tornado debris

Hey, look, there goes my future!

One thing that always bemuses me is the near-absolute serendipity of the academic job market. To get into research careers takes at least a decade of very deliberate, directed work, and then at the end you basically toss your diploma into a whirlwind and see where it lands. After all of that careful planning, almost all of us end up where we do based on the random (to us) set of jobs available in the narrow window in which we’re searching.

Did you dream of being curator at Museum X, or professor at University Y? Well, tough, those jobs went to Dr. Graduated-Two-Years-Sooner and Lucky Nature Paper, PhD, and they’re not retiring for three or four decades. Or maybe your dream job comes open right after you, your spouse, and your kids get settled in at your new acceptable-but-not-quite-dream job. Uproot or stay the course? Or what would be your dream job finally comes open but they’re looking for new junior faculty and you just got tenure at Tolerable State U.

This drastic mismatch between carefulness of preparation and randomness of outcome was present even pre-2008. The craptastic academic job market since then has only whetted the central irony’s keen edge. Getting grants and getting jobs is now basically a lottery. I’m not saying that good jobs don’t go to good people – they almost always do – but there are a lot of good people in jobs they never imagined having. And, sadly, plenty of good people who are now working outside of the field they prepared for because of the vicissitudes of the job market. A handful of years sooner or later and they might be sitting pretty.

This is on my mind because I recently had lunch with a physician friend from work and he was talking about applying for jobs as a doctor. “The first thing everyone tells you,” he said, “is decide what part of the country you want to live in first, then apply for the jobs that are there.” Doctors can do that because there are more than 800,000 of them active in the US. Paleontologists are mighty rarified by comparison – it’s hard to say how many of us there are, but probably not more than 2000 active in vert paleo. So the usual advice for budding biologists and paleontologists is exactly opposite that for physicians: “Forget about living where you want. Go wherever the job is and make the best of it.”

Oddly enough, I don’t remember this ever coming up in grad school. It’s something Vicki and I figured out at the end, as we started the process of applying for positions. There are alternate universes where we are at Marshall (they offered us both jobs, but not as attractive as UC Merced at the time), or at Northern Arizona (which is bittersweet because we have totally fallen in love with Flagstaff just in the past three years), or other places. If I were choosing a job site based on everything other than the institution, I’d spring for somewhere in Arizona or the intermountain west in a heartbeat.

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But with all that said, we are happy here. It’s funny, when we got the job offers down here I thought, “LA? Crap, there goes the outdoor part of my life.” But Claremont has lots of parks, it’s tucked up against the San Gabriels and I can get into the mountains in 30 minutes, or out to the desert in 90. I’m spending more time outdoors than I have since I was a kid growing up in rural Oklahoma.

So I’m not complaining about my personal situation. Vicki and I both landed on our feet – and the fact that we both managed to stick the landing at the same institution is little short of miraculous. But we still had to step into the job market hurricane to get here.

If you’re a grad student and you’re reading this, I didn’t write it to freak you out. Just to let you know that it’s coming, and there are things you can do to improve your chances. Be aggressively curious. Write. Publish. Give good talks (and give lots of talks so you can become good at it). Broaden your skill set – if you’re going into paleo, knowing how to teach human anatomy probably doubles or triples the number of available jobs at any one time, even if many of them are not the jobs you’ve been dreaming of.

Then, at the end, pour yourself one stiff drink and cast your fortune to the winds.

Good luck.

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Last night, I submitted a paper for publication — for the first time since April 2013. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. But, because we’re living in the Shiny Digital Future, you don’t have to wait till it’s been through review and formal publication to read it. I submitted to PeerJ, and at the same time, made it available as a preprint (Taylor 2014).

It’s called “Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”, and frankly the results are weird. Here’s a taste:

Taylor (2014:figure 3). Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018. Images of vertebra from Gilmore (1936:plate XXIV). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 1. If the slightly sub-horizontal osteological neutral pose of Stevens and Parrish (1999) is correct, then the cartilaginous neutral pose would be correspondingly slightly lower than depicted here, but still much closer to the elevated posture than to horizontal. (Note that the posture shown here would not have been the habitual posture in life: see discussion.)

Taylor (2014:figure 3). Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018. Images of vertebra from Gilmore (1936:plate XXIV). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 1. If the slightly sub-horizontal osteological neutral pose of Stevens and Parrish (1999) is correct, then the cartilaginous neutral pose would be correspondingly slightly lower than depicted here, but still much closer to the elevated posture than to horizontal. (Note that the posture shown here would not have been the habitual posture in life: see discussion.)

A year back, as I was composing a blog-post about our neck-cartilage paper in PLOS ONE (Taylor and Wedel 2013c), I found myself writing down the rather trivial formula for the additional angle of extension at an intervertebral joint once the cartilage is taken into account. In that post, I finished with the promise “I guess that will have to go in a followup now”. Amazingly it’s taken me a year to get that one-pager written and submitted. (Although in the usual way of things, the manuscript ended up being 13 pages long.)

To summarise the main point of the paper: when you insert cartilage of thickness t between two vertebrae whose zygapophyses articulate at height h above the centra, the more anterior vertebra is forced upwards by t/h radians. Our best guess for how much cartilage is between the adjacent vertebrae in an Apatosaurus neck is about 10% of centrum length: the image above shows the effect of inserting that much cartilage at each joint.

And yes, it’s weird. But it’s where the data leads me, so I think it would be dishonest not to publish it.

I’ll be interested to see what the reviewers make of this. You are all of course welcome to leave comments on the preprint itself; but because this is going through conventional peer-review straight away (unlike our Barosaurus preprint), there’s no need to offer the kind of detailed and comprehensive comment that several people did with the previous one. Of course feel free if you wish, but I’m not depending on it.

References

Gilmore Charles W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus, with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175–300 and plates XXI–XXXIV.

Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284(5415):798–800. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.798

Taylor, Michael P. 2014. Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PeerJ PrePrints 2:e588v1 doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.588v1

Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214

Today, available for the first time, you can read my 2004 paper A survey of dinosaur diversity by clade, age, place of discovery and year of description. It’s freely available (CC By 4.0) as a PeerJ Preprint. It’s one of those papers that does exactly what it says on the tin — you should be able to find some interesting patterns in the diversity of your own favourite dinosaur group.

Fig. 1. Breakdown of dinosaur diversity by phylogeny. The number of genera included in each clade is indicated in parentheses. Non-terminal clades additionally have, in square brackets, the number of included genera that are not also included in one of the figured subclades. For example, there are 63 theropods that are neither carnosaurs nor coelurosaurs. The thickness of the lines is proportional to the number of genera in the clades they represent.

Taylor (2014 for 2004), Figure 1. Breakdown of dinosaur diversity by phylogeny. The number of genera included in each clade is indicated in parentheses. Non-terminal clades additionally have, in square brackets, the number of included genera that are not also included in one of the figured subclades. For example, there are 63 theropods that are neither carnosaurs nor coelurosaurs. The thickness of the lines is proportional to the number of genera in the clades they represent.

“But Mike”, you say, “you wrote this thing ten years ago?”

Yes. It’s actually the first scientific paper I ever wrote (bar some scraps of computer science) beginning in 2003. It’s so old that all the illustrations are grey-scale. I submitted it to Acta Palaeontologica Polonica way back on on 24 October 2004 (three double-spaced hard-copies in the post!) , but it was rejected without review. I was subsequently able to publish a greatly truncated version (Taylor 2006) in the proceedings of the 2006 Symposium on Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems, but that was only one tenth the length of the full manuscript — much potentially valuable information was lost.

My finally posting this comes (as so many things seem to) from a conversation with Matt. Off work sick, he’d been amusing himself by re-reading old SV-POW! posts (yes, we do this). He was struck by my exhortation in Tutorial 14: “do not ever give a conference talk without immediately transcribing your slides into a manuscript”. He bemoaned how bad he’s been at following that advice, and I had to admit I’ve done no better, listing a sequence of old my SVPCA talks that have still never been published as papers.

The oldest of these was my 2004 presentation on dinosaur diversity. Commenting on this, I wrote in email: “OK, I got the MTE four-pager out of this, but the talk was distilled from a 40ish-page manuscript that was never published and never will be.” Quick as a flash, Matt replied:

If I had written this and sent it to you, you’d tell me to put it online and blog about how I went from idea to long paper to talk to short paper, to illuminate the process of science.

And of course he was right — hence this preprint.

Fig. 2. Breakdown of dinosaurian diversity by high-level taxa. "Other sauropodomorphs" are the "prosauropods" sensu lato. "Other theropods" include coelophysoids, neoceratosaurs, torvosaurs (= megalosaurs) and spinosaurs. "Other ornithischians" are basal forms, including heterodontosaurs and those that fall into Marginocephalia or Thyreophora but not into a figured subclade.

Taylor (2014 for 2004), Figure 2. Breakdown of dinosaurian diversity by high-level taxa. “Other sauropodomorphs” are the “prosauropods” sensu lato. “Other theropods” include coelophysoids, neoceratosaurs, torvosaurs (= megalosaurs) and spinosaurs. “Other ornithischians” are basal forms, including heterodontosaurs and those that fall into Marginocephalia or Thyreophora but not into a figured subclade.

I will never update this manuscript, as it’s based on a now wildly outdated database and I have too much else happening. (For one thing, I really ought to get around to finishing up the paper based on my 2005 SVPCA talk!) So in a sense it’s odd to call it a “pre-print” — it’s not pre anything.

Despite the data being well out of date, this manuscript still contains much that is (I think) of interest, and my sense is that the ratios of taxon counts, if not the absolute numbers, are still pretty accurate.

I don’t expect ever to submit a version of this to a journal, so this can be considered the final and definitive version.

References

 

As promised, some thoughts on the various new brachiosaur mass estimates in recent papers and blog-posts.

Back in 2008, when I did the GDI of Giraffatitan and Brachiosaurus for my 2009 paper on those genera, I came out with estimates of 28688 and 23337 kg respectively. At the time I said to Matt that I was suspicious of those numbers because they seemed too low. He rightly told me to shut up and put my actual results in the paper.

More recently, Benson et al. (2014) used limb-bone measurements to estimate the masses of the same individuals as 56000 and 34000 kg. When Ian Corfe mentioned this in a comment, my immediate reaction was to be sceptical: “I’m amazed that the two more recent papers have got such high estimates for brachiosaurs, which have the most gracile humeri of all sauropods“.

So evidently I have a pretty strong intuition that Brachiosaurus massed somewhere in the region of 35000 kg and Giraffatitan around 30000 kg. But why? Where does that intuition come from?

I can only assume that my strongly held ideas are based only on what I’d heard before. Back when I did my 2008 estimate, I probably had in mind things like Paul’s (1998) estimate of 35000 kg for Brachiosaurus, and Christiansen’s (1997:67) estimate of 37400 for Giraffatitan. Whereas by the time the Benson et al. paper came out I’d managed to persuade myself that my own much lower estimates were right. In other words, I think my sauropod-mass intuition is based mostly on sheer mental inertia, and so should be ignored.

I’m guessing I should ignore your intuitions about sauropod masses, too.

References

How disruptive is PeerJ?

February 21, 2013

Matt and I were discussing “portable peer-review” services like Rubriq, and the conversation quickly wandered to the subject of PeerJ. Then I realised that that seems to be happening with all our conversations lately. Here’s a partial transcript.

Mike: I don’t see portable peer-review catching on. Who’s going to pay for it unless journals give an equal discount from APCs? And what journal is going to do that when they get the peer-review done for free anyway? If I was Elsevier, I wouldn’t say “OK, we’ll accept your external review and give you a $700 discount”, I’d charge the full $3000 and get two more free reviews done.

Plus, you know, I can get all the peer-review I want, free of charge, at PeerJ.

Matt: Yeah, that was pretty much my take. Even as I was sending that I thought about adding, “I wonder if this is one more thing that PeerJ will kill.” Only ‘abort’ is more the verb I want, in that I don’t see this ever getting off the ground anyway.

Mike: I think the world at large has yet to realise what a black hole PeerJ is, in the sense that it’s warping all the space near it. Pretty much every time I have any thought at all about scholarly publishing now, that thought it swiftly followed by “… or, wait, I should just use PeerJ for that.”

Matt: Exactly. It makes me think that we may be discovering the contours of that space-warping effect for some time, in that we’re used to one model, and that, among all the other things PeerJ does, it quacks something like that old model so we tend to think of it as a very cool duck, and not the freakin’ tyrannosaur that is going to eat scholarly publishing.

Also makes me think of that Paul Graham thing about noticing that the door is open, and there being a lag between the freedom to do something and the adoption of that newly facilitated action or behavior.

Interesting times.

New thought: assuming PeerJ does not implode, will the established powers try to start PeerJ-alikes, and if so, what will they charge (amount), and what will they charge for (lifetime membership? decadal? annual? per 1000 pages published?).

Mike: Sweet metaphor. It’s true. It’s qualitatively different from other journals in two respects.

First, the APC is literally an order of magnitude less — and at that point, a quantitative difference becomes qualitative. Someone like [NAME REDACTED] would worry about paying $1350 to PLOS ONE, but didn’t even stop and think before saying, yeah, I’ll do that.

Second, the lifetime membership changes the game for all subsequent submissions. Now when you have a manuscript ready to go, your question isn’t going to be “where shall I send this?”, it’s going to be “is there are compelling reason not to send this to PeerJ?”

Legacy publishers won’t start PeerJ-alikes because they can’t. As noted in many SV-POW! posts, Elsevier takes about $5000 for each article they put behind a paywall. Slice away the 40% profit and you get $3000 which not coincidentally is what they charge as an APC. They have old, slow, encumbered systems and processes and top-heavy organisation. At $3000 they are only breaking even. They can’t compete at a PLOS-like $1350 level and they can’t even think about competing at PeerJ levels. If they offered a lifetime membership they’d have to ask $10k or something stupid.

I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to change. They can’t. They’ve ossified into 1990s companies running on 1990s software. It’s hard to steer a ship with a $2bn turnover, and impossible to replace the engines while still cruising.

Matt: I think it is probably a mistake to think that PeerJ will only encroach “upward”, onto the territory of more traditional journals (which is “all of them”). We’ve already talked about it taking business from arXiv (at least ours, although there is the large non-overlap in their respective subject domains–for now, anyway).

But my point is, the question, “Why wouldn’t I send this to PeerJ?” may not only kick in for papers that you might conceivably send elsewhere, but also for manuscripts that you might not conceivably send anywhere.

Mike: There are plenty of historical SV-POW! posts that could have been PeerJ articles on their own — for example, the shish-kebab post that ended up as part of Why Giraffes Have Short Necks.

Matt: Right. And if one is on the fence, shove it on the PeerJ preprint server and see what people have to say.

Mike: I think it’s the first megajournal to have an associated preprint server, and that may yet prove the most important of all its innovations.

Matt: It feels almost … struggling to find the right word, in part because it’s late and I need to go sleep. “Seditious” is not quite it, and neither is “seductive”.

At that point we started talking about something else, so I never did find out what word Matt was groping for. But what’s only gradually become clear to us is how much PeerJ is changing how we think about the academic publishing process. It’s shaking us out of mental ruts that we didn’t even know we were in. Exciting.

 

After the authors’ own work, the biggest contribution to a published paper is the reviews provided, gratis, by peers. When peer-review works as it’s supposed to, they add significant value to the final paper. But the actual reviews are never seen by anyone except the authors and the handling editor.

This is bad for several reasons.

First, good reviewers don’t get the credit they deserve. That’s unfair on those who do a good job — who generously invest a lot of time and effort in others’ work.

Second, bad reviewers don’t get the blame they deserve. That leaves them free to act in bad faith: blocking papers by people they don’t like, or whose work is critical of their own; or just doing a completely inadequate job. Because there are no negative consequences for doing a bad job, people have no external incentive to straighten up and fly right.

Third, the effort that goes into reviewing is largely wasted. Often the reviews themselves are significant pieces of work (that’s certainly true when I’m the one giving the review) and the wider community could benefit from seeing them. Frequently reviews contain extended discussion, not only of the paper’s subject matter but of scientific philosophy such as approaches to taxonomy or narrative structure.

Fourth, editors’ decisions remain unexplained. Most editors handle manucripts efficiently and fairly, but there are cases when this isn’t the case — as for example when I was one of three reviewers who wholeheartedly recommended acceptance but the editor rejected the paper. Even discussing that situation was difficult, because the reviews in question were not available for the world to read.

Fifth, and more general than any of the above, the reviewing process is opaque to the world. In times past, logistical reasons such as lack of space in printed journals meant that the sausage-machine approach to the review process was the only feasible one: no-one wants to see what goes into the machine or what goes on inside, we only want the final product. But we live in an increasingly open world, and consensus is that pretty much all processes benefit from openness.

There are various initiatives under way to change the legacy system of reviewing, including F1000 Research and the eLife decision-letter system. But at the moment only a small minority of papers are submitted to such venues.

What to do about the others?

And so I found myself wondering … what would happen if I just unilaterally posted the reviews I receive? I already make pages on this site for each of my published papers (example): it would be easy to extend those pages by also adding:

  • The submitted version of the manuscript
  • All the reviews I received
  • The editor’s decision letter
  • My response letter to the editor
  • The final published paper.

I know this is “not done”. My question is: why not? Is there an actual reason, other than inertia? Wouldn’t we all be better off if this was standard operating procedure?

[Note that this is orthogonal to reviewer anonymity. As it happens, I think that is also a bad thing, but it’s independent of what I’m proposing here. I could post an unsigned review as-is, without revealing who wrote it even if I knew.]

We know that most academic journals and edited volumes ask authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement before proceeding with publication. When this is done, the publisher becomes the owner of the paper; the author may retain some rights according to the grace or otherwise of the publisher.

Plenty of authors have rightly railed against this land-grab, which publishers have been quite unable to justify. On occasion we’ve found ways to avoid the transfer, including the excellent structured approach that is the SPARC Author Addendum and my tactic of transferring copyright to my wife.

Works produced by the U.S. Federal Government are not protected by copyright. For example, papers written by Bill Parker as part of his work at Petrified Forest National Park are in the public domain.

Journals know this, and have clauses in their copyright transfer agreements to deal with it. For example, Elsevier’s template agreement has a box to check that says “I am a US Government employee and there is no copyright to transfer”, and the publishing agreement itself reads as follows (emphasis added):

Assignment of publishing rights
I hereby assign to <Copyright owner> the copyright in the manuscript identified above (government authors not electing to transfer agree to assign a non-exclusive licence) and any supplemental tables, illustrations or other information submitted therewith that are intended for publication as part of or as a supplement to the manuscript (the “Article”) in all forms and media (whether now known or hereafter developed), throughout the world, in all languages, for the full term of copyright, effective when and if the article is accepted for publication.

So journals and publishers are already set up to deal with public domain works that have no copyright. And that made me wonder why this option should be restricted to U.S. Federal employees.

What would happen if I just unilaterally place my manuscript in the public domain before submitting it? (This is easy to do: you can use the Creative Commons CC0 tool.)

Once I’d done that, I would be unable to sign a copyright transfer agreement. Not merely unwilling — I wouldn’t need to argue with publishers, “Oh, I don’t want to sign that”. It would be simpler than this. It’s would just be “There is no copyright to transfer”.

What would publishers say?

What could they say?

“We only publish public-domain works if they were written by U.S. federal employees”?