In fact, evolution works in branching patterns: for every lineage that survives and prospers, a hundred are unsuccessful experiments that go extinct before ever making their mark.

Secondly, we like to think of “survival of the fittest” as an efficient process. But in fact it’s incredibly wasteful. Not one mutation is a thousand is beneficial. Most kill their owners before they’re even born. Natural selection works by choosing the fittest of what’s generated by random variation. It throws the dice repeatedly, but discards everything except the double sixes.

Finally, we think of the crucible of evolution as being a refinery that makes each species the best it can be. In truth, even the most successful species are ridiculously inefficient. The trees in a rainforest all invest vast resources in growing a hundred feet tall so they can reach the sunlight – but they only have to do that because all the other trees are doing the same. If they could agree not to do that, they’d have much more energy to use in other ways.

So evolution is mostly unsuccessful, spends most of its time going down blind alleys, is appallingly wasteful, and produces a stupidly inefficient end-product that wastes most of its energy on things that aren’t inherently useful.

Which makes it a perfect metaphor for scholarly publishing. *rim-shot*

The truth is, evolution is what got us into this mess. Just as humans can’t run fast because we’re locked into a gait where our heels are on the ground, so legacy publishers can’t up their game because they’re locked into ancient software and even older business models. They’re trapped on a local maximum. They can’t get down and across the adaptive valley to the higher peak.

That’s why legacy publishers give you electronic facsimiles of printed papers. The services they provide are essentially unchanged since the 1600s – with the sole exception that they now deliver papers using wires instead of by horse and cart. The product is the same. It’s a sequence of static pages in a tiny font with postage-stamp-sized greyscale images. And either it gets locked behind a paywall, or you buy its freedom for $3000.

We have to be able to do better.

The great thing is, doing better is not a hypothetical. BMC and PLOS have led the way over the last few years. Now we have PeerJ, which arrived from nowhere – not only with no assets, but crucially with no baggage. That’s tremendously liberating. It allowed three programmers to build their software infrastructure from the ground up in eight months. It’s universally considered much better than anything any of the old publishers have. And it gives you publications that are born digital, unlimited in length, full colour, and free to the world. And it does it for $99—not per paper, but per author, for life. Ninety-nine dollars!

That’s a revolution happening right in front of us.

Now if New Publisher A can do an objectively better job than Old Publisher B for one thirtieth of the cost, how can B possibly evolve to compete with A on a level playing field? They can’t. It’s a new kind of competition. They haven’t merely been out-evolved; it’s as though technologically advanced aliens have landed with teleporters and time-travel. The natives will peer curiously at them, but they won’t really even understand what they’re doing, let alone be able to compete with them. They’re outclassed. It’s dodos vs. hungry sailors with clubs.

We’ve seen what evolution gets us in scholarly publishing. It gets us in-press periods of a year or more. It gets us knowledge as an artificially scarce resource rather than a common good. It gets us publishers so wedded to barriers that they support the Research Works Act. It gets us $3000 facsimiles.

Evolution just can’t get the job done. We need revolution.

Yesterday I was in Oxford for the Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science conference (web-site here, tweets here though they also include newer ones from Day 2 which is happening as I write this).

There was a lot to enjoy about the day, including meeting Cameron Neylon of PLOS and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ, both for the first time. The highlight for me, unsurprisingly, was the debate at the Oxford Union in the evening, of which more in following posts.

Another highlight was meeting my anti-particle — the pro-Elsevier Mike Taylor. There are quite a few odd coincidences linking him and me, and he has been using us both as a motivating example of the need for ORCID: skip to 5:50 in this video for an example.



There was some speculation that if we ever met, we’d both be annihilated in a burst of pure energy, but happily there were no fireworks.

Apart from a brief fist-fight.



Other Mike Taylor (hereafter OMT) had some interesting things to say about Elsevier, but I won’t pass them on without his permission. Maybe he’ll drop by here and comment.

By the way, I think this was the second time I have worn a tie in the last decade or so.


Is there any justification for any of these practices other than tradition?

  • Choosing titles that deliberately omit new taxon names.
  • Slicing the manuscript to fit an arbitrary length limit.
  • Squeezing the narrative into a fixed set of sections (Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion).
  • Discarding or combining illustrations to avoid exceding an arbitrary count.
  • Flattening illustrations to monochrome.
  • Using passive instead of active voice (especially in singular: “we did this” may be acceptable but not “I did this” for some reason).
  • Giving the taxonomic authority after first use of each formal name.
  • Listing institutional abbreviations at end of the Introduction section, several pages into the paper.
  • Using initials for names in the acknowledgements.
  • Refusing to cite in-prep papers, dissertations and blogs (while accepting pers. comm.)
  • Using numbered citations instead of Author+Date.
  • Using journal abbreviations such as “J. Vertebr. Paleontol.” in the references.
  • Formatting references
  • Having references at all, rather than links.
  • Putting figure captions and tables at end the end of the manuscript instead of where they occur.
  • Arbitrarily relegating parts of the manuscript to Supplementary information.
  • Submitting images in TIFF format (even for born-as-JPEG photos).
  • Double-spacing manuscripts.
  • Writing cover letters for submissions.
  • Throwing away reviews once they’ve been handled.
  • Allowing the final product to go behind a paywall.

Did I miss any?

This is a caudal vertebra from the middle of the tail of an ostrich, LACM Bj342:


The middle row shows it in anterior, left lateral and posterior views; above and below the anterior view are the dorsal and ventral views. It’s about 5 cm across the transverse processes. (This figure is from a manuscript that Matt and I will submit to a journal probably within 24 hours.)

In compositing the different views, I had a heck of a time recognising what was what. The dorsal view looks so much more like what we’d expect a ventral view to look like — indeed, the two are more similar for this vertebra than for any other I’ve seen.

How about those big pnuematic foramina right at the top of the bone? At first, Matt and I thought we’d never seen anything like that before. But then we realised that we sort of had — in a cervical vertebra of Apatosaurus which appears as part one of Taylor and Wedel (2013: figure 9).


This is Apatosaurus sp. OMNH 01341 in right posterodorsolateral view. “las” marks a ligament attachment site — a big, baseball-sized rugose lump — and right next to it is a pneumatic foramen, marked “pfo”.

Just like this, the ostrich caudal is a saurischian vertebra with a bifid neural spine, and with pneumatic foramina within the intermetapophyseal cleft.

There’s an awful lot of talk about “predatory open access publishers” recently. So much talk that I can’t help wondering whether the phrase is being pushed by barrier-based publishers in another attempt to smear open access. (Hey, they have previous.)

Anyway, for anyone who is worried that they might be tricked into giving their work to one of these low-quality predatory publishers that accepts anything and only cares about the fee, here is my guide to avoiding this scenario.

So. Imagine you have an article ready to go, when you receive an invitation to submit it to a journal that you’ve never heard of before. How do you decide whether to send it to them?

Do not send it to them.

Problem solved.


As many of you will know, it’s now official that Elsevier has bought Mendeley, previously a force for openness in the world of reference management. There’s some good commentary at The Scholarly Kitchen. Lots of open advocates — Ross Mounce, for example — are shutting down their accounts and moving to free alternatives such as Zotero.

Unequivocal good guys at Mendeley, such as William Gunn, are painting this as optimistically as they can. Good luck to them, and I hope their optimism proves well-founded.

But here’s the problem. Although both Elsevier and Mendeley are making all the right noises about this acquisition, the bottom line is that Elsevier has all the power in the relationship. So Mendeley say things like “very little will change for you as a Mendeley user” and “we will continue to support standard and open data formats”, and I’m sure they believe them. But it’s dependent on the whim of Elsevier. The moment it becomes inconvenient or financially disadvantageous for them to do these things, they’ll stop.

That’s not a criticism of any of the individuals at Elsevier. Every single Elsevier person I’ve had dealings with has been pleasant, sane and helpful; often funny, too. But a lot of good, smart people smashed together can and do make a big, dumb, evil company. So Elsevier continually does things that (I suspect) none of the individuals I know there would chose. But it does them anyway. Sadly all the evidence from the past says that nothing good is going to happen to Mendeley now.

I truly hope I’m wrong.

But I’m not.

What it comes down to is this: Mendeley’s ability to be a force for openness is dependent on a company that is implacably opposed to openness. That’s all there is to it.

Update (14 minutes later): read the much more informed thoughts of Jason Hoyt, who was one of Mendeley’s co-founders before leaving to co-found PeerJ. Very gentle, but also I think a strong confirmation of my reading.