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.

Harvard University is probably the single richest school on the planet. Its endowment in 2011 was the biggest in the USA, at $31.728 billion — over 60% more than the next highest (Yale, at $19.374 billion).

It’s also in with a good shout as the best university in the world — the current Times Higher Education ranking has it equal second, behind only Cal Tech, level with Stanford, and ahead of Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge.

If any university should be able to pay all its journal subscriptions without problems, it’s Harvard.

So this memorandum, published last Tuesday, came as quite a shock:

To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. … Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. …

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. … Costs are now prohibitive.

Yes, you read it right.  The world’s richest university can’t afford journal subscriptions.  If anyone ever doubted that subscription prices had run wild, that the academic publishers who control access to the research we generate are out of control, this should dispel any remaining illusions that all is well with the current model.

Happily, the Harvard advisory council does not limit itself to whining, but has concrete suggestions for researchers (and also for the library).  The actions they recommend for researchers on their staff are:

  • Archive all their own papers as Green Open Access.
  • Submit to open-access journals; “move prestige to open access”.
  • Resign from editorial boards of non-OA journals if they won’t convert.
  • Ask professional societies to take control of publishing in their fields.
  • Recruit colleagues to join them in these measures.

The deal here is that Open Access is not a fringe issue any more.  It’s not just something that idealistic young researchers like to shout about.  It’s a major part of the strategy of one — several, actually — of the world’s top universities.  I’d argue that it’s been a moral imperative for a long time.  Now Open Access has become an economic imperative, too.  (Anyone who doubts that it’s much, much cheaper than the subscription model should check out the numbers in my recent article at The Scientist: it seems to come out at about one eighth of the cost.)

For more analysis of Harvard’s public statement, see Harvard: we have a problem at Stephen Curry’s Reciprocal Space, and “No, we can’t” at the Library Loon’s Gavia Libraria.  (The latter is particularly interesting because it offers a librarian’s perspective rather than the much more familiar researcher’s perspective.)

Original Research Article

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, Volume 6, Issue 8, January 2012, Pages 1-7.
Michael P. Taylor, Mathew J. Wedel, Darren Naish.   View Abstract

Most of you will know that the major US science-funding agencies require the work they fund (from the public purse) to be made available as open-access to the public that funded it.  And it’s hard for me to imagine anyone sees that requirement as anything other than straightforwardly just.

But you may not know about the Research Works Act, a truly vile piece of legislation being proposed by two Elsevier-funded shills in the US Congress, which would make it illegal for funding bodies to impose this perfectly natural requirement.  It may not be surprising that a corporation as predatory as Elsevier wants legal protection for its exploitative business model of stealing publicly funded research; but it shocked me to find that this preposterous Act ever got out of committee (unlike two earlier failed attempts to overturn open-access mandates).

The good news is that there is something we can do.  The Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) has issued a Request For Information — basically, it wants your opinion — on public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research.  You can read about this in (too much) detail here, but the bottom line is that you should email your comments to, before the extended deadline of 12th January.

Here is what I just sent:

From: Mike Taylor <>
Date: 9 January 2012 11:26
Subject: RFI: Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research

Dear Science and Technology Policy Office,

Thank you for extending the deadline for comments on Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research.  The Research Works Act has only very recently come to the notice of scientists, and it is because of this extraordinary proposal that it is now apparent to us that we need to reaffirm what we thought was settled: that OF COURSE scientific work funded by the public should be freely accessible to the public.  I do not understand how this can even be a matter for discussion.  The public pays: the public should benefit in every way possible.

The language in the RWA is highly misleading, attributing to publishers far more input into the scientific process than they really have.  The truth is that scientists (often funded by public money) provide the underlying research, the writing and the figure preparation that result in a manuscript submitted for publication.  Other scientists then provide the editorial services and (contra publishers’ claims, as can be easily verified) the peer review.  Publishers’ contributions are limited essentially to typesetting, the provision of web hosting, and sometimes a very limited amount of compensation for senior editors only (usually not the handling editors who actually deal with authors’ works).  The notion that such a minor contribution should suffice to hand publishers, rather than the public, the right to determine how, where and under what regime the resulting works are disseminated, is ludicrous.  It would be laughable if it were not so iniquitous.

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

Much more about the Research Works Act here, here, here, here, and all over the Internet.  Please, do your bit today: send your comments to the OSTP.  Don’t let Elsevier and their cartel steal publicly funded science.


Matt here. Emailing the OSTP takes all of 5 minutes and you should do it right away if you haven’t yet. They ARE listening; in my initial message I mentioned that the profits from a handful of the big commercial publishers could fund all scholarly publishing worldwide, and cited this post. Within 19 minutes I received a personal response from someone in the OSTP, saying, “Thank you Mathew. Would you be so kind as to submit your linked evidence in the body of an email to ease processing and ensure it is fully considered?”

So I did. If you’d like the same ammo, see the post linked above and especially updates and comments, and this post on the insane profit margins of the big commercial publishers (hat tip to Mike). You should also include Peter Murray-Rust’s argument that open access saves lives, outlined in this post and more briefly in this comment.

As long as I have your ear, I am curious at the absence of leverage being brought to bear on the politicians to sponsored the Research Works Act: Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

Issa is a corporate lackey and social policy atavism of the first order, and as long as the publishers keep the campaign funds flowing he’s unlikely to budge–unless his followers start asking why he is sponsoring legislation that would allow a mostly-foreign-based publishing industry to monopolize the results of US-funded research. Maybe someone should. Issa’s webpage is here; in a crowning irony, the big banner at the top currently says, “keep the web #OPEN”.

Carolyn Maloney is a Democrat from New York, she ought to know better. Like Issa, according to her Facebook page Maloney has maxed out on friends and isn’t accepting any more. Not surprisingly, things are dead silent there, and mostly just dead. Fortunately you can reach her at her official House of Representatives webpage. Maloney sponsored the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act; since she cares about health care, it would be worthwhile to point out that open access saves lives. One of the rotating photos on Maloney’s webpage shows her touring a small business incubator, so it would also be a good idea to emphasize the plight of the scholarly poor.

Two things: obviously comments from these politicians’ constituents will carry the most weight, so if you’re in their districts, please take the time to write to them. That said, if you’re a US citizen you are in the legislative footprint of these people, and you should let them know what you think. And if the RWA passes the repercussions would be global, so don’t stay quiet just because you’re outside the US.

Second, if you do write to either politician, please be respectful, on point, and brief. Sure, they may be craven corporate shill morons, but you won’t do our cause any favors by pointing that out in those terms. Don’t soft-pedal the immorality of the proposed legislation, but don’t be a name-calling abusive jerk, either. That’s what blogs are for ;-).

In a comment on an previous post, wycx articulated a position that sounds all too familiar:

Until the impact factors and prestige/credibility of open access journals are as high as their closed equivalents AND university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, I do not see much changing.

I have heard a lot of people say things like this in the last couple of months.  It makes pretty depressing reading.

"Non-open scholarly publishing? Don't talk to me about non-open scholarly publishing. Oh God, it's so depressing."

But how true is it?  And can we do anything to change it?

Well, first up that big AND in wycx’s comment should be an OR.  When the prestige/credibility of open access journals is as high as their closed counterparts OR university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, the push to publish in non-open venues will go away.  Either open access journals will start winning the assessment game; or, better still, we can all stop stop playing that stupid game and just place our papers where they’ll be read by the relevant people.

But there’s a more fundamental issue here.  That kind of comment sees researchers as passive victims.  The story it tells (whether or not this was wycx’s intention) is that there’s nothing we can do to change the situation.

But that’s not true.  There are actually quite a few things we can do.

Preferentially submit to open-access journals

This is the big one, of course.  It’s been pointed out many times in the comments to these posts, rightly, that not everyone has the luxury of academic freedom that comes from being a professional programmer, and I do accept that career academics may have circumstances that make non-open venues very attractive — especially when they have something that might get into Science or Nature.

But just because someone is not in a position to implement a blanket ban on submitting to non-open venues, that’s no reason not to favour open-access venues — even to favour them very strongly.  I have the sense that openness is at least a factor for more and more people; I would love to see it become a more significant factor for more researchers.

I strongly suspect that nothing else we do is more important than favouring open-access venues for our own papers.  The attractiveness of certain non-open venues comes from the quality of the work that is published in them, and because of that attractiveness, people send more good work into those silos.  But once that circle begins to break, things will move quickly.  There’s that open-access journals can’t be as highly cited (and so as prestigious) as S&N — in fact, one of the big landmark days that I am looking forward to is when an open journal has the highest Impact Factor in science.

Do not review for non-open journals

I’ve written about this a lot, so I won’t rehash the arguments in detail.  In short: your unpaid volunteer work should be in the service of the whole world, not the dividends of commercial publishers’ shareholders.

Do not edit for non-open journals

This follows on not reviewing for non-open journals.  Again, I understand why some researchers need to do this: I have a friend who edits for an Elsevier journal, frankly because he or she needs the money.  But these can be, and should be, the exception.

And we’re starting to see this happening.  My friend is keen to stop working for Elsevier as soon as it’s financially possible.  Steve Wheeler recently resigned as co-editor of Interactive Learning Environments, a Taylor and Francis journal.  Peter Suber once compiled a list of entire editorial boards that have resigned en masse to start open-access journals.

As with reviewing, the point is of course not just to withdraw effort from non-open publishers; it’s to redirect that effort to open publishers, so that the whole world benefits from it.

Influence conferences to make proceedings open access

It was great that the the Geological Society hosted the excellent conference Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective (written up at Tetrapod Zoology [part 1], [part 2]).  But as we’ve noted before, the proceedings volume is non-open and absurdly expensive: $190 at£95 at  The result is obvious: no-one is going to buy it, and the papers will not get read.  (Exception: my own contribution is freely available, but only because I played a trick with the Geol Soc’s copyright assignment mechanism.)

I have another conference coming up soon that will generate a proceedings volume.  So this time, I have been in contact with the conference organisers ahead of time to express my preference for open-access proceedings.  Happily, they are in agreement that this is desirable and even important, so hopefully we should see a special issue of a well-regarded journal at some point in the next few years.  (Sorry to be vague, but the details are not yet settled.  We’ll let you know when it happens.)

Influence funding bodies to mandate open access

This is one for academics much more senior and influential than I am.  But we know that several of the big funding bodies, including the Wellcome Trust (UK) and the National Institutes of Health (USA), are mandating as a condition of awarding grants that the research outputs must be freely available.  This is a big win: those of us with enough influence can encourage other funding bodies to adopt similar policies.

Influence universities to mandate open access

An increasing number of universities also have, or are adopting, open-access mandates for their research outputs, including MIT (USA) and UCL (UK).  I wonder what influence each of us has on the policies of our own universities?  Some of us much more than others, of course.  I will at least be asking questions around the University of Bristol, to see whether moves can be made in that direction.

Spread the word!

… and finally, there is one thing that we can all do to help, and that is simply to spread the word.  Blog about open-access papers, tell your friends which are the good publishers, talk about the importance of open access in the pub.  Let the world know that the status quo can be and must be shifted!

Perhaps even more important, as I hope I have shown, it is shifting.  Universities like MIT and UCL are not minor-league (in fact the most recent Times Higher Education rankings list them at number 7 and number 17 in the world).  Contra the negative tone of the comment that I quoted at the start of this article, open access is becoming an increasingly important issue not just among a few malcontents such as myself but with the most influential and important researchers and institutions.

We live in exciting times.

One step at a time, gets there in the end

Finally: it may seem strange, but I only found out today that this is Open Access week (Ocotober 24-30), so it’s appropriate that I’ve found myself writing so much about it.

In celebration of, or at least in resonance with, Open Access Week, the Royal Society has just announced that it is permanently open-accessing all of its articles that are 70 years old and more.  That makes a very important historical resource available to the world.  Good times.


Authors versus publishers

September 30, 2011

You don’t need to read this. You can read Scott Aaronson’s Review of The Access Principle and Tim O’Reilly’s Piracy is Progressive Taxation and connect the blindingly obvious dots.

OTOH, Aaronson and O’Reilly wrote their pieces for the same reason I’m writing this one: some things are not blinding obvious to everyone. And sometimes the situation makes me mad enough to take a swing. So here goes.

Duty Versus Selfishness

Aaronson writes, “the most important idea in the The Access Principle is that scholars have a duty to make their work available, not only to their colleagues, but ideally to anyone who wants it.”

Now, I agree with this, totally; it’s basically the underpinning for the entire OA movement. But you don’t need to invoke a sense of duty to encourage researchers to make their work universally available. In fact, you don’t need to invoke any higher motive at all. Pure selfishness will do.

Here’s the deal: if you’re a publishing scientist, then once a paper is out the door the only ways in which you should care about it are (1) hoping it’s not discredited, and (2) hoping that it is read as widely as possible. Most of the formulae used to calculate impact factors, the H-index, and so on, don’t pay any attention to whether the citation is coming from inside your field or not (though a few are field-specific). And if you can get a group of bird feather biomechanists or insect development people interested in your work, at a minimum you’ll have a new citation cash cow, and possibly opportunities for collaboration.

Crucially, you want students to be able to get hold of your papers, because those students  are going to be tomorrow’s publishing scientists, and if you hook ’em early you’ll have another source of inflowing citations, potential collaborations, and possibly fawningly positive peer reviews (remember, we’re temporarily setting aside higher motives). But students are very good at maximizing return for effort invested (or, as some would have it, “lazy”), and if they find Dr. O. Penn Akzess’s papers before they find yours–or if they are able download her papers for free while yours are locked behind a paywall–you get nothing.

It’s not just students, though, or people in other fields. One of your colleagues might be working on a manuscript at home, and he needs a boilerplate citation on wasp-farming in a particular paragraph. He has your 2007 paper on insect husbandry in mind, but after a brief search it turns out that the PDF is on the computer in his office, and he can’t get access to the online version without going through some complicated process involving proxy servers and other such folderol. But, hey, look, there’s Dr. Akzess’s (2008) paper on alternative agriculture on PLoS ONE, which will serve just fine for this non-critical citation. Guess who gets cited, and who gets zip?

And if you’re in academia, getting and keeping a job means that your work needs to be well-regarded in a way that the administrative bean-counters can understand (i.e., cited, or the subject of high-profile publicity).

So even if you’re a completely selfish bastard who cares about nothing other than ruthless self-advancement, it’s to your advantage to have all of your work immediately available to anyone who wants it with a minimum of hassle. You may also have other, higher motives for desiring the same outcome, but it’s all the same in the end: the primary interest of authors is to have their work read by others. As many others as possible, with a minimum of fuss.

You’re Not Helping

The primary interest of non-OA publishers is to get paid. Forget whatever crap they put in their brochures and mission statements about serving the broader community and performing a vital service for science. They’re all businesses, almost all corporations, they have an ardent desire and a legal mandate to maximize profits, and their PR departments will say anything at all to help that happen, even outright lies.

Non-OA publishers get paid by subscribers and the unfortunates who actually pony up $30 per article online (because they haven’t read Tutorial 9, don’t have a public library nearby for ILL, or absolutely must have the PDF right this minute and have no other options). In other words, they don’t want anyone to be able to read your work who hasn’t paid. Now that the problem of publishing has been solved, and infinitely many zero-cost perfect copies can be immediately distributed worldwide for free, one of the primary goals of non-OA publishers is to prevent people from reading your work. Their “publishing” your work isn’t helping you, it’s hurting you. Their imprimatur might look nice on your CV or be a source of bragging rights among your colleagues, and you might decide that the value of the imprimatur is greater than the value of having your work easily available to most of the rest of the planet. But the publisher isn’t helping you get your work read any more widely than you could on your own.* All you need for that is a PDF and an internet connection (a blog helps, and that’s free, too).

* I know that a zillion people have access to Nature ‘n Science. And the number of them outside your narrow field who will actually read your paper on wasp farming is probably comparable to the number of N&S papers on buckytubes and hadrons that you actually read: zilch. Many more people who actually care about your field will read your N&S paper after one of their friends with access sends it to them, but those that are actually going to read it under those circumstances wouldn’t care if it was published in The Journal of Small, Boring Fossils. And if it was in The OA JSBF, they wouldn’t have to bug their friends for copies.

Let’s figure out how the non-OA publishers are “helping” you.

  • Printing, binding, and shipping hard copies of your work to those academic libraries that can afford their outrageous prices. Analysis: so Twen-Cen. Wake up and smell the internet. That tree you’re reading could be out there sequestering carbon. Not helping.
  • Putting your work online behind their paywall. Analysis: great, they’ve made it available to subscribers, who already had it, and a handful of unfortunates who couldn’t or wouldn’t get it any other way (Tutorial 9, ILL, etc.)–and keeping everyone else out. Not helping.
  • Giving you a PDF to freely distribute to colleagues who write to ask for it. Analysis: It’s 2011. Providing the author with a PDF of their own work isn’t a service, it’s a utility: the only time you should even have to think about this is when it’s not working. Making PDFs is actually easier and vastly cheaper than making print copies–OpenOffice does it natively, for free–so if your favorite journal isn’t doing it, go elsewhere until they extract their heads from their backsides. Anyway, this is something you can do for yourself with the accepted manuscript. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.
  • Giving you a limited number of PDF reprints. No, really, you read that right. Here’s how the Geological Society words it: “We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish.” The idea apparently being that you can send the PDF to colleagues, but only 20 times (19, I guess, if you want to keep one for yourself). The words simply don’t make any sense. It’s as if the session moderator told you were allowed to use vowel sounds in your talk, but you couldn’t use any one more than 20 times. You might go along with it just for the humor potential, but you, the moderator, and the audience would all know that it was a highly artificial game, whose strictures you could step outside of at any moment. (The tragedy of academic publishing is that the players have been tricked into thinking that they are pawns.) Not helping, or even making sense.
  • Stopping bad people from pirating your content, by tracking down unauthorized copies. Yes, there is a “service” for this (thanks to Andy Farke for the heads up). But wait–in case you’re waiting for Neuron #2 to catch up with Neuron #1, as an author you care about getting your work read, not about piracy. As O’Reilly said, “being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement.” What Attributor and other similar services are actually good for is checking to see whether you’ve been undermining the publishers’ blockade by posting copies of your own work outside their paywall (hey, over here!). That would be good for you–perfect, in fact–but bad for them. I don’t know if publishers are actually going to start cracking down on authors who do this (see also: victories, Pyrrhic)–that might deserve a post of its own. I do know that this “service” of detecting copyright infringement is directly opposed to your interests as an author (if it’s just plagiarism you’re worried about, Google has been around for a while). It’s ironic that the only commercial publisher I’ve heard of threatening to use this service has been caught illicitly duplicating its own articles (schadenfreudelicious!). Not helping.
  • Stopping bad people from getting your content, by blocking interlibrary loan. That’s right–for-profit academic publishers are now fighting ILL. Yeah, because faculty and students at small institutions and interested laypeople are such a huge threat to their multi-billion-dollar businesses. Analysis: not just not helping, this is straight up a-hole behavior.

I guess that leaves:

  • Typesetting your manuscript and making a nice-looking PDF. Yep, there’s no way you’d ever be able to master that on your own. Oh wait. Physicists and mathematicians–you know, those alleged brainheads with no stylistic sensibility–have been doing this for themselves for ages with LaTeX. Yes, biologists and earth scientists, prior to submission. If the rest of us just got on board, we could pull the last creaking support out from the Jenga tower of piled-high feces that is for-profit academic publishing. Now, you may whine that you don’t want to have to waste time formatting your own manuscript, but if you’ve actually submitted anything to a journal, ever, you’ve had to spend time formatting your own manuscript to fit whatever arbitrary submission format the journal wanted. You could have spent that time making it look like something other than a reject from Microsoft Word 101. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.

Naming Names

Through new corporate masters Taylor & Francis, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology will now you let you make your article Open Access for a mere $3250. You should feel flattered–your article is as valuable to them as 25 fully-paid regular memberships in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology ($130 a pop at the time of this writing). Each regular membership brings a year’s subscription to JVP, which is running upwards of 1200 pages a year. Probably 1500 pages soon, if it’s not there already. The annual page count of JVP is about 100 times the length of a long-ish article (most articles are shorter), and Taylor & Francis want 25 times that amount, so the OA deal is basically charging you for the equivalent of 2500 hundred people reading your work. Er, except that 25 regular memberships in SVP would pay for all kinds of genuinely valuable work that the society does–students grants, public education, support for legislation to protect fossil resources–whereas AFAICT buying the Open Access deal through Taylor & Francis only supports Taylor & Francis (someone please correct me if I’m wrong).

It’s an outrageous ripoff in either case.

You might feel that the OA fee at Taylor & Francis is a bit high, given that PLoS ONE only charges $1350 and gives you unlimited pages and unlimited high-resolution color figures. Wait, let me shout that for those hard of reading: UNLIMITED PAGES and UNLIMITED HIGH-RESOLUTION COLOR FIGURES. That’s what an organization can do when it decides to serve authors and readers instead of shareholders. And we might even expect that the OA publication fee at PLoS ONE is a bit inflated, since it represents “bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize [a] handful of high-quality flagship journals“–totally unlike what the Nature Publishing Group is doing with Scientific Reports. (Curious, NPG wants your kidneys in exchange for actual science, but they’ll let you read about the evils of PLoS for free.) As long as I’m here, I might as well note that the OA publication fee at NPG’s Scientific Reports is $1700 ($1700 – $1350 = shareholder cut, I’ll wager). Not sure why Taylor & Francis needs twice as much as NPG–maybe NPG have something left to learn about corporate greed, after all.

Just as a point of comparison, let’s consider Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Like JVP and most other journals, they have page charges for long manuscripts, but like JVP and most other journals, those page charges are not a barrier to publication for people who can’t afford to pay. Printed figures are usually black and white but figures in the PDFs–which are what really matters these days, to the vast majority of readers–are in full color, for free. There is a length limit, but it’s high, and they have a sister publication, Palaeontologia Polonica, for those longer works. They offer subscriptions and send hardbound copies to libraries worldwide, but they also make all of their papers available for free online. Heck, they even encourage authors to post PDFs of their own works on their own websites.

What’s wrong with those people!?

Seriously, just giving everything away for free? Not even asking authors to pay a dime to publish shorter papers? How do they stay in business?

Ah, well. There you have it. They’re not in business. APP is published by the Institute of Paleobiology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (so, state supported) and they’re out to make a name for themselves. That means visibility, which means distribution–instantly, everywhere, for free. In other words, their desires are aligned perfectly with those of authors. That’s why they don’t charge for publishing, and that’s why they encourage you to post PDFs of your own papers. What’s good for you is also good for them.

(Preemptive strike: before someone points out that JVP currently has a shorter lag time from submission to publication than APP, let me say two things: the situation was precisely reversed a couple of years ago, and thanks, Taylor & Francis, for having the courtesy to  screw over your authors and readers quickly.)

I don’t know if APP will be able to keep this up forever. I wouldn’t bet against them. Producing the journal can’t be much harder than it was in the decades before they gained their current global prominence, and I imagine that prominence has brought them enough new subscribers to offset the cost (a year’s subscription is 65 Euros, or a little less than $90 as of this writing). If free distribution eventually costs them subscribers, they ought to be able to recoup the loss by cutting or at least curtailing the printing, binding, and shipping of dead trees (although those of us in the West should remember that not all of the world is wired yet).

To recap, a sample of current open access publication fees in journals that handle vertebrate paleontology papers:

  • Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology: $3250
  • Nature Scientific Reports: $1700
  • PLoS ONE: $1350
  • Acta Palaeontologica Polonica: $0

If You’re Not Outraged…

I fully expect that this will piss off some people in the SVP. Which would be excellent. Maybe they’ll get mad enough to explain to me why Taylor & Francis charges twice what Nature Publishing Group does for OA publishing, and more than two and a half times what PLoS does, for a demonstrably inferior product (page limits, no free color figures, etc.). And why their per-article download fees are so egregiously high, and why they charge for electronic access to supplementary data (thanks to Andy again for documenting these lunacies). And all of this on behalf a society whose stated goal is “to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology”. Maybe–just maybe–a critical mass of people in the society will get mad enough to demand a better deal next time around. Or, as long as I’m dreaming, maybe we can find a publisher whose actual behavior is aligned with our ideals (I hear Poland is nice this time of year). As Aaronson said,

Once we’ve mustered a level of anger commensurate with what’s happening, we can then debate what to do next, which journals are overpriced and which aren’t, what qualifies as “open access,” and so on. But the first step is for a critical mass of us to acknowledge that we are being had.

It’s been a little quiet around here lately. Mike has been slammed with day-job work, Darren is terminally busy as always, and I’m in my fall teaching block so I’ve been too busy to think. But life rolls on and there are announcements that need making. To wit:

– My post on the long nerves of sauropods was chosen as one of ten blog posts for the Science Writer Tip Jar at Not Exactly Rocket Science, back in May. Ed Yong, the NERS mastermind, has this to say:

Throughout the blogosphere, people produce fantastic writing for free. That’s great, but I believe that good writers should get paid for good work. To set an example, I choose ten pieces every month that were written for free and I donate £3 to the author. There are no formal criteria other than I found them unusually interesting, enjoyable and/or important.

It was an honor to be chosen; Ed’s a damn fine writer and has a knack for finding good stuff and pointing people to it. So why am I just blogging about this now, in August? I didn’t cover it at the time because the Science Writer Tip Jar runs on reader donations and I thought it would be a little gross to solicit money for myself. And I didn’t cover it right after because Ed’s been busy, too, and it sorta slipped off the radar for both of us. But at the end of last month he sent me a nice donation by PayPal, and I’m finally making good with the blogging about it.

What will I do with the dough? Inevitably, it will be spent on an epic meal of sushi for Mike and I. We don’t get to see each other very often, so when we do we have a sushipocalypse, and it’s pretty common for us to have ideas worth pursuing and publishing at these events. So ultimately the money will be plowed back into science, albeit indirectly. Thanks, Ed, and keep up the stellar work at NERS.

– Speaking of money, if you’d like to win a pile of it–4500 Euros, in fact–for the paleo paper you published in 2010, and get a nice trip to Spain in the bargain, I suggest you submit to Paleonturology 11, sponsored by Fundacion Dinopolis in Teruel, Spain. I know about this awesomeness because one of my papers won back in 2006, and I got a free trip to Spain in December, 2007 (story here). Winners have included papers by grad students and emeritus professors, on everything from trilobite eyes and bivalve shells to Pliocene hominids and dinosaur gastralia. The entrance form is super-simple and the whole process takes about as much time as it does to read this post. So if you published a paleo paper in the calendar year 2010 and you don’t enter, you’re just being silly. The deadline isn’t until November 15, but there’s no reason not to just sit down and do it right now. The form is somewhere on the Dinopolis website, but if your Spanish is as nonexistent as mine, you may find this PDF handy:  Paleonturology 11 entrance form

– This Friday, August 19, I’ll be on Jurassic CSI, talking about big sauropods. Details, showtimes, and some photos are here. The photo up top, of me with an Apatosaurus pelvis at BYU, is borrowed from there.

That’s all for now; further bulletins as events warrant.

By now you’ve probably heard that the entire UC system is threatening to boycott the Nature Publishing Group over unsustainable business practices.*

First, a few links to get you up to speed.

  • The original letter, which was an in-house UC document that leaked (possibly deliberately, certainly understandably) and then propagated through academia like the proverbial brushfire.
  • Nature Publishing Group’s initial response, which accused the UC of distorting several issues.
  • The UC’s rebuttal, which showed that, in fact, they had not, and that NPG was guilty of far worse distortions.
  • A Chronicle of Higher Education piece that has some very interesting quotes on the UC side.
  • Of all the blogging that has been done on this, the now-infamous Fight Club post seems to be getting the most link-love and discussion, and deservedly so.
  • This post and those that follow at The Book of Trogool have some good analysis and more scrumptious links. Also at ScienceBlogs, Janet Stemwedel considers this from the standpoint of junior researchers who need high-profile pubs to survive, and with her usual thoughtfulness and humanity.

* It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, it’s pretty clear that a 7% markup every year is not sustainable for academic libraries whose budgets are flat, if they’re lucky, or more likely declining. If it really costs NPG 7% more each year to maintain their web access, then they’re doing something wrong. So who does this serve, other than NPG shareholders?

Some of the more interesting points that have come up in the ensuing discussions:

As noted by Janet Stemwedel, it would be very nice if the UC would issue a statement that good scholarship on the part of faculty will be recognized and rewarded no matter where it’s published. I am wholeheartedly in agreement with that, and am only sad that it took something like this to force the issue out into the open. Good work is good work, and the people who need it will generally find it. A lot of the battle over OA is getting hidebound administrators to stop thinking with their pseudoheads and find non-stupid ways to assess the output of their faculty. It shouldn’t be part of the battle over OA, because impact factors are orthogonal to publication model (and to the quality and lasting value of the work). But we all know that publications in Cell, Nature, and Science are the ticket to grants, promotions, and tenure. PLoS is successfully driving a wedge into this, but the battle is far from over.

More than one commenter has noted that there is probably some schadenfreude going on here, as faculty who feel like they are under the gun to publish in high-rejection-rate journals get to fight back a little, and as faculty who are being forced to take pay cuts, furloughs, etc., get to shift their anger from university-internal targets to a visible and little-loved external enemy. I think both hypotheses are accurate, and I suppose that it is not 100% fair for NPG to get pasted with more hate than they have coming, but I don’t really care, because the level of hate they have legitimately earned is already extremely high. In some of the online discussions about the future of newspapers–or rather, the lack of a future for newspapers–someone, somewhere, made the point that when you gouge people for decades, you shouldn’t be surprised when they stand aside and refuse to rescue you as you crash and burn. To my massive irritation, I can’t find that quote right now, but it’s exactly appropriate here. A lot of faculty wouldn’t pee in Nature‘s mouth if its teeth were on fire–and now they may get the chance to withhold that pee.

I’ve seen a few comments to the effect that the proposed boycott would never come to pass because the UC could not get junior faculty, who need those CNS pubs, to play ball. I wouldn’t bet that way. In my experience, junior faculty are far more likely to be attuned to the injustices of the high-stakes, for-profit journal world, and thus the ones most likely to understand what is actually at stake, and to have little sympathy for an outfit that they see as an unsympathetic career gatekeeper. If there is faculty resistance, I expect it to come from tenured folks who’ve benefited from having an inside track at Nature. (I know, I know, everyone from Nature on down claims that the “inside track” is a myth, but does anyone actually believe that?)

Many have noted Keith Yamamoto’s SDFy comments at the end of the Chronicle article: “In many ways it doesn’t matter where the work’s published, because scientists will be able to find it”. All I have to add here is “Hell yeah!” and “Bang on!”

Second sacral vertebra (FMNH PR 2209) of Rapetosaurus krausei. A, articulated centrum, neural arch, and left sacral rib in anterior view; B, articulated centrum, neural arch, and left sacral rib in posterior view; C, articulated vertebra in right lateral view; D, centrum in dorsal view, anterior towards top; E, centrum in ventral view, anterior towards top. Abbreviations: naf, neural arch facet; pfo, pneumatic foramen; posl, postspinal lamina; pozg, postzygapophysis; prsl, prespinal lamina; przg, prezygapophysis; srf, sacral rib facet. Scale bar equals 3 cm.  (Curry Rogers 2009:fig. 23)

For my part, I’d like to point out something that I have not seen widely discussed, but which seems like it ought to be. A not-for-profit organization–like, say, PLoS–has to maintain its infrastructure, pay its employees, and deliver a service. A corporation has all of those demands, plus the mandate to make a profit. So people can whine all they want that open access publishers still have to charge to do the same work as commercial publishers and that the work will cost about the same, but at the end of the day the commercial publisher is in business to make a profit, and PLoS is in business to make science. Absolutely, we should stop letting commercial publishers sell our own fat asses back to us. We should definitely stop paying any for-profit publisher to line its shareholders’ pockets at our expense. Screw them and the horse they rode in on; that is our freakin’ horse.

UPDATE (from Matt): I also bring good news … and bad news.

The good news is that the entire dinosaur issue of Anatomical Record is open access after all. So this post is mainly of historical interest now, and you should get on over to the page for this issue and download all the free dinosaurian goodness.

The bad news is that the representatives from Wiley never told anyone any of this when inquiries were made two weeks ago–if they had, this particular teacup could have stayed storm-free–and that they apparently still want institutions to pay $575 for a single Open Access issue of the journal. Whether those moves are predatory or just clueless, they are not earning Wiley any friends.


I bring good news … and bad news.

Good news! Tom Holtz reported in a message to the Dinosaur Mailing List that there is new issue of The Anatomical Record out that is concerned entirely with dinosaurs!  The online table of contents shows that there’s lots of good stuff.

Bad news! It’s not open access.

Good news! You can buy access to the articles.

Bad news! The price of the articles is NOT STATED.  That’s right, folks: you have to register with Wiley InterScience before they will EVEN TELL YOU THE PRICE!  Way to go, Wiley!  THAT’s the way to make sure important research is widely disseminated!

Good news! B tH wrote to ask the publisher for a price, and got a reply, which he shared in another Dinosaur Mailing List message:

Bad news! This is the reply (which I can’t format better, thanks to totally unnecessary limitations in WordPress):

Date: Mon, 31 Aug 2009 12:48:21 -0700 (PDT)

From: B tH <>


Subject: re: special all-dino issue

I wrote to ask them how much ordering this singl issue was – they wanted to know if I was ordering for an institution or myself. This is the price they quoted me to buy and read it at night with a flashlight under the blankey – and I am totally serious:

$575.00 US

That’s right, five HUNDRED and seventy-five buckeroos.   I assured them they were quite mad, and have to face the fact I won’t get to see it.   Waaah.

Good news! B tH realised that Wiley had quoted him the institutional rate and wrote to clarify.  The exchange is documented in yet another Dinosaur Mailing List message.

Bad news! This is the exchange:

Sent: Monday, August 31, 2009 6:07 PM


Subject: RE: wanting to purchase an issue of the magazine [pfCase:1078353,


Um, I think you’ve made an error.

Five-Hundred and Seventy-Five dollars for an issue of a magazine?  ??


From: <>

Dear __________

The Anatomical Record, Volume 292, Issue 9

Thank you for your email.

As we do not have Individual rates for this title, hence the Institutional single issue rate was quoted instead.

Please provide us with a billing and shipping address if you require a proforma invoice for this order and I will happy to assist you.

Kind Regards,

Jacqueline Choong

Customer Services Advisor

Journal Customer Services for John Wiley & Sons

Good news! The revolution is coming, and things like this can only bring it on.  And Wiley’s InterScience department are a bunch of mindless jerks who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

Yes, Wiley’s behaviour here is totally absurd and absolutely unethical.  No, Wiley didn’t themselves write the articles that they want to charge FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE FREAKIN’ DOLLARS for.  Neither did they pay the authors to do so.  Do you know how it comes to be that Wiley are the owners of these articles, and thus in a position to extort for access?  Happily, the reason is right here in the Instructions to Authors:



Upon acceptance of an article for publication, the author will be asked to sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement transferring rights to the publisher, who reserves copyright.

Yes, it’s as simple as that.  Like all of us do most times we submit a manuscript, the authors just signed away the ownership of their work.  Just like that.  Work that was funded, if at all, by public funds, just handed over to a grossly exploitative for-profit commercial enterprise that — quite clearly, from the exchanges above — has no interest whatsoever in the advancement or dissemination of science.

Folks, we have got to stop doing this.  I can (just) stomach handing copyright of my work over to professional societies such as the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (required for the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology) or the Palaeontological Association (required for Palaeontology) [although frankly there is absolutely no good reason for these journals to make that requirement].  But I will NOT give my work to these parasitic commercial publishers, and I strongly urge you not to, either.  We should all of us be supporting open-access journals where possible; and failing that, at least those published by non-profit organisations.  I am not going to be propping up Elsevier, Wiley and the rest with any of my stuff.

Deep in our heart, we all — Wiley included — know that non-open academic publishing is dead, even if the corpse is still blundering around trying to eat our brains.  This sort of extortion (I mean the FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE FREAKIN’ DOLLARS kind) is death throes.  It’s probably going to get messier before the stakes are finally driven through the hearts of the bloodsuckers.  But take heart: morning is coming, and they will all turn to dust.

And finally …

More Good news! I give you NHM 46869, the holotype of Chondrosteosaurus gigas Owen 1876, a badly eroded cervical centrum from some kind of sauropod, in right lateral view:

NHM 46869, holotype of Chondrosteosaurus gigas, a cervical centrum, in right lateral view.

NHM 46869, holotype of Chondrosteosaurus gigas, a cervical centrum, in right lateral view.

This is the mate of NHM 46870, a specimen that we have already given way too much coverage, and which has sometimes been considered the cotype along with 46869.  Unlike its mate, it has not been sliced down the middle, and is — for what it’s worth — “complete” (i.e. not actually complete at all).


  • Owen, Richard.  1876.  Monograph of the fossil Reptilia of the Wealden and Purbeck formations.  Supplement 7.  Crocodilia (Poikilopleuron), Dinosauria (Chondrosteosaurus),  Palaeontographical Society of London [Monographs], 29:15-93.
This is the reply:
Date: Mon, 31 Aug 2009 12:48:21 -0700 (PDT)
From: B tH <>
Subject: re: special all-dino issue
I wrote to ask them how much ordering this singl issue was – they wanted to know if I was ordering for an institution or myself. This is the price they quoted me to buy and read it at night with a flashlight under the blankey – and I am totally serious:
$575.00 US
That’s right, five HUNDRED and seventy-five buckeroos.   I assured them they were quite mad, and have to face the fact I won’t get to see it.   Waaah.
Good news!  B tH realised that Wiley had quoted him the institutional rate and wrote to clarify.  The exchange is documented in yet another Dinosaur Mailing List message.
Bad news!  This is the exchange:
Sent: Monday, August 31, 2009 6:07 PM
Subject: RE: wanting to purchase an issue of the magazine [pfCase:1078353,
Um, I think you’ve made an error.
Five-Hundred and Seventy-Five dollars for an issue of a magazine?  ??
From: <>
Dear __________
The Anatomical Record, Volume 292, Issue 9
Thank you for your email.
As we do not have Individual rates for this title, hence the Institutional single issue rate was quoted instead.
Please provide us with a billing and shipping address if you require a proforma invoice for this order and I will happy to assist you.
Kind Regards,
Jacqueline Choong
Customer Services Advisor
Journal Customer Services for John Wiley & Sons
Good news!  The revolution is coming, and things like this can only bring it on.  And Wiley’s InterScience department are a bunch of mindless jerks who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.
Yes, Wiley’s behaviour here is totally absurd and absolutely unethical.  No, Wiley didn’t themselves write the articles that they want to charge FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE FREAKIN’ DOLLARS for.  Neither did they pay the authors to do so.  Do you know how it comes to be that Wiley are the owners of these articles, and thus in a position to extort for access?  Happily, the reason is right here in the Instructions to Authors:
Upon acceptance of an article for publication, the author will be asked to sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement transferring rights to the publisher, who reserves copyright.

Isn’t this a beauty?

Alleged "Diplodocus dorsal bone", posterior view

Alleged "Diplodocus dorsal bone", posterior view

What is it, you ask?   We will never know.  A friend of mine pointed me to a forthcoming fossil auction by I. M. Chait, and as I scrolled through all the crappy ornithopod skeletons and suchlike, my eye was caught by this bone, described as a “Diplodocus dorsal bone”, from the Bone Cabin quarry in Wyoming.  “The dorsal bone most likely came from close to the back of the head[?!]”.

Whatever it is, it ain’t Diplodocus: the metapophyses are too low, the intraspinal trough is not deep enough, the diapophyses are too high up, they’re laterally rather than ventrolaterally inclined, the hyposphene is way too big and too triangular, the centrum is subquadrangular rather than ovoid, the centropostzygapophyseal laminae are absent … I could go on.  If you don’t believe me, here is the complete set of Dipodocus carnegii dorsals, from Hatcher (1901: plate VIII): posterior to anterior running from left to right; anterior, posterior and right lateral views from top to bottom.


Hatcher 1901, plate XIII: dorsal vertebrae of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84

Not even close.

So what actually is the for-sale vertebra?  Of course there is only so much you can say from a single photograph, but it looks very much as though this is something new, as yet undescribed.  Unknown to science, in fact.  I say that largely because of the those bizarre dorsolaterally oriented struts which extend from the sides of the neural arch to meet and merge with the diapophyses.  I don’t recall ever having seen anything like that.  In general proportions, too, this vertebra is distinctly odd.

Unknown to science it is, and unknown to science it will remain — if, as seems likely, some rich idiot buys this as a trophy to sit on his cocktail bar.  Hence the righeous fury alluded to in the title: so far as the wider world is concerned, so far as our understanding of Morrison Formation ecological diversity is concerned, so far as our understanding of sauropod disparity is concerned, this vertebra might just as well have stayed in the ground.


If anyone reading this blog is a rich benefactor, then just maybe this vert could be rescued: bought by someone who appreciates its scientific significance, and donated to an accredited museum, where it can be properly reposited and scientifically studied.  So if any of you out there have $5000 to spare and fancy a decent chance at getting a sauropod named after you, you know what to do.

I’ve hestitated about publishing this post, because of the danger that it will become sufficiently widely known to push the price up.  The last thing I want is to make more money for the fossil dealers responsible for taking this thing out of the hands of scientists.  But I figured it’s worth the risk.  Let’s hope I’m right.

[To be absolutely clear: I. M. Chait did not solicit me to write this, neither do they even know about it, and I am pretty sure they would not be happy about it if they did.]


  • Hatcher, Jonathan Bell.  1901.  Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton.  Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum, 1: 1-63 and plates I-XIII.

Update (23 March 2009)

We have heard from an SV-POW! reader who is looking into buying this specimen and donating it to a museum.  Which would be awesome.  (I won’t mention his or her name at this stage until he or she authorises me to do so.)  That being so, please no-one else try the same thing — we last thing we want is for two readers to get into a bidding war!