Here’s a bunch of cool stuff that is either available now or happening soon:

Sauropod Dinosaurs book excerpt in Prehistoric Times

Been on the fence about the sauropod book Mark Hallett and I wrote? Now you can try before you buy – our chapter on titanosaurs is reprinted in the new issue of Prehistoric Times magazine. I know it’s on newsstands because I picked it up at the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. You can also buy the issue from the PT website, physically or in digital form, solo or as part of a subscription. Many thanks to PT editor and publisher Mike Fredericks for the visibility, the staff at Johns Hopkins University Press for permission, and most of all to Mark Hallett for making it happen. We hope you enjoy it.

Get more sauropods in Mark Hallett’s 2018 dinosaur calendar

Mark has a dinosaur calendar out from Pomegranate, and I’m happy to say that sauropods are featured 5 out of 12 months. The calendar has a nice mix of Hallett classics and some newer works, including the cover art from our book, as shown above. Get it direct from Pomegranate or from Amazon.

Vicki’s public talk on forensic anthropology in December

My better half, anthropologist and author Vicki Wedel, is giving a public talk about her work on the evening of Thursday, December 14, at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Her title will be, “Bones, ballistics, and blunt force trauma.” I assume the talk will start at 6:00, but check the WSC website for details. The painted skull above is from the natural history museum in Vienna, and it doesn’t have any connection to the talk other than Vicki thought it was rad and I needed a skull to illustrate the post. For more on Vicki and her work, see these posts: cold case, book.


UPDATE: Final details on Vicki’s talk are out. It will start at 6:00, she’ll be signing copies of her book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, and admission is $5.

My public talk on sauropods and whales in January

In January it will be my turn to give a talk at the Western Science Center. I’m on for the evening of Thursday, January 18. Title is not quite finalized but it will probably something along the lines of, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?” That’s me with the gray whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, back in 2006. I was helping Nick Pyenson measure whales, back when we were both grad students. Ancient blog posts about that here: gray, blue.

See me in Seattle at Norwescon over Easter weekend

If you want to see me star-struck, come to Norwescon, home of the Philip K. Dick Award, next spring, where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with some vastly more famous people. Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu will be the Writer Guest of Honor, legendary SF&F visionary Wayne Douglas Barlowe will be the Artist Guest of Honor, Green Ronin is the Spotlight Publisher, and, er, I will be the Science Guest of Honor. Yes, I’m alert to both the honor and the incongruity of the thing. When I’m not Freaking. Out. about hanging with two of my favorite creators, I’ll probably be giving talks on dinosaurs and astronomy (my other thing) and participating on some panels and signing books. I’ll try not to disappoint.


This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

Quick hit here: all this week there are mastodon-themed events going on at the Western Science Center in Hemet, including talks from paleontologists and an opening reception this Friday evening, August 4, before the exhibit formally opens to the public on Saturday. There’s a good overview of events at the WSC website here, and a nice post about the science and scientists behind the mastodon-fest at the PLOS Paleo Community blog here.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

I’m slapping Brian Engh’s art all over this post because one of the coolest things going this week will be the unveiling of Brian’s life-size painting of two fighting mastodons, which will cover one wall of the main paleo exhibit area at WSC (see also: Brian’s blog, Patreon page, and paleoart YouTube channel). Modern elephants use their tusks to do battle, and we have compelling evidence that fossil proboscideans did so as well, like the famous fighting mammoths of Crawford, Nebraska. One of the WSC mastodons, nicknamed Max, has several partially healed pathologies on his jaw that might be wounds from combat.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

There are loads of other mastodons at the Western Science Center, and there’s going to be a lot of mastodon science going on this week, so head on out if you are in the area and interested in big dead things. I’ll be there myself, at least on Friday evening, not as a professional paleontologist but as a fan of proboscideans, Ice Age megafauna, Inland Empire science, and awesome paleo-art. I hope to see you there.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

Publishers provide certain services (peer-review management, typesetting, brand badges, sometimes proof-reading or copy-editing, archiving, indexing) to the scholarly community.

Those services are of greater and lesser value, provided at higher and lower levels of quality, and cost greater and lesser amounts. Of course, we in the scholarly community want high-value, high-quality low-cost services. This is true whether the publisher in question is a multinational corporation with a multi-billion-dollar turnover, or a tiny boutique press run on a non-profit basis for the sheer love of the process.

Since the scholarly community (researchers, authors, peer-reviewers, academic editors, etc.) is spending money in exchange for publication services, and since publishers are providing publication services in exchange for money, it is clear that the goals of these two groups cannot be aligned. Any money that the scholarly community can save on publication costs is income lost to publishers; and any additional money that publishers can charge for their services is money lost to the scholarly community. I hope that so far, this is uncontroversial.

In the same way, if you sell me a second-hand car, then however well you and I might get on in civilian life — we might support the same football team, drink the same beer, discuss the same novelists, watch the same films — then for the purposes of that transaction, what is good for you (a high price) is bad for me; and vice versa. Note that in saying this I am not condemning or even criticising you. I am just stating a fact about transactions.

Now, suppose my wife and I sit down and decide that we need to buy a new car. We consider Hondas, Fords and Fiats. We weigh up various models on their merits, compare their prices with their features, and reach a decision on what we want to buy and how much we’re prepared to spend. We then approach the various Honda dealers (or, as we may have decided, Ford dealers or Fiat dealers). We negotiate with them to agree a price that we are happy with for a model that is in good enough condition. Different dealers compete with each other to win our custom by offering good cars at a low price. This is a functioning market.

What we don’t do is invite all the dealers to come and join us in our initial conversation. When my wife and I are discussing how important it is to us that our new car has variable-speed intermittent windscreen-wipers, we have that discussion in an environment quite free of car dealers telling us how great Fiat’s intermittent-wipe feature is. How could we possibly reach a coherent decision on what our own requirements are if we’re bombarded by the claims — some competing, some in collusion — of all the car dealers? And how can we think sensibly about what we’re prepared to spend if we’re surrounded by the dealers’ defences of the various financing arrangements they offer?

So in the same way, I feel that the scholarly community needs to figure out what publication services it needs, free of the influence of publishers who (and again this is not a criticism) have their own agenda. Then, when we know what we want, we can go to the publishers who offer the kinds of services we’re interested in, and invite them compete for our business on the basis of features and price.

But involving them in the initial what-we-want discussion can only lead to confusion, and a compromised outcome. Which is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years. This was the fatal flaw that led to the deeply flawed Finch Report and to the erosion of the RCUK’s initially very progressive OA policy.

As a side-note: my wife and I may end up deciding we don’t need a car at all: we might decide we can walk, or cycle, or take public transport. Car dealers would hate that: they would advocate against such an outcome with all their might if they were involved in that discussion. Which is why they can’t be.


Note. This post is adapted from a message to the Open Scholarship Initiative mailing list.

Promoting this to a post of its own, because dang, it deserves it. Frequent commenter Warren just brought to our attention this video, in which legendary* make-up artist Michael Westmore reveals that he based the design of the Klingon foreheads in Star Trek: The Next Generation on dinosaur vertebrae. Lots of discussion on this point between 3:40 and about 5:40 in the video.

*Westmore has won an Oscar and nine Emmys for his make-up work, and made make-up kits for CIA spies. His Wikipedia page is worth a read. If you saw some weirdo in a Trek series between ST:TNG and Enterprise, it was probably Westmore’s design.

Many thanks to Warren for letting us know about this. Fittingly, he put it in a comment on the final post in the Umbaran starfighter saga, in which we hypothesized and then confirmed that the Umbaran starfighters from Star Wars: The Clone Wars were based on cervical vertebrae of Apatosaurus.

I wonder how many other sci-fi universes will be – or already have been! – invaded by dinosaur vertebrae?

Old drawings (of heads)

June 25, 2017

I was organizing my files in DropBox and I found a folder of old drawings I’d almost forgotten about. I drew this back in the late 90s. It was used on a t-shirt by the OU Zoology Department. I got the general idea of making a head out of animals, and the specific idea of using a butterfly wing for the ear, from Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s cover for the novel Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. The snake I stole from ancient Egypt. I think everything else is in there just because I thought it was cool. Note that inverts, fish, herps, birds, and mammals are all represented, with a good balance of aquatic, terrestrial, and volant forms. It looks awfully hippie-dippie from 20 years out, but heck, what doesn’t?

“Solitude” by Mathew Wedel. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Well, this, I suppose.

I drew this about the same time. I was reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels and lots of stuff about ancient monastic traditions and thinking that if the world is an illusion that must be penetrated, then the evidence of one’s senses can only mislead. Also, Vicki was working for the state medical examiner in Oklahoma City and they used wooden dowels to represent the paths of bullets when reconstructing the skulls of those killed by gunfire. So here’s the skull of a monk, with all of the lethal pathways of distraction and temptation clearly marked as such. At last he can contemplate the eternal mysteries in perfect solitude.

Obviously I didn’t get on board the world-is-an-illusion, sensation-is-bad train – skewed pretty hard in the opposite direction, in fact. Possibly because years earlier the Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs had shown me that pursuing ‘pure’ intellectual and spiritual inquiry would ultimately lead one to a pathetic existence as a disembodied head living in a cave (high culture, meet low culture). Anyway, whatever interest I might have had in that philosophy I exorcised through this drawing. Stripped of any art-making-a-point baggage, I still think it’s pretty bitchin’. I should make t-shirts.

Actually, I probably will make t-shirts of this one if there’s any interest. Hence the CC BY-NC license I put on it, as opposed to the normal CC BY for almost everything else on this site. Look at me, boldly experimenting with new licenses.

This, obviously, is a lot more recent. I was collating all of my scanned drawings and I realized that I’d gone to the trouble of drawing the cranium and lower jaw of Aquilops separately, but I’d never posted the version from before I composited them back into articulation. It is very unlike me to do work and then hide it, so here it is.

It wasn’t until I the post mostly written that I realized that all three drawings are of heads, none of them are saurischians (although the first includes a saurischian, but not the cool kind), and two are stinkin’ mammals (and not the cool kind). I stand ready for your slings and arrows.

For previous posts on my drawings, see:

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:
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.