As I was figuring out what I thought about the new paper on sauropod posture (Vidal et al. 2020) I found the paper uncommonly difficult to parse. And I quickly came to realise that this was not due to any failure on the authors’ part, but on the journal it was published in: Nature’s Scientific Reports.

A catalogue of pointless whining

A big part of the problem is that the journal inexplicably insists on moving important parts of the manuscript out of the main paper and into supplementary information. So for example, as I read the paper, I didn’t really know what Vidal et al. meant by describing a sacrum as wedged: did it mean non-parallel anterior and posterior articular surfaces, or just that those surfaces are not at right angles to the long axis of the sacrum? It turns out to be the former, but I only found that out by reading the supplementary information:

The term describes marked trapezoidal shape in the
centrum of a platycoelous vertebrae in lateral view or in the rims of a condyle-cotyle (procoelous or opisthocoelous) centrum type.

This crucial information is nowhere in the paper itself: you could read the whole thing and not understand what the core point of the paper is due to not understanding the key piece of terminology.

And the relegation of important material to second-class, unformatted, maybe un-reviewed supplementary information doesn’t end there, by a long way. The SI includes crucial information, and a lot of it:

  • A terminology section of which “wedged vertebrae” is just one of ten sub-sections, including a crucial discussion of different interpretation of what ONP means.
  • All the information about the actual specimens the work is based on.
  • All the meat of the methods, including how the specimens were digitized, retro-deformed and digitally separated.
  • How the missing forelimbs, so important to the posture, were interpreted.
  • How the virtual skeleton was assembled.
  • How the range of motion of the neck was assessed.
  • Comparisons of the sacra of different sauropods.

And lots more. All this stuff is essential to properly understanding the work that was done and the conclusions that were reached.

And there’s more: as well as the supplementary information, which contains six supplementary figures and three supplementary tables, there is an additonal supplementary supplementary table, which could quite reasonably have gone into the supplementary information.

In a similar vein, even within the highly compressed actual paper, the Materials and Methods are hidden away at the back, after the Results, Discussion and Conclusion — as though they are something to be ashamed of; or, at best, an unwelcome necessity that can’t quite be omitted altogether, but need not be on display.

Then we have the disappointingly small illustrations: even the “full size” version of the crucial Figure 1 (which contains both the full skeleton and callout illustrations of key bones) is only 1000×871 pixels. (That’s why the illustration of the sacrum that I pulled out of the paper for the previous post, was so inadequate.)

Compare that with, for example, the 3750×3098 Figure 1 of my own recent Xenoposeidon paper in PeerJ (Taylor 2018) — that has more than thirteen times as much visual information. And the thing is, you can bet that Vidal et al. submitted their illustration in much higher resolution that 1000×871. The journal scaled it down to that size. In 2020. That’s just crazy.

And to make things even worse, unrelated images are shoved into multi-part illustrations. Consider the ridiculousness of figure 2:

Vidal et al. (2020: figure 2). The verticalization of sauropod feeding envelopes. (A) Increased neck range of motion in Spinophorosaurus in the dorso-ventral plane, with the first dorsal vertebra as the vertex and 0° marking the ground. Poses shown: (1) maximum dorsiflexion; (2) highest vertical reach of the head (7.16 m from the ground), with the neck 90° deflected; (3) alert pose sensu Taylor Wedel and Naish13; (4) osteological neutral pose sensu Stevens14; (5) lowest vertical reach of the head (0.72 m from the ground at 0°), with the head as close to the ground without flexing the appendicular elements; (6) maximum ventriflexion. Blue indicates the arc described between maximum and minimum head heights. Grey indicates the arc described between maximum dorsiflexion and ventriflexion. (B) Bivariant plot comparing femur/humerus proportion with sacrum angle. The proportion of humerus and femur are compared as a ratio of femur maximum length/humerus maximum length. Sacrum angle measures the angle the presacral vertebral series are deflected from the caudal series by sacrum geometry in osteologically neutral pose. Measurements and taxa on Table 1. Scale = 1000 mm.

It’s perfectly clear that parts A and B of this figure have nothing to do with each other. It would be far more sensible for them to appear as two separate figures — which would allow part B enough space to convey its point much more clearly. (And would save us from a disconcertingly inflated caption).

And there are other, less important irritants. Authors’ given names not divulged, only initials. I happen to know that D. Vidal is Daniel, and that J. L. Sanz is José Luis Sanz; but I have no idea what the P in P. Mocho, the A in A. Aberasturi or the F in F. Ortega stand for. Journal names in the bibliography are abbreviated, in confusing and sometimes ludicrous ways: is there really any point in abbreviating Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology to Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol?

The common theme

All of these problems — the unnatural shortening that relagates important material into supplementary information, the downplaying of methods, the tiny figures that ram unrelated illustrations into compound images, even the abbreviating of author names and journal titles — have this in common: that they are aping how Science ‘n’ Nature appear in print.

They present a sort of cargo cult: a superstitious belief that extreme space pressures (such as print journals legitimately wrestle with) are somehow an indicator of quality. The assumption that copying the form of prestigious journals will mean that the content is equally revered.

And this is simply idiotic. Scientific Reports is an open-access web-only journal that has no print edition. It has no rational reason to compress space like a print journal does. In omitting the “aniel” from “Daniel Vidal” it is saving nothing. All it’s doing is landing itself with the limitations of print journals in exchange for nothing. Nothing at all.

Why does this matter?

This squeezing of a web-based journal into a print-sized pot matters because it’s apparent that a tremendous amount of brainwork has gone into Vidal et al.’s research; but much of that is obscured by the glam-chasing presentation of Scientific Reports. It reduces a Pinter play to a soap-opera episode. The work deserved better; and so do readers.

References

 

An important paper is out today: Carpenter (2018) names Maraapunisaurus, a new genus to contain the species “Amphicoelias fragillimus, on the basis that it’s actually a rebbachisaurid rather than being closely related to the type species Amphicoelias altus.

Carpenter 2018: Figure 5. Comparison of the neural spine of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus restored as a rebbachisaurid (A), and the dorsal vertebrae of Rebbachisaurus garasbae (B), and Histriasaurus boscarollii (C). Increments on scale bars = 10 cm.

And it’s a compelling idea, as the illustration above shows. The specimen (AMNH FR 5777) has the distinctive dorsolaterally inclined lateral processes of a rebbachisaur, as implied by the inclined laminae meeting at the base of the SPOLs, and famously has the very excavated and highly laminar structure found in rebbachisaurs — hence the species name fragillimus.

Ken’s paper gives us more historical detail than we’ve ever had before on this enigmatic and controversial specimen, including extensive background to the excavations. The basics of that history will be familiar to long-time readers, but in a nutshell, E. D. Cope excavated the partial neural arch of single stupendous dorsal vertebra, very briefly described it and illustrated it (Cope 1878), and then … somehow lost it. No-one knows how or where it went missing, though Carpenter offers some informed speculation. Most likely, given the primitive stabilisation methods of the day, it simply crumbled to dust on the journey east.

Carpenter 2018: Frontispiece. E. D. Cope, the discoverer of AMNH FR 5777, drawn to scale with the specimen itself.

Cope himself referred the vertebra to his own existing sauropod genus Amphicoelias — basically because that was the only diplodocoid he’d named — and there it has stayed, more or less unchallenged ever since. Because everyone knows Amphicoelias (based on the type species A. altus) is sort of like Diplodocus(*), everyone who’s tried to reconstruct the size of the AMNH FR 5777 animal has done so by analogy with Diplodocus — including Carpenter himself in 2006, Woodruff and Foster (2014) and of course my own blog-post (Taylor 2010).

(*) Actually, it’s not; but that’s been conventional wisdom.

Ken argues, convincingly to my mind, that Woodruff and Foster (2014) were mistaken in attributing the great size of the specimen to a typo in Cope’s description, and that it really was as big as described. And he argues for a rebbachisaurid identity based on the fragility of the construction, the lamination of the neural spine, the extensive pneumaticity, the sheetlike SDL, the height of the postzygapophyses above the centrum, the dorsolateral orientation of the transverse processes, and other features of the laminae. Again, I find this persuasive (and said so in my peer-review of the manuscript).

Carpenter 2018: Figure 3. Drawing made by E.D. Cope of the holotype of Maraapunisaurus fragillimus (Cope, 1878f) with parts labeled. “Pneumatic chambers*” indicate the pneumatic cavities dorsolateral of the neural canal, a feature also seen in several rebbachisaurids. Terminology from Wilson (1999, 2011) and Wilson and others (2011).

If AMNH FR 5777 is indeed a rebbachisaur, then it can’t be a species of Amphicoelias, whose type species is not part of that clade. Accordingly, Ken gives it a new generic name in this paper, Maraapunisaurus, meaning “huge reptile” based on Maraapuni, the Southern Ute for “huge” — a name arrived at in consultation with the Southern Ute Cultural Department, Ignacio, Colorado.

How surprising is this?

On one level, not very: Amphicoelias is generally thought to be a basal diplodocoid, and Rebbachisauridae was the first major clade to diverge within Diplodocoidae. In fact, if Maraapunisaurus is basal within Rebbachisauridae, it may be only a few nodes away from where everyone previously assumed it sat.

On the other hand, a Morrison Formation rebbachisaurid would be a big deal for two reasons. First, because it would be the only known North American rebbachisaur — all the others we know are from South America, Africa and Europe. And second, because it would be, by some ten million years, the oldest known rebbachisaur — irritatingly, knocking out my own baby Xenoposeidon (Taylor 2018), but that can’t be helped.

Finally, what would this new identity mean for AMNH FR 5777’s size?

Carpenter 2018: Figure 7. Body comparisons of Maraapunisaurus as a 30.3-m-long rebbachisaurid (green) compared with previous version as a 58-m-long diplodocid (black). Lines within the silhouettes approximate the distal end of the diapophyses (i.e., top of the ribcage). Rebbachisaurid version based on Limaysaurus by Paul (2016), with outline of dorsal based on Rebbachisaurus; diplodocid version modified from Carpenter (2006).

Because dorsal vertebrae in rebbachisaurids are proportionally taller than in diplodocids, the length reconstructed from a given dorsal height is much less for rebbachisaurs: so much so that Ken brings in the new version, based on the well-represented rebbachisaur Limaysaurus tessonei, at a mere 30.3 m, only a little over half of the 58 m he previously calculated for a diplodocine version. That’s disappointing for those of us who like our sauropods stupidly huge. But the good news is, it makes virtually no difference to the height of the animal, which remains prodigious — 8 m at the hips, twice the height of a giraffe’s raised head. So not wholly contemptible.

Exciting times!

References

 

Yesterday, Alex Holcome’s tweet drew my attention to Shahar Avin’s paper “Centralised Funding and Epistemic Exploration”, currently in press at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. You can read the accepted manuscript on PhilSci Archive.

My colleague Filip Jakobsen asked me to explain in layman’s terms what the paper was saying. Here’s what I told him.

The way our academic system works means that some people spend loads of their time — literally, like half of their work time, in many cases — writing grant applications, so they can get the equipment, reagents and other resources that they need for their actual research. There are of course many more applications for grants than can be funded. So applications get competitively reviewed, and only the “best” get funded.

There is growing evidence that this means money keeps getting funneled to the same people — because they have a “track record” — who do more experiments along the same lines they’ve done before, with the danger that it all gets very stagnant.

What the new paper found, by running simulations, is that in terms of advancing science, you actually get better results if you just choose which grants to fund at random. I guess some of the grants then go to no-hopers who waste them, but others go to teams no-one’s heard of who go on to do great and unexpected things — much more interesting new discoveries than those that might arise from the incremental experiements that the established groups would go on to do given the same funds.

It’s like the way venture capitalists throw money at lots of startups, knowing full well that most will fail, but that some will succeed wildly; and that overall they’ll get a better return than if they invested their money in, say IBM stock. IBM will grow, sure, and they’ll get a safe dividend. But only a small one.

It looks like granting bodies like to play it safe and invest in the science equivalent of IBM. Maybe they need to behave more like venture capitalists.

Out today: a new Turiasaurian sauropod, Mierasaurus bobyoungi, from the Early Cretaceous Cedar Mountain formation in Utah. This comes to us courtesy of a nice paper by Royo Torres et al. (2017),

Royo-Torres et al. 2017, fig. 3. The postcranial skeleton (UMNH.VP.26004) of Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. nov, sp. nov. with the following elements: (a) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 69 h) in right lateral view; (b) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 69G1) in right lateral view; (c) anterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 165) in right lateral view; (d) anterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 69G2) in right lateral view; (e) atlas (DBGI 5I) in anterior view; (f) atlas (DBGI 5I) in right lateral view; (g) posterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 95) in right lateral view; (h) posterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 19 A) in right lateral view; (i) posterior cervical vertebra (DBGI 19 A) in ventral view; (j) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 38) in right lateral view; (k) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 38) in dorsal view; (l) middle cervical vertebra in posterior view; (m) middle cervical vertebra (DBGI 38) in left lateral view; (n) right anterior cervical rib (DBGI 5D) in medial view; (o) right anterior cervical rib (DBGI 28 A) in medial view; (p) right anterior-middle cervical rib (DBGI 95 C) in medial view; (q) right middle cervical rib (DBGI 45 F) in dorsal view; (r) right middle cervical rib (DBGI 95 A) in dorsal view; (s) left anterior cervical rib (DBGI 95B) in lateral view; (t) left middle cervical rib (DBGI 95 H) in lateral view; (u) left middle cervical rib (DBGI 95D) in dorsal view; (v) right posterior cervical rib (DBGI 10) in dorsal view. A plus sign (+) indicates a diagnostic character for Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. et sp. nov. An asterisk (*) indicates an autapomorphy of Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. et sp. nov. (© Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis) in Adobe Illustrator CS5 (www.adobe.com/es/products/illustrator.html).

[Because this paper is in Nature’s Scientific Reports, it inexplicably has a big chunk of manuscript chopped out of the middle, supplied separately, not formatted properly, and for all we know not peer-reviewed. This includes such minor details as the specimen numbers of the elements that make up the holotype, and the measurements. Note to self: rant about how objectively inferior Scientific Reports is to PeerJ and PLOS ONE some time.]

Anyway, this is a nice specimen represented by lots of decent material, including plenty of presacral vertebrae, which is great.

But here’s where it gets weird. Until now, Turiasauria has been an exclusively European clade. Just like Diplodocidae used to be an exclusively North American clade until Tornieria turned up, and Dicraeosauridae used to be an exclusively Gondwanan clade until Suuwassea turned out to be a dicraeosaur, and so on.

I mentioned this in an email to Matt. His initial take was:

There is a semi-tongue-in-cheek biogeography “law” that states “Everything is everywhere, and the environment selects”.

It is kinda blowing my mind that so many taxa were shared between North America, Europe, and Africa in the Late Jurassic and yet we don’t see any turiasaurs in North America until the Cretaceous. I wonder if they are there in the Morrison and just not recognized — either some of the undescribed or undiscovered northern-Morrison weirdness, or currently lumped in with Camarasaurus.

I responded “That’s one read. Another is that we’re seeing convergence on similar eco-niches within widely different clades, and our analyses are not figuring this out.”

What I mean is this: what if our “Brachiosauridae” clade is really just a collection of not-closely-related taxa in the tall-shouldered very-high-browser ecological niche? And what if our “Dicraeosauridae” clade is just a collection of short-necked grazers, with independent evolutionary origins, but all converging on morphology that suits the same lifestyle?

And that is the thought that is currently freaking me out.

Royo-Torres et al. 2107, fig. 4. The postcranial skeleton (UMNH.VP.26004) of Mierasaurus bobyoungi gen. nov, sp. nov. with the following elements: (a) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 54 A) in posterior view; (b) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 54 A) in anteroventral view; (c) neural arch of a middle dorsal vertebra (DBGI 37) in right anterolateral view; (d) posterior neural arch of a dorsal vertebra (DBGI 19 A) in posterior view; (e) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 16) in right lateral view; (f) anterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 16) in posterior view; (g) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 16) in anterior view; (h,i) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 100NA 1) in anterior view; (j,k) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 100NA 1) in posterior view; (l) posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 100NA 1) in left lateral view; (m) middle dorsal vertebra (DBGI 11) in anterior view; (n) centrum of a posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 24B) in ventral view; (o) centrum of a posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 24B) in anterior view; (p) centrum of a posterior dorsal vertebra (DBGI 192) in ventral view; (q) anterior-middle caudal vertebra (DBGI 23B) in anterior view; (r) anterior-middle caudal vertebra (DBGI 23B) in right lateral view; (s) posterior neural arch of a posterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 48) in left lateral view; (t) posterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 21) in anterior view; (u) posterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 21) in right lateral view; (v) distal caudal vertebra (DBI 37-34-529) in right lateral view; (W) anterior caudal vertebra (DBGI 192) in posterior view. For abbreviations see supplementary information. (i), (k) and (l) were drafted by R.R.T. (© Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis) in Adobe Illustrator CS5 (www.adobe.com/es/products/illustrator.html).

When I mentioned this possibility to Matt, he shared my existential terror:

What haunts me is this: we know from mammals and extant reptiles that morphological analyses suck. Laurasian moles, African moles, and Australian moles all look the same, despite evolving from very different ancestors. Ditto wolves and thylacines, horses and litopterns, etc.

Matt reminded of a paper we’ve talked about before (Losos et al. 1998), showing that this is exactly what happens with Caribbean anole lizards. Each island has forms that live on the ground, on the trunks of trees, and on branches. Phylogenetic analyses based on morphology put all the ground-livers together, ditto for trunk-climbers, ditto for branch-climbers. But molecular analyses show that each island was colonized once and the ground, trunk, and branch forms evolved separately for each island.

What if “turiasaur”, “brachiosaur”, and “titanosaur” are the sauropod equivalents? For “Caribbean island” read “continent”; for “lizard species”, read “sauropod clade”.

Will we ever know?

Matt is hopeful that we will. He’s confident that in time, we’ll get molecular analyses of dinosaur relationships — that it’s just a matter of time and cleverness. When that happens, things could be upended bigtime.

References

 

Hey sports fans! I met David Lindblad at Beer ‘N Bones at the Arizona Museum of Natural History last month, and he invited me to talk dinosaurs on his podcast. So I did (LINK). For two hours. Some of what I talk about will be familiar to long-time readers – dinosaur butt-brains and the Clash of the Dinosaurs saga, for example. But I also just sorta turned off my inhibitions and let all kinds of speculative twaddle come gushing out, including the specter of sauropod polyphyly, which I don’t believe but can’t stop thinking about. David was a gracious and long-suffering host and let me yap on at length. It is more or less the kind of conversation you could have with me in a pub, if you let me do most of the talking and didn’t want to hear about anything other than dinosaurs.

Is it any good? Beats me – I’m way too close to this one to make that call. Let me know in the comments.

Oh, I didn’t have any visuals that really fit the theme so I’m recycling this cool image of speculative sauropod display structures by Brian Engh. Go check out his blog and Patreon and YouTube channel.

It’s now been widely discussed that Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory and questionable open-access publishers — Beall’s List for short — has suddenly and abruptly gone away. No-one really knows why, but there are rumblings that he has been hit with a legal threat that he doesn’t want to defend.

To get this out of the way: it’s always a bad thing when legal threats make information quietly disappear; to that extent, at least, Beall has my sympathy.

That said — over all, I think making Beall’s List was probably not a good thing to do in the first place, being an essentially negative approach, as opposed to DOAJ’s more constructive whitelisting approach. But under Beall’s sole stewardship it was a disaster, due to his well-known ideological opposition to all open access. So I think it’s a net win that the list is gone.

But, more than that, I would prefer that it not be replaced.

Researchers need to learn the very very basic research skills required to tell a real journal from a fake one. Giving them a blacklist or a whitelist only conceals the real issue, which is that you need those skills if you’re going to be a researcher.

Finally, and I’m sorry if this is harsh, I have very little sympathy with anyone who is caught by a predatory journal. Why would you be so stupid? How can you expect to have a future as a researcher if your critical thinking skills are that lame? Think Check Submit is all the guidance that anyone needs; and frankly much more than people really need.

Here is the only thing you need to know, in order to avoid predatory journals, whether open-access or subscription-based: if you are not already familiar with a journal — because it’s published research you respect, or colleagues who you respect have published in it or are on the editorial board — then do not submit your work to that journal.

It really is that simple.

So what should we do now Beall’s List has gone? Nothing. Don’t replace it. Just teach researchers how to do research. (And supervisors who are not doing that already are not doing their jobs.)

 

I have before me the reviews for a submission of mine, and the handling editor has provided an additional stipulation:

Authority and date should be provided for each species-level taxon at first mention. Please ensure that the nominal authority is also included in the reference list.

In other words, the first time I mention Diplodocus, I should say “Diplodocus Marsh 1878″; and I should add the corresponding reference to my bibliography.

Marsh (1878: plate VIII in part). The only illustration of Diplodocus material in the paper that named the genus.

Marsh (1878: plate VIII in part). The only illustration of Diplodocus material in the paper that named the genus.

What do we think about this?

I used to do this religiously in my early papers, just because it was the done thing. But then I started to think about it. To my mind, it used to make a certain amount of sense 30 years ago. But surely in 2016, if anyone wants to know about the taxonomic history of Diplodocus, they’re going to go straight to Wikipedia?

I’m also not sure what the value is in providing the minimal taxonomic-authority information rather then, say, morphological information. Anyone who wants to know what Diplodocus is would be much better to go to Hatcher 1901, so wouldn’t we serve readers better if we referred to “Diplodocus (Hatcher 1901)”

Now that I come to think of it, I included “Giving the taxonomic authority after first use of each formal name” in my list of
Idiot things that we we do in our papers out of sheer habit three and a half years ago.

Should I just shrug and do this pointless busywork to satisfy the handling editor? Or should I simply refuse to waste my time adding information that will be of no use to anyone?

References

  • Hatcher, Jonathan B. 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.
  • Marsh, O. C. 1878. Principal characters of American Jurassic dinosaurs, Part I. American Journal of Science, series 3 16:411-416.

 

I got back this lunchtime from something a bit different in my academic career. I attended Court and Spark: an International Symposium on Joni Mitchell, hosted by the university of Lincoln and organised by Ruth Charnock.

court-and-spark-symposium-poster_v0-2

I went mostly because I love Joni Mitchell’s music. But also partly because, as a scientist, I have a necessarily skewed perspective on scholarship as a whole, and I want to see whether I could go some way to correcting that by immersing myself in the world of the humanities for a day.

My own talk was on “Musical progress and emotional stasis from Blue (1971) to Hejira (1976)”. I’ve posted the abstract and the slides on my publications list, and you can get a broad sense of what was in it from this blog-post about Hejira which talks a lot about Blue. (The talk was inspired by that blog-post, but it had a lot of new material as well.) I plan to write it up as a paper when I get a moment.

I was up in session 3, after lunch, so I’d had a couple of sessions to get used to how things were done. As far as I can tell, it seemed to go over pretty well, and there was some good discussion afterwards.

So how does a humanities conference stack up against a science one?

They were much less different than I’d imagined they would be. The main difference is that talks are called “papers”. As in “Did you hear the paper about X?”, or “I gave a paper on Y”. There was perhaps a little more time dedicated to discussion than at SVP or SVPCA.

Because I didn’t know how to dress, I erred on the side of conservative. As a result, I was the only man in the building wearing a tie, and was consequently the most overdressed person present — something that has never happened to me before, and likely never will again. (I typically wear a tie two or three times a year.)

All in all I had a great time. I’m currently in the process of trying to get my eldest son to appreciate Joni (he’s more of a prog-metal fan, which I can respect); against that backdrop, it was great to be surrounded be people who get it, who know all the repertoire, and who recognise allusions dropped into conversation. Also: beers with fellow-travellers between the main conference and the Maka Maron interview event in the evening; wine reception afterwards; Chinese food after that; after-party when we couldn’t eat any more food. (It was nice being invited along to that, given that I’d never met any of the people before yesterday, and only even exchanged email with one of them.)

I’d had to get up 4:45 in the morning to drive up to Lincoln in time for the conference, so all in all it was a long day. But well worth doing.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

As noted a few days ago, I recently had an article published on the Guardian site entitled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. The reaction to that article was fascinating, exhilarating and distressing in fairly equal parts. Fascinating because it generated a fertile stream of 156 comments, most of them substantial. Exhilarating because of some very positive responses. And distressing because some people who I like and respect absolutely hated it.

Those people’s main objections were nicely summed up by a response piece by Chris Chambers, published a few days later on the same site: Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. It’s a good, measured article, and I highly recommend it — not least because it’s apparent that while Chris thinks my tactics are all off, he makes it clear that he shares the goal of universal open access and further significant reform in scholarly communications.

So I’d like to clarify a couple of points that I didn’t make clearly enough in the original articles (but which I addressed in two separate comments on Chris’s article); and then I want to throw the floor open to see if we can hack through the more difficult issues that it raises.

A clarification

Chris wrote:

Do scientists who follow accepted publishing practices deserve to be labelled “immoral”, as Taylor claims?

The intention of my original article was not to say that the individuals who allow their work to go behind paywalls are immoral people, but that the act it itself immoral. If that feels like a fine distinction, it’s not. For a variety of pragmatic reasons, essentially moral people commit immortal acts all the time. At the trivial end of the scale, something as insignificant as not bothering to sort the recycling; at the other end, while no-one would claim dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations is an essentially moral act, many people would accept that in the context of WWII, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were justified or even necessary. (And please: no-one cite this as “Mike says publishing behind a paywall is exactly like nuking civilians”!)

So my goal in the original piece was not to castigate individuals as immoral people, but to push us all into deliberately thinking through the moral implications of our publication choices — decisions that all too many scientists still make without thought for the accessibility or otherwise of their work. I stand by my original assertion that it’s immoral to accept public funding to do research, then hide the fruits of that research from the public that paid for it. But that doesn’t mean that I am “labelling” anyone. My apologies if that distinction wasn’t clear.

To summarise the intent of my article: the decision of where to publish is a moral one. Please, all you moral people out there, make a moral choice.

The curse of  journal prestige

And so we come to the vexed subject of journal rank. First of all, it’s encouraging to see that most people seem to agree at least that the effects of journal rank are A Bad Thing — that judging scientists by what journals they have published in is at best corner cutting, if not outright dereliction. This is not controversial any more, if it ever was: the ridiculous experience of PLOS Medicine as they  negotiated (yes, negotiated) their initial impact factor tells you all you need to know about such metrics.

As Chris wrote in his article:

In many (if not most) fields, the journals in which we publish are judged to be an indicator of professional quality. […] Science is bad at being scientific: the actual quality takes second place to the perception of quality, which is so strong that journal rank creates its own biosphere.

The problem here seem to be one of wrenching an entire community out of a delusion at once. Because the things I hear over and over again are: 1. “Of course, I personally would never judge a paper by what journal it’s in, or judge a scientist by what journals her papers are in”. And 2. “I need to get my papers in glamourous journals so that people will judge me well”. Everyone is worried about being judged by the very criterion that they insist they would never judge by.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this absurd circle. Well, I do: we should all just stop it. But I don’t have a strategy for reaching that solution. One thing that is infuriating to see is that even when the REF and the Wellcome Trust so very explicitly say “We don’t care what journal your work is in”, researchers continue to disbelieve them. I would love to hear constructive thoughts on what can be done about this.

One useful contribution would for more assessment exercises, funding bodes and recruitment programs to explicitly state that they will be assessing the quality of work, not the reputation of the place where it’s published.

Who is going to make change happen?

And so we come to another disturbing circle. Chris wrote:

[Publishing only in OA journals] amounts to sacrificing career opportunities (promotions, grants, research time) for the good of the cause. […] Beyond the considerations of self-preservation, scientists are impelled to protect and support younger researchers under their wings.

I accept that there is truth in this — at least, more than I did when I wrote the original article. (That’s largely due to an email exchange behind the scenes with someone who is welcome to identify himself or herself if he or she wishes; otherwise I’ll preserve anonymity.)

But here’s what worries me about it. I hear researchers at all stages of their careers finding reasons to keep feeding paywalls. Early career researchers say “Well, I’m just getting started, I have to establish my reputation first”. People who are running their own labs say “I have to aim for prestige, for the sake of my students”. Long-established senior figures are in most cases still sceptical of this new-fangled open access thing (and indeed of anything not printed on paper).

So where is the change going to come from?

I must say it warms my heart when I read clear declarations from young researchers. Yesterday Erin McKiernan tweeted:

I wanted to cheer. And Scott Weingart commented on my original article:

Enough idealistic students like us, and maybe something will actually change, rather than just having us all live in a self-perpetuating system which we all know is flawed but are too worried about our careers to do anything about.

These are good people. I hope with all my heart that they get the careers their principled stands deserve.

Now what?

We’re in a very strange situation now. As Scott points out, none of us wants to propagate the current situation, where where you publish counts as well as — or even more than — what you publish. Yet we conspire to keep the circle unbroken. Chris’s article says that people who publish behind paywalls are victics rather than perpetrators; but if they are victims, then who are they victims of? The very same system that they are part of. They are both victims and perpetrators.

Folks, we as an academic community are doing this to ourselves.

How can we stop it?

Anyone?

My new article is up at the Guardian. This time, I have taken off the Conciliatory Hat, and I’m saying it how I honestly believe it is: publishing your science behind a paywall is immoral. And the reasons we use to persuade ourselves it’s acceptable really don’t hold up.

Read Choose open access: publishing your science behind a paywall is immoral

Because for all that we rightly talk about the financial efficiencies of open access, when it comes right down to it OA is primarily a moral, or if you prefer idealogical, issue. It’s not really about saving money, though that’s a welcome side-effect. It’s about doing what’s right.

I’m expecting some kick-back on this one. Fire away; I’ll enjoy the discussion.