Long-time readers may recall that back in 2009, I was quote-mined in the television documentary series Clash of the Dinosaurs (1, 2, 3). Turns out, such misrepresentations are not that uncommon, and now there’s a whole feature-length documentary about the problem, titled Science Friction. The trailer is above, and the film’s homepage is here. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime Video and on Tubi (maaaybe for free? I don’t have a Tubi subscription but the film plays in browser for me with no payment…). Science Friction has earned a decent number of film festival accolades, and I’m proud to have been involved.

Note to my future navel-gazing self: I’m on at 0:19:40 to 0:21:21, and again from 1:22:21 to 1:22:50.

I’m currently working on a paper about the AMNH’s rearing Barosaurus mount. (That’s just one of the multiple reasons I am currently obsessed by Barosaurus.) It’s a fascinating process: more of a history project than a scientific one. It’s throwing up all sorts of things. Here’s one.

In 1992, the year after the mount went up, S. O. Landry gave a talk at the annual meeting of American Zoologist about this mount. I don’t even remember now where I saw a reference to this, or how I found, but the untitled abstract is on JSTOR, as part of the society’s abstracts volume. Here it is, in its entirety:

I thought he’d made some good points, so I wanted to figure out whether he’d ever gone on from this 31-year-old abstract and published a paper about it.

Based on the surname, initials and affiliation, I searched here and there, and turned up a few bits and pieces. I learned that he was  a Professor of Biology SUNY at Binghamton, specialising in hystricomorph rodents. I found out that his wife Helen died in 2007 after 57 years’ marriage. (That’s not just idle curiosity: it’s how I discovered that his first name was Stuart.) I found a photograph of him, taken in 1975, with Assemblyman James L. Tallon, and learned in the process that his middle name was Omer. I found that he was at one time the Graduate Dean at SUNY Binghamton, and opposed the 1972 rise in tuition fees from $800 per year to $1200–$1500. I learned that his BS was from Harvard College and his Ph.D from UC Berkeley, and that he is still listed as a professor emeritus at SUNY Binghamton. I discovered that he “pooh-poohs the idea that young students’ minds are “tabula rasas” – blank slates”. I know that in 1966 he translated C. C. Robin’s Voyage to the Interior of Louisiana from its original French. I learned that he was born in 1924 and died in 2015 at the age of 90, and served in the Battle of the Bulge.  More troublingly, I discovered that his father, also named Stuart Omer Landry, was known for writing racist tracts for the Pelican Publishing Company, but that he himself rose above that heritage and became known for his progressive politics.

I don’t know what to make of any of this. It seems that he never published anything substantive about Barosaurus, so in that sense, I have lost interest in him. But isn’t it strange that in trying to answer the simple question “Did the S. O. Landry who wrote an abstract about rearing Barosaurus write anything else on the subject?” has wound up opening the book of someone’s life like this?

And how strange that someone with 90 years of rich, complex life and numerous academic achievements should be, to me, just the guy who wrote an untitled abstract about Barosaurus that one time.

A new book is out from Cambridge University Press, Dental Cementum in Anthropology, edited by Stephan Naji, William Rendu, and Lionel Gourichon. Although human teeth are not my area of expertise, I ended up coauthoring the twelfth chapter of the book, “Tooth cementum annulations method for determining age at death using modern deciduous human teeth: challenges and lessons learned”. Of all of my publications, this one is the hardest to write about. In part that’s because our original project failed, for various reasons that we document in the chapter, and the final publication is mostly a catalog of things not to do. But more importantly, it’s because Vicki Wedel, the lead author and my spouse of nearly 25 years, passed away unexpectedly last May.

I haven’t written here about Vicki’s passing because I’ve never been sure what to say. Other than two memorial ceremonies last year and a handful of Facebook posts in the month or so after, I haven’t talked about it in public at all. I hoped that I’d know what to say by the time that the book chapter was published, but here we are, and words still feel like grotesquely inadequate tools with which to sketch the horrifying suddenness and totality of the loss. I thought that time would dull the edge of grief, but it doesn’t hurt any less 10 months after, it just hurts less often. I haven’t become numb to any of the obvious triggers, I’ve just gotten good at side-stepping them. All that means is that it’s a cruel surprise when, at unpredictable and frequent intervals, grief sidles up and slips a dagger between my ribs.

Vicki and I met in high school, when we were both 16. We dated for five years, and got married when we were 21. Professionally, she was always ahead of me: she earned her bachelor’s degree first, and her master’s, and her doctorate; presented at a conference before I did, and traveled internationally, and published a journal article, and a book; got a tenure-track job first, and mentored a graduate student first. Far from being resentful, I was emboldened by her successes in every one of those arenas, and grateful for her example and her encouragement. She passed on May 15, 2021, three weeks short of our 25th wedding anniversary, and five months before our 30th anniversary as a couple. 

As a forensic anthropologist, Vicki was frequently asked how she wanted to die. Her standard answer was that she wanted to go quietly in her sleep, at home, in clean clothes; to be found almost immediately by family; and to be conveyed rapidly to a funeral home. The timing was nothing that any of us had imagined or hoped for, but in the actual event she got everything she had wanted, and that is no small comfort. She went out at the apex of her personal and professional development, with no decline and no suffering, which is something that most of us will not get.

Vicki and I daydreamed of coauthoring papers together, and we always figured we’d get around to it eventually, although we both expected that any joint publications would be on dinosaur bone histology (she was the hard-tissue histologist, I would have supplied the dinosaurs). In the actual event, she was working on a project to determine age at death of human adolescents by counting cementum bands in deciduous teeth (‘baby teeth’), and she hit a wall transmuting the results into a discussion. I volunteered to help with that, and pretty soon I’d gotten sucked into being genuinely interested in the problem that she was up against.

The development and loss of deciduous teeth restrict cementochronology to the interval in which the root apex is complete. (Wedel et al. 2022: fig. 12.1)

I’ve written here before about the method of counting dental cementum bands, which are laid down annually, to determine age and season at death (this post). Vicki wanted to know if that method, which she’d used successfully on permanent teeth, would work on deciduous teeth. That turns out to be a surprisingly tricky problem, for several reasons. One of the foremost reasons is sampling. Human deciduous teeth have three fates:

  1. Most deciduous teeth complete development normally, which means that the roots are resorbed and the teeth fall out. The resorption of the root destroys the cementum bands, so there’s nothing to study. 
  2. Some deciduous teeth are retained in the jaw instead of being resorbed, and usually these retained teeth are pulled by dentists when it becomes clear that they are not going to fall out on their own. Practically by definition, these retained teeth do not represent the typical course of development — not great when you’re trying to validate a method on ‘normal’ samples.
  3. Tragically, some deciduous teeth stop developing because they belong to people who die as children or adolescents. For reasons of privacy and respect for grieving loved ones these teeth are rarely used in research, and they don’t represent a controlled sample anyway. The remains of children from archaeological sites have the additional problem that there’s often no good independent line of evidence for age at death, which makes them useless for a validation study.

As we put it in the chapter, “normal, healthy deciduous teeth are unlikely to be extracted, and extracted deciduous teeth are therefore unlikely to be normal”.

We did have some deciduous teeth, culled from a sample of more than 1000 teeth collected by dentists at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and sent to Vicki by her collaborator, Ken Hermsen, who coauthored the chapter with us. Unfortunately, the methods that had worked so well for Vicki on adult teeth broke down when applied to deciduous teeth, in multiple ways that left us scratching our heads and chasing phantoms. I won’t go through the whole litany of failures here — it’s too depressing, and I already coauthored a whole chapter about it. Suffice it to say that peer review worked in this case, when an anonymous reviewer caught and called attention to our errors. We were ready to shelve the chapter, but lead editor Stephan Naji encouraged us to not let all our effort go to waste. About all we could do in the remaining time was catalog the stuff we’d done wrong, so…that’s the paper. It’s very much an ‘eating our vegetables’ affair, but hopefully it will steer future researchers away from the reefs that our original study foundered on. I’m grateful to Stephan for the opportunity to publish — not least because it would be my last chance to collaborate with my partner — and for the lovely words about Vicki that he wrote in the dedication of the book.

It is supremely bittersweet that Vicki and I finally got to coauthor something, only for it to come out when she’s no longer around to see it. It also hit me with unexpected force that with the publication of this book, Vicki’s scientific legacy is almost complete (there is one more collaboration, with folks other than me, that will hopefully still get published). Like many things related to her passing, those thoughts don’t point anywhere. There’s no neat resolution, no bow to tie things up with. Sometimes things just stop, awkwardly and before their time, and there’s nothing to do but go on.

Reference

Wedel†, V., Hermsen, K., & Wedel, M. 2022. Tooth cementum annulations method for determining age at death using modern deciduous human teeth: challenges and lessons learned. pp. 215-225 in Naji, S., Rendu, W., and Gourichon, L. (eds.), Dental Cementum in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. doi:10.1017/9781108569507.014

Today sees the publication of a special issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica in honor of my mentor, Rich Cifelli, who took me under his wing when I was in high school and advised me in my undergraduate and Master’s thesis research. Fellow Cifelli lab alums and guest editors Brian Davis and Brooke Haiar and I were fortunate to get a great set of papers from Rich’s friends and colleagues around the globe. The papers reflect the diversity of Rich’s own interests and those of the students he’s mentored, covering everything from trilobites and salamanders to Miocene ungulates and screenwashing techniques, with the lion’s share of the works dealing with Rich’s favorite topic, early mammals. I’m particularly pleased to have a contribution from another of my mentors in the volume: Kevin Padian’s thoughtful paper on the function of tyrannosaur forelimbs. 

A whole cabal of former Cifelli students hatched the idea of the festschrift back in April of 2020, before Rich retired in the fall of that year, and before we knew just how much the pandemic would impact our lives and professional productivity. We originally hoped to have the volume out last summer, but…you’ve been on Earth for the past two years, same as the rest of us, so you know how that went. It’s finally done and out, and we couldn’t be happier.

Rich in the Morrison Formation of eastern Utah, in June of 2017. Photo by Brian Davis, from the preface to the special issue.

As icing on the cake, this morning Brian Davis lured Rich into a Zoom meeting that was ostensibly to talk about research, but actually was a sort of virtual surprise party with Brooke and me. The three of us got to watch in real time as Rich opened the link to the somehow-against-all-odds-still-secret special issue. It might be the first time in 31 years that I’ve seen Rich, with his quicksilver wit and infinite store of puns and quips, actually speechless. (For something less than a minute, I think. But still!)

Many thanks to all who contributed. Thanks also to the editors at APP, who were enthusiastically in support of the festschrift from the moment we proposed it, and who worked hard to bring the special issue to fruition. A big, heartfelt thank you to Brooke Haiar and especially Brian Davis for keeping the project moving forward and taking on more of the work than anticipated when life events kept me out of the game for most of last year. Like everything in APP, this special issue is open access, free to the world, so go read up on all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Here’s the link.

Rich at Stovall’s Quarry 5 at Black Mesa in the Oklahoma Panhandle, in March of 2016. Photo by Matt Wedel.

Finally, to Rich: thank you, for taking on an enthusiastic but untrained high school student all those years ago; for teaching me what it means to be professional, by instruction and by example; for launching my career (including the timely application of boot to backside a few times!); and for continuing to be a sounding board, colleague, coauthor, and above all a friend. I’ve always been proud to be your student, and I always will be.

So this just happened

February 24, 2022

I was on a video call with Matt, talking about a project he’s working on that involves Haplocanthosaurus. A lot of his recent project involve Haplocanthosaurus which is … an OK sauropod. I mean, it’s no brachiosaur. So this is how the conversation went:

Mike: I have bad news for you, dude. Haplocanthosaurus is only one or two nodes away from being a camarasaur.

Matt: Sure, but Haplocanthosaurus is really weird, and Camarasaurus is just basic.

Mike: Your mom’s basic.

Matt: Your mom’s one or two nodes away from being a camarasaur.

 

Skull audit: Wedel responds

February 9, 2022

Left to right: alligator, beaver, black bear, armadillo, cat, ostrich. I know, the archosaurs aren’t mammals, and the alligator isn’t even a skull. But if you can’t have a lounge lizard crash your mammal skull party, what are you even doing with your life? Not pictured: about four rabbit skulls I forgot I had boxed up, plus a couple of turtles (yeah, yeah) sitting on a friend’s desk, in their locked office.

It warmed my crooked little heart to see Mike Taylor, noted sauropodologist and disdainer-of-mammal-heads, return mammal skulls to the blog’s front page yesterday. Naturally I had to support my friend and colleague in this difficult time, when he may be experiencing confusing feelings regarding nasal turbinates, multi-cusped teeth, and the dentary-squamosal jaw joint.

My skull collection is split across home and office, but I had to go in to campus this afternoon for a video recording thing, so I got most of the office set, shown above, on that jaunt.

After the workday ended, I had just enough time before the light faded to assemble and photograph the home collection:

Back row: peccary, pig, deer, sheep, dog. Middle row: opossum, rabbit. Front row: opossum, marten (both hemisected). Not pictured: emergency backup sheep, moar rabbits

I’ve blogged about the bear, the pig, and the hemisected skulls, but I think that’s it. I should do more skull blogging, most of these have a story:

  • I prepped the armadillo, cat, rabbit, and sheep skulls myself (besides the bear and pig). The first two I found in the woods, the mostly-decomposed rabbit was a gift from my father-in-law, and the sheep head I obtained from the market down the street ($10, and I ate the meat).
  • The alligator head and deer skull were gifts, from Vicki and from my brother Ryan, respectively.
  • The rest I purchased here and there over the years, usually when they were on deep discount. The peccary is a memento of a trip to Big Bend back in 2007 (I bought it at a taxidermy shop a long way outside the national park), and the dog came from the seconds bin at the Museum of Osteology — I plan to saw off the top of the braincase to see the cranial nerve exits, just as in the preparation by Peter Dodson shown in this post.

I have more heads awaiting skull-ization in various freezers, too. Couple more pig heads at work, and at the house a strategic reserve sheep head, plus skunk, squirrel, and rat. Plus a partially-mummified but mostly defleshed armadillo whose saga deserves a detailed recounting:

NB: the stray bits toward the bottom of the image are from a cat. Mr. Armadillo’s limb bones and vertebrae are still in the armadillo kit.

In the first comment on Mike’s post yesterday, I expressed envy that he had the better skull collection. After pulling together all my critters, I think I just have a worse memory. In my defense, it’s been almost two years since I was in the office regularly, and about half the skulls in the home collection are recent-ish acquistions (~last three years), so a lot of stuff had either fallen out of memory or not gotten properly established yet. But Mike has definitely prepped more — and more exotic — skeletons, and it was his enthusiastic collecting and blogging of dead animal bits that inspired me to start my recent-ish spate of skull preparations. More to come on that front as time and opportunity allow, probably starting with this:

 

These are out as I consider how to reorganise my office.

Back row, left to right: artiodactyls: pig, sheep, deer. Front row, left to right: carnivorans: otter, cat, fox, main badger, emergency backup badger. Not pictured: wallaby, rabbit, squirrel.

The pig skull came from a hog-roast, and was very crumbly by the time I had prepped it out. It’s subsequently had an accident when it fell off a loudspeaker in my youngest son’s room, so it’s not the pig it once was. (I have a plate of pig-skull shards that I know full well I will never reassemble, but can’t quite bring myself to toss out). The sheep is of course a ram, the horns being the giveaway: shame the right horn is broken off at mid-length. The deer awaits reassembly.

I think all the carnivorans have featured here previously, with the possible exception of the emergency backup badger which I opportunistically harvested from a rotting roadkill about a year ago.

We’ve seen the wallaby and squirrel here, too. I think the rabbit has yet to put in an appearance, but we have more than enough rabbit stuff on this here sauropod blog so I’m not going to lose sleep over that.

Other mammals available to me: I have a rat, a hamster and a gerbil in various states of decay in plastic tubs in the woodshed. Come summer (since this is definitely an outdoor sport) I might see what can be done to get the skulls out of those. You will excuse me if I don’t go out of my way to extract a gerbil postcranium.

The peer-review cycle as it works at most established journals. Green lines show the positive path; red lines show the negative path; amber lines show the path of delay. Modified from Taylor and Wedel (in press: figure 1).

Many aspects of scholarly publishing are presently in flux. But for most journals the process of getting a paper published remains essentially the same as decades ago, the main change being that documents are sent electronically rather than by post.

It begins with the corresponding author of the paper submitting a manuscript — sometimes, though not often, in response to an invitation from a journal editor. The journal assigns a handling editor to the manuscript, and that editor decides whether the submission meets basic criteria: is it a genuine attempt at scholarship rather than an advertisement? Is it written clearly enough to be reviewed? Is it new work not already published elsewhere?

Assuming these checks are passed, the editor sends the manuscript out to potential reviewers. Since review is generally unpaid and qualified reviewers have many other commitments, review invitations may be declined, and the editor may have to send many requests before obtaining the two or three reviews that are typically used.

Each reviewer returns a report assessing the manuscript in several aspects (soundness, clarity, novelty, perhaps perceived impact) and recommending a verdict. The handling editor reads these reports and sends them to the author along with a verdict: this may be rejection, in which case the paper is not published (and the author may try again at a different journal); acceptance, in which case the paper is typeset and published; or more often a request for revisions along the lines suggested by the reviewers.

The corresponding author (with the co-authors) then prepares a revised version of the manuscript and a response letter, the latter explaining what changes have been made and which have not: the authors can push back on reviewer requests that they do not agree with. These documents are returned to the handling editor, who may either make a decision directly, or send the revised manuscript out for another round of peer review (either with the original reviewers or less often with new reviewers). This cycle continues as many times as necessary to arrive at either acceptance or rejection.

 

The last time we saw the sauropod femur that Paige Wiren discovered sticking out of a riverbank, it had been moved into the prep lab at the Moab Museum, with the idea that it would eventually go on exhibit as a touch specimen for the public to enjoy and be inspired by. That has come to pass.

I was in Moab last month with Drs. Jessie Atterholt and Thierra Nalley and we stopped in the Moab Museum to digitize some vertebrae from SUSA 515, an unusual specimen of Camarasaurus that I’ve blogged about before, and will definitely blog about again. While we were there, we got to see and touch the Wiren femur. The museum folks told us that femur has been the first dinosaur bone that a lot of schoolkids and tourists have seen up close, or gotten to touch. As a former dinosaur-obsessed kid who never stopped being excited about touching real dinosaur bones–and as one of the lucky folks that got to rescue this particular fossil from erosion or poaching–that pleases me deeply. 

So, obviously, you should go see this thing. And the rest of the museum–as you can see from the photos above, the whole place has been renovated, and there are lots of interesting fossils from central and eastern Utah on display, not to mention loads of historical artifacts, all nicely presented in a clean, open, well-lit space that invites exploration. Go have fun!

Last time, we looked at the difference between cost, value and price, and applied those concepts to simple markets like the one for chairs, and the complex market that is scholarly publication. We finished with the observation that the price our community pays for the publication of a paper (about $3,333 on average) is about 3–7 times as much as its costs to publish ($500-$1000)?

How is this possible? One part of the answer is that the value of a published paper to the commnity is higher still: were it not so, no-one would be paying. But that can’t be the whole reason.

In an efficient market, competing providers of a good will each try to undercut each other until the prices they charge approach the cost. If, for example, Elsevier and Springer-Nature were competing in a healthy free market, they would each be charging prices around one third of what they are charging now, for fear of being outcompeted by their lower-priced competitor. (Half of those price-cuts would be absorbed just by decreasing the huge profit margins; the rest would have to come from streamlining business processes, in particular things like the costs of maintaining paywalls and the means of passing through them.)

So why doesn’t the Invisible Hand operate on scholarly publishers? Because they are not really in competition. Subscriptions are not substitutable goods because each published article is unique. If I need to read an article in an Elsevier journal then it’s no good my buying a lower-priced Springer-Nature subscription instead: it won’t give me access to the article I need.

(This is one of the reasons why the APC-based model — despite its very real drawbacks — is better than the subscription model: because the editorial-and-publication services offered by Elsevier and Springer-Nature are substitutable. If one offers the service for $3000 and the other for $2000, I can go to the better-value provider. And if some other publisher offers it for $1000 or $500, I can go there instead.)

The last few years have seen huge and welcome strides towards establishing open access as the dominant mode of publication for scholarly works, and currently output is split more or less 50/50 between paywalled and open. We can expect OA to dominate increasingly in future years. In many respects, the battle for OA is won: we’ve not got to VE Day yet, but the D-Day Landings have been accomplished.

Yet big-publisher APCs still sit in the $3000–$5000 range instead of converging on $500-$1000. Why?

Björn Brembs has been writing for years about the fact that every market has a luxury segment: you can buy a perfectly functional wristwatch for $10, yet people spend thousands on high-end watches. He’s long been concerned that if scholarly publishing goes APC-only, then people will be queuing up to pay the €9,500 APC for Nature in what would become a straightforward pay-for-prestige deal. And he’s right: given the outstandingly stupid way we evaluate reseachers for jobs, promotion and tenure, lots of people will pay a 10x markup for the “I was published in Nature” badge even though Nature papers are an objectively bad way to communicate research.

But it feels like something stranger is happening here. It’s almost as though the whole darned market is a luxury segment. The average APC funded by the Wellcome Trust in 2018/19 was £2,410 — currently about $3,300. Which is almost exactly the average article cost of $3,333 that we calculated earlier. What’s happening is that the big publishers have landed on APCs at rates that preserve the previous level of income. That is understandable on their part, but what I want to know is why are we still paying them? Why are all Wellcome’s grantees not walking away from Elsevier and Springer-Nature, and publishing in much cheaper alternatives?

Why, in other words, are market forces not operating here?

I can think of three reasons why researchers prefer to spend $3000 instead of $1000:

  1. It could be that they are genuinely getting a three-times-better service from the big publishers. I mention this purely for completeness, as no evidence supports the hypothesis. There seems to be absolutely no correlation between price and quality of service.
  2. Researchers are coasting on sheer inertia, continuing to submit to the journals they used to submit to back in the bad old days of subscriptions. I am not entirely without sympathy for this: there is comfort in familiarity, and convenience in knowing a journal’s flavour, expectations and editorial board. But are those things worth a 200% markup?
  3. Researchers are buying prestige — or at least what they perceive as prestige. (In reality, I am not convinced that papers in non-exceptional Elsevier or Springer-Nature journals are at all thought of as more prestigous than those in cheaper but better born-OA journals. But for this to happen, it only needs people to think the old journals are more prestigious, it doesn’t need them to be right.)

But underlying all these reasons to go to a more expensive publishers is one very important reason not to bother going to a cheaper publisher: researchers are spending other people’s money. No wonder they don’t care about the extra few thousand pounds.

How can funders fix this, and get APCs down to levels that approximate publishing cost? I see at least three possibilities.

First, they could stop paying APCs for their grantees. Instead, they could add a fixed sum onto all grants they make — $1,500, say — and leave it up to the researchers whether to spend more on a legacy publisher (supplementing the $1,500 from other sources of their own) or to spend less on a cheaper born-OA publisher and redistribute the excess elsewhere.

Second, funders could simply publish the papes themselves. To be fair several big funders are doing this now, so we have Wellcome Open Research, Gates Open Research, etc. But doesn’t it seem a bit silly to silo research according to what body awarded the grant that funded it? And what about authors who don’t have a grant from one of these bodies, or indeed any grant at all?

That’s why I think the third solution is best. I would like to see funders stop paying APCs and stop building their own publishing solutions, and instead collaborate to build and maintain a global publishing solution that all researchers could use irrespective of grant-recipient status. I have much to say on what such a solution should look like, but that is for another time.