August 15, 2017

Here is a fascinating sequence of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebra — AMNH FARB 291 from the”Big Bone Room” at the AMNH:

AMNH FARB 291, five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in right lateral view. The vertebrae are embedded in a plaster block, which has been desaturated in this image.

Matt and I first saw this specimen back in February 2009, when we were mostly there to look at Apatosarusminimus (and then again in 2012). As soon as our eyes lit on it, we couldn’t help but be captivated by its bizarre biconcave centra. We immediately started flippantly referring to it as “Biconcavoposeidon” — the ugliest name we could come up with — and in our subsequent discussions the name has stuck (often abbreviated to “BCP”).

  • Taxonomic note: for avoidance of doubt, “Biconcavoposeidon” is not and will never be a formal taxonomic name, only an informal specimen nickname. If at some future point we conclude that this specimen represents a new taxon, and name it, we will definitely not use the name “Biconcavoposeidon”. If you ever use the name, please do not set it in italics.

As you can see in this front view, the specimen is sheared: the upper part of the vertebrae have been displaced to their left (which is the right as we see it in this image):

AMNH FARB 291, most anterior of five consecutive posterior dorsal vertebrae of a probably brachiosaurid sauropod, in anterior view.

Apart from the shearing, though, and the truncation of the neural spines shortly above the transverse processes, the specimen is in pretty good nick. Crucially, it’s not been “restored” in plaster to conceal what is and is not real bone — unlike many specimens of that era. It came out of the Bone Cabin quarry in 1898, back when scientific information was routinely discarded in order to obtain a more beautiful-looking specimen.

This is the specimen that I’ll be presenting at SVPCA this year — though only as a poster, unfortunately: there’s no talk for me, Matt or Darren this year. We’ve posted our abstract (including the illustration above) to the nascent PeerJ collection for SVPCA 2017, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the materials from that conference — abstracts, then manuscripts, then papers — appearing in the collection.

So far as we know, there’s no other sauropod specimen with biconcave posterior dorsal vertebrae. (And, no, Amphicoelias is not an exception, despite its name.) But have we missed any?

Excellent news this morning in a press-release from the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics:

At the end of June 2017, the four editors-in-chief of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics informed Springer that they will not renew their contracts, which terminate on 31 December 2017. Nearly all of the editorial board members will also resign, to form the editorial board of a new journal that will be called Algebraic Combinatorics, run according to Fair Open Access Principles.

The part that I like most here is the sense that it’s part of an inevitable and historic shift away from legacy publishers and their subscription paywalls. Here’s what Hugh Thomas, one of JACo’s four Editors-in-Chief, said when asked “why now?”:

There wasn’t a particular crisis. It has been becoming more and more clear that commercial journal publishers are charging high subscription fees and high Article Processing Charges (APCs), profiting from the volunteer labour of the academic community, and adding little value. It is getting easier and easier to automate the things that they once took care of.

This seems exactly right to me. In the past, subscription journals’ flips to open access have mostly been precipitated by some specific event — often, a hefty price rise. But I think we’re now at the point where the inherent advantages of open access are so obvious to editors, and the contribution provided by traditional publishers are so small relative to the costs they impose, that simply walking away is an increasingly attractive option.

It’s not that Springer did something wrong. It’s just that what they’re doing that’s right isn’t enough to justify the damage that their paywalls and other control mechanisms do.

BTW., the flip was advised and facilitated by MathOA, a new organisation that aims to do for mathematics what LingOA has been doing for linguistics. May they both have many more successes!

This week, psychologists are the newest group of scholars to learn that their “publishers” are dedicated to preventing their work from being made public. The American Psychological Association launched a pilot to monitor and seek removal of unauthorized online postings of APA journal articles. What this meant in practice was sending DMCA takedown notices to researchers, telling them to take copies of their own papers off their departmental web-pages. This has raised predictable and justified anger in the community.

Was this legal on APA’s part? Unquestionably, yes. They own the copyright in the articles, and determine how they can be used. But that does not make it acceptable. As Rik Smith-Unna‏ put it this very morning:

Absolutely, academic publishers requiring copyright transfer is always predatory. They don’t say it before submission or explain it clearly. Once the paper is accepted, to say “We’re not publishing unless you assign copyright”, is highly unethical. Months of your time and energy held to ransom.

The APA has since backed down — or “refocused”, as they put it — which is to be welcomed. But it may be too late. They may already have made an important contribution towards radicalising a new segment of the scholarly community. Psychologists are now more aware of how much control they give up to the APA when they publish in their journals.

The thing is, there is simply no need for us authors to put ourselves in this position. As copyright specialist Charles Oppenheim explains:

Journals do not need copyright in articles to publish them. They never have. It’s only tradition that means they keep asking for it. In other areas — novels, for example — it’s completely routine for the author to remain the copyright holder, and for the publisher merely to be given a licence to publish. And this is how it should be for scholarly articles as well.

None of this a new insight, of course. Just last month, Times Higher Education urged its readers that academics ‘should not sign over research copyright to publishers’, citing a report that discusses the matter in detail. And of course we’ve discussed such matter many times here on SV-POW!. Here are a few:

There is absolutely no legitimate reason for journals to take authors’ copyright away, and a journal that exists to serve scholarship will not do so. Which leads me to …

Fair OA Principle 2. Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.

This is an important question, and one that is all too easy to overlook. No doubt the editorial board of Lingua assumed that they owned and controlled their journal, right up to the moment they decided to find a different publisher who would help them transition to reasonably priced open access. Only then did Elsevier flex their muscles and tell them “no”. Which is why the board left the journal en masse and started a new journal, Glossa, which is the continuation of the old one in everything but name.

An editorial board can influence a journal’s direction; but really, the board, or other representatives of the scholarly community, need to own a journal in order to be free to take it in the direction that best benefits that community.

This is the reason that I can’t quite be completely satisfied by what is unquestionably my favourite journal, PeerJ: it’s privately owned by its two founders, one personal investor and one corporate investor. Everything they have done so far indicates that they are genuinely running the journal in the best interests of the scholarly community: but what happens if Elsevier decides that PeerJ is a threat, and offers the founders $20M each to sell up? We can’t really tell.

This is one area where the older and more pedestrian PLOS ONE still scores over PeerJ, despite its antiquated numbered references and inflated APC: it’s owned by PLOS, which states on its very front page that “PLOS is a nonprofit publisher, innovator and advocacy organization.” The footer of every page on their site says “PLOS is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, #C2354500, and is based in San Francisco, California, US”.

(In the US, all 501(c)(3) entities — or charities, as we call them in Britain — must disclose their tax-exemption applications on demand, and the IRS can provide copies directly. Though PLOS could get some bonus openness points by putting the relevant documents right there on the site.)

As a palaeontologist, even though I no longer submit to non-open-access journals, I am concerned about ownership of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology and of Palaeontology. I know these journals were started by, and are run by, their Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Palaeontological Association respectively — but do these organisations own the journals, or do their publishers (Taylor & Francis and Wiley respectively)? It may turn out that it never matters — but it may turn out that it matters enormously. That’s the point, really: we can’t tell.

That’s why a whole section of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure — a third of the substance of that document — is dedicated to governance. It’s crucial for real, reliable and sustainable open access. Which leads me to …

Fair OA Principle 1. The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community.

Step 1: Include the Share-Alike provision in your Creative Commons license, as in the mysteriously popular CC BY-SA and CC BY-NC-SA.

Step 2: Listen to the crickets. You’re done. Congratulations! No-one will ever use your silhouette in a scientific paper, and they probably won’t use your stuff in talks or posters either. Luxuriate in your obscurity and wasted effort.

Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis by Andrew A. Farke, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of PhyloPic.org.


PhyloPic is the incredibly useful thing that Mike Keesey made where makers upload silhouettes of organisms and then people can use them in papers, posters, talks, on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and so on.

At least, they can if the image license allows it. And tons of them don’t, because people include the stupid Non-Commercial (NC) and even stupider Share-Alike (SA) provisions in their image licenses. (Need a refresher on what those are? See the tutorial on licenses.)

Why are these things dumb? Well, you could make a case for NC, but it will still probably kill most potential uses of your images. Most journals are run by companies — well, most are run by incredibly rapacious corporations that extract insane profits from the collective suckerhood that is academia — and using such an image in a for-profit journal would break the Non-Commercial clause. Even open-access journals are a bit murky.

But Share-Alike is way, way worse. What it means is that any derivative works that use material released under CC-BY-SA have to be released under that license as well. Share-Alike came to us from the world of software, where it actually has some important uses, which Mike will expand upon in the next post. But when it comes to PhyloPic or pretty much any other quasi-academic arena, including the Share-Alike provision is misguided.

As of this writing, PhyloPic has two silhouettes of Panphagia. I can actually show you this one, because it doesn’t have the Share-Alike license attached. The other one is inaccessible. Image by Ricardo N. Martinez and Oscar A. Alcober, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of PhyloPic.org.

Why not Share-Alike?

Why is Share-Alike so dumb for PhyloPic? It’s a viral license that in this context accomplishes nothing for the creator. Because the downstream material must also be CC BY-SA (minimally, or CC BY-NC-SA), almost any conceivable use is prevented:

  • People can’t use the images in barrier-based journals, because they’re copyrighted.
  • People can’t use the images in almost all OA journals, because they’re CC BY, and authors can’t just impose a more restrictive license on them willy-nilly.
  • People can’t use the images in their talks or posters, unless they want to make their talks and posters CC BY-SA. Even people who do release their talks and posters out into the wild are probably going to use CC BY if they use anything; they care about being cited, not about forcing downstream users to adopt a pointlessly restrictive license.
  • People probably can’t use the images on t-shirts or bumper stickers; at least, I have a hard time imagining how a physical object could meet the terms of CC BY-SA, unless it’s being given away for free. And even if one could, most downstream creators probably won’t want the headache — they’ll grab a similar image released under a less restrictive license and move on.
  • I can’t even blog the CC BY-SA images because everything we put on this blog is CC BY (except where noted by a handful of more restrictive museum image use policies), and it would more than a little ironic to make this one post CC BY-SA, which it would have to be if it included CC BY-SA images.

You may think I’m exaggerating the problem. I’m not. If you look at the Aquilops paper (Farke et al. 2014), you’ll see a lot of ceratopsian silhouettes drawn by Andy Farke. We were making progress on the paper and when it came time to finish the illustrations, most of the silhouettes we needed had the Share-Alike provision, which made them useless to us. So Andy drew his own. And while he was doing that, I took some of my old sauropod drawings and converted them to silhouettes and uploaded them. Both of us used CC BY, because all we care about is getting cited. And now people are using — and citing! — Andy’s and my drawings in preference to others, some arguably better (at least for the sauropods), that have pointlessly restrictive licenses.

So we have this ridiculous situation where a ton of great images on PhyloPic are essentially unusable, because people put them up under a license that sounds cool but actually either outright blocks or at least has a chilling effect on almost any conceivable use.

Is this a good silhouette of Camarasaurus? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s beside the point: this is currently the only silhouette of Camarasaurus on PhyloPic that you can actually use. By Mathew Wedel, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of PhyloPic.org.

What I do about this

Here’s my take: I care about one thing and one thing only, which is credit. All I need is CC BY. If someone wants to take my stuff and put it in a product and charge a profit, I say go for it — because legally every copy of that product has to have my name on it somewhere, credited as the creator of the image. I may not be making any money off that product, but I’m at least getting exposure. If I go CC BY-NC, then I also don’t get any money, and now I don’t even get that exposure. Why would I hack my own foot off like that? And I don’t use CC BY-SA because I don’t write software, so it has only downsides to offer me.

Now, there are certainly artists in the world with sufficient talent to sell t-shirts and prints. But even for them I’m skeptical that CC BY-NC has much to offer for their PhyloPic silhouettes. I know we’re all nuts around here for monochrome filled outlines of dead animals, but let’s be real, they’re a niche market at best for clothing and lifestyle goods. Personally I’d rather get the citations than prevent someone in Birmingham or Bangkok from selling cladogram t-shirts with tiny copies of my drawings, and I think that would still be true even if I was a professional artist.

What you should do about this

I suspect that a lot of people reading this post are dinosaur enthusiasts. If you are, and you’d like to get your name into published scientific work (whether you pursue writing and publishing yourself or not), get drawin’, and upload those babies using CC-BY. Make sure it is your own original work, not just a skin thrown over someone else’s skeletal recon, and don’t spam PhyloPic with garbage. But if you can execute a technical drawing of a critter, there’s a good chance it will be used and cited. Not only because there are still holes in PhyloPic’s coverage, but because so many otherwise great images on PhyloPic are locked up behind restrictive licenses. To pick an example nearly at random, PhyloPic has two silhouettes of Pentaceratops, and both of them are useless because of the Share-Alike provision in their licenses. You have an opportunity here. Don’t tarry.

If you already uploaded stuff to PhyloPic using CC BY-SA for whatever reason (it sounded cool, Joe Chill murdered your folks, you didn’t realize that it was academic reuse equivalent of radioactive syphilis), change it or replace it. Because all it is doing right now is driving PhyloPic users to other people’s work. Really, honestly, all you are doing is wasting your time by uploading this stuff, and wasting the time of PhyloPic users who have to hover over your pictures to find out that they’re inaccessible.

You don’t get any credit if no-one ever uses your stuff. Or, more precisely, you get 100% of a pie that doesn’t exist. That’s dumb. Stop doing it.


Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055

This tired old argument came up again on Twitter this evening, in light of Elsevier’s me-too announcement of a preprint archive:

Brian Nosek‏: Elsevier enters the biology #preprints space: https://www.elsevier.com/solutions/ssrn/biorn
Brian Lucey‏: I’ve used SSRN from its inception. Never ever felt it as anything but useful. That’s not changed with Elsevier.

And elsewhere in the same thread:

Me: We want preprints to be supported by community-owned initiatives that will not try to take total control.
William Gunn: Well, you said the same stuff about Mendeley and it wasn’t true then, either, so…

So what’s the problem? Mendeley and SSRN are still around, right

Yes, they are. But they continue to exist only by the grace of Elsevier. At any moment, that could change. And here’s why.

Subway is a chain of fast-food outlets that makes sandwiches. As it happens there is a branch in Cinderford, the nearest town to where I live. Which is nice.

Now everyone knows and understands that Subway is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s fine: no-one resents it, because it’s what it is. If the Cinderford branch makes money for them, they’ll keep it open and everyone will be happy. But if it doesn’t, then they’ll close that branch and no-one will be surprised. Because Subway’s mission is not to bring dining options to rural England, but to make money. No harm, no foul, that is just what they are.

But by the same token, Elsevier is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s not a controversial claim, it’s a simple statement of fact. And it’s not a criticism, it’s just recognising reality. We don’t even need to resent it: we just need to recognise it, and make our choices accordingly.

Now, from Elsevier’s perspective, Mendeley and SSRN, and indeed BioRN, are simply branches of Subway. They exist to make money for their shareholders. That’s their mission. Once more, not a criticism: just a fact.

But what this means is that the moment they are not making money, they will be shut down, just as the Cinderford branch of Subway would be. And, for that matter, just as BioMedNet, ChemWeb and ElsevierEngineering were shut down. Because Elsevier’s mission is not to further scholarship, it’s to make money. Again, not a criticism: just a fact.

What does it mean for Mendeley and SSN to “make money”? It may be that these branches of the Elsevier empire provide very little in the way of direct revenue. But someone will have run the numbers and shown that what they cost to run is less than their value to the corporation in terms of visibility, PR, drawing customers into other Elsevier products, etc. If it weren’t so, then they wouldn’t be running these services — because their responsibility is to shareholders, not scholars.

And you can bet that as soon as they day comes that they conclude Mendeley and SSRN are not paying for themselves, those services will go down in flames.

Now. It’s fine if Subway run their Cinderford branch for eighteen months and then decide it’s not working out. if they close it, I can just go down the road and get a kebab or a Chinese. But it’s not fine if scholarly infrastructure vanishes, or changes its terms, or becomes available only to members, or what have you. We need to be able to rely on scholarly infrastructure. Which is why in the end it needs to be owned and run by the scholarly community.

This is why I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure, which lay out the conditions for a service to be reliable, sustainable and safe from hijacking. (I expect to write more about the Principles some time soon.)

The bottom line is just this: Elsevier’s mission is money and their duty is to shareholders. But our mission is research and our duty is to the world. We and they are simply not aligned. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide and charge for useful services. But it does mean that they can’t be allowed to own and control infrastructure.

That’s why no-one should submit preprints to BioRN. Let this effort move directly from cradle to grave without passing Go. There are already plenty of good preprint options for bioscientists: PeerJ preprints, BiorXiv, arXiv’s q-bio category, the whole ASAPbio initiative) and even for palaeontologists in particular (PaleorXiv).

Use those. Don’t give Elsevier control over scholarly infrastructure.

For a long while, there has been a lot of anger among researchers and academic librarians towards the legacy publishers: the big corporations that control access to most of the world’s scholarly output. But what exactly is the problem? Let’s briefly consider several possibilities, and see if we can figure out which ones really matter.

Is it the publishers’ profit margins? As we’ve discussed before, the Big Four publishers all make profits in the region of 35% of revenue, which is more than Google (25%) or Apple (29%) make. Essentially every time you buy something from Elsevier, a third of the money goes straight into shareholders’ pockets.

But as I have previously argued, I don’t think this, in isolation, is a big problem. A company that could make a car for $500, if it sold that car for $1000, would be making a 50% profit: but that wouldn’t matter, because what we actually care about is the price we pay, not whether the price goes on costs or profits.

So is the problem with legacy publishers the sheer cost of their products (whether made up of profit or internal costs)? This is definitely an issue, and has been for a long time: the serials crisis goes back several decades. It certainly seems to be true that publishers are collecting exploitative rent on research outputs that they own, hiking up prices much faster than inflation and using underhand tactics to force renegotiation in their favour. This is underhand and destructive — but not the core of the issue.

Perhaps we get closer to the heart when we consider the provision of free labour by the authors, peer-reviewers and editors who donate their time, effort and professional expertise to enrich the publishers. No-one disputes that publishers add some value to the published work; but clearly 90% of the value is in the author’s submission, and 90% of the remainder in the volunteer-run editorial process. It sticks in the craw that the only people who benefit financially from all this are the ones who contribute least.

All of this so far has been to do with how scholarship is generated and how it then generates revenue. But maybe the real issue is what happens once it’s become a product: almost nobody can actually read the papers. To me, this is a much more fundamental issue. Whatever the academic community spends on subscriptions, the opportunity cost of all the papers we can’t read is far greater — and that is true on an enormously greater scale when we take into account the trifling matter of the world outside academia. (Bonus points: even when you can read the papers you are often limited in what you can do with them due to restrictive licences. Content-mining, data-reuse, lecture preparation, Wikipedia edits and much more are impeded by such limitations.)

But maybe even more fundamental than this is the problem that legacy publishers own and control the scholarly literature. That is the foundational truth that underlies all the other bad things I’ve listed here. They own the copyright because researchers give it to them. And so can we honestly be surprised when corporations, given a resource, then exploit it for financial gain?

The solution in the end is very, very simple: we have to stop giving them our good stuff. Just don’t. Don’t give your work to subscription-based journals. Don’t review for them. And don’t act as an editor for them. Scholarship belongs to the world, not to publishers who do the opposite of publishing. Publish your work where it benefits the world.