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

dino@miketaylor.urg.uk

“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.

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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.

WP_000940

 

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:

ostrich-caudal-composite

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).

fig9-interspinal-features-PART1

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.

Sheesh.

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.

I first met Wann at SVP in 1997, in Chicago. I was an undergrad, still three months away from my B.S., presenting a poster arguing that OMNH 53062 (which would eventually become the holotype of Sauroposeidon) was a new sauropod. At the time the only named sauropods from the Early Cretaceous of North America were Astrodon/Pleurocoelus and Sonorasaurus, and owing to the slow spread of news back then, I hadn’t heard of Sonorasaurus yet. So the bar was pretty high for arguing that EKNApod material shouldn’t just be lumped into Pleurocoelus. The person I was most fearing in the world was Wann Langston, Jr., who had referred the EK Texas sauropod material to Pleurocoelus in his magisterial 1974 paper. And in due course he arrived at my poster. If he remembered it at all, he probably remembered just walking up to chat with some kid. But for me it was like watching one of those giant saucers descend from space in Independence Day. As Jeff Goldblum said in one of the Jurassic Park movies, I was terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

But then Wann turned out to be a totally fair, reasonable human being–if a wee bit gruff at first. He let me give a little spiel and then asked the dreaded question, “Why isn’t this Pleurocoelus?” I had some thoughts on that, and we talked it through, and if he didn’t agree in every particular, he at least allowed that what I was saying made some sense. He later served as a reviewer on the paper in which we described Sauroposeidon and didn’t shoot us down, so apparently he was convinced, or at least thought the hypothesis deserved its day in the sun.

A couple of years later Julian Hilliard and I were working on our MS theses under Rich Cifelli, and we realized that we both needed to see some specimens in Austin (Julian was working on tooth morphotypes in crocs), so we drove down together one Friday evening. Without much warning, in fact–we basically crashed Ernie Lundelius’s retirement party at the Texas Memorial Museum. But everyone welcomed us like we belonged there. We had planned to spend the next day in collections, but we had neglected to make arrangements in advance (this is not a story about the correct way to make museum collections visits). Wann saw us fumbling around the museum like a couple of idiots and pulled us into his office–I thought for a reaming out, but in fact for nearly the opposite. He basically took us under his wing. Wann talked with Julian for an hour about crocs and their teeth, speaking authoritatively and at length–he was clearly still well up to speed on the field. I listened and learned. Then he talked with me for an hour about sauropods, with an equally broad and deep knowledge base, while Julian listened and learned. Then he showed us the Quetzalcoatlus material and talked to us about pterosaurs for an hour, just as impressively, while we both listened and learned. And then he turned us loose in the collections, checking periodically to make sure we were finding what we needed. He turned what would have been a so-so trip or maybe even a disaster into one of the best museum visits I’ve ever had, when he would have been perfectly justified in chucking us out on our ears. I need to remember to pay that forward someday.

I kept up with Wann at SVP thereafter. He was always thinking out ahead of the field, and I always came away from those conversations with new thoughts in my head.

I’ve been going to SVPCA instead of SVP for the past few years, so I probably haven’t seen Wann in 5 or 6 years. And now I won’t see him again–he passed away yesterday. But he leaves behind as impressive a legacy as one could wish for, not just in the fossils he found and the papers he published, but in the lives that he touched. Including mine. Farewell, Wann. You are already missed.

Reference

Langston, Jr., W. 1974. Nonmammalian Comanchean tetrapods. Geoscience and Man 8:77-102.