Prologue

Back when I started writing about issues in scholarly publishing, I would sometimes write about the distinction between for-profit (bad) and non-profit (good) publishers. While I still recognise this as an issue, thinking it through over the last few years has made it clear that this distinction is largely orthogonal to the one that really matters — which is between open and non-open publishers.

In fact, all four quadrants exist:

 For-profit  Non-profit
 Open  PeerJ  PLOS
 Non-Open  Elsevier  ACS

ACS may be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and PeerJ may be a private company primarily owned by two individuals — but it’s PeerJ that’s pushing openness forward, and ACS doing quite the opposite.

Logue

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Beautifully preserved cervical vertebra of Barosaurus in the prep. lab at the North American Museum of Ancient Life (NAMAL).

I’ve found myself thinking about this recently for two reasons.

The first is that, like anyone who works on sauropods, I’ve had involvement with specimens at the Sauriermuseum Aathal (SMA), a privately owned museum in Switzerland that holds some astonishingly beautiful and complete specimens, including the Kaatedocus holotype, SMA 0009. In particular, I’ve been invited a few times to peer-review manuscripts describing SMA specimens, and I’ve always felt conflicted about this because of the SVP’s strong position on privately held specimens.

The second thing that’s pushed me to rethink the private-public distinction has been working on Barosaurus. Our experiences with specimens have been varied. Yale University was very helpful when we went to see the holotype YPM 429, and BYU really couldn’t have done more for us on our recent visit. This is what we would hope for, of course. But what we didn’t particularly anticipate is how generous and helpful the people at the commercial fossil hunters Western Paleo Labs would be. When, visiting the North American Museum of Ancient Life, we gazed in awe through their prep. lab window at their several gorgeous Barosaurus cervicals (see photo above), they invited us in to play with them. (The vertebrae, not the people.)

And that made me think about our much less satisfactory experience trying to photograph the presacrals of AMNH 6341 at the American Museum of Natural History — they are entombed in a glass case surmounted by a not-really-transparent walkway:

amnh-presacrals

Which meant that, when trying to obtain dorsal-view photographs, I had to use this technique:

amnh-photography

With results like these:

amnh-dorsal-view

Now I want to be clear that everyone we dealt with at the AMNH was as helpful as they could be. No-one that we met there was in any way obstructive. Yet the fact remains, the crucially important presacral verterbrae of the most widely recognised Barosaurus in the world were essentially impossible to study.

Worse: papers that have been published about those specimens are now essentially irreproducible, because the specimens are not really available for re-study — much as though they’d been sold to Nicolas Cage to display over his mantelpiece.

Whereas the Barosaurus vertebrae at Western Paleo Labs do seem to be available for study.

Hmm.

Just as we were mistaken in focussing primarily on the for-profit/non-profit distinction between publishers when what we really cared about was the open/non-open distinction, could it be that we’ve been misfocussing on the public/private ownership distinction when what we really care about is availability of specimens?

Is there a way to be confident about which museums will and will not always make specifimens available for study? Here’s where my knowledge cuts out, but one would think this would be the key element in museum certification. But then no doubt museum certification is done differently in different jurisdictions. Knowing that a German museum is accredited may tell you something completely different from knowing that an American museum is accredited.

So perhaps what we need is some globally recognised statement that any museum in the world can sign up to: formally committing to keep its specimens available to researchers; and comitting never to sell them to any party that has not also signed up to the statement.

Epilogue

It’s worth noting the Sauriermuseum Aathal seems, as far as I’ve ever heard, to have conducted itself in every way as we would wish. They seem pretty unambiguously to be among the good guys. More: they seem to have unilaterally done more or less what I advocated above: their website declares:

Declaration Concern: Holotypes of the fossil-collection of the Sauriermuseum Aathal.

The Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (SMA), is being recognized more and more as valuable scientific institution. We hereby state publicly the SMA policy concerning holotype specimens. We recognize the importance of these reference specimens for science, and strongly agree that they have to be available for science in perpetuity. Therefore, we declare that all holotypes present at the Sauriermuseum Aathal, Switzerland (and all new holotypes that will be described in future), will always be publicly accessible to all bona fide researchers, and will never be allowed to be sold to any private collection.

Are they one step ahead of us? And if so, should we cast off our reservations about publishing on their specimens?

 

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Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)

google-search-for-nhm

In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)

The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.

And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.

diplodocus_nocopyright

As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:

The London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.

There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.

So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.

Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.

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I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.

The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.

Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.

One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.

There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.

Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?

The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:

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Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?

All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.

I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.

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(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)

So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.