There’s a new paper out, describing the Argentinian titanosaur Mendozasaurus in detail (Gonzalez Riga et al. 2018): 46 pages of multi-view photos, tables of measurement, and careful, detailed description and discussion. But here’s what leapt out at me when I skimmed the paper:

Gonzalez Riga et al. (2018: figure 6). Mendozasaurus neguyelap cervical vertebra (IANIGLA-PV 076/1) in (A) anterior, (B) left lateral, (C) posterior, (D) right lateral, (E) ventral and (F) dorsal views. Scale bar = 150 mm. Sorry it’s monochrome, but that’s how it appears in the paper.

Just look at that thing. It’s ridiculous. In our 2013 PeerJ paper “Why Giraffes have Short Necks” (Taylor and Wedel 2013), we included a “freak gallery” as figure 7: five very different sauropod cervicals:

Taylor and Wedel (2013: figure 7). Disparity of sauropod cervical vertebrae. 1, Apatosaurus “laticollis” Marsh, 1879b holotype YPM 1861, cervical ?13, now referred to Apatosaurus ajax (see McIntosh, 1995), in posterior and left lateral views, after Ostrom & McIntosh (1966, plate 15); the portion reconstructed in plaster (Barbour, 1890, figure 1) is grayed out in posterior view; lateral view reconstructed after Apatosaurus louisae (Gilmore, 1936, plate XXIV). 2, “Brontosaurus excelsus” Marsh, 1879a holotype YPM 1980, cervical 8, now referred to Apatosaurus excelsus (see Riggs, 1903), in anterior and left lateral views, after Ostrom & McIntosh (1966, plate 12); lateral view reconstructed after Apatosaurus louisae (Gilmore, 1936, plate XXIV). 3, “Titanosaurus” colberti Jain & Bandyopadhyay, 1997 holotype ISIR 335/2, mid-cervical vertebra, now referred to Isisaurus (See Wilson & Upchurch, 2003), in posterior and left lateral views, after Jain & Bandyopadhyay (1997, figure 4). 4, “Brachiosaurus” brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181, cervical 8, now referred to Giraffatitan (see Taylor, 2009), in posterior and left lateral views, modified from Janensch (1950, figures 43–46). 5, Erketu ellisoni holotype IGM 100/1803, cervical 4 in anterior and left lateral views, modified from Ksepka & Norell (2006, figures 5a–d).

But this Mendozasaurus vertebra is crazier than any of them, with its tiny centrum, its huge, broad but anteroposteriorly flattened neural spine, and its pronounced lSPRLs.

I just don’t know what to make of this, and neither does Matt. And part of the reason for this may be that neither of us has had that much to do with titanosaurs. As Matt said in email, “Those weird ballooned-up neural spines in titanosaurs kind of freak me out.” And I could not agree more.

And of course as sauropodologists, we really should familiarise ourselves with titanosaurs. There are a lot of them, and they account for a lot of sauropod evolution. Someone recently made the point, either in an SV-POW! comment or on Facebook, that titanosaurs may be to sauropods what monkeys and apes are to primates: a subclade that is way more diverse than the rest of the clade put together.

It’s starting to look like an extreme historical accident that Camarasaurus, diplodocines and brachiosaurids — all temporally and/or geographically restricted groups — were the first well-known sauropods, and for decades defined our notion of what sauropods were like. Meanwhile, the much more widespread and long-surviving rebbachisaurs and titanosaurs were poorly understood until really the last 25 years or so. For the first century of sauropodology, our ideas about sauropods were driven by weird, comparatively short-lived outliers.

That our appreciation of titanosaur diversity has come so late says something about how our discovery of the natural world is more to do with geopolitics and the quirks of exploration than what’s actually out there. Sauropods were defined by diplodocids for so long because that’s what happened to be in the ground in the exposed rocks of North America, and that’s where the well-funded museums and expeditions were.

We at SV-POW! towards have often wondered how different our idea of what dinosaurs even were would be if the Liaoning deposits had been available to Buckland, Mantell, and Owen. It seems like that unavoidable that, if they’d first become familiar with feathered but osteologically aberrant (by modern standards) birds, one of two things would have happened. Either they would either have never coined the term “Dinosauria” at all, recognizing that Megalosaurus (and later Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus) were just big versions of their little feathered ur-birds. Or they would have included Dinosauria as a primitive subclass of Aves.

References

  • González Riga, Bernardo J., Philip D. Mannion, Stephen F. Poropat, Leonardo D. Ortiz David and Juan Pedro Coria. 2018. Osteology of the Late Cretaceous Argentinean sauropod dinosaur Mendozasaurus neguyelap: implications for basal titanosaur relationships. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 46 pages, 28 figures. doi:10.1093/zoolinnean/zlx103
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013. Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks. PeerJ 1:e36. 41 pages, 11 figures, 3 tables. doi:10.7717/peerj.36

 


Note. This post contains material from all three of us (Darren included), harvested from an email conversation.

 

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I imagine that by now, everyone who reads this blog is familiar with Mark Witton’s painting of a giant azhdarchid pterosaur alongside a big giraffe. Here it is, for those who haven’t seen it:

Arambourgiania vs giraffe vs the Disacknowledgement redux Witton ver 2 low res

(This is the fifth and most recent version that Mark has created, taken from 9 things you may not know about giant azhdarchid pterosaurs.)

It’s one of those images that really kicks you in the brain the first time you see it. The idea that an animal the size of a giraffe could fly under its own power seems ludicrous — yet that’s what the evidence tells us.

But wait — what do we mean by “an animal the size of a giraffe”? Yes, the pterosaur in this image is the same height as the giraffe, but how does its weight compare?

Mark says “The giraffe is a big bull Masai individual, standing a healthy 5.6 m tall, close to the maximum known Masai giraffe height.” He doesn’t give a mass, but Wikipedia, citing Owen-Smith (1988), says “Fully grown giraffes stand 5–6 m (16–20 ft) tall, with males taller than females. The average weight is 1,192 kg (2,628 lb) for an adult male and 828 kg (1,825 lb) for an adult female with maximum weights of 1,930 kg (4,250 lb) and 1,180 kg (2,600 lb) having been recorded for males and females, respectively.” So it seems reasonable to use a mass intermediate between those of an average and maximum-sized male, (1192+1930)/2 = 1561 kg.

So much for the giraffe. What does the azhdarchid weigh? The literature is studded with figures that vary wildly, from the 544 kg that Henderson (2010) found for Quetzalcoatlus, right down to the widely cited 70 kg that Chatterjee and Templin (2004) found for the same individual — and even the astonishing 50 kg that seems to be favoured by Unwin (2005:192). In the middle is the 259 kg of Witton (2008).

It occurred to me that I could visualise these mass estimates by shrinking the giraffe in Mark’s image down to the various proposed masses, and seeing how credible it looks to imagine these reduced-sized giraffes weighting the same as the azhdarchid. The maths is simple. For each proposed azhdarchid mass, we figure out what it is as a proportion of the giraffe’s 1561 kg; then the cube root of that mass proportion gives us the linear proportion.

  • 544 kg = 0.389 giraffe masses = 0.704 giraffe lengths
  • 259 kg = 0.166 giraffe masses = 0.549 giraffe lengths
  • 70 kg =0.0448 giraffe masses = 0.355 giraffe lengths

Let’s see how that looks.

Arambourgiania vs giraffe vs the Disacknowledgement redux Witton ver 2 low res

On the left, we have Mark’s artwork, with the giraffe massing 1561 kg. On the right, we have three smaller (isometrically scaled) giraffes of masses corresponding to giant azhdarchid mass estimates in the literature. If Don Henderson (2010) is right, then the pterosaur weighs the same as the 544 kg giraffe, which to me looks pretty feasible if it’s very pneumatic. If Witton (2008) is right, then it weighs the same as the 259 kg giraffe, which I find hard to swallow. And if Chatterjee and Templin (2004) are right, then the giant pterosaur weighs the same as the teeny tiny 70 kg giraffe, which I find frankly ludicrous. (For that matter, 70 kg is in the same size-class as Georgia, the human scale-bar: the idea that she and the pterosaur weigh the same is just silly.)

What is the value of such eyeball comparisons? I’m not sure, beyond a basic reality check. Running this exercise has certainly made me sceptical about even the 250 kg mass range which now seems to be fairly widely accepted among pterosaur workers. Remember, if that mass is correct then the pterosaur and the 259 kg giraffe in the picture above weight the same. Can you buy that?

Or can we find extant analogues? Are there birds and mammals with the same mass that are in the same size relation as these images show?

References

  • Chatterjee, Sankar, and R. J. Templin. 2004. Posture, locomotion, and paleoecology of pterosaurs. Geological Society of America, Special Paper 376. 68 pages.
  • Henderson, Donald M. 2010. Pterosaur body mass estimates from three-dimensional mathematical slicing. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(3):768-785.
  • Witton, Mark P. 2008. A new approach to determining pterosaur body mass and its implications for pterosaur flight. Zitteliana 28:143-159.

In my recent preprint on the incompleteness and distortion of sauropod neck specimens, I discuss three well-known sauropod specimens in detail, and show that they are not as well known as we think they are. One of them is the Giraffatitan brancai lectotype MB.R.2181 (more widely known by its older designation HMN SII), the specimen that provides the bulk of the mighty mounted skeleton in Berlin.

Giraffatitan c8 epipophyses

That photo is from this post, which is why it’s disfigured by red arrows pointing at its epipophyses. But the vertebra in question — the eighth cervical of MB.R.2181 — is a very old friend: in fact, it was the subject of the first ever SV-POW! post, back in 2007.

In the reprint, to help make the point that this specimen was found extremely disarticulated, I reproduce Heinrich (1999:figure 16), which is Wolf-Dieter Heinrich’s redrawing of Janensch’s original sketch map of Quarry S, made in 1909 or 1910. Here it is again:

Taylor 2015: Figure 5. Quarry map of Tendaguru Site S, Tanzania, showing incomplete and jumbled skeletons of Giraffatitan brancai specimens MB.R.2180 (the lectotype, formerly HMN SI) and MB.R.2181 (the paralectotype, formerly HMN SII). Anatomical identifications of SII are underlined. Elements of SI could not be identified with certainty. From Heinrich (1999: figure 16), redrawn from an original field sketch by Werner Janensch.

Taylor 2015: Figure 5. Quarry map of Tendaguru Site S, Tanzania, showing incomplete and jumbled skeletons of Giraffatitan brancai specimens MB.R.2180 (the lectotype, formerly HMN SI) and MB.R.2181 (the paralectotype, formerly HMN SII). Anatomical identifications of SII are underlined. Elements of SI could not be identified with certainty. From Heinrich (1999: figure 16), redrawn from an original field sketch by Werner Janensch.

For the preprint, as for this blog-post (and indeed the previous one), I just went right ahead and included it. But the formal version of the paper (assuming it passes peer-review) will by very explicitly under a CC By licence, so the right thing to do is get formal permission to include it under those terms. So I’ve been trying to get that permission.

What a stupid, stupid waste of time.

Heinrich’s paper appeared in the somewhat cumbersomely titled Mitteilungen aus dem Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Geowissenschaftliche Reihe, published as a subscription journal by Wiley. Happily, that journal is now open access, published by Pensoft as The Fossil Record. So I wrote to the Fossil Record editors to request permission. They wrote back, saying:

We are not the right persons for your question. The Wiley Company holds the copyright and should therefore be asked. Unfortunately, I do not know who is the correct person.

I didn’t know who to ask, either, so I tweeted a question, and copyright guru Charles Oppenheim suggested that I email permissions@wiley.com. I did, only to get the following automated reply:

Dear Customer,

Thank you for your enquiry.

We are currently experiencing a large volume of email traffic and will deal with your request within the next 15 working days.

We are pleased to advise that permission for the majority of our journal content, and for an increasing number of book publications, may be cleared more quickly by using the RightsLink service via Wiley’s websites http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com and www.wiley.com.

Within the next fifteen working days? That is, in the next three weeks? How can it possibly take that long? Are they engraving their response on a corundum block?

So, OK, let’s follow the automated suggestion and try RightsLink. I went to the Wiley Online Library, and searched for journals whose names contain “naturkunde”. Only one comes up, and it’s not the right one. So Wiley doesn’t admit the existence of the journal.

Despite this, Google finds the article easily enough with a simple title search. From the article’s page, I can just click on the “Request Permissions”  link on the right, and …

rightslink-fail

Well, there’s lots to enjoy here, isn’t there? First, and most important, it doesn’t actually work: “Permission to reproduce this content cannot be granted via the RightsLink service.” Then there’s that cute little registered-trademark symbol “®” on the name RightsLink, because it’s important to remind me not to accidentally set up my own rights-management service with the same name. In the same vein, there’s the “Copyright © 2015 Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. All Rights Reserved” notice at the bottom — copyright not on the content that I want to reuse, but on the RightsLink popup itself. (Which I guess means I am in violation for including the screenshot above.) Oh, and there’s the misrendering of “Museum für Naturkunde” as “Museum für Naturkunde”.

All of this gets me precisely nowhere. As far as I can tell, my only recourse now is to wait three weeks for Wiley to get in touch with me, and hope that they turn out to be in favour of science.

sadness_____by_aoao2-d430zrm

It’s Sunday afternoon. I could be watching Ireland play France in the Rugby World Cup. I could be out at Staverton, seeing (and hearing) the world’s last flying Avro Vulcan overfly Gloucester Airport for the last time. I could be watching Return of the Jedi with the boys, in preparation for the forthcoming Episode VII. Instead, here I am, wrestling with copyright.

How absolutely pointless. What a terrible waste of my life.

Is this what we want researchers to be spending their time on?

Promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts, indeed.

Update (13 October 2015): a happy outcome (this time)

I was delighted, on logging in this morning, to find I had email from RIGHTS-and-LICENCES@wiley-vch.de with the subject “Permission to reproduce Heinrich (1999:fig. 16) under CC By licence” — a full thirteen working days earlier than expected. They were apologetic and helpful. Here is key part of what they said:

We are of course happy to handle your request directly from our office – please find the requested permission here:
We hereby grant permission for the requested use expected that due credit is given to the original source.
If material appears within our work with credit to another source, authorisation from that source must be obtained.
Credit must include the following components:
– Journals: Author(s) Name(s): Title of the Article. Name of the Journal. Publication  year. Volume. Page(s). Copyright Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA. Reproduced with permission.

So this is excellent. I would of course have included all those elements in the attribution anyway, with the exception that it might not have occurred to me to state who the copyright holder is. But there is no reason to object to that.

So, two cheers for Wiley on this occasion. I had to waste some time, but at least none of it was due to deliberate obstructiveness, and most importantly they are happy for their figure to be reproduced under CC By.

References

  • Heinrich, Wolf-Dieter. 1999. The taphonomy of dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Tendaguru, Tanzania (East Africa), based on field sketches of the German Tendaguru expedition (1909-1913). Mitteilungen aus dem Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Geowissenschaftliche Reihe 2:25-61.

We’ve touched on this several times in various posts and comment threads, but it’s worth taking a moment to think in detail about the various published mass estimates for the single specimen MB.R.2181 (formerly known as HMN SII), the paralectotype of Giraffatitan brancai, which is the basis of the awesome mounted skeleton in Berlin.

Here is the table of published estimates from my 2010 sauropod-history paper, augmented with the two more recent estimates extrapolated from limb-bone measurements:

Author and date Method Volume (l) Density (kg/l) Mass (kg)
Janensch (1938) Not specified `40 t’
Colbert (1962) Displacement of sand 86,953 0.9 78,258
Russell et al. (1980) Limb-bone allometry 13,618
Anderson et al. (1985) Limb-bone allometry 29,000
Paul (1988) Displacement of water 36,585 0.861 31,500
Alexander (1989) Weighing in air and water 46,600 1.0 46,600
Gunga et al. (1995) Computer model 74,420 1.0 74,420
Christiansen (1997) Weighing in air and water 41,556 0.9 37,400
Henderson (2004) Computer model 32,398 0.796 25,789
Henderson (2006) Computer model 25,922
Gunga et al. (2008) Computer model 47,600 0.8 38,000
Taylor (2009) Graphic double integration 29,171 0.8 23,337
Campione and Evans (2012) Limb-bone allometry 35,780
Benson et al. (2014) Limb-bone allometry 34,000

(The estimate of Russell et al. (1980) is sometimes reported as 14900 kg. However, they report their estimate only as “14.9 t”; and since they also cite “the generally accepted figure of 85 tons”, which can only be a reference to Colbert (1962)”, we must assume that Russell et al. were using US tons throughout.)

The first thing to notice is that there is no very clear trend through time, either upwards or downwards. Here’s a plot of mass (y-axis) against year of estimate (x-axis):

giraffatitan-mass-by-year

I’ve not even tried to put a regression line through this: the outliers are so extreme they’d render it pretty much useless.

In fact, the lowest and highest estimates differ by a factor of 5.75, which is plainly absurd.

But we can go some way to fixing this by discarding the outliers. We can dump Colbert (1962) and Alexander (1989) as they used overweight toys as their references. We more or less have to dump Russell et al. (1980) simply because it’s impossible to take seriously. (Yes, this is the argument from personal incredulity, and I don’t feel good about it; but as Pual (1988) put it, “so little flesh simply cannot be stretched over the animal’s great frame”.) And we can ignore Gunga et al. (1995) because it used circular conic sections — a bug fixed by Gunga et al. (2008) by using elliptical sections.

With these four unpalatable outliers discarded, our highest and lowest estimates are those of Gunga et al. (2008) at 38,000 kg and Taylor (2009)at 23,337. The former should be taken seriously as it was done using photogrammetrical measurements of the actual skeletal mount. And so should the latter because Hurlburt (1999) showed that GDI is generally the least inaccurate of our mass-estimation techniques. That still gives us a factor of 1.63. That’s the difference between a lightweight 66 kg man and and overweight 108 kg.

Here’s another way of thinking about that 1.63 factor. Assuming two people are the same height, one of them weighing 1.62 times as much as the other means he has to be 1.28 times as wide and deep as the first (1.28^2 = 1.63). Here is a man next to his 1.28-times-as-wide equivalent:

two-men

 

I would call that a very noticeable difference. You wouldn’t expect someone estimating the mass of one of these men to come up with that of the other.

So what’s going on here? I truly don’t know. We are, let’s not forget, dealing with a complete skeletal mount here, one of the very best sauropod specimens in the world, which has been extensively studied for a century. Yet even within the last six years, we’re getting masses that vary by as much as the two dudes above.

 

When Fiona checked her email this morning, she found this note from our next-door neighbour Jenny:

Hi
I seem to remember Mike wanting a mole – I do hope so because I’ve left you a body on your patio in a cereal box!

Cheers Jen x

What a delightful surprise! And here it is:

The SV-POW! mole, intact

The SV-POW! mole, intact

And a close-up of that awesome digging hand:

The SV-POW! mole, right manus

The SV-POW! mole, right manus

I don’t have time to deal with it properly right now, so it’s gone into a plastic box with some small holes in the lid, where I will trust invertebrates to do my work for me — as they did to great effect with the juvenile baby rabbit whose skeleton I must show you some time.

The end-game here is of course to obtain a complete skeleton; but if not that, then at least the upper-arm bones. I’m on record as saying that next to sauropod vertebrae, mole humeri are the bones that move me most; and elsewhere I nominated mole humeri in response to John Hutchinson’s question, “what are the strangest animal bones (in form & function etc) that have ever been discovered?”

Here’s why:

Left: rat humerus (for comparison), Right: mole humerus. The rat humerus is unfused on top, which is why there is a visible gap between the two parts.

Left: rat humerus (for comparison), Right: mole humerus. The rat humerus is unfused on top, which is why there is a visible gap between the two parts.

I stole this picture from an Ossamenta post, The strangest animal bone?. Get yourself over there for more wacky rat-vs.-mole comparisons!

Christine Argot of the MNHN, Paris, drew our attention to this wonderful old photo (from here, original caption reproduced below):

© Paleontological Museum, Moscow In the beginning of XX century, the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery (named after prof. Amalitsky) became the gold basis of the exhibition hall of ancient life in the Geological Museum of St-Petersburg. The museum hall was completed with a cast of the Diplodicus carnegii skeleton presented by E.Carnegy fund in 1913, at the 300-th anniversary of the Romanovs dynasty.

© Paleontological Museum, Moscow
In the beginning of XX century, the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery (named after prof. Amalitsky) became the gold basis of the exhibition hall of ancient life in the Geological Museum of St-Petersburg. The museum hall was completed with a cast of the Diplodicus carnegii skeleton presented by E.Carnegy fund in 1913, at the 300-th anniversary of the Romanovs dynasty.

I found a different version of what seems to be the same photo (greyscaled, lower resolution, but showing more of the surrounding area) here:

1932-jyosqjdogynshijh rp cpodtegqnhjimtgalwjo

What we have here is a truly bizarre mount of Diplodocus — almost certainly one of the casts of the D. carnegii holotype CM 84 — with perfectly erect, parasagittal hind-limbs, but bizarrely everted elbows.

There are a few mysteries here.

First, where and when was this photo taken? Christine’s email described this as a “picture of a Diplodocus cast taken in St. Petersburg around 1920″, and the caption above seems to confirm that location; but then why is it copyright the Paleontological Museum, Moscow? Since the web-site in question is for a Swedish museum, it’s not forthcoming.

The second photo is from the web-site of the Borisyak Paleontological Institute in Moscow, but that site unfortunately provides no caption. The juxtaposition with two more modern Diplodocus-skeleton photos that are from its own gallery perhaps suggest that the modern mount shown in the more recent photographs is a re-pose of the old mount in the black-and white photo. If so, that might mean that the skeleton was actually in Moscow all along rather than St. Petersburg, or perhaps that it was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow and  remounted there.

Does anyone know? Has anyone out there visited the St. Petersburg museum recently and seen whether there is still a Diplodocus skeleton there? If so, is it still mounted in this bizarre way? Better yet, do you have photos?

Tornier's sprawling, disarticulated reconstruction of Diplodocus, modified from Tornier (1909, plate II).

Tornier’s sprawling, disarticulated reconstruction of Diplodocus, modified from Tornier (1909, plate II).

The second question of course is why was this posture used? This pose makes no sense for several reasons — one of which is that even if Diplodocus could attain this posture it would only serve to leave the forefeet under the torso in the same position as erect forelimbs would have them. The pose only makes any kind of sense at all if you imagine the animal lowering its torso to drink; but given that it had a flexible six-meter-long neck, that hardly seems necessary.

Of course Diplodocus does have a history of odd postures: because of the completeness of the D. carnegii holotype, it became the subject of the Sauropod Posture Wars between Tornier, Hay and Holland in the early 20th Century. Both Tornier (1909) and Hay (1910) favoured a sprawling posture like that of lizards (see images above and below), and were soundly refuted by Holland

The form and attitudes of Diplodocus. Hay (1910: plate 1)

The form and attitudes of Diplodocus. Hay (1910: plate 1)

But the Tornier and Hay postures bear no relation to that of the mounted skeleton in the photographs above: they position the forefeet far lateral to the torso, and affect the hindlimbs as well as the forelimbs. So whatever the Russian mount was doing, I don’t think it can have been intended as a representation of the Tornier/Hay hypothesis.

But it gets even weirder. Christine tells me that “I’m aware of […] the tests that Holland performed on the Russian cast to get rid of the hypothesis suggesting a potential lizard-like posture. So I think that he would have never allowed such a posture for one of the casts he mounted himself.” Now I didn’t know that Holland had executed the mounting of this cast. Assuming that’s right, it makes it even more inexplicable that he would have allowed such a posture.

Or did he?

Christine’s email finishes by asking: “What do you think? do you think that somebody could have come behind Holland to change the position? do you know any colleague or publication who could mention this peculiar cast and comment its posture?”

Can anyone help?

References

  • Hay, Oliver. P. 1910. On the manner of locomotion of the dinosaurs, especially Diplodocus, with remarks on the origin of birds. Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences 12(1):1-25.
  • Holland, W. J. 1910. A review of some recent criticisms of the restorations of sauropod dinosaurs existing in the museums of the United States, with special reference to that of Diplodocus carnegiei in the Carnegie museum. American Naturalist 44:259-283.
  • Nieuwland, Ilja. 2010. The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European Culture, 1904–1912. Endeavour 34(2):61-68.
  • Tornier, Gustav. 1909. Wie war der Diplodocus carnegii wirklich gebaut? Sitzungsbericht der Gesellschaft naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin 4:193– 209.

As we all know, University libraries have to pay expensive subscription fees to scholarly publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa, so that their researchers can read articles written by their colleagues and donated to those publishers. Controversially (and maybe illegally), when negotiating contracts with libraries, publishers often insist on confidentiality clauses — so that librarians are not allowed to disclose how much they are paying. The result is an opaque market with no downward pressure on prices, hence the current outrageously high prices, which are rising much more quickly than inflation even as publishers’ costs shrink due to the transition to electronic publishing.

On Thursday 11 April 2013, Oxford University hosted a conference called Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science. The evening event was a debate on the subject Evolution or Revolution In Science Communication. During this debate, Stephen Curry of Imperial College noted that his librarian isn’t allowed to tell him how much they pay for Elsevier journals. This is the response of David Tempest, Elsevier’s Deputy Director of Universal Sustainable Research Access.

Heres’ a transcript

Curry [in reference to the previous answer]: I’m glad David Tempest is so interested in librarians being able to make costs transparent to their users, because at my university, Imperial College, my chief librarian can not tell me how much she pays for Elsevier journals because she’s bound by a confidentiality clause. Would you like to address that?

[Loud applause for the question]

Tempest: Well, indeed there are confidentiality clauses inherent in the system, in our Freedom Collections. The Freedom Collections do give a lot of choice and there is a lot of discount in there to the librarians. And the use, and the cost per use has been dropping dramatically, year on year. And so we have to ensure that, in order to have fair competition between different countries, that we have this level of confidentiality to make that work. Otherwise everybody would drive down, drive down, drive drive drive, and that would mean that …

[The last  part is drowned in the laughter of the audience.]

So there you have it: confidentiality clauses exist because otherwise everybody would drive down prices. And we can’t have that, can we?

(Is this extracted segment of video unfairly misrepresenting Tempest? No. To see that for yourself, I highly recommend that you watch the video of the whole debate. It’s long — nearly two hours — but well worth the time. The section I used here starts at 1:09:50.)