Why no PDF of the Smith and Benson Rhomaleosaurus monograph? An open letter to the Palaeontographical Society

December 4, 2014

I have sent this message to David Loydell and Beris Cox, the editors of the Palaeontographical Society’s monograph series. (Update: and to Steve Donovan, secretary of the society.)


Dear Palaeontographical Society,

I was delighted to see that Adam Smith and Roger Benson’s new monograph on the plesiosaur Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni is now out, as shown on Adam’s publications page. This is a long-awaited work on an important specimen.

But when I asked Adam to send me a copy of the PDF, I was surprised to find that he doesn’t have one, and doesn’t expect to be given one. Is this correct?

If so, can you please explain the society’s reasoning?

I would like to publish your response on my blog, https://svpow.com/, as others will also be interested in this. May I please have your permission to do so?

Many thanks,

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ

Reference

Smith A.S. and Benson R.B.J. 2014. Osteology of Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni (Sauropterygia: Rhomaleosauridae) from the Lower Jurassic (Toarcian) of Northamptonshire, England. Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society 168(642):1–40 and plates 1–35.

Update 1 (two hours later)

David Loydell is no longer an editor for the Monographs of the Palaeontographical Society. Instead, I am writing to Steve Donovan, Secretary of the Palaeontographical Society.

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18 Responses to “Why no PDF of the Smith and Benson Rhomaleosaurus monograph? An open letter to the Palaeontographical Society”

  1. protohedgehog Says:

    Is this kind of practice widespread for the Society? Can see it as an income preservation thing if so.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t know, and I don’t plan to speculate — hopefully we’ll have the facts soon, either in a response from the Society or in comments from people who are involved.

  3. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    The society would be wrong if they thought this will preserve income. If we look at their website, a monograph from last year of identical length (Mohibullah et al., 2013 on ostracods) costs 25 pounds or $39.09. Basically no one is going to buy a paper for a dollar per page. Even worse, there’s the shipping fee of 6, 12 or 20 pounds ($9.38, $18.77 or $31.27) for the UK, continental Europe, and everywhere else respectively. So over here in America, I’d get to pay $70.36… for FORTY pages. Not going to happen on a paleontologist’s salary, no matter now much you love plesiosaurs or ostracods or whatever. What happens then is nobody gets to read the work until years down the line when somebody uses Inter Library Loan or checks it out from an institutional library and scans it, then distributes the unofficial pdf to the community. The society makes no money off it, and the authors get no immediate recognition since no one can afford to know what they said. Great system.

    You know how I know this is what happens? Experience. Brusatte et al.’s (2008) Neovenator monograph is on the site at an amazing $187.65 and Sadleir et al.’s (2008) Eustreptospondylus monograph is there for a slightly less gouging $172.01, PLUS that $31.27 shipping for me. Because these prices are so laughably unrealistic, basically every theropod worker now has the same pdf’d photocopies from the one person who acquired a hard copy, with poor quality photograph scans (especially for Neovenator).

    If you look at the recent monographs, almost all have suspiciously round numbers of original print copies left (50, 75, etc.). Neovenator and Eustreptospondylus have 273 and 271 left respectively. Who wants to bet the original print run was 275 for each and that most of these monographs don’t sell at all? That’s money wasted printing over 500 copies of 2008 theropod that won’t sell because they’re priced way way WAY outside of almost anyone who cares’ price range. But if the society would simply provide pdfs instead, they’re basically free to produce since the formatted paper can be converted to pdf form then copied indefinitely. Moreover, there’s no shipping which saves everyone $10-30, and if the society offered pdfs at something reasonable like 10 pages per pound (15 US cents per page), people might actually buy them from the society, and we’d have better figure quality to boot.

  4. Michael Richmond Says:

    Mickey suggests that the society make PDF copies of the monographs available at a price of around $6 for a 40-page item.

    If the author did all the typesetting and layout, so that the society didn’t have to do any additional processing, and only host the material on its servers and process the payments, this sounds like a pretty good deal. But if the society does a significant amount of editing, typesetting and layout, this might still end up losing money.

    Does anyone know how much additional work needs to be done after the author submits work to this society?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Whether they make PDFs available or not, the society has to do the same amount of work. I think Mickey’s point is that they would make as much of their costs back by selling 100 PDFs at $6 than by selling 15 hardcopies for $40. And since the cost to the society of printing each hardcopy is not going to be trivial, they’re probably only making $10-20 tops on each one, so in reality they’d need to sell maybe 40 copies to make back as much of the cost.

    So it may be that Mickey’s financial argument works out. On the other hand, maybe the reality is that they’d sell one or two PDFs, and then everyone else would get a copy from a friend.

  6. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    As far as I know, the authors are the ones to organize their paper as far as the outlet allows. If authors were allowed to insert figures into the text, I’m sure they could do a decent job. Certainly any editing is either done by unpaid peer reviewers or after the authors see the proofs, and that’s sometimes/often botched. If you want a good metric of the value journals/societies insert into papers, dare any journal to make their submitted manuscript free and charge for the typesetted, laidout final version. If they let authors insert figures into the text, I’m sure most workers would consider that good enough to own and not worth their money to neaten up.

    Mike got my point, and one greater point is that the average theropod worker MIGHT pay $12 for the Eustreptospondylus monograph. But they sure as hell won’t pay $203. It’s as if the music industry tried to charge $200 for a CD- no one can afford to pay that for something they get tens of each year. But whereas the music industry has been smart in charging $1 per song on iTunes, the technical literature industry hasn’t cared (since libraries pay out the ass for forcibly merged subscriptions).

    Another greater point is that even if the society makes more money from three people paying $220 for a monograph than 50 people paying $6, who wants to be the elitist society that only three people can pay to use?! Isn’t your point to encourage “the advancement of palaeontological knowledge”? As opposed to printing tens of copies that no one interested can afford to buy from you…

    Bonus tip- if even half my payment went towards the authors, I’d be thrilled to pay it. But since I know authors have to pay to get published and any money goes towards corporations and societies that take all of the authors’ data and don’t do much at all to increase its worth, why should I pay them? Instead of paying the person who did the work I value, I’m paying the company that charged the person to give them their work?! What sense does that make?

  7. Paul Barrett Says:

    Dear Mike,

    I’m responding to your query on behalf of The Palaeontographical Society, of which I am currently the President. The reason we do not provide our authors with PDFs of their articles is due to a variety of factors that currently combine to make this untenable for the Society. These factors interact in a number of ways with respect to the expectations of our members and also our financial model. The following explanation is long, but hopefully sets out the case why we cannot do this.

    The Society exists to produce monographs, which are essentially book-length publications, rather than regular journal articles. These are produced and printed to a very high standard, with the expectation that they will be benchmarks for decades. Many appear in concurrent parts and individual parts can be hundreds of pages long. This work is supported financially by the membership of the society, who pay as individuals or institutions to receive the printed versions of the monographs, and the editors work for the Society for nothing, providing their time and expertise free of charge.

    Members join the Society to receive the hard copy versions of the monographs – our members have never expressed any desire to receive PDFs. Most of the individual members are bibliophiles who join us precisely because we produce high-quality hard copies. Similarly, we have received no feedback from any institutional subscriber that they require an electronic version of the monograph series. As our primary duty as a society is to our members, we are fulfilling their wish to provide hard copies.

    Printing of the hard copies is expensive: and all of the funds from this come from membership dues. The economics of the Society are such that almost all membership dues are converted directly into production and distribution costs. Any profit that is made goes into funding our other charitable aims of supporting palaeontological research through supporting various grants and prizes, and an annual public lecture. Other than membership fees, our only other income comes from a small investment portfolio (which offers little income, especially at the present) and from sales of backstock. We are not a rich society and although we do have a reserve, we run on an almost cost neutral basis. Indeed, some years we run at a loss if the printing costs are very high, when we rely on reserves and any income from sales.

    Distributing PDFs to authors immediately undermines our fragile business model as it would lead to a reduction in the sales of our backstock and also potentially lead to a loss of some subscribers. Without this income we genuinely cannot print the hard copies that our membership requires nor maintain the financial safety net we need to survive. Moreover, we feel that as the publications are essentially books, not journal articles, in terms of length, etc. PDFs are not the best way in which to distribute the product. Indeed, PDFs of appropriate resolution to do justice to the very high standards of plate reproduction would be unwieldy to search and distribute.

    We make no commitment to authors that we will provide a PDF of the articles, and this is clear from the information that we distribute, but we do provide them with a number of free copies to distribute as they see fit as well as a substantial discount on the face value of the monographs if they wish to purchase additional copies.

    So, in summary, our members prefer hard copies, we cover the costs of these through membership and sales on a cost neutral basis, and distributing PDFs would undermine an income streams from backstock sales and new memberships that are vital to the Society’s core business and survival. Please bear in mind that small academic societies often have very sensitive business models, exist primarily to serve their members, and do not have the largesse of larger organisations. Despite our small size, The Palaeontographical Society has actively supported palaeontological research in the UK for nearly 170 years (it is the oldest specialist palaeontological society in the world) and we have consistently produced a high-quality product that has been widely used.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Paul, for this detailed response.

    Only one question: I wonder how much the society’s financial model would be undermined by making a PDF available after, say, a year? I guess this comes down to what proportion of all copied of monographs are sold in the first year.

  9. Paul Barrett Says:

    Sales of the backstock vary quite a bit – but we regularly sell monographs that are 50+ years old and sales have a long half life. Given the extensive illegal sharing of PDFs (witness all of the requests on WikiPaleo and VrtPaleo) we’d probably only sell a couple before they basically were distributed for free.

    Also, Mickey distorts our modus operandi somewhat, though hopefully my longer post covers most of the points. It is actually possible to buy the monographs at much lower prices than the full cover price – by becoming a member and either getting them as part of the deal or using the very large discount (50%) they enjoy when buying backstock.

  10. Jeroen Bosman Says:

    Mike, Paul,

    although I am not in palaeontology itself (I am a geoscience librarian) please allow me to react. I can follow the line of reasoning I think in the long term this is untenable and probably harmful. All scholarly publication is moving to an online model and eventually to Open Access for journals as well as monographs.
    Either as you say society members are bibliophiles that stick to print no matter what, securing your income even when you provide PDFs, or they actually do wish to have PDFs and the society’s policy is hindering their work.
    I think all scholalry societies should reconsider their financial models in the light of disruptive technology. Music artists have moved from selling CDs to selling shows. I think there may be an analogy with scholarly societies. Of course there are all kind of hybrid models to experiment with (attract members with activities, use member income to keep OA publication charges acceptable and start experimenting). Am I wrong to expect that there are potentially large untapped reader markets for those OA monographs?
    The PDF size is a minor issue that can be solved by letting people choose between book length PDFs or chapter-by-chapter ones. Finally, our library for one has an e-first policy and would certainly consider subscribing to online monographs (as long as they are not OA).

  11. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Paul.

    I gotta say I’m baffled anyone in this age wouldn’t want a pdf. Sure I have hard copies of the classic monographs (Madsen, 1975; Brochu, 2003; Dal Sasso and Maganuco, 2011; etc.), but if I’m researching and want easy access I just File>Open in Adobe. So I suppose you’re right when you say the society members are bibliophiles, as opposed to researchers. Thus you have an entirely different consumer base and business model than e.g., SVP. It’s rather like you’re providing physical albums of music to vinyl enthusiasts in your society. They wouldn’t care about having mp3s of the albums, but most of the public, like most researchers, just wants the music/information.

    I didn’t mean to distort your business model, as I saw the member price of 50% off on each page and didn’t realize that’s just to order back copies, and that the $100 membership means you get each monograph for free when it comes out. Which again, is a business model that makes sense for bibliophiles as opposed to researchers. Since there are only a few monographs each year, most years are going to fall outside a researcher’s expertise, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to pay $100 a year for monographs likely to be about something they lack the knowledge of or interest in to appreciate.

    Given these facts, I wonder why you think pdf distribution would harm your profits. You just said your members want hard copies- they’re going to pay for the books even if pdfs could be downloaded. As for back copies, most monographs have round numbers of original copies left so don’t seem to sell any at all. How many of the few that sell are going to new members who wouldn’t want the pdf anyway? I think you have two potential and mutually exclusive user bases (bibliophiles who won’t use pdfs vs. researchers who can’t afford $200 books), of which only one is being used now.

    Finally, you state “Given the extensive illegal sharing of PDFs (witness all of the requests on WikiPaleo and VrtPaleo) we’d probably only sell a couple before they basically were distributed for free.” But this is in large part BECAUSE pdfs are priced outside of researchers’ range ($40 per, usually) and are necessary for their jobs. If they were the least bit affordable, at ten pages per pound or 15 cents per page, I bet a lot more people would pay for them instead of using less direct methods. So if you ever want to add researchers to your audience in addition to bibliophiles, I think affordable pdfs would be a good route.

  12. David Marjanović Says:

    I didn’t mean to distort your business model, as I saw the member price of 50% off on each page and didn’t realize that’s just to order back copies, and that the $100 membership means you get each monograph for free when it comes out. Which again, is a business model that makes sense for bibliophiles as opposed to researchers. Since there are only a few monographs each year, most years are going to fall outside a researcher’s expertise, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to pay $100 a year for monographs likely to be about something they lack the knowledge of or interest in to appreciate.

    For illustration, I am a member of the SVP, pay the full regular price, and receive the dead-tree version of the JVP six times a year now, plus the occasional “memoir” that is a monographic description or a series of connected ones. In each issue (and even most memoirs), there are several papers which are interesting enough to read while sitting in public transport, even though I’m only going to actually use a few papers per year in my research (I suppose less than one per issue on average), and even though I have full online access (both through the society and through my institution) to the JVP; a JVP issue is heavy, but still lighter than my laptop. The Palaeontographical Society, on the other hand, publishes in a much wider field, and (of course) it publishes way fewer works per year; joining it is, therefore, not in my interest.

    Given these facts, I wonder why you think pdf distribution would harm your profits. You just said your members want hard copies- they’re going to pay for the books even if pdfs could be downloaded. As for back copies, most monographs have round numbers of original copies left so don’t seem to sell any at all. How many of the few that sell are going to new members who wouldn’t want the pdf anyway? I think you have two potential and mutually exclusive user bases (bibliophiles who won’t use pdfs vs. researchers who can’t afford $200 books), of which only one is being used now.

    QFT.


  13. I recently had a conversation with Mr. Nägele (those of you who know their old German palaeo literature can place the name: Nägele und Obermiller, now Schweizerbart), and he told me that they still sell a significant number of old Palaeontographica volumes. Enough so that it would be commercially stupid to provide free English translations.
    :eek:

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    … although note that there are free English translations of some of the important Palaeontographica papers at The Polyglot Paleontologist.

  15. Matt Wedel Says:

    This seems like another sad case where a publisher used to provide a useful service to the entire community–making scientific information available that couldn’t be made available in any other way–but now that function has shifted. Making high-end hardcopy books for bibliophiles is a fine thing to do. I like nice books myself. But that function now stands in direct opposition to the needs of the vast majority of activity researchers. And we’re not talking about Audubon plates or the novels of Dickens here, which people can always get in cheaper form if they want. For scientific data, there is no substitute.

    And the answer is NOT “just subscribe and get the hardcopies for less money”. First because hardcopies are a giant pain in the ass. I can get on a plane and fly to a museum halfway around the world with my entire PDF library on my (small) laptop, and soon I’ll be able to carry the whole thing on a thumb drive. I keep hardcopies of my most-used monographs next to my desk, but I don’t load a second suitcase to bring them with me when I travel.

    But more importantly, not everyone can afford to subscribe and pay for hardcopies, especially students and workers at small institutions (or no institution) and in developing countries. This is a difficult point because it hits both the PDF-vs-hardcopy issue and the OA-vs-barrier-based-publishing issue. And unfortunately, the Palaeontographical Society is the wrong side of both–wrong as in “indefensible” and also as in “historically doomed”.

    I am also mystified why any author would want their work locked up in the libraries of a tiny number of bilbiophiles instead of out in the world, being read, studied, debated, and cited. If there are concerns for authors that override “maximize readership”, I am unaware of them. Someone enlighten me.

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    I am also mystified why any author would want their work locked up in the libraries of a tiny number of bibliophiles instead of out in the world, being read, studied, debated, and cited.

    That’s the part that mystifies me. I can see why what the Paleontographical society does is, by its own lights, reasonable. I can imagine that there could still be a market for what it does. But I can’t imagine ever consigning a paper that I’ve sweated over to such a fate.

    I bet any amount of money you like that less than 10% — maybe less than 1% — of all accesses to the Brusatte et al. (2008) Neovenator monograph have been by people reading hardcopy printed monographs. The other 90% (or 99%) have been to the crappy low-grade un-searchable scanned PDF that every active theropod worked has a copy of. Which means that all the work that Brusatte et al. did on preparing beautiful illustrations has been poured straight down the toilet. It’s pretty amazing to me that anyone would have made that choice in 2008; to make it in 2014 is just incomprehensible.

  17. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    Heinrich wrote- “… they still sell a significant number of old Palaeontographica volumes. Enough so that it would be commercially stupid to provide free English translations.”

    But those old volumes are overwealmingly not going to be translated, since doing so without the internet is an extremely tedious task. So he’d rather make money for people to enjoy the figures and maybe work out some basic data, than to help the scientific community engage in all of the data. Wonderful priorities.

    Mike Taylor wrote- “The other 90% (or 99%) have been to the crappy low-grade un-searchable scanned PDF that every active theropod worked has a copy of.”

    Now now…. the Neovenator monograph was made searchable (unlike its $219 paper version) by the kind soul who scanned it. The Eustreptospondylus monograph, not so much. Though note the Neovenator pdf does cut off the left hand side of page 10, so to this day I’m uncertain of the details of referred specimens. Irritating, but two orders of magnitude less irritating than $219.


  18. […] there isn’t one, and this has been discussed and debated in some detail over at SV-POW (here). I say ‘there isn’t one’, but what I really mean is that distribution of the PDF […]


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