I just saw this tweet from palaeohistologist Sarah Werning, and it summed up what science is all about so well that I wanted to give it wider and more permanent coverage:

This is exactly right. Kudos to Sarah for saying it so beautifully.

(Sarah’s work can most recently be seen in Nesbitt et al.’s (2012) paper on a newly recognised ancient dinosaur or near dinosaur relative, and especially in the high-resolution supplementary images that she deposited at MorphoBank.)


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In a third “open letter to the mathematics community”, Elsevier have announced that, for “the primary mathematics journals”, they now offer free access to all articles over four years old. The details page shows that 53 journals are involved.

I like to give credit where it’s due, and this is a significant move. It’s much more important than the initiatives we hear of from time to time when access to various journals is offered for a limited window: it means there is a substantial body of work that will now be freely and permanently available.

In a comment on John Baez’s Google+ post, Joerg Fliege comments:

One should also mention that opening up access to a handful of older issues of math journals will not affect the bottom line of Elsevier’s revenue much. They are giving something away that, in the greater scheme of things, has essentially a business value near 0.

How kind of them.

But I think this is unnecessarily cynical and negative. A move like this should be judged not on what it costs Elsevier to do, but on the benefit that it gives the research community. If they can find things to do that cost them little or nothing but provide a real benefit, then that’s all to the good — as I argued in the How Elsevier Can Save Itself posts [part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3]. They should not be criticised for that!

That said, Baez does raise a crucial question in that Google+ post:

Why just math journals? Because we’re the ones who are making the most noise! Folks from many other sciences have joined the boycott – but you need some leaders in your field to get aggressive if you want to get Elsevier to do you a favor like this.

An important challenge for Elsevier right now is to prove that they are really making an effort to contribute to the progress of research across the board, rather then just trying to buy off the mathematical community which has caused them the most irritation up to this point.

Can they meet that challenge?

As you’ll know from all the recent AMNH basement (and YPM gallery) photos, Matt and I spent last week in New York (with a day-trip to New Haven). The week immediately before that, I spent in Boston with Index Data, my day-job employers. Both weeks were fantastic — lots of fun and very productive. But they did mean that between the scheduled activities and getting a big manuscript finally submitted, I’ve been very much out of touch, and I’m only now catching up with what’s happened in The Rest Of The World while I’ve been sequestered in various basements photographing sauropod vertebrae.

Matt measuring the width across the preacetabular lobes of the fused ilia on the sacrum of the referred “Morosaurus” sp. specimen, AMNH 690, illustrated by Osborn (1094: fig 2A-E). Behold the wonder that is the Big Bone Room.

The two big events in the Open Access world while I was away were the launch of PeerJ and the release of the Finch Report. I’ll write about PeerJ in future, but today I want to say a few words on the Finch Report. I’ve deliberately not read anyone else’s coverage of the report yet, in the hope of forming an uninfluenced perspective. I’ll be very interested, once I’ve finished writing this, to see what people like Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry and Peter Murray-Rust have said about it.

What is the Finch Report, you may ask? The introduction explains:

The report recommends actions which can be taken in the UK which would help to promote much greater and faster access, while recognising that research and publications are international. It envisages that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, but recommends a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for open access publishing.

So the first point to make is that it’s very good news about the overall direction. In fact, it would be easy to overlook this. The swing that’s happened over the last six months has been slow enough to miss, but the cumulative effect of myriad small shifts has been enormous: where there used to be a lot of skepticsm about open access, pretty much everyone is now accepting that it’s inevitable. (See this compilation of quotes from US congressmen, UK government ministers, publishers, editors and professors.) The questions now are about what form ubiquitous open access will take, not whether it’s coming. It is.

But there’s an oddity in that introduction which is a harbinger of something that’s going to be a recurring theme in the report:

[Open access publishing] means that publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.

People who have been following closely will recognise this as the definition of Gold Open Access — the scheme where the author (or her institution) pays a one-time publication fee in exchange for the publisher making the result open to the world. The other road, known as Green OA, is where an author publishes in a subscription journal but deposits a copy of the paper in a repository, where it becomes freely available after an embargo period, typically six to twelve months. That Green OA is not mentioned at this point is arguably fair enough; but that OA is tacitly equated with Gold only feels much more significant. It’s as though Green is being written out of history.

More on this point later.

Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum Flower 3008 by Derek Ramsey, from Wikimedia Commons.

The actual report is 140 pages long, and I don’t expect it to be widely read. But The executive summary is published as a separate document, and at 11 pages is much more digestible. And its heart is in the right place, as this key quote from p4 tells us:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.

Amen. Of course, that is the bedrock. But more practically, on page 3, we read:

Our aim has been to identify key goals and guiding principles in a period of transition towards wider access. We have sought ways both to accelerate that transition and also to sustain what is valuable in a complex ecology with many different agents and stakeholders.

I do want to acknowledge that this is a hard task indeed. It’s easy to pontificate on how things ought to be (I do it all the time on this blog); but it’s much harder to figure out how to get there from here. I’m impressed that the Finch group set out to answer this much harder question.

But I am not quite so impressed at their success in doing so. And here’s why. In the foreword (on page 2) we read this:

This report … is the product of a year’s work by a committed and knowledgeable group of individuals drawn from academia, research funders and publishing. … Members of the group represented different constituencies who have legitimately different interests and different priorities, in relation to the publication of research and its subsequent use.

My most fundamental issue with the report, and with the group that released it, is this. I don’t understand why barrier-based publishers were included in the process. The report contains much language about co-operation and shared goals, but the truth as we all know is that publishers’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, and indeed of everyone else. Who does the Finch Group represent? I assumed the UK Government, and therefore the citizens of the UK — but if it’s trying to represent all the groups involved in academic activity, there’s a conflict of interests that by its nature must prevent everyone else from clearly stating what they want from publishers.

This isn’t an idle speculation:  the report itself contains various places where is suddenly says something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit, or is in conflict with the general message. It’s hard not to imagine these as having been forced into the report by the publishers at the table (according to the membership list, Bob Campbell, senior publisher at Wiley Blackwell; Steve Hall, managing director of IoP Publishing; and Wim van del Stelt, executive VP of corporate strategy at Springer). And I just don’t understand why the publishers were given a seat at the table.

And so we find statements like this, from p5:

The pace of the transition to open access has not been as rapid as many had hoped, for a number of reasons. First, there are tensions between the interests of key stakeholders in the research communications system. Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.

This is very tactfully put, if I might say so. Distilled to its essence, the is saying that while the UK government, universities, libraries, hospitals and citizens want open access, publishers want to keep the walls that give them their big profits. The bit about “high-quality services” is just a fig-leaf, and a rather transparent one at that. Reading on, still in p5:

There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers.

Those all sounds like risks to the same group: publishers. And again, there is no reason I can see why these need be our problem. We know that publishing will survive in a form that’s useful to academia — the success of BioMed Central and PLoS, and the birth of ventures like eLife and PeerJ show us that — so why would it be the any part of our responsibility to make sure that the old, slow, expensive, barrier-based publishers continue to thrive?

Reading on:

Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes.

I don’t understand this at all. What support? Something that publishers provide? I just don’t get what point is being made here, and can only assume that this “intricate ecology” section is one of the passages that the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly unconvincing.

And so we come to the actual recommendations of the report. There are ten of these altogether, on pages 6-7, and they begin as follows:

We therefore recommend that:

i. a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;

So there it is: The Finch Report says that Gold Open Access is the way forward.

And despite my carping about publishers’ involvement in the process, and their dilution of the output, I’m pretty happy with that recommendation. Of course, there are a hundred questions about who will pay for OA (though they will be considerably less pressing in a world where $99 buy you all the publishing you can eat at PeerJ). Lots of details to be ironed out. But the bottom line is that paying at publication time is a sensible approach. It gives us what we want (freedom to use research), and provides publishers with a realistic revenue stream that, unlike subscriptions, is subject to market forces. (I will enlarge on this point in a subsequent post.)

To briefly summarise the ten recommendations:

i. Overall policy should be to move to Gold OA.
ii. Funders should provide money for Gold OA charges.
iii. Re-use rights, especially non-commercial, should be provided.
iv. Funding of subscriptions should continue during transition.
v. Walk-in access should be “pursued with vigour”
vi. We must work together to negotiate and fund licences.
vii. Subscription price negotiations should take into account the forthcoming transition to OA.
viii. Experimentation is needed on OA monographs.
ix. Repositories should be developed in “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.
x. Funders should be careful about mandating short embargo limits.

Mostly good stuff. I’m not happy about the emphasis on non-commercial forms of re-use in (iii), and of course walk-in access (v) is spectacularly dumb. (vi) seems a bit vacuous, but harmless I suppose — I’m not sure what point it’s trying to make.  (ix) is quietly sinister in its drive-by relegation of repositories to a subsidiary role, and of course (x) is pure publisher-food. Still, even with these caveats, the overall thrust is good.

Well, this has already gone on much longer than I intended, so I will leave further analysis for next time. For now, I am inclined to award the Finch Report a solid B+. I’ll be interested to see how that assessment stands up when I’ve read some other people’s analysis.

I was searching for some information — what proportion of Elsevier’s revenue is from journal subscriptions.  So far, I’ve been unsuccessful with that (can anyone help?), but along the way I stumbled across Elsevier’s Annual Reports and Financial Statements for 2011.

And it makes happy reading.  In these times when people are constantly moaning and whining and complaining about shrinking library budgets, it’s good to see that if you just pull your socks up and work hard, you can still do well for yourself!  Check it out:

As you can see, whereas in 2010 Elsevier were only able to generate an operating profit of £724M/£2026M = 35.7%, by sheer hard work and gumption they were able in 2011 to bring this up to £768M/£2058M = 37.3%.  This continues a fine trend of five successive years of increasing profits — not just increasing in absolute amount (although that’s true, too), but increasing as a proportion of all revenue.

So hats off to Elsevier, and to the valiant shareholders whose self-sacrifice allows us all to obtain more than adequate typesetting for our papers!  Pay no attention to the moaning Minnies — this is an all-American success story!

I’m very aware that I’ve been whining incessantly on this blog recently: RWA this, Elsevier that, moan whine complain.  So I’m delighted to be able to bring some good news.  Mike Keesey’s site PhyloPic.org is back up, in new and improved form, and providing free silhouettes of organisms extincts and extant.  To quote the site’s FAQ:

PhyloPic‘s database stores reusable silhouette images of organisms. Each image is associated with one or more taxonomic names and indicates roughly what the ancestral member(s) of each taxon looked like.

PhyloPic also stores a phylogenetic taxonomy of all organisms. This means that you can perform phylogenetic searches. For example, if you need an image for a certain taxon, but there is no exact match in the database, you can easily search that taxon’s supertaxa, subtaxa, and related taxa for an image that may work as well.

For example, there is a page about Giraffatitan brancai, which includes a link to a silhouette by Scott Hartman; and a page about Brachiosaurus altithorax, which has two silhouettes — one by Scott and one by me.

More interestingly, for each taxon, you can ask for an illustrated lineage.  For example, the illustrated lineage of Giraffatitan brancai starts with that animal, then works its way up via images for Brachiosauridae, Titanosauriformes, Camarasauromorpha, and continues up through a total of 36 images, finishing up with Holozoa, Cytota and Panbiota.

Better still, because all the images are available to re-use (subject to some restrictions which I’ll discuss below), you’re free to use them to make collages like this one, which Mike Keesey did for our friend Giraffatitan brancai:

One of the great things about this site is that it’s a community effort: Mike built the site and has prepared a good chunk of the artwork so far, but PhyloPic is open to submissions from anyone who cares to register (or to login via Google, Twitter, etc.)

Mike has allowed some latitude in the licences that can be used when images are added.  You can currently choose from any of:

  • Public Domain Mark 1.0 [for declaring that an image is already PD]
  • Public Domain Dedication 1.0 [for putting an image into the PD]
  • Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
  • Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported
  • Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported
  • Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

That choice is nice for contributing artists, but makes life a bit more awkward for users because any composite artwork has to be licenced under the most restrictive combination of the licences of its parts.  In the case of the collage above, because Scott’s Giraffatitan brancai was uploaded as CC-BY-NC-SA, that’s how the whole image ends up, too.  This means that if, say, you want to make T-shirts on Cafe Press with this image on them, you’ll have a bit of nightmare figuring out exactly who you need to get permission from.

Mike has to walk a fine line with this.  The images would be most useful to the world if they were all public domain and could be remixed, reused and reproduced with no restrictions whatsoever; but you can’t blame artists for wanting to put some limits on this.  Yet even when the most permissive non-public domain licence is used (CC-BY), the light requirement that the image must be credited ends up as a heavy requirement when, as with the collage above, you use thirty images that all need to be acknowledged.

Anyway, these are wrinkles.  The point is: free, re-usable art!  Go and use it; and add to it!

Although I’m on record of being no fan of the tabloids, there’s no doubt that they are hugely influential.  So it has to be good news to find that in the last few hours, both Nature and Science have publicly come out against the Research Works Act.

The Nature Publishing Group (with publishes Nature), writing jointly with Digital Science, published this statement:

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and Digital Science note the concern amongst the scientific and library communities about the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699), currently under consideration by the U.S. federal government, and wish to clarify our position.

NPG and Digital Science do not support the Research Works Act.

And within the last couple of hours, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science), has followed suit with its own statement:

The nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, today reaffirmed its support for the current public access policy of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Contrary to recent news reports, AAAS does not endorse the Research Works Act, which would prevent the NIH from requiring its grantees to make biomedical research findings freely available via the National Library of Medicine’s Web site.

This is excellent and very welcome news.  I have written to the NPG and AAAS to express my thanks for their statements.

I hope and expect to see other publishers following their example: this page on the Harvard cyber-law site is maintaining a list of AAP-member publishers who have done so.

Line drawing and photograph of the axis and third cervical vertebra of Chuanjiesaurus anaensis (LCD9701-I). Bar = 10 cm. From Sekiya 2011:fig. 6. Note the absurdly elongated postzygapophysis.

And remember — it’s not too late for you to make a difference to the RWA’s success or failure.  See the Alliance for Taxpayer Action’s page, Call to action: Oppose H.R. 3699, a bill to block public access to publicly funded research.

With our baby’s appearance in National Geographic this week, she’s now been in four mainstream magazines:

That’s National Geographic at top left, Macleans  next to it; The Scientist at bottom left, and National Geographic Kids next to that.  (The articles in the first three of these are available online here, here and here, but I can’t find anything on the NG Kids web-site.)

There is a point to this post, beyond gloating celebrating Brontomerus: it’s that diligent preparation improves a study’s chance of getting good coverage.  A few people have asked us to write a bit about what we did, so at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, here it is.

Most of Brontomerus‘s visibility is due to the hard work of the UCL Publicity team, and especially the excellent and widely-reproduced video that they made in the Grant Museum.  But we made it easy for UCL to take an interest by preparing a bunch of materials ahead of time, before they even knew that there was a paper coming out.  We called it the Brontomerus press pack, and made sure it contained everything anyone could need for writing and illustrating stories about our animal:

In short, we tried to give journalists, and radio and TV researchers, everything they needed to put together a story aimed at their own audience.  More than that — we tried to make it easy for them.  They have plenty going on, after all: Brontomerus came out on the day that the Libyan protests really took off, so it’s not as though news editors were short of material to fill their slots.  I suspect that if we’d not got all the ducks in such a neat row, Brontomerus would have disappeared from the news schedule in double-quick time.

Another important thing you can do to make news editors’ jobs easier: make sure that the images you provide are in high resolution, so they don’t pixellate when they’re blown up to fill a screen; and be explicit about image/video credit, copyright and permissions.  Let them know what they can use and under what conditions.  If you make them hunt for that information, or even chase you for it, they’ll probably lose interest and do a different piece instead.  And we really wanted the artist who’d done the Brontomerus work to be credited: Paco Gasco did a fantastic job, and deserved to be known for it.

Equally important, by getting as much material as possible ready before even contacting the university publicity people, we made their job easier.  Once they were on board, we were able to extend the page with extras like an official press release and the video, but the framework was all in place ahead of time.

In short, there is a whole load that you can do to prepare a study for media coverage.  Not much of it is rocket-science.  It’s basically just about getting the work done.  And it is work, plenty of it.

Still.  It’s worth it.

And another thing …

You should all get across to Heinrich Mallison’s new blog and check it out.  Lots of excellent palaeo-photography, even if today’s post is about a stinkin’ mammal.

Addendum (from Matt)

First, some credit where it’s due. We didn’t figure all of this out on our own. For Brontomerus in particular, we took a lot of cues from  the fact sheet that Irmis et al. put together for their 2007 “rise of dinosaurs” paper that made the cover of Science.

Second, we did figure some of it out on our own, but not all at once. If you look at Mike’s unofficial online press packs for Xenoposeidon (2007), our neck posture paper (2009), and Brontomerus (2011), you’ll see that each one is better than the one before.

Finally, you may be saying to yourself, “Okay, I understand that I’m supposed to make things easy for journalists and have a bunch of stuff queued up for them. But where do I put it?”

Well, online, obviously. If you don’t already have a blog, WordPress and Blogger and probably a zillion other services give them out for free, and you can make an ad hoc, one-shot blog for every press-release-worthy paper, as Mark Witton and Darren did for their azhdarchid paleobiology paper in PLoS ONE.

But let me wax preachy for a minute. If you’re a young researcher and you’re trying to make an impact, why aren’t you blogging? It’s not an intolerable commitment. Sure, regular posting brings more readers, but irregular posting brings more readers than not having a blog at all.

We started SV-POW! as a joke, and continued it during the actually-posting-weekly-about-sauropod-vertebrae phase (which lasted for 2.5 years) because it was fun and challenging, and maintain it now because it’s fun, we enjoy the wacky discussions that get going from time to time in the comments, and, frankly, we’re addicted to having a soapbox where we can say pretty much whatever we want. We didn’t explicitly plan it as a way to funnel readers to our scientific work, but that has been one of its great exaptive benefits. I’d be shocked if the same isn’t true for other researchers who blog.

So, moral of the story: if you’re a researcher and you’re not blogging, you’re missing out. Your work is reaching fewer people than it might. Come out and play. Join the conversation. Interact. Your future self will thank you.