[I am using the term “megajournal” here to mean “journal that practices PLOS ONE-style peer-review for correctness only, ignoring guesses at possible impact”. It’s not a great term for this class of journals, but it seems to be becoming established as the default.]

Bo-Christer Björk​’s (2015) new paper in PeerJ asks the question “Have the “mega-journals” reached the limits to growth?”, and suggests that the answer may be yes. (Although, frustratingly, you can’t tell from the abstract that this is the conclusion.)

I was a bit disappointed that the paper didn’t include a graph showing its conclusion, and asked about this (thanks to PeerJ’s lightweight commenting system). Björk’s response acknowledged that a graph would have been helpful, and invited me to go ahead and make one, since the underlying data is freely available. So using OpenOffice’s cumbersome but adequate graphing facilities, I plotted the numbers from Björk’s table 3.


As we can see, the result for total megajournal publications upholds the conclusion that megajournals have peaked and started to decline. But PLOS ONE (the dark blue line) enormously dominates all the other megajournals, with Nature’s Scientific Reports the only other publication to even be meaningfully visible on the graph. Since Scientific Reports seems to be still in the exponential phase of its growth and everything else is too low-volume to register, what we’re really seeing here is just a decline in PLOS ONE volume.

It’s interesting to think about what the fall-off in PLOS ONE volume means, but it’s certainly not the same thing as megajournals having topped out.

What do we see when we expand the lower part of the graph by taking out PLOS ONE and Scientific Reports?


Here, the picture is more confused. The numbers are dominated by BMJ Open, which is still growing, but its growth has levelled off. Springer Plus grew quickly, but seems to be falling away — perhaps reflecting an initial push, followed by author apathy for a megajournal run by a legacy publisher. AIP Advances (which I admit I’d not heard of) and SAGE Open both seem to have modest but healthy year-on-year growth. And of course PeerJ is growing fast, but it’s too young for us to have a meaningful sense of the trend.

What does it all mean?

The STM Report for 2015 (Ware and Mabe 2015) estimates that 2.5 million scholarly articles were published in English-language journals in 2014 (page 6). Björk’s data tells us that only 38 thousand of those were in megajournals — that’s less than 1/65th of all the articles. I find it very hard to believe that 1.5% of the total scholarly article market represents saturation for megajournals.

I suspect that what this study really shows us — and I’m sure the PLOS people would be the first to agree with this — is that we need a lot more megajournals out there than just PLOS ONE. Specifically:

  • It’s well established that pure-OA journals offer better value for their APCs than hybrid ones.
  • It’s at least strongly suspected (has there been a study?) that OA megajournals offer better value than selective OA journals.
  • We want to get the APCs of OA megajournals down.
  • PLOS ONE needs competition on price, to force down its increasingly unjustifiable APC of $1350.
  • It’s a real shame that the eLIFE people have fallen into the impact-chasing trap and show no interest in running an eLIFE megajournals.
  • I think the usually reliable Zen Faulks is dead wrong when he writes off what he calls “Zune journals“.

So the establishment of new megajournals is very much a good thing, and their growth is to be encouraged. Many of the newer megajournals may well find (and I hate to admit this) that their submission rates increase when they’re handed their first impact factor, as happened with PLOS ONE.



Provoked by Mike Eisen’s post today, The inevitable failure of parasitic green open access, I want to briefly lay out the possible futures of scholarly publishing as I see them. There are two: one based on what we now think of as Gold OA, and one on what we think of as Green OA.

Eisen is of course quite right that the legacy publishers only ever gave their blessing to Green OA (self-archiving) so long as they didn’t see it as a threat, so the end of that blessing isn’t a surprise. (I think it’s this observation that Richard Poynder misread as “an OA advocate legitimising Elsevier’s action”!) It was inevitable that this blessing would be withdrawn as Green started to become more mainstream — and that’s exactly what we’ve seen, with Elsevier responding to the global growth in Green OA mandates with a regressive new policy that has rightly attracted the ire of everyone who’s looked closely at it.

So I agree with him that what he terms “parasitic Green OA” — self-archiving alongside the established journal system — is ultimately doomed. The bottom line is that while we as a community continue to give control of our work to the legacy publishers — follow closely here — legacy publishers will control our work. We know that these corporations’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, science, customers, libraries, and indeed everyone but themselves. So leaving them in control of the scholarly record is unacceptable.

What are our possible futures?

Gold bars

We may find that in ten years’ time, all subscriptions journals are gone (perhaps except from a handful of boutique journals that a few people like, just as a few people prefer the sound of vinyl over CDs or MP3s).

We may find that essentially all new scholarship is published in open-access journals such as those of BioMed Central, PLOS, Frontiers and PeerJ. That is a financially sustainable path, in that publishers will be paid for the services they provide through APCs. (No doubt, volunteer-run and subsidised zero-APC journals will continue to thrive alongside them, as they do today.)

We may even find that some of the Gold OA journals of the future are run by organisations that are presently barrier-based publishers. I don’t think it’s impossible that some rump of Elsevier, Springer et al. will survive the coming subscription-journals crash, and go on to compete on the level playing-field of Gold OA publishing. (I think they will struggle to compete, and certainly won’t be able to make anything like the kind of money they do now, but that’s OK.)

This is the Gold-OA future that Mike Eisen is pinning his hopes on — and which he has done as much as anyone alive to bring into existence. I would be very happy with that outcome.


While I agree with Eisen that what he terms “parasitic Green” can’t last — legacy publishers will stamp down on it as soon as it starts to be truly useful — I do think there is a possible Green-based future. It just doesn’t involve traditional journals.

One of the striking things about the Royal Society’s recent Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication meetings was that during the day-two breakout session, so many of the groups independently came up with more or less the same proposal. The system that Dorothy Bishop expounded in the Guardian after the second meeting is also pretty similar — and since she wasn’t at the first meeting, I have to conclude that she also came up with it independently, further corroborating the sense that it’s an approach whose time has come.

(In fact, I started drafting an SV-POW! myself at that meeting describing the system that our break-out group came up with. But that was before all the other groups revealed their proposals, and it became apparent that ours was part of a blizzard, rather than a unique snowflake.)

Here are the features characterising the various systems that people came up with. (Not all of these features were in all versions of the system, but they all cropped up more than once.)

  • It’s based around a preprint archive: as with arXiv, authors can publish manuscripts there after only basic editorial checks: is this a legitimate attempt at scholarship, rather than spam or a political opinion?
  • Authors solicit reviews, as we did for for Barosaurus preprint, and interested others can offer unsolicited reviews.
  • Reviewers assign numeric scores to manuscripts as well as giving opinions in prose.
  • The weight given to review scores is affected by the reputation of reviewers.
  • The reputation of reviewers is affected by other users’ judgements about their comments, and also by their reputation as authors.
  • A stable user reputation emerges using a pagerank-like feedback algorithm.
  • Users can acquire reputation by authoring, reviewing or both.
  • Manuscripts have a reputation based on their score.
  • There is no single moment of certification, when a manuscript is awarded a “this is now peer-reviewed” bit.

I think it’s very possible that, instead of the all-Gold future outlined above, we’ll land up with something like this. Not every detail will work out the way I suggested here, of course, but we may well get something along these lines, where the emphasis is on very rapid initial publication and continuously acquired reputation, and not on a mythical and misleading “this paper is peer-reviewed” stamp.

(There are a hundred questions to be asked and answered about such systems: do we want one big system, or a network of many? If the latter, how will they share reputation data? How will the page-rank-like reputation algorithm work? Will it need to be different in different fields of scholarship? I don’t want to get sidetracked by such issues at this point, but I do want to acknowledge that they exist.)

Is this “Green open access”? It’s not what we usually mean by the term; but in as much as it’s about scholars depositing their own work in archives, yes, it’s Green OA in a broader sense.

(I think some confusion arises because we’ve got into the habit of calling deposited manuscripts “preprints”. That’s a misnomer on two counts: they’re not printed, and they needn’t be pre-anything. Manuscripts in arXiv may go onto be published in journals, but that’s not necessary for them to be useful in advancing scholarship.)


So where now? We have two possible open-access futures, one based on open-access publishing and one based on open-access self-archiving. For myself, I would be perfectly happy with either of these futures — I’m not particularly clear in my own mind which is best, but they’re both enormously better than what we have today.

A case can be made that the Green-based future is maybe a better place to arrive, but that the Gold-based future makes for an easier transition. It doesn’t require researchers to do anything fundamentally different from what they do today, only to do it in open-access journals; whereas the workflow in the Green-based approach outlined above would be a more radical departure. (Ironically, this is the opposite of what has often been said in the past: that the advantage of Green is that it offers a more painless upgrade path for researchers not sold on the importance of OA. That’s only true so long as Green is, in Eisen’s terms, “parasitic” — that is, so long as the repositories contain only second-class versions of papers that have been published conventionally behind paywalls.)

In my own open-access advocacy, then, I’m always unsure whether to push Gold or Green. In my Richard Poynder interview, when asked “What should be the respective roles of Green and Gold OA?” I replied:

This actually isn’t an issue that I get very excited about: Open is so much more important than Green or Gold. I suppose I slightly prefer Gold in that it’s better to have one single definitive version of each article; but then we could do that with Green as well if only we’d stop thinking of it as a stopgap solution while the “real” article remains behind paywalls.

Two and a half years on, I pretty much stand by that (and also by the caveats regarding the RCUK policy’s handing of Gold and Green that followed this quote in the interview.)

But I’m increasingly persuaded that the variety of Green OA that we only get by the grace and favour of the legacy publishers is not a viable long-term strategy. Elsevier’s new regressive policy was always going to come along eventually, and it won’t be the last shot fired in this war. If Green is going to win the world, it will be by pulling away from conventional journals and establishing itself as a valid mode of publication in its own right. (Again, much as arXiv has done.)


Here’s my concern, though. Paul Royser’s response to Eisen’s post was “Distressing to see the tone and rancor of OA advocates in disagreement. My IR is a “parasite”? Really?” Now, I think that comment was based on a misunderstanding of Eisen’s post (and maybe only on reading the title) but the very fact that such a misunderstanding was possible should give us pause.

Richard Poynder’s reading later in the same thread was also cautionary: “Elsevier will hope that the push back will get side-tracked by in-fighting … I think it will take comfort if the OA movement starts in-fighting instead of pushing back.”

Folks, let’s not fall for that.

We all know that Stevan Harned, among many others, is committed to Green; and that Mike Eisen, among many others, has huge investment in Gold. We can, and should, have rigorous discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. We should expect that OA advocates who share the same goal but have different backgrounds will differ over tactics, and sometimes differ robustly.

But there’s a world of difference between differing robustly and differing rancorously. Let’s all (me included) be sure we stay on the right side of that line. Let’s keep it clear in our minds who the enemy is: not people who want to use a different strategy to free scholarship, but those who want to keep it locked up.

And here ends my uncharacteristic attempt to position myself as The Nice, Reasonable One in this discussion — a role much better suited to Peter Suber or Stephen Curry, but it looks like I got mine written first :-)

A couple of months ago, Darren (the silent partner in the SV-POW! organisation) tweeted this photo …


… describing it as “Skull of the Morrison Formation Brachiosaurus at Denver Museum of Nature & Science”.


As Darren knows well (but didn’t have have space to explain in the tweet), it’s not quite as simple as that. What follows is adapted from Taylor 2009:789.

In 1883, a large sauropod skull (81 cm in length) was found in Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. It was shipped to O. C. Marsh in Yale that year and an illustration of the skull was used in his second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus (Marsh, 1891: plate 16).

Marsh's second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus, based primary on the holotype YPM 1980, using a skull based on the Felch Quarry specimen. From Marsh (1891:plate XVI)

Marsh’s second attempt at reconstructing the skeleton of Brontosaurus, based primary on the holotype YPM 1980, using a skull based on the Felch Quarry specimen. From Marsh (1891:plate XVI)

And here’s that skull in close-up:


This is often described as a “Camarasaurus-type” skull, but it’s not, really. It’s too long and low, and not stupid and ugly enough, to be Camarasaurus.

As we described in a previous post, this skull was also apparently the inspiration for the horrible, horrible sculpted skull that was originally used on the mounted Brontosaurus. (And let me reiterate my praise of the Yale museum for displaying this important historic object in their gallery instead of hiding it away.)

Anyway, the Felch Quarry skull was subsequently transferred to the National Museum of Natural History, where it was accessioned as USNM 5730. McIntosh and Berman (1975:195-198) recognized that whatever the skull was, it wasn’t Brontosaurus, but chickened out a bit by describing it as being “of the general Camarasaurus type” (p. 196). But McIntosh subsequently identified the skull tentatively as Brachiosaurus (Carpenter and Tidwell, 1998:70) and it was later described by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998), who considered it intermediate between the skulls of Camarasaurus and Giraffatitan, and referred it to Brachiosaurus sp.

The skull may be that of Brachiosaurus altithorax, but this is currently impossible to test due to the lack of comparable parts. Near this skull was a 99 cm cervical vertebra, probably of Brachiosaurus, but this was destroyed during attempts to collect it (McIntosh and Berman, 1975:196). Shame there are no photos.


  • Carpenter, Kenneth, and Virginia Tidwell. 1998. Preliminary description of a Brachiosaurus skull from Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:69-84.
  • Marsh, Othniel Charles. 1891. Restoration of Triceratops. American Journal of Science, Series 3, 41:339-342.
  • McIntosh, John S., and David S. Berman. 1975. Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (Reptilia: Saurischia) with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus. Journal of Paleontology 49:187-199.
  • Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.

Somehow this seems to have slipped under the radar: National Science Foundation announces plan for comprehensive public access to research results. They put it up on 18 March, two whole months ago, so our apologies for not having said anything until now!

This is the NSF’s rather belated response to the OSTP memo on Open Access, back in January 2013. This memo required all Federal agencies that spend $100 million in research and development each year to develop OA policies, broadly in line with the existing one of the NIH which gave us PubMed Central. Various agencies have been turning up with policies, but for those of us in palaeo, the NSF’s the big one — I imagine it funds more palaeo research than all the others put together.

So far, so awesome. But what exactly is the new policy? The press release says papers must “be deposited in a public access compliant repository and be available for download, reading and analysis within one year of publication”, but says nothing about what repository should be used. It’s lamentable that a full year’s embargo has been allowed, but at least the publishers’ CHORUS land-grab hasn’t been allowed to hobble the whole thing.

There’s a bit more detail here, but again it’s oddly coy about where the open-access works will be placed: it just says they must be “deposited in a public access compliant repository designated by NSF”. The executive summary of the actual plan also refers only to “a designated repository”

Only in the full 31-page plan itself does the detail emerge. From page 5:

In the initial implementation, NSF has identified the Department of Energy’s PAGES (Public Access Gateway for Energy and Science) system as its designated repository and will require NSF-funded authors to upload a copy of their journal articles or juried conference paper to the DOE PAGES repository in the PDF/A format, an open, non-proprietary standard (ISO 19005-1:2005). Either the final accepted version or the version of record may be submitted. NSF’s award terms already require authors to make available copies of publications to the Cognizant Program Officers as part of the current reporting requirements. As described more fully in Sections 7.8 and 8.2, NSF will extend the current reporting system to enable automated compliance.

Future expansions, described in Section 7.3.1, may provide additional repository services. The capabilities offered by the PAGES system may also be augmented by services offered by third parties.

So what is good and bad about this?

Good. It makes sense to me that they’re re-using an existing system rather than wasting resources and increasing fragmentation by building one of their own.

Bad. It’s a real shame that they mandate the use of PDF, “the hamburger that we want to turn back into a cow”. It’s a terrible format for automated analysis, greatly inferior to the JATS XML format used by PubMed Central. I don’t understand this decision at all.

Then on page 9:

In the initial implementation, NSF has identified the DOE PAGES system to support managing journal articles and juried conference papers. In the future, NSF may add additional partners and repository services in a federated system.

I’m not sure where this points. In an ideal world, it would mean some kind of unifying structure between PAGES and PubMed Central and whatever other repositories the various agencies decide to use.

Anyone else have thoughts?

Update from Peter Suber, later that day

Over on Google+, Peter Suber comments on this post. With his permission, I reproduce his observations here:

My short take on the policy’s weaknesses:

  • will use Dept of Energy PAGES, which at least for DOE is a dark archive pointing to live versions at publisher web sites
  • plans to use CHORUS (p. 13) in addition to DOE PAGES
  • requires PDF
  • silent on open licensing
  • only mentions reuse for data (pp. v, 18), not articles, and only says it will explore reuse
  • silent on reuse for articles even tho it has a license (p. 10) authorizing reuse
  • silent on the timing of deposits

I agree with you that a 12 month embargo is too long. But that’s the White House recommended default. So I blame the White House for this, not NSF.

To be more precise, PAGES favors publisher-controlled OA in one way, and CHORUS does it in another way. Both decisions show the effect of publisher lobbying on the NSF, and its preference for OA editions hosted by publishers, not OA editions hosted by sites independent of publishers.

So all in all, the NSF policy is much less impressive than I’d initially thought and hoped.

Matt drew my attention to an old paper I’d not seen before: Riggs (1903) on the vertebral column of Brontosaurus. The page I linked there shows only the first page (which in fact is half a page, since Riggs’ work is only in the right column).

Why only the first page? As Matt put it, “It’s been 110 years, just give us the PDF already. And they wonder (do they wonder?) why people don’t rush to embrace their stumbling broken halting limping steps toward OA.”

That’s exactly right. AAAS allows anyone to read the old Science papers anyway (good for them, as far as it goes), so why all the poxing about with registration? Just make it actual open access, as if you were good guys.

So, two observations, as promised.

First, here’s Matt’s observation: even making users register betrays a way of thinking wrongly about the material. It says, “This is ours but you can see it if you’ll jump through our hoops. Because it is ours.” Whereas real OA outlets say, “Hey, this is yours now, do what you want.”

And here’s mine: I sometimes wonder whether we’re headed for a world where the meaningful scientific literature is going to be from 1660-1923 and from 2010 onwards, with a big gap from 1924 to 2009 that just gets ignored. Because it’s the literature not old enough to be out of copyright but not new enough to be OA.


The first hypothesis is that, contra Elk (1972), all Brontosauruses were rather fat at one end, then much fatter in the middle, then thin at the other end.

The second theory is that Diplodocus was dumb. Evidence is here presented in the form of an important new life restoration by Matthew Taylor.



  • Elk, Anne. 1972. Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses. Reprinted in: Chapman, G., Cleese, J., Gilliam, T., Idle, E., Jones, T. and Palin, M. (eds). Just the Words, Volume 2. Methuen, London, 118-120.

AMNH 460 skeleton model 2

In a recent post I showed some photos of the mounted apatosaurine at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, AMNH 460, which Tschopp et al. (2015) regarded as an indeterminate apatosaurine pending further study.

A lot of museums whose collections and exhibits go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries have scale model skeletons and sculptures that were used to guide exhibit design. I have always been fascinated by these models, partly because they’re windows into another era of scientific research and science communication, and partly because they’re just cool – basically the world’s best dinosaur toys – and I covet them. In my experience, it is very, very common to find these treasures of history buried in collections, stuck up on top of specimen cabinets, or otherwise relegated to some out-of-the-way corner where they won’t be in the way. I know that exhibit space is always limited, and these old models often reflect ideas about anatomy, posture, or behavior that we now know to be mistaken. But I am always secretly thrilled when I see these old models still on exhibit.

AMNH T rex skeleton model

The AMNH has a bunch of these things, because Henry Fairfield Osborn was crazy about ’em. He not only used 2D skeletal reconstructions and 3D model skeletons to guide exhibit design, he published on them – see for example his 1898 paper on models of extinct vertebrates, his 1913 paper on skeleton reconstructions of Tyrannosaurus, and his 1919 paper with Charles Mook on reconstructing Camarasaurus. That genre of scientific paper seems to have disappeared. I wonder if the time is right for a resurgence.

So in a glass case at the feet of AMNH 460 is a model – I’d guess about 1/12 or 1/15 scale – of that very skeleton. You can tell that it’s a model of that particular skeleton and not just some average apatosaur by looking carefully at the vertebrae. Apatosaurines weren’t all stamped from quite the same mold and the individual peculiarities of AMNH 460 are captured in the model. It’s an amazing piece of work.

AMNH 460 skeleton model

The only bad thing about it is that – like almost everything behind glass at the AMNH – it’s very difficult to photograph without getting a recursive hell of reflections. But at least it’s out where people can see and marvel at it.

Oh, and those are the cervical vertebrae of Barosaurus behind it – Mike and I spent more time trying to look and shoot past this model than we did looking at it. But that’s not the model’s fault, those Barosaurus cervicals are just ridiculously inaccessible.

So, memo to museums: at least some of us out here are nuts about your old dinosaur models, and where there’s room to put them on exhibit, they make us happy. They also give us views of the skeletons that we can’t get otherwise, so they serve a useful education and scientific purpose. More, please.


Osborn, H. F. (1898). Models of extinct vertebrates. Science, New Series, 7(192): 841-845.

Osborn, H.F. (1913). Tyrannosaurus, restoration and model of the skeleton. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 32: 91-92, plates 4-6.

Osborn, H. F., & Mook, C. C. (1919). Characters and restoration of the sauropod genus Camarasaurus Cope. From type material in the Cope Collection in the American Museum of Natural History. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 58(6): 386-396.