Darren, the silent partner at SV-POW!, pointed me to this tweet by Duc de Vinney, displaying a tableau of “A bunch of Boners (people who study bones) Not just paleontologists, some naturalists and cryptozoologists too”, apparently commissioned by @EDGEinthewild:

As you can see, Darren, Matt and I (as well as long-time Friend Of SV-POW! Mark Witton) somehow all made it into the cartoon, ahead of numerous far more deserving people. Whatever the criterion was, and whatever reason Edge In The Wild had for wanting this, I am delighted to be included alongside the likes of Owen, Osborn, Cope, Marsh, and Bob Bakker. Even if the caricatures are not especially flattering.

Here is an edit showing only the three of us, which I am sure I will find many fruitful uses for:

My thanks to Duc de Vinney for creating this!


If the internet has any underlying monomyth, or universally shared common ground, or absolute rule, it is this:

People love to see the underdog win.

This rule has a corollary:

When you try to censor someone, they automatically become the underdog.

I say “try to censor” someone, because on the internet that is remarkably difficult to achieve. I’m not going to argue that the attention paid to the range of stories told on the internet is fairly distributed–being published is not the same as being read, and people seem to prefer cat pictures to reading about genocide. But it’s awfully hard to shut someone up, and any attempt to do so may backfire spectacularly.

If you work for an organization of any size, or have amassed any considerable power, reputation, or influence personally, you need to keep that at the forefront of your mind in every interaction you ever have with anyone, anywhere, ever. The reason for this constant attention is to keep you from becoming the overdog and thereby making an ass of yourself (and your organization, if you belong to one). Go read about the Streisand Effect and think proactively about how to keep that from happening to you.

Now, for the purposes of this tutorial I am going to arbitrarily sort the full range of possible messages into four bins:

  1. Those that make the teller look good.
  2. Those that make the teller look bad.
  3. Those that make someone else look good.
  4. Those that make someone else look bad.

Two and three are dead easy and often go hand in hand. If you want to spread messages of that type, all you have to do is find someone with less power, reputation, or influence–a prospective underdog, in other words–and be a jerk to them, thus turning them into an actual underdog. Coercion, threats, employment termination–these are all pretty good and may eventually pay off. But if you really want to look like a complete tit, and make the other party an instant hero, you gotta go for censorship. Out here in bitspace, it is the ne plus ultra of suicidal moves. It’s like Chuck Norris winding up for a roundhouse kick to someone’s face, only somehow his foot misses the other person’s face and hits him right in the junk instead. We will click and tap on that until they pry the mice and touchscreens from our cold, dead hands.

The first one–positive messages about yourself–is tricky. You can’t just go around telling people that you’re awesome. Anyone with any sense will suspect advertising. The only sure-fire method I know of is to do good work where people can see it. One thing you will just have to accept is that reputations are slow-growing but fast-burning. So, again, try to avoid burning yours down.

The last one–making someone else look bad–is also surprisingly tricky. If you just broadcast negatives to the world, that will probably backfire. At the very least, people start thinking of you as a negative force rather than a positive one. If the person you want to make look bad has ever lied or falsified data or oppressed anyone, use that. If they’ve ever tried to censor someone, or are actively trying to censor you, rejoice, they’ve done most of the work for you.

The upside of that last one is that, provided you’re not actively nasty, it is hard for others to hurt your reputation. If they just spew vitriol, it will probably backfire. If they lie about you, it will definitely backfire. About the only way to really trash your reputation is through your own actions. Your fate is in your own hands.


So, this is transparently a meditation on the DNLee/Biology Online/Scientific American story.

I would really like to know the backstory. Did someone at Biology Online contact SciAm and ask them to take down DNLee’s post? If so, well, geez, that was stupid. Why does anyone ever expect this to work anymore? I mean, the actual event from which the Streisand Effect got its name happened a decade ago, which may seem short in human terms but is an eternity online (it’s two-thirds of the lifespan to date of Google, for example).

If someone at SciAm did it unilaterally to protect their valued financial partner, it was doubly stupid, because not only did the censorship act itself fail, but now people like me are wondering if Biology Online asked for that “protection”. In other words, people are now suspecting Biology Online of something they might not have even done (although what they did do–what their employee did on their behalf, which amounts to the same thing–was bad enough).

So all in all the affair is like a tutorial on how to royally cock things up on the internet. And in fact it continues to be–Mariette DiChristina’s “apology” is a classic non-apology, that uses a torrent of words to say very little. Her self-contradictory tweets are much more revealing, despite being under 140 characters each. And in fact her loudest message is the complete lack of communication with DNLee before she pulled the post. So meaning scales inversely with message length for DiChristina–not a great quality in an Editor-In-Chief. And, OMG does she need to learn about the Asoh defense.

In the end, the whole thing just saddens me. I’m sad that SciAm made the wrong call immediately and reflexively. It says to me that they don’t care about transparency or integrity. They may say otherwise, but they are belied by their actions.

I’m sad that, having not even known that Biology Online exists, my perception of them now starts from a position of, “Oh, the ones that called that science writer a whore.” (If you’re a BO fan, please don’t write in to tell me how wonderful BO actually is; doing so is just admitting that you didn’t read this post.)

I’m sad that this happened to DNLee. I hope that going forward her reputation is determined by the quality of her work and the integrity of her actions, and not by words and circumstances inflicted on her by others.

… I wonder if I could make it as a corporate consultant if I put on a suit, walked into rooms full of pointy-haired bosses, and just explained the Streisand Effect and the Asoh Defense as if they were novel insights. I’ll bet I could make a killing.

Two weeks ago, Brian Kraatz and I attended one of Edward Tufte’s workshops on presenting data and information. I’ve been meaning to blog about that, and still plan to when I get time to breathe. But something came up then that has been stuck in my head ever since.

Tufte was addressing a mixed audience of several hundred, including people in computer science, marketing, business management, education, IT, writing, publishing, old media, new media–a pretty darned diverse cross-section of people involved with or interested in the exchange of information, from tattooed college students to rumpled retirees and buttoned-down suits to straight up hippies. One recurring theme in the day-long workshop was the way that Tufte held up scientists as the gold standard of rigor and honesty in reporting information. He frequently said, “You should aspire to do this, because it’s what scientists do.”

This always made Brian and me share a bemused smile; it’s a little weird to hear one’s chosen profession held up as a model for all the others. But it was also a useful reminder of the ideals scientists hold (some more successfully than others), and it was gratifying to hear our colleagues spoken of as role models rather than mad scientists, immoral tinkerers, ivory tower goofballs, or other less savory stereotypes.

In science, reputation is everything, and it is roughly synonymous with “integrity of data”. Papers have a life of their own and have to stand effectively forever; I routinely cite work that was published in the 1800s and have cited a paper from 1774–a publication older than my country. So scientists tend to make a distinction between a scientist’s reputation as a person and his or her scientific reputation. Most scientists don’t really care if Bob Scientist has a gambling problem or turns into a drunken mess at conference banquets–or rather, we may frown on these things, but hey, the world is full of jerks. At the end of the day we care a lot more about the quality of his data. As long the work is solid, we can put up with quite a bit in the way of a-hole behavior.

In contrast, once someone has been caught plagiarizing or falsifying data, their scientific reputation is permanently shot. If we can’t trust some of your data, we can’t trust any of it. And if we can’t trust your data then you’re not really a scientist to us anymore; you’re just one more of the zillion sources of spam, advertising, and filth we have to filter out to get to reliable information.

This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. In one of the most important books about how and why science works, David Hull makes the same argument to explain why plagiarism and falsification of results are so rare in science even when they would benefit researchers (at least occasionally and in the short term). The book is Science as a Process, and if you are a scientist or want to understand the guts of how science works, you should read it.

Businesses by and large do not work to the same tolerances of honesty. Thanks to marketing, almost every business, certainly every big business, is engaged in “shaping public opinion” about its products (or, if you like, “lying”). Whatever the reality at your business, the general perception is that in the business world a certain amount of bullshitting is acceptable, expected, and maybe even admirable–as long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

These two divergent worldviews don’t seem to come into conflict very often or very loudly, but they certainly have in the Academic Spring, with commercial publishers at the uncomfortable junction between science and big business. And Elsevier is catching the most hell, at least in part because of its extensive recent history of slimy dealings and immoral policies: the arms deals, fake journals full of “papers” that were really ads for Big Pharma, bribes for favorable reviewslawsuits against libraries for legal use of purchased content, and turning legislators into paid puppets, to pick the most egregious.

Now, ask an Elsevier employee about those practices and you’re likely to hear that they were problems in the past, but they’re fixed now (all except the last two, I guess), so why are we still talking about them? This is business thinking: there were PR problems, now they’re fixed, let’s move on.

Scientists look at the same offenses and see a pattern of behavior–an evil money-grubbing corporate machine out to make a buck by any means fair or foul. In particular, we look at the fake journals and paid reviews and think, “Elsevier falsified its data”. In academia, that is the one unforgivable sin. It is probably a big part of why many scientists are vowing not to have anything to do with Elsevier ever again.

I think this is why the few halting attempts by Elsevier employees to engage with academics have mostly failed: we don’t believe you. No, wait, that’s incomplete, and you really can’t afford to continue misunderstanding this. Is is more accurate to say that your employer’s underhanded dealings have successfully conditioned us to not believe you. There is not a little crack in our trust, there’s a crater a thousand miles wide that goes all the way down to the mantle. And we have also been conditioned as scientists to permanently write off anyone who falsifies data, which your employer has done. So you are coming with the dirtiest possible record to make nice with the pickiest possible audience. No wonder you’re not making any headway.

I’m not writing this to defend the situation or its fairness or lack thereof or to tell you how I wish things were so that you could help me bring about some glorious future. I’m writing to describe your reality right now, because folks inside Elsevier are having a hard time understanding why people hate them so much. And it’s not my responsibility to propose solutions: you got yourselves into this damned mess, funnel a little of that £724 million in profits to some clever people and figure a way out. That said, I’m not above handing out some free advice. For starters, go read Science as a Process so you can start understanding the mindset of the enemy. That won’t heal the rift, but at least you’ll be able to understand our worldview.

Simply fixing the most egregious problems and restoring the status quo–the background hum of predatory pricing and exploitative bundling against which the Cost of Knowledge boycott is aimed–is not going to be nearly enough. It would take a grand gesture to convince us that you’re actually working in our best interests instead of those of your shareholders. Supporting FRPAA is not only your best bet, it might be the only game in town.

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.

Right after I saw the show Sunday night, I wrote to the folks at Dangerous Ltd to point out their dishonest editing and to request an explanation (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, read this first). Today I finally got a response.

The message didn’t come with any formal or informal requests or warnings about not forwarding or reposting it whole or in part. It’s not all relevant so I won’t quote the whole thing, but it contains the evidence that proves that my claim against Dangerous Ltd is accurate, so I am posting the relevant bits.

For now, can I express our unreserved apologies for the clear fact that we incorrectly spelled your name in the show.

There follows a fairly long and complicated recounting of internal errors and  miscommunications. There is no mention of whether this is something that could be fixed in future broadcasts or in the DVD/Blu-ray release. But the apology is something, at least.

I believe you are also right in pointing out that Sauroposeidon was written incorrectly as Sauroposeiden in one of the ‘quiz bits’. I’m sorry to say that the quiz bits at commercial time were produced by Discovery, and although this part of the production process was beyond our control the least I can do is offer another apology.

I knew that this was probably the fault of the Discovery Channel and not Dangerous, which is why I  was careful to mention in the last post that it was something presented alongside the show and not as part of the show. There were other godawful quiz bits in the same broadcast, which is one reason I am not as quick to absolve the Discovery Channel of all responsibility for the failings of Clash of the Dinosaurs. I acknowledge that some of the shows they broadcast are quite good, but many others are terrible. In my opinion, the low quality of both Clash of the Dinosaurs and the quiz bits aired along with it are symptomatic of a general apathy toward scientific rigor at Discovery Communications; I don’t think that anyone with two neurons to rub together will be shocked by that statement.

Still, nice of them to apologize on behalf of the Discovery Channel; it’s a lot more than I’d get later on.

Now we get into the real meat:

As for the greater part of your concerns, re the part of the show concerning suggestions involving Sauroposeidon, I’ve taken a careful look at what you originally said compared to what was finally aired. In the original interview, you said:

Matt      14.45.08            Ok one of the curious things about saurapods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal chord in the neighbourhood of their pelvis.  And for a while it was thought that may be this was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body.  Erm there are a couple of misconceptions there.  One is that most animals control large part of their body with their spinal chord.  If you’re going through day to day operations like just walking down the street and your minds on something else your brain isn’t even involved in very much controlling your body.  A lot of that is a reflex arc that’s controlled by your spinal chord.

Quick aside: the technical term I was groping for here is not “reflex arc” but “central pattern generator”.

So its not just dinosaurs that are controlling their body with their spinal chord its all animals.  Now the other thing about this swelling at the base of the tail is we find the same thing in birds and its called the glycogen body.  It’s a big swelling in the spinal chord that has glycogen which is this very energy rich compound that animals use to store energy.  Problem is we don’t even know what birds are doing with their glycogen bodies.  Er the function is mysterious – we don’t know if the glycogen is supporting their nervous system – if its there to be mobilised help dry [should be ‘drive’ -ed.] their hind limbs or the back half of their body and until we find out what birds are doing with theirs we have very little hope of knowing what dinosaurs were doing with their glycogen bodies.

You can understand that a TV show for Discovery doesn’t always have the room to expand a complex argument. It must also accommodate the needs of all sections of the audience (including children) and while it must educate, it must simultaneously hold everybody’s attention. This said, this doesn’t mean there’s room for error. In the transcript of the final edit, you appeared to be saying:

One of the curious things about Sauropods is that they did have a swelling in the spinal cord, in the neighborhood of their pelvis.  This was sort of like a second brain to help control the back half of the body.

There it is  in black and white. I was very clearly explaining why a misconception is no longer held, and they edited the tape to make me regurgitate the misconception as if it was not just a commonly accepted fact, but a fact that I accepted. That is beyond quote-mining, it is the most blatantly dishonest thing that you can do with someone’s recorded words. Let’s see what they have to say about it (quote continues with no omissions):

In your email, you said: ‘Someone in the editing room cut away the framing explanation and left me presenting a thoroughly discredited idea as if it was current science.’ In your interview you carefully set out a context in which you made your argument, a context that was perhaps not included in the show as carefully as it could have been. Whether this was in the interests of brevity or not, I entirely appreciate your position. We had no wish to suggest you were presenting an old, discredited argument, we were simply working on the show ever aware of the demands of our audience. This does not excuse a part of the program which was perhaps not edited with as much finesse as it could have been and consequently I will make your concerns clear to the production team in the hope that we may avoid such situations again.

While I hope this clarifies our position, I will endeavour to call you to ensure all your concerns are properly heard.

Notice that there is not even a whiff of an apology anywhere in here. They were “ever aware of the demands of [the] audience”, this part “was perhaps [!] not edited with as much finesse as it could have been”, and they’re going to try to do better next time.

This is crap, crap, crap, just total crap from top to bottom. If you have a segment of an interview that covers ground that you decide is too complex for the audience, JUST DON’T AIR IT. Or, if you insist on presenting this very old and very stupid idea is if it is accurate and current, LEAVE ME OUT OF IT. But the one thing you don’t do is mangle my words to make it sound like I support it. And if you do commit that catastrophically stupid and unethical action, have the decency to apologize! Perhaps they didn’t because that would count as an admission of guilt?

This is not a joke and it is not a minor infringement. This is the broadest publicity that I have ever gotten or may ever get, the description of Sauroposeidon included. This is my professional competence and reputation on the line. This is not just careless editing, this is Dangerous Ltd deliberately making a liar out of me in front of millions of people.

This is intolerable.

What I’m Going To Do

I’m going to write back to Dangerous Ltd and request a copy of the release that I signed, to see what legal rights, if any, I may have to get this fixed. What would fixing it entail? Simple: I don’t care if they leave in the bit where they discuss the “second brain”, just cut out my speaking part. It’s probably all of ten seconds. They could even replace it with something or someone else, I don’t care. Just stop making me lie. I’d prefer to see that edited version replace the one currently in circulation, both for future broadcasts and for the DVD/Blu-ray release.

If they could fix my name while they’re at it, that would be nice, but it’s really small potatoes. “Matthew” Wedel is a dumb error, but it’s just an error. What they did in the ‘second brain’ segment is a lie, and one that is corrosive to my public credibility.

How You Can Help

Send this on to everyone you think might be interested, which potentially includes everyone who watches the Discovery Channel or likes dinosaurs. In particular, copy and paste the quoted section  above that includes the transcript of my interview; the best hope for me in the long run is for this evidence to be backed up in so many places that it can never be suppressed. I have no idea about the legal status of a chunk of text copied from an e-mail message to a blog post to someplace else on the internet. I care far more that what is posted here and elsewhere matches what Dangerous Ltd has on file; the latter ought to be subject to subpoena even if the former is not. Fellow bloggers and science bloggers, I’m asking for your help.

Dangerous Ltd turned my words around 180 degrees because they had to “accomodate the needs of the audience” and “hold everyone’s attention”. This shows stunning contempt for the audience, for the scientists who appeared on the show, and for the truth. Coming from a company that makes documentaries, I think it’s about the most damning statement possible. If you’re working with them, maybe it’s time to reconsider.

You, reading this post: you are the audience. If you disagree with the idea that Dangerous Ltd has to subvert the truth to hold your attention, or if you’d like to support my request that they fix the show by removing the dishonestly edited portion, please contact them here. I shouldn’t have to say it, but this is the net, so: if you do contact them about this, please be brief, stick to the facts, and don’t be abusive, threatening or profane.

I’ve already e-mailed all of the top officers of Dangerous Ltd and this non-apology is the closest to an official response that I’ve gotten or expect to get. It might also be worthwhile to contact Zodiak Entertainment, the parent company of Dangerous Ltd, and make sure that they are aware of how their subsidiary is representing them. You may do so here; the previous plea for brevity and moderation applies.

Finally, outfits like Dangerous Ltd will only be able to pull this kind of crap for as long as Discovery Communications lets them get away with it. The most relevant thing I’ve been able to find for them is the Viewer Relations contact page for Discovery.com, which is here. Please let them know how you feel–briefly and politely, as always.

Parting Shot

Many, many thanks to everyone who has written to me or commented here and elsewhere to show their support. The only way to get better science programming is to demand it. Please speak up!

UPDATE, about 1.5 hours after posting

Mike just pointed me to a post on the publicly archived VRTPALEO Mailing List by Alex Freeman, a BBC employee, that is highly relevant to my situation and maybe even crucial (I can’t link to it yet because the day’s posts haven’t been archived yet, but I will add it as soon as possible). Here’s the good bit:

I’d like to make clear that the BBC has a code of conduct which covers all of its output.  Fair representation of contributors is extremely strictly regulated and if anyone ever made edits like those described they would very quickly be out of a job, and the BBC would have to make a public statement and apology.

First question is, does Discovery Communications have a similar code of conduct (that they are willing to enforce in this case)? Second question is, when is Clash of the Dinosaurs slated to air in the UK, and will it be on the BBC? Dangerous, Zodiak, or Discovery may be willing to fix the problem on their own steam, and I want to give them the opportunity to do so. But if they won’t, hopefully the BBC will have both the clout and the will to get the job done.

Needless to say, this code of conduct would be a useful thing to mention in any communication to Dangerous Ltd, Zodiak Entertainment, or the Discovery Channel.

UPDATE, the next day

The Discovery Channel came through; they will not air the show again or release it on disc until the dishonest editing is fixed.

The real deal: Mike and me in the OMNH collections, with one and a half vertebrae of Sauroposeidon

So I finally got to see the Discovery Channel’s new series, Clash of the Dinosaurs. The show follows the common Discovery Channel MO of cutting between CGI critters and talking heads. I’m one of the talking heads, and I get a lot of air time, and I suppose I should be happy about that. But I’m not, for reasons I’ll explain.

I need to preface what follows by saying that I thought the other talking heads did a great job. My experience suggests that the scientific problems with the series didn’t originate with the scientists, infrasound weapons excepted. Tom Holtz–another of the talking heads, and a good one–nailed it on the DML:

For those going to watch the show, a warning:
The documentarians often take anything that any of the talking heads speculated about, and transformed these into declarative statements of fact. In some cases this is particularly egregious, because I strongly disagree with some of these statements and believe the facts are against some of these (say, about tyrannosaurid cranial kinesis…) and they present these as facts rather than suppositions.


In the fall of 2008 the folks  at Dangerous Ltd, a London-based film production company, asked me if I’d be interested in being part of a new documentary project, which had the working title “Dino Body” (this isn’t a trade secret or anything, that title was on the Dangerous webpage for months). The grand idea was to show how much we’ve learned about how dinosaurs actually lived.

Now, this is something I care about a lot. In the past couple of decades we’ve learned about the physiology, diets, nesting habits, growth rates, and social lives of dinosaurs, in unprecedented detail. Things no one predicted and that I would have bet heavily against, like burrowing dinosaurs, four-winged raptors, and comparative studies of dinosaur and pterosaur genomes, are backed by solid evidence. We are in a golden age of dinosaur paleobiology, and new discoveries, even new kinds of discoveries, are stacking up faster than I can really keep up. So it would be a great time to bring all this new evidence to the public.

In the late 2008 and early 2009 I spent a LOT of time with the people at Dangerous Pictures, going over all kinds of questions about dinosaur biology. I sent them papers, links to blog posts, diagrams, you name it. They seemed really keen to get the science right, and I was hopeful that we’d get a dinosaur documentary that wasn’t overly speculative sensationalized BS.

Sadly, that hope was to be mercilessly crushed.

Deja vu

The series has some obvious faults. It is incredibly repetitive, to the point that I found it hard to watch for any length of time without my attention wandering. Not just the CGI clips, but the narration as well. You’ll learn in 30 seconds why females tend to be choosier about mates than males (eggs are more expensive than sperm), and spend the next 15 minutes having that slowly beaten in your brain using as much empty verbiage as possible. Ditto every other fact on the show.

More galling are the places where animation is cleverly cut with talking head bits so that we end up describing things that were never in the script. I explained on camera about the unavoidably high mortality among juvenile sauropods, and how groups of Deinonychus could probably pick off the baby sauropods like popcorn. I had been speaking of hatchlings, but my words are cut together with a scene–which you’ll see about 15,000 times–of three Deinonychus taking down an elephant-sized subadult Sauroposeidon. In the real world, it would have pulped them. In the dramatically-lit world of Clash of the Dinosaurs, the three raptors inflict a handful of very shallow flesh wounds with their laughably tiny claws and the Sauroposeidon expires theatrically for no visible reason.

(If they really wanted to impress the audience with the implacability of Mesozoic death, they would have shown the three raptors mowing down a field of newly-hatched babies like so much wheat…)

I spent a long time explaining the evidence that sauropods buried their eggs, and at their request I mocked up diagrams showing the possible proportions of a hatchling Sauroposeidon. So naturally the program shows a mother abandoning her eggs in an exposed nest, and then a few minutes later, hatchlings that are perfect miniatures of the adults struggling up out of the ground. I guess they cut the scene in which the Sand Fairy buried the eggs, and lacked the budget to perform the simple morph of the digital model that would have made the babies look like babies, instead of ponderous adults emerging from the Sarlacc pit.

Some may complain that I am picking nits. But what the heck is the point of bringing on scientific advisors if you’re then going to ignore the stuff they tell you? Why not just make the crap up out of the whole cloth? In fact, there is far too much of that in the show. There is no evidence that Quetzalcoatlus could see dinosaur pee with its ultraviolet vision, or that a herd of hadrosaurs could knock over a predator with their concentrated infrasound blasts. Sorry, paleontologists, you’ll be fielding questions about these newly invented “facts” for the next decade at least.

It’s like I had this great working relationship with the researchers, and they were really curious and careful, and we went to great lengths to do the best work we could, and then somewhere in between my filming back in February and the airing of the completed show, all of our diligent work was flushed right down the crapper, and a fresh script was written by a hyperactive child whose only prior preparation was reading Giant-Size X-Men and getting hit on the head a few times.

Do I sound too harsh? I’m just getting started. Let me tell you about the sacral expansion in sauropods.

Back in the Back in the Day

In many sauropods and stegosaurs and a few other archosaurs, the neural canal (the bony tube that houses the spinal cord) is massively enlarged in the sacral vertebrae. This is the origin of the goofy idea that big dinosaurs had a “second brain” back there to control their hind end, because the real brain up front was (supposedly) just too darn tiny and remote. The researchers at Dangerous asked me about this sacral enlargement, and this is what I told them (quoted from an e-mail I sent November 25, 2008):

The sacro-lumbar expansion is possibly the most misunderstood thing in sauropod biology. First, there are two separate things that have been referred to as sacro-lumbar expansions. The first is the slight swelling of the spinal cord in that region in almost all vertebrates, including humans, to accomodate the neurons that help run the hind limbs (you also have a swelling in the spinal cord at the base of your neck to help run your arms). Contrary to popular belief, a lot of your stereotyped actions require little direct involvement from the brain and are instead controlled by the spinal cord. When you walk, for example, most of the motor control is handled by the spinal cord, and your brain only steps in when you have to actually worry about where to place your feet–when you step over a puddle, for example. So there would be nothing remarkable about sauropods using their spinal cords to drive many of their limb movements, this is something that pretty much all vertebrates do, it’s just not widely known to the public. [Aside: this is true. Also, I have heard it claimed that sauropods could not have reared because their brains were too small to coordinate such an action. This was claimed by a non-biologist who evidently doesn’t know how the nervous system works.]

The other sacro-lumbar expansion really is an expansion, but it’s not unique to sauropods and it has nothing to do with running the hind limbs. Most birds have a very large expansion of the spinal cord in the sacro-lumbar region called the glycogen body. As the name implies, it stores energy-rich glycogen, but the function of the glycogen body is very poorly understood. It has been hypothesized to be an accessory organ of balance, or a reservoir of compounds to support the growth and maintenance of the nervous system. Since we don’t even know what it does in birds, we’re straight out of luck when it comes to figuring out what it did in sauropods. Here’s a brief overview:

Here’s an explanatory diagram I sent with the message:

This business about the glycogen body caused some consternation and dithering in the production process. They wanted to bring up the second brain because it’s so entrenched in the popular consciousness (i.e., bad dinosaur books), but they were unhappy that the real explanation turned out to be so unsatisfying (“We don’t know what it does, but not that!”). In the end, we did discuss it briefly on camera. I said something like, “There was this old idea that the sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail. But in fact, it almost certainly contained a glycogen body, like the sacral expansions of birds. Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the glycogen bodies of birds do.”

Somebody in the editing room neatly sidestepped the mystery of the glycogen body by cutting that bit down, so what I am shown saying in the program is this, “The sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail.” I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have a DVR, but that’s basically it. (Update: my memory was pretty good. Here’s the interview transcript.)

Do you see, do you understand, what they did there? I was explaining why an old idea was WRONG and they cut away the frame and left me presenting the discredited idea like it’s hot new science. How freaking unethical is that?

So. I don’t know if the decision to turn my words around 180 degrees was a mistake made by an individual editor, or if it was approved from someplace higher up the line. I aim to find out. Until I do, I’m boycotting Dangerous Ltd, and I encourage you to do likewise.

The Final Insult

Oh, and they spelled my name wrong, throughout. And also mispelled Sauroposeidon in one of the quiz bits at commercial time. “What does Sauroposeiden mean?” It means you don’t know the Greek pantheon, sauropods, or basic spellchecking, dumbasses.

Science journalism FAIL.

UPDATE, January 27, 2010

This is so perfect that it hurts. For “Science Channel” feel free to substitute any of the ignotainment feeds operated by Discovery Communications.