MoO 2013 - humpback head-on

Well, I’m back. Been on the road a lot–to Flagstaff for a few days around Memorial Day, and in Oklahoma to visit family in the first half of June. Now I’m busy with the summer anatomy course, but I finally found time to post some pictures.

One of my favorite museums in the world is the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. It hits all the right notes for me: just shedloads of stuff on display, mounts you can walk all around and even touch (all they ask is that you don’t climb on them), and nary an interactive gizmo in sight. Plus a gift shop at the end where I could easily spend an hour (and several thousand dollars, if I had that much disposable  dough and someplace to put all the loot). This was my second visit, but I never got around to posting the photos from my last visit, so maybe I can make up for that this summer. This post just has some highlights–I’ll try to get more photos up before another month goes by.

MoO 2013 - 3-banded armadillo

One of my favorite things in the museum is this awesome and appropriate triple display of the three-banded armadillo.

MoO 2013 - giraffe face to face

And old friend, from a new perspective.

MoO 2013 - two-headed calves

In my experience, in the Great Plains states it is a rare museum indeed that does not have a two-headed calf. Not just natural history museums, either–historical museums and roadside attractions usually have at least one. The first I ever encountered was at the Dalton Gang Hideout in Meade, Kansas–maybe someone knows if it is still there? Even as a kid, I understood that the link between bovine developmental anomalies and Old West outlaws was pretty tenuous–basically, both crop up in Kansas–but I didn’t mind then and I don’t mind now. IMHO, finding two-headed calves on display in unexpected places only reinforces the concept of museums as cabinets of wonder.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate to find two-headed calves in an osteology museum, and the Museum of Osteology has more specimens than I’ve ever seen in one place.

MoO 2013 - herp display

The herp case is rad: the anaconda in the middle is a 14-footer, and the king cobra at lower right is 13’7″. And check out the super-fat Gaboon viper below the anaconda. If you’re wondering about turtles and crocs, they’re in the next case over.

MoO 2013 - Mata Mata

As anyone who followed Darren’s multi-part series on matamatas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) knows, they are fabulously weird. As I conceive it, there are two kinds of turtles: matamatas, and “regular-ass turtles”, the latter being the paraphyletic group that includes all non-matamata turtles.

MoO 2013 - ruby-throated hummingbird perched

My favorite mounts in the Museum of Osteology are the smallest: a pair of impossibly tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds.

MoO 2013 - ruby-throated hummingbird flying

I spend a lot of time with vertebrate bodies and skeletons, both taking them apart and putting them back together, and I am not exaggerating when I say that these are the most astonishing skeletal mounts I have ever seen. Unfortunately there aren’t any external indicators of scale with these skeletons, and perspective effects would defeat any attempt to put a scale bar up against the glass. These ruby-throated hummingbirds are slightly longer-billed than the Anna’s hummingbird mentioned in this post, but even so the skulls are probably no more than 30mm long. I recently helped London clean up a rat skull (yet another thing I need to blog about), and that skull was about as big as one of these skeletons minus the bill.

That’s all for now. If you’re ever in Oklahoma City, go check out the Museum of Osteology. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in bones, anatomy, animals, nature, or even, like, things.

In the last few weeks, it’s been my pleasure and privilege to give invited talks on open access to both UCL and the University of Ulster. (Both of them went well, thanks for asking.)

Now they come to process expenses, and both universities have asked for scans of my passport. I explained to UCL that I was only expecting expenses, not a fee, and they backed down; but Ulster are very kindly giving me a fee, and contact there insists that “our Finance Office will insist on receiving this [passport scan] before they will process payment”.

That seems bizarre to me.

Has anyone else run into this?

Has anyone else been reluctant to comply? To me it seems like a strange intrusion, and a completely unnecessary violation of privacy. Either they want to pay me or they don’t — either is fine (I didn’t accept the Ulster invitation for the money). But I don’t see what my passport has to do with anything.

Am I being unreasonable? Or are they?

What should I do?

As has now been widely reported, NISO have a $200K grant from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation to develop standards for AltMetrics.


If there’s one consistent lesson from standardisation processes, it’s that standards which codify existing practice do well, while those that try to invent new practice in the form of a standard do badly. The various new facilities introduced into C++ by well-meaning standards people are a classic example of non-standard standards that no-one uses.

So I fear that trying to build standards around AltMetrics may well be premature. The thing that would be worth doing is codifying a standard XML format in which to express AltMetrics. But that’s something for a few practitioners to do in an couple of days. not something to spend $200k on.

I’ve been involved with enough standards to have a pretty good idea what goes into them. I’ve also been involved with drafting a fair few informal specifications that are used in the same way standards are. At this point, the latter (much, much more lightweight) process seems far more appropriate than the full lumbering machinery of a formal standards committee.

The bottom line is that there is nothing to standardise yet. We need several years of actual experience before we’re at the point where formal standardisation is anything more than an expensive waste of valuable people’s time.

Finally: you can just bet that the working groups will be dominated by the kinds of corporations that (A) can afford to fund staff to invest significant time in such efforts, and (B) have no vested interest in any kind of change. So what I see happening here is a committee full of people from IEEE, Elsevier, Emerald and Springer, achieving nothing or actively impeding progress — while a few valiant people who are actually doing altmetrics are effectively distracted from getting on with useful work by banging their heads against the standards-committee wall instead.

Much better to just do the work — for people actually involved in AltMetrics to pool their own experience and insight outside of any controlling formal arrangement — and put together whatever specification documents they find useful, free of the retarding influence of The Usual Suspects.

Once that’s been done, then there will be something to standardise.


A few days ago I explained why I don’t think “hybrid OA” is a legitimate path to the full-open-access world we all want. The TL;DR is first that it’s offered at stupidly high prices, and secondly that it’s completely impossible to detect or prevent double-dipping because journal subscriptions are the most opaquely priced good in the known universe.

Then I found that Stuart Shieber had written much the same article but much better four years ago, from the perspective of explaining why the Harvard open-access fund does not cover hybrid fees.

In response, BMC’s Matthew Cockerill tweeted that “Shieber underplays a key benefit of hybrid OA though. Wide author choice allows funders to take stronger stance on requiring full OA”, adding “hybrid OA option therefore makes it more conceivable a funder could mandate immediate full OA”.

Now. Here’s the thing.

Funders can mandate whatever the hell they want. That’s how it works when you’re the one with the money. They hold the purse strings. They are researchers’ paymasters. And in the case of bodies like RCUK and HEFCE that spend public money, “what they want” means “what serves interests of people whose money they’re spending”.

So funders should mandate what they, and the people whose money they’re spending, actually want: immediate low-cost BOAI-compliant OANo delays, no ifs, buts, maybes. As always, researchers who don’t like the funder’s conditions will be at liberty not to accept their grants. And equally, publishers who don’t like the conditions imposed on recipients are at liberty to decline their manuscript offers.

So all we really need is for funders to grow a pair and stop kow-towing to exploitative and over-priced publishers. This is why the RCUK betrayal hurts so much. It would have been so easy for them to Do The Right Thing.

Yes, it would be great if academics took the lead. I think they should be racing the funders to see who can be first to fix this: after all, I’ve argued that hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. As scientists, our job is to bring new knowledge into the world. Hiding it behind a journal’s paywall is unacceptable. But as the comments on that Guardian article and on the followup SV-POW! article indicate, there are other pressures on academics.

Whereas public funders, who have all the money, therefore have all the power. They can do what they want, and should — in the interests of the people whose taxes give them that money. It’s what they’re there for.

Sorry to keep shouting, but: there is no justification for bodies that spend public money putting publishers’ interests ahead of the public’s.


I know I’ve written about this before, but Richard Poynder’s new post reminds me that we Brits really do need to be up in arms over the abject behaviour of our supposed representatives, the research councils (RCUK). As a direct result of this policy, the publisher Emerald has now introduced 24-month embargoes on RCUK-funded papers, where before it had none.

The scandal here is that when RCUK first published their draft open-access policy in March 2012, it was exemplary. Its front page summarised its key points as follows:

  • Specifically stating that Open Access includes unrestricted use of manual and automated text and data mining tools; and unrestricted reuse of content with proper attribution.
  • Requiring publication in journals that meet Research Council ‘standards’ for Open Access.
  • No support for publisher embargoes of longer than six months from the date of publication (12 months for research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)).

Subsequent revisions of this policy have systematically removed all three of these policies: Green-OA papers may now be encumbered by commercial clauses, RCUK has said it will not enforce its journal standards, and the maximum six-month embargo for STM publication has quadrupled to 24 months.

As a matter of fact, it looks uncannily as though they read my comments and deliberately did the exact opposite. (No, I am not seriously suggesting that’s what happened. I’m not paranoid. What actually happened is less conspiracy-flavoured: I want what’s good for the world; publishers want what’s good for publishers, which is the opposite. They got what they wanted.)

How the hell did this happen?

The irony here is that the House of Lords select committee criticised RCUK for “lack of consultation” when in fact it had circulated its initial policy for comments. It was after this that RCUK threw out all its progressive promises without consultation — except, evidently, with the publishers to whom it so cravenly capitulated.

Where was the consultation on the 24-month embargoes now being exploited by “publishers” like Emerald? There was none: suddenly, from out of the blue, the Publishers Association’s “decision tree” appeared bearing the shameful legend “endorsed by BIS and RCUK”. On whose mandate? BIS and RCUK both exist to spend taxpayers’ money: when did taxpayers give their consent to quadrupling embargoes?

The whole thing makes me want to weep. By this stage in the proceedings, we expect barrier-based publishers to act against the interests of every other party. What we don’t expect it for our elected representatives to collude.

Could we at least have the courtesy of some kind of explanation for RCUK?

Here’s what Science Europe, an association of European research and funding organisations, said in their recent position statement Principles on the Transition to Open Access to Research Publications:

The Science Europe member organisations […] stress that the hybrid model, as currently defined and implemented by publishers, is not a working and viable pathway to Open Access. Any model for transition to Open Access supported by Science Europe member organisations must prevent ‘double dipping’ and increase cost transparency.

The term “hybrid open access” refers to a subscription journal in which individual articles can optionally be made open access on payment of a fee — for the Big Four publishers, typically (though not always) in the region of $3000.

We’ve not said much about the hybrid model here on SV-POW!. A year ago, when we were discussing what society journals should do about open access, I wrote:

I also have an increasing sense that “hybrid OA” (i.e. a subscription journal with an optional open-access fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. […] I think that hybrid is really a bit of a fig-leaf that’s used by publishers and journals that don’t really want to do OA but feel they have to be seen to be doing something.

With the subsequent publication of the Finch report and the strong swing towards a Gold-OA economy, at least in the UK, it’s no longer fair to call hybrid OA a fig-leaf: even the most reactionary publishers are now positively embracing it as a revenue stream that can continue into the increasingly inevitable open-access future.

More recently, while considering what it costs to publish a Gold Open Access article, I wrote:

There are all sorts of reasons to mistrust hybrid journals, including the difficulty of finding the open articles; the very high APCs that they charge is only one.

Why do people use hybrid journals when they are more expensive than fully OA journals and offer so much less (e.g. limited length, no colour, number of figures)? I suspect hybrid OA is the lazy option for researchers who have to conform to an OA mandate but don’t want to invest any time or effort in thinking about open-access options. It’s easy to imagine such researchers just shoving their work into in the traditional paywalled journal, and letting the Wellcome grant pick up the tab. After all, it’s Other People’s Money.

I think that’s still fair comment. Despite legacy publishers’ move towards embracing the hybrid-OA revenue stream, and their forced move towards true open-access licences for such articles, they continue to offer very bad value for money, and generally provide very little help in locating their open-access articles.

As an example of the latter, I have often wanted to find those Cretaceous Research articles that are open access, but never found a way to do it. Their web-site has an Advanced Search option (which searches across all Elsevier journals, not just Cretaceous Research) but that doesn’t seem to have any way to narrow to only open-access articles. Yesterday, PeerJ’s Alf Eaton found a way: start from the completely different Science Direct site, click on Advanced Search (up at top right), choose the Expert Search alternative, and enter SPONSOREDACCESSTYPE(unlimited OR delay) AND SRCTITLE(“Cretaceous Research”).

One is put in mind of this classic exchange from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Elsevier: But Mister Dent, the open-access papers have been available in the journal for the last nine months!
Arthur: Yes! I went round to find them yesterday afternoon. You’d hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to pull much attention to them have you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.
Elsevier: The papers were on display.
Arthur: They weren’t immediately obvious to the eye were they?
Elsevier: That depends where you were looking.
Arthur: I eventually had to go down to the cellar!
Elsevier: That’s the display department.
Arthur: With a torch!
Elsevier: The lights, had probably gone.
Arthur: So had the stairs!
Elsevier: Well you found the papers, didn’t you?
Arthur: Yes. They was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

This isn’t mere whining about a badly designed web-site. It seems to me that such unconcern with the plight of users trying to find free content indicates a fundamental lack of interest in the openness of the articles: from the publisher’s perspective, Cretaceous Research is a subscription journal where merely happens to have a bit of of OA fringing around the edges.

By the way, Elsevier are not alone in this. Good luck finding the open-access articles in Palaeontology, published by Wiley; or in Paläontologische Zeitschrift, published by Springer; or in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, published by Taylor & Francis. It just isn’t something the publishers care about.

(In contrast, it’s pretty easy to narrow to open-access articles only when searching in a BMC or PLOS journal, or eLife, F1000 Research or PeerJ.)

Anyway, for these reasons and others, Science Europe is skeptical about hybrid OA — a skepticism that I share. Science Europe’s statement provoked Wiley’s Head of Society Relations, Alice Meadows, in a recent Scholarly Kitchen post:

Hybrid journals are a sustainable way of enabling researchers to publish in their journal(s) of choice while complying with funder requirements to make their articles available OA immediately on publication […] Clearly, there are some legitimate concerns about “double dipping” (charging libraries for content where a fee has already been paid to make it available open access) […] However, many publishers, including Wiley, have already developed or are developing solutions to this.

Here we come to maybe the gravest problem with hybrid OA: double dipping. If we take a look at what that Wiley document, Subscription Pricing for Hybrid Journals, says, the problem should be apparent:

We will adjust the variable portion of each title’s price (and of our collection as a whole) proportionately for any shift from subscription-funded articles to gold open access articles. We will calculate this adjustment using the most recent full calendar year data at the time we set prices, and will make available details of the numbers of articles published under each model.

What we have here is a complete lack of transparency. No-one knows how subscription prices are calculated in the first place; the obscure numbers are made wholly impenetrable by Big Deal bunding, so it’s literally impossible to know what a given journal costs; and non-disclosure agreements prevent customers from comparing notes. Against such a backdrop, how can anyone possibly know whether and to what degree individual journal subscription fees are being reduced? (Knowing the number of OA articles is interesting, but not at all the same thing.)

In the complete absence of any actual data on pricing, all we can do is take it on trust from the publishers that they’re playing fair. And unfortunately, they have violated that trust repeatedly. There’s no trust left for the big legacy publishers. On the occasions when they do play fair, they have to show us that they’re playing fair. That means truly transparent pricing, which no-one believes we’re going to get any time soon.

Wiley’s statement goes on to spell out part of the problem:

Not all of the value or cost of a journal relates to the number of articles published. Titles incur fixed costs before we publish a single article […] A portion of the subscription price is therefore fixed and not subject to adjustment for the shift to Gold OA articles.

This is saying that even if every single article in a journal was Gold OA, and had been paid for by an APC, Wiley would still charge a subscription fee for the journal. To me that seems both self-evidently absurd and wholly exploitative. APCs have to cover those fixed costs (“discovery and platform services, library interfaces, and the development and implementation of consistent standards”) at true open-access journals such as those of BMC and PLOS, so why shouldn’t they do so at hybrid journals?

What this says is that the APC is only part of the revenue that Wiley expects to derive from its open-access articles — in other words, that their true price is higher than the nominal $3000 OnlineOpen fee. They’re still hiding charges.

So there are plenty of reasons to mistrust the hybrid model. True open-access journals have a much simpler financial model, and are far more transparent. You can tell how much you’re paying, and you know exactly what you’re getting in return. (What’s more, you tend to pay much less and get rather more, but that is incidental.)

So I don’t think hybrid journals are the way to go. As Harvard said in their we-can’t-afford-our-subscriptions memo, that means we need to “move the prestige to open access”. Specifically, we need to move it to open-access journals, not band-aid open access on fundamentally subscription-mired journals.

Looking again at Clay Shirky’s “How we will read” interview, I re-read these now classic words:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.

Here’s what Shirky could have gone on to say, but didn’t.

An unfortunate side-effect of this shift is that we still have these big, lumbering publishing corporations clogging up the landscape, with nothing constructive to do. And the reason that’s a problem rather than merely a waste, is that whereas it used to take special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public, now it takes special professional skill to make words and images invisible to the public, and that’s what these corporations are now dedicating their energies to.

This is the true tragedy of modern “publishers”: that as the world has become able to do the job that once only they could do, they’ve not stepped graciously aside, but devoted their energies to preventing works being available. The publishers’ outdated business model forces them to act in a way directly opposed to their mission.

Why do you think legacy publishers’ open-access APCs are so much higher than those of all-OA publishers like PLOS, F1000 Research, eLife or Peerj? Sure, part of it is sheer profiteering, but even when you factor that out their prices are outrageous. It’s because they have to pay for:

All of these are the costs of not publishing openly. In a world where infinite perfect copies are free to produce, it costs a fortune to avoid publishing.

No wonder Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and Blackwell are all converging on APCs on the order of $3000*, while PLOS ONE charges $1350, F1000 Research $1000, eLife free and PeerJ a one-off fee of $99.



1at the request of David Mainwaring, I here note that legacy publishing doesn’t always mean $3000 fees. They can be much higher (e.g. $5000 for Elsevier’s Cell Reports) and sometimes rather lower. In particular, the SAGE charges £800 for SAGE Choice in humanities journals, and $99 for the SAGE Open humanities megajournal.