Back in February last year, in a comment section, we got to discussing arXiv, the free-to-use open-access preprint repository that pretty much every physicist, mathematician and astonomer deposits their papers in. At the time, I wrote:

The immediate answer is that arXiv doesn’t accept palaeontology papers — the closest it comes is “computational biology”.

After a bit more discussion, I emailed the arXiv administrators and promised to report back when I heard from them. And I did hear back, but failed to report it because Life happened. Here, belatedly, is that report.

Date: 19 February 2012 16:51
From: Mike Taylor <>

First: arXiv is awesome! Many thanks for creating and maintaining it.

I am a palaeobiologist and open-access activist. I, along with several of my colleagues, would very much like to use arXiv to deposit preprints of our journal papers, but can’t do so as it’s limited as to subject. I wonder why that is, and whether there are plans to expand? (I did read the FAQs, but didn’t see an answer there.)

My guess was that it is probably because the organisations providing funding are mostly maths/physics-oriented, but when I checked the list for 2011 it seemed that most funding organsations are discipline-neutral:

so is there another reason besides history?

Many thanks,

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ

Date: 20 February 2012 15:42
From: Don Beyer
To: Mike Taylor <>

Dear Michael P. Taylor,

arXiv does a periodic review the subject categories to ensure the subject categories and descriptions are appropriate. At this time arXiv is not in a position to add any new subject categories. In order to add a new subject category there would have to be a significant sized community, potential moderator(s) and arXiv resources to add the new subject category. We may re-visit this request at a later date.

arXiv admin

Date: 20 February 2012 15:54
From: Mike Taylor <>
To: Don Beyer

Many thanks for this response. Two followups: first, may I post your reply on my blog ( And second, is there anything that we as a community of palaeontologists, or more broadly biologists, can do to help encourage this expansion?

Date: 20 February 2012 17:50
From: Don Beyer
To: Mike Taylor <>

Dear Mike,

You may post my email. Please note you may poll the community and put together a list of interested community members and appeal to arXiv moderation for requesting a potentially new subject category. Also, it would be helpful to have a couple of individuals that would be interested in moderating such a subject category.

Please direct all questions and concerns regarding moderation to the address. More information about our moderation policies can be found at:

Date: 20 February 2012 17:58
From: Mike Taylor <>
To: Don Beyer

Many thanks. Do you have a rough sense of how many biologists registering an interest might be enough to provoke some serious discussion? (I won’t hold you to it! Just so I know if, say, I don’t get more than 100, then I should forget about it.)

Date: 20 February 2012 18:33
From: Don Beyer
To: Mike Taylor <>

Dear Mike,

Each research community is unique so even guessing what an appropriate number would be is pure speculation. You should attempt to gather as many interested individuals as possible within a reasonable time frame and simply submit your request to arXiv when you believe you have enough interested community members.

And there the matter rested, for more than a year.

But of course, during that year, I went right ahead and submitted a preprint to arXiv anyway (and then blogged about it, naturally). Which is the very thing I’d assumed I wasn’t able to do.

Why did I do that? One thing that seems to have changed between the exchange of correspondence above and our paper being posted is that arXiv’s “computational biology” category quietly changed to “quantitative biology”, which seems a bit less forbidding. After all, our paper must have been quantitative, it had measurements in it. But I think the big shift was discovering that a fellow biologist, Casey Bergman, was already posting on arXiv. Proof by example that it can be done.

So where does that leave us?

I know of at least two other palaeontologists who have posted on arXiv since me: Matt Wedel (no surprise) and Bristol MSc graduate Matt Cobley. I’ve never yet heard of someone submitting a biology paper and being told that it’s out of scope. So I think the conclusion is that arXiv does accept palaeontology after all, and probably always did. My advice now is that if you find yourself wishing there was an arXiv for palaeo, just use arXiv.

… and now of course there’s also PeerJ Preprints. But we’ll talk about that another time.