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

A catalogue of pointless whining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The common theme

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

References

 

No, not his new Brachiosaurus humerus — his photograph of the Chicago Brachiosaurus mount, which he cut out and cleaned up seven years ago:

This image has been on quite a journey. Since Matt published this cleaned-up photo, and furnished it under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC By) licence, it has been adopted as the lead image of Wikipedia’s Brachiosaurus page [archvied]:

Consequently (I assume) it has now become Google’s top hit for brachiosaurus skeleton:

Last Saturday, Fiona and I went to Birdland, a birds-only zoo in the Cotswolds, about an hour away from where we live. The admission price also includes “Jurassic Journey”, a walking tour of a dozen or so not-very-good dinosaur models. In an interpretive centre in this area, I found this Brachiosaurus skeletal reconstruction stencilled on the wall:

I immediately knew it was the Chicago mount due to the combination of Giraffatitan anterior dorsals and Brachiosaurus posterior dorsals; but I found it more hauntingly familiar than that. A quick hunt turned up Matt’s seven-year-old post, and when I told Matt about my discovery he filled me in on its use in Wikipedia.

So this is 99% of a good story: we’re delighted that this work is out there, and has resulted in a much better Brachiosaurus image at Birdland than the rather sad-looking Stegosaurus next to it. The only slight disappointment is that I couldn’t find any sign of credit, which they really should have included given that Matt put the image out under CC By rather than in the public domain.

But as Matt said: “Even though I didn’t get credited, I’m always chuffed to see my stuff out in the world.” So true.

 

A student wrote to me to ask where I got the motivation to prep my anatomy lectures. Here’s what I sent back.

I’ll be honest, for me it is partly fear, partly arrogance, and partly laziness:

  • Fear of going up in front of 270 smart folks with the internet at their fingertips and not bringing my A game.
  • The arrogance to think that I am pretty good at this, and the desire to show off a little by doing it well.
  • Laziness because the more I put into the slideshow now, the less work I’ll have to do in the future. I prefer to have the lecture be so self-explanatory that I don’t really need to prep for it (even though I will), I could just go up to the podium and riff off the slides and not worry that I’m going to forget something crucial. Anything crucial goes into the slideshow for me, so even if I draw a blank, the slides will remind me of all the points I want to make.

Related: it’s faster to take 5 minutes right after a lecture and fix the problems with it, than it is to come back in 10 months and spend an hour trying to figure out what I wanted to fix and probably still forgetting half of it. If it’s a choice between doing a little work now and a lot later, I usually go for the first option.

What works for you?

Matt and I are about to submit a paper. One of the journals we considered — and would have really liked in many respects — turned out to use the CC By-NC-SA license. This is a a very well-intentioned licence that allows free use except for commercial purposes, and which imposes the same licence on all derivative works. While that sounds good, there are solid reasons to prefer the simpler CC By licence. I wrote to the journal in question advocating a switch to CC By, and then I thought the reasoning might be of broader interest. So here’s what I wrote, lightly edited.


First, CC By neatly expresses the one requirement all academics have of their work: that they get credit for it. When we publish papers, we are happy for them to be freely distributed, but also want people to build on them, re-using parts in whatever way helps, provided we’re credited — and that is exactly what CC By enables.

Second, because of this, many funders that require the work their grantees do to be published open access specifically require the CC By licence, in the expectation that it will provide the greatest societal benefit in exchange for their investment. Most famously, this is the case for the Gates Foundation (the largest private foundation in the world), but for a partial list of the many other funders with this policy, see https://www.springernature.com/gp/open-research/funding/funders-requiring-cc-by-for-articles — funders whose grantees, as things stand, are not allowed to publish their work in your journal.

Third, CC By is almost universal among well established and respected open-access journals, including all the PLOS journals, PeerJ, the BioMed Central journals, the Hindawi journals, eLIFE, Nature’s Scientific Reports, and palaeo journals such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. This is important because CC By-licenced journals can’t freely use material published under more restrictive licences such as your journal’s CC By-NC-SA. Instead, authors of such articles must labouriously seek exemptions from the copyright holders of the material they wish to reuse or adapt.

Fourth and last, other online resources also use CC By (or optionally CC By-SA in the case of Wikipedia), which means that, while material from PLOS ONE, Scientific Reports et al. can be freely used in Wikipedia articles, text and illustrations from articles in your journal cannot, limiting its use in outreach. Similarly, even on our own palaeontology blog, we would have concerns about using By-NC-SA materials as we use Patreon to solicit donations and our blog is arguably therefore commercial. (Part of the problem with the NC clause is that there is no rigorous definition of “commercial”.)

For all these reasons, we believe that your journal would better serve its authors, its readers, the academic community and broader society if its articles were published under the CC By licence. We hope that, if you agree, you are able to some point to help the journal make this transition. And if there’s anything Matt or I can do to assist that process, we’ll be happy to.

My talk (Taylor and Wedel 2019) from this year’s SVPCA is up!

The talks were not recorded live (at least, if they were, it’s a closely guarded secret). But while it was fresh in my mind, I did a screencast of my own, and posted it on YouTube (CC By). I had to learn how to do this for my 1PVC presentation on vertebral orientation, and it’s surprisingly straightforward on a Mac, so I’ve struck while the iron is hot.

For the conference, I spoke very quickly and omitted some details to squeeze the talk into a 20-minute slot. In this version, I go a bit slower and make some effort to ensure it’s intelligible to an intelligent layman. That’s why it runs closer to half an hour. I hope you’ll find it worth your time.

References

First, a short personal backstory. Vicki’s and my extended families both live mostly in Oklahoma and Kansas, so they only get to see our son, London, at the holidays or at infrequent mid-year visits. Starting when London was five, every year I’ve made a photo book of his adventures through the year to give as Christmas presents to all of our relatives. These have also become cherished mementos for the three of us here in Cali. The service I use is Shutterfly, and they have yet to mis-print a book or screw up an order over the space of a decade. So I feel confident recommending them.

About 3-4 times a year I get an offer from Shutterfly for a free 8×8 hardcover photo book, usually like 20 to 26 pages unless I want to pay a little extra. Sometimes if I’ve just taken a vacation or have some other batch of good photos, I’ll burn the free photo book capturing that, but most of time I use the freebies to memorialize my talks. Here are two I had to hand in my office when I got the idea for this post. On the left is my 2014 SVPCA talk on supramedullary airways in birds and dinos, and on the right is Jessie Atterholt’s talk from last year’s SVPCA on the same topic (with loads more data).

The 2014 talk was the first one I turned into a book, and I put it together right after the conference when the logic and cadence of the talk was still in my mind. My talks tend to be very text-light, and the slides basically act as memory triggers for me to riff on at the podium. So for that book I deliberately tried to capture the essence of what I said about each slide, hoping that it would make it easier to write the paper when the time came (and the time is, er, now, since Jessie has written the first draft already).

I also tend to use a lot of slides compared to most other folks, so I doubled up the slides on each page to fit the talk into the confines of a free book. For the recent Haplocanthosaurus presentation at the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress (available here), I put a lot of text on the slides to make them self-explanatory, and used fewer slides. So when I made that talk into a book, I just made each slide a full page, with no captions.

Photo books made from talks 3

You know who appreciates these things? Anyone who wants to hear about your work, but doesn’t want to sit through a 15-minute slide presentation. It’s so much more natural and inviting to hand someone a book and say, “Here’s my talk, feel free to look through it or borrow it for a few days”. It’s like taking some 8×11 printouts of your poster to a conference: making born-digital presentations into physical artifacts may feel old-fashioned, but those artifacts are amazingly useful when you’re talking with other primates in meatspace.

You know who else appreciates these things? Coauthors who couldn’t be at the conference. So occasionally if I have a free book to burn, I’ll make an extra copy of one I already have incarnate, and send it to a coauthor as a gift.

So I recommend doing this. I don’t know how much stuff you have to order from Shutterfly to get free book offers now and then (maybe not very much since they do make some back on shipping), but I know how much your first book will cost if you’re not a Shutterfly user: nothing. The first five new users who use the link below will get a free 8×8 photo book. I’ll get one, too, for bringing people on board, but it’s not a cult, you can leave anytime. I wouldn’t, though, this stuff is too useful.

Here’s that link: https://invite-shutterfly.com/x/DvuNbO

A while back — near the start of the year, in fact — Szymon Górnicki interviewed me by email about palaeontology, alternative career paths, open access, palaeoart, PeerJ, scholarly infrastructure, the wonder of blogging, and how to get started learning about palaeo. He also illustrated it with this caricature of me, nicely illustrating our 2009 paper on neck posture.

For one reason and another, it’s taken a long while for me get around to linking to it — but here we are in October and I’ve finally arrived :-)

With apologies to Szymon for the delay: here is the interview!

By the way, Szymon’s also done interviews with other, more interesting people: Davide Bonadonna, Steve Brusatte, Tim Haines and Phil Currie. Check them out!

Last night, Fiona and I got back from an exhausting but very satisfying weekend spent at TetZooCon 2018, the conference of the famous Tetrapod Zoology blog run by Darren Naish — the sleeping third partner here at SV-POW!.

What made this particularly special is that Fiona was one of the speakers this time. She’s not a tetrapod zoologist, but a composer with a special interest in wildlife documentaries. She had half an hour on Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective, with examples of her own work. I thought it was superb, but then I would — I’m biased. I’ll hand over to Twitter for a more objective overview:


Darren Naish: Now at #TetZooCon: Fiona Taylor on music in wildlife documentaries. Fiona is a professional composer.

Ellie Mowforth: Next up, it’s “Music for Wildlife Documentaries”. I am SHOCKED to hear that not everyone shares my love for the waddling penguin comedy trombone. #TetZooCon

Nathan Redland: Nature documentaries are entertainment, not just education: and the composer’s budget comes from the studio, not an academic institution #TetZooCon

“If these shows were just a string of facts about animals, most of us wouldn’t watch. That’s why they carve out stories in editing, why they use intense music, and why they recreate the sound effects — because story-telling is what engages us.”
— Simon Cade.

Will Goring: Very effective demonstration; same image, 5 different scores = 5 different interpretations. #TetZooCon

… and here is the relevant segment of video, together with the script that Fiona used:

Picture of wolf

We’re going to play “What kind of wolf is this?” or perhaps a better question is: “what is the music telling us to feel about this wolf?” I written 5 brief musical clips in 5 very different styles I’m hoping will showhow very differently we can be led into feeling about one image.

  1. This wolf is bad, suspense, about to kill something cute.
  2. Preparing to spring into action, attack.
  3. This wolf is sad, it has just lost its pups, if it doesn’t eat soon, it will starve.
  4. This wolf is cute, and cuddly and very playful. You just want to stroke him.
  5. This wolf is noble, kingly, will survive because his race has always survived, with dignity.

Alberta Claw: #TetZooCon Taylor: Provides detailed analysis of musical accompaniment in several documentary clips. Only a few seconds long each, but incredible amount of nuance and thought goes into these decisions.

Dr Caitlin R Kight: I responded exactly as she predicted and would have even without the explanation, but it was more interesting to know why I was feeling what I was, when I was!

Samhain Barnett: At 25 frames a second, a drumbeat has to occur within 2 frames of a nut being cracked, for our brains to accept it as in sync. Computers have made composers lives a lot easier here. #TetZooCon

(I’d like to show the video clip that that last tweet pertains to, but complicated rightsholder issues make that impractical. Sorry.)

Alberta Claw: #TetZooCon Taylor: Given the power of music to influence emotions, documentary composers have responsibility to think about the effects of music. Peer-reviewed research has shown that musical accompaniment can impact motivation of viewers to contribute to shark conservation.

Here are two sketches from Sara Otterstätter, who did this for every talk:

First one: About music in Nature documentaries. Useful or manipulative? #TetZooCon #sketch #sketchbook

Second one: Show documentaries always reality? #TetZooCon #Sketching #sketch

And two final comments …

Filipe Martinho: Quite often the most interesting talks are completely outside my area. Fiona Taylor gave an amazing eye and ear opener on the role of music in nature documentaries and #scicomm. #TetZooCon

Flo: Thanks to Fiona Taylor I will from now on listen more carefully to the music accompanying wildlife docs. #TetZooCon #musicforwildlifedocumentaries


We both had a great time at TetZooCon. As I said in an email to Darren after I got home, “It made me wonder what they heck I’d been thinking, missing the last few”. I don’t plan to repeat that mistake.

Hearing the talks through the ears of someone without much background was an interesting experience. Some of the speakers did a fantastic job of providing just enough background to make their work comprehensible to an intelligent layman: for example, Jennifer Jackson on whales, Robyn Womack on bird circadian rhythms and Albert Chen on crown-bird evolution. There’s a tough line to walk in figuring out what kind of audience to expect at an
event like this, and I take my hat off to those who did it so well.

 

Imposter syndrome revisited

September 13, 2018

My wife Fiona is a musician and composer, and she’s giving a talk at this year’s TetZooCon on “Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective”. (By the way, it looks like some tickets are still available: if you live near or in striking distance of London, you should definitely go! Get your tickets here.)

With less than four weeks to go, she’s starting to get nervous — to feel that she doesn’t know enough about wildlife to talk to the famously knowledgeable and attractive TetZooCon audience. In other words, it’s a classic case of our old friend imposter syndrome.

Wanting to reassure her about how common this is, I posted a Twitter poll:

Question for academics, including grad-students.
(Please RT for better coverage.)

Have you ever experienced Imposter Syndrome?
(And feel free to leave comments with more detail.)

Here are the results at the end of the 24-hour voting period:

Based on a sample of nearly 200 academics, just one in 25 claims not have experienced imposter syndrome; nearly two thirds feel it all the time.

The comments are worth reading, too. For example, Konrad Förstner responded:

Constantly. I would not be astonished if at some point a person from the administration knocks at my door and tells me that my work was just occupational therapy to keep me busy but that my healthcare insurance will not pay this any longer.

What does this mean? Only this: you are not alone. Outside of a tiny proportion of people, everyone else you know and work with sometimes feels that way. Most of them always feel that way. And yet, think about the work they do. It’s pretty good, isn’t it? Despite how they feel? From the outside, you can see that they’re not imposters.

Guess what? They can see that you‘re not an imposter, either.

If you are within striking distance of Claremont, come watch me cross the streams of my amateur and professional careers as I talk about the intersection of astronomy and paleontology. And if you can’t make it in person, check out the livestream on the Raymond M. Alf Museum page on Facebook. Show starts Saturday, April 14, at 2:30 PM PDT. https://www.facebook.com/AlfMuseum/