The best open-access publishers make their articles open from the get-go, and leave them that way forever. (That’s part of what makes them best.) But it’s not unusual to find articles which either start out free to access, then go behind a paywall; or that start out paywalled but are later released; or that live behind a paywall but peek out for a limited period.

Let’s talk about these.

Initial “open access”

You’ll sometimes come across journals where articles are free to read for some initial period after their publication. For example, the announcement of the Journal of Photonics for Energy says “The journal will be available as open access for the first year”; and the 2008/9 progress report for the Journal of Nutrition says “We will continue to restrict open access for one year, as per current procedure”.

Despite the good intentions of the journals, these articles are not open access in any useful sense. The point of an open-access article is that it’s there when you need it. If it’s there this week, but I need to read and cite it next week when I can’t get it any more, then that’s no good.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that publishers have a mandate to keep articles up on their web-sites forever (although we would prefer that they do). What it means is that, if they want to be open access, they can’t prohibit others from mirroring and archiving those papers, and continuing to make them available after they’ve disappeared from the publisher’s site.

Note that any article published with a Creative Commons licence — even the most restrictive of those licences — is safe from this kind of disappearance. Those licences guarantee third parties’ rights to archive, replicate and redistribute the articles.

Delayed open access

it’s probably more common to take the opposite approach. Some journals, including Science and Proceedings B, make articles free to read, and so “gratis open access”, after an embargo period during which they are available only to subscribers.  This period is one year in the case of both these journals; that seems to be typical.

Are such journals open access? I would say that the journals themselves are not open access, but that the articles become open access once they cross the release line. So for example, Raichlen and Polk’s new neurobiology paper in Proc B. is not open access, but Anderson et al.’s seed-dispersal paper (which is a year older) is. On that basis you might choose to refer to Proc B. as a “delayed open access” journal.

[Unfortunately, Science is not truly open access even for older articles such as Stevens and Parrish’s DinoMorph. That’s because it requires registration/login before you can get to the papers. The BOAI FAQ does not accept registration-required content as open access, specifying “without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself”.]

Transitory “open access”

And then you have the worst of both worlds. Every now an then a journal or a publisher has a special offer where they open up access to their articles for a limited period — for example, this one where the Royal Society opened up all their content for two weeks, or this where an issue of European Physical Journal D was opened for a week.

It seems churlish to criticise a generous action like this, but I find it close to useless, and I think most other researchers will, too. When I am working on a paper, I don’t choose what to cite based on which journal or publisher the papers are from: I would never think, “Oh, let’s see, European Physical Journal D is open at the moment, I’ll cite something from there”. I cite what’s relevant and appropriate, irrespective of its source; and if I can’t get the papers I need at that time there’s a problem.

I sometimes wonder what publishers think will be the result of this kind of limited-time-only offer. One obvious outcome is that people will batch-download the transitorily available content — either to store up for themselves in case they even happen to need it (which is wasteful of both bandwidth and storage); or to post openly elsewhere for permanence (which is usually a violation of copyright).

To summarise: I think that making articles open access after a delay is a good thing (though obviously not as good as making them open access immediately!). But that making them free to read for a limited time — either when first published or as part of some special event later — is of very limited value, and can’t really be described as open access.

In the previous section, we discussed the various licences that can be used for open-access articles. But that may have been premature, because licences are agreements whereby copyright holders waive some of their rights, and we hadn’t actually talked about copyright first. So let’s do that now.

(This post is relevant to subscription publishing as well as open access.)

Who owns copyright in a new work?

In general, whenever you do any creative work, you own the copyright of that work — whether it’s painting a picture, composing a tune or writing an academic paper. You don’t need to do anything special to obtain copyright (although back in the day registration used to be necessary in some jurisdictions).

There are a couple of exceptions to this general rule. One of the most important is a work for hire. When you are paid to create a copyrightable work, the terms of the contract under which you do it may stipulate that your employer owns the work. This is common, and quite reasonable, in some situations: for example, my day-job employer Index Data owns the copyright to the code I write for them. It’s much less common in other situations — in particular, I have never heard of a university taking copyright for its researchers’ works.

Another important exception to the usual you-wrote-it-you-own-it rule is that all work created by the US Government is public domain: that is, no-one owns it, there is no copyright, and anyone can do whatever they like with it.

By the way, anything that you own the copyright for, including your manuscripts, you can place in the public domain. (The Creative Commons CC0 tool exists to help you do this unambiguously.)

Copyright transfer

When your manuscript is accepted by a journal for publication, many publishers will ask you to transfer copyright to them, often insisting that it is an absolute requirement for publication. They have a form for you to sign; once you have done this, you no longer own your work. (Since this post is supposed to be purely expository and not at all evangelistic, I will refrain from comment on this issue.)

There are a few alternatives to copyright transfer.

First, if the work is already in the public domain — for example because it was created by an employee of the US Government as part of their job — then there is no copyright to transfer. In this case, the journal is already free to publish the work (as indeed is any other journal), and they will usually just ask the author to make a statement certifying the PD status of the work. (JVP’s form has this option.) I don’t know how such journals would react to non-Government employees who had dedicated their work to the public domain. It would be interesting to find out.

Second, some journals do not require the author to transfer copyright, but to give them a licence to publish. Although this can be a liberal option, such licences often impose many restrictions on the author, so that you’re not allowed (because of having signed the contract) to do things that you might, as copyright holder, expect to do. In some cases, the value of having retained copyright is very small.

Finally, most open-access journals that use a true open-access licence such as CC BY allow authors to retain copyright because, well, it makes no difference to them who holds it. Whoever the copyright holder is, third parties are in the exact same situation: they are free to do whatever they want with it provided that they acknowledge the authorship.

Note that authorship is a different matter from holding copyright. Even if you transfer copyright of your work to a publisher, you still have the right to be identified as the author (unless of course you waive that separately).

How licences work with copyright

If you hold copyright in a work, I have essentially no rights regarding it, beyond what you give me. I can’t print it, I can’t make copies for myself or others, I can’t post it on my web-site, I can’t translate it, I can’t make derived works, I can’t use images from it on Wikipedia, and so on.

So in that state, it’s essentially useless.

This is why you release your work under a licence. Licences waive some of the copyright holder’s rights (i.e. some of the restrictions placed on others’ use of your work). You may do this for financial gain (“you can sell copies of my book provided you pay me 10% of the cover price as a royalty”), or out of the goodness of your heart (“public money paid me to do this research, so I am giving the result to the world.”)

The specific set of rights that you give varies with the license. Restrictive licences may give the right only to read the work. Others may allow various forms of re-use, perhaps limited as to extent or field of applicability. Some licences allow certain forms of use in non-commercial contexts, and less in commercial contexts. Choosing an appropriate licence is an art-form: we’ll talk more about it in a subsequent post.

Only the copyright holder can grant someone a licence to their work. The holder may choose to give different licences to different people. For example, you might make your paper available under CC BY-NC, which forbids commercial use; then if someone wants to use your work commercially, they might offer you money in exchange for furnishing the work to them on terms that allow commercial use.

Epilogue: a note on patents and trademarks

Patents, copyrights and trademarks are often referred to under the blanket term “intellectual property”, or IP for short. This is unfortunate: they are actually three very different branches of law, and have little in common. That’s one reason that I avoid the misleading term “intellectual property”.

Patents cover inventions, or increasingly often ideas. They must be applied for and paid for, and have a strictly limited term — 20 or 14 years in the US — after which they expire and anyone can use the invention.

Copyrights cover specific works, which may use inventions but differ from them in having a specific fixed form. They apply automatically and don’t need to be applied for; and they last much longer than patents. (The details of copyright terms are complicated, but generally anything you create now will remain under copyright in the US until 70 years after your death.)

Trademarks cover names and logos and exist to prevent consumer confusion that could arise if two similarly named organisations or products exist in the same space. They must be applied for.

Here are some examples. I might have patented the idea of using CT scanning to look inside sauropod vertebrae, if I’d thought of it first. (I’d have had to write the description in terms that sound like an invention, an actual device for using CT.) I couldn’t copyright or trademark that idea. I would hold copyright in any specific paper I wrote using that technique, but could not patent or trademark that paper. And if I started a company to do CT scanning of sauropod vertebrae, I could register its name as a trademark, but I couldn’t patent or copyright it.

For the purposes of academic publishing, copyrights are by far the most important of these areas; patents can arise from research, and introduce their own issues, which we won’t discuss here; trademarks are irrelevant.

Thanks for sticking with this series. In part 1, we looked at what open access means, and what terms to use in describing it. In part 2, we considered the Gold and Green roads to open access. In part 3, we touched on zero-cost Gold OA, sometimes known as “Platinum”. This time, we’re going to get down the nitty gritty of the actual licences that govern what you can do with a paper that you’ve downloaded.

As usual in this series, I will try to keep my opinions and preferences out of it, and limit myself to uncontroversial statements. So for example, I will not express a preference for one Creative Commons licence over another, even though I do have a preference.

No licence

Unfortunately, this is still very common. Lots of journals that make their articles freely available to read online say nothing about what you are and are not allowed to do with them. PalArch’s journal of vertebrate palaeontology is one of these — I have no idea, for example, whether I am allowed to print a copy of an article for myself; or, if I am, then whether I can give it to a friend; or if I can print three copies for three friends, or fifty copies for a group of students. [Note added 15 November 2013: I’m pleased to say that PalArch has now fixed this, and starting from our own article there, they use CC By.]

Not much better is the sort of vague statement given by Palaeontologia Electronica:

All articles appearing in Palaeontologia Electronica (PE) are available free of charge from the World Wide Web through the Palaeontologia Electronica Site. Copyrights for technical articles (text and graphics) are assigned to Palaeontologia Electronica Sponsors where appropriate … If you would like to distribute copies of materials published by Palaeontologia Electronica we encourage you to obtain the requisite permissions from the copyright holders.

The implication here is that I can print a copy for myself but not for my friend, but it’s not at all explicit. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the issue of whether there’s any reason for such a condition, and limit our questions to what the conditions are, not what they should be.)

So the first thing to say about open-access licences is: please have a licence. Even if it’s a horrible, restrictive licence, please at least be clear about it. Merely shoving PDFs up on the web and walking away is asking for misunderstanding.

Custom licences

One step up from no licence at all is a custom licence, written for a particular journal or publisher. One such is the set of terms used by Elsevier for their “sponsored articles”. (Credit to Elsevier for making these fairly easy to find now — it was not always the case!)

Leaving aside how restrictive these terms are, let’s at least give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge that they are explicit. The problem is, it’s a lot to read and understand. Elsevier’s terms are actually fairly short and sweet as these things go: 300-odd words. But it’s not unusual for these things to be multi-page monsters. Who can read and understand the implications of such things? If only there were a small set of simple, well-defined standard licences, so that content providers could just pick the one they wanted and everyone would know what it meant.

Creative Commons licences

… and that is the purpose of Creative Commons. There are about seven different Creative Commons licences, depending on how you count them, but they are made up from a small number of easy-to-understand building blocks. Since each such block has a two-letter name, it’s easy to name a specific Creative Commons licence such as BY-NC-SA. (The full abbreviations of the licences begin with “CC”.)

CC BY is the basic CC licence. It says that you are allowed to do anything at all with the content of the article provided only that you credit the author. It’s the licence used by the biggest and most influential open-access publishers (PLOS, BMC, Hindawi) precisely because it allows the licenced work to have the most value. Wikipedia uses it for the same reason (as indeed does this blog). When dealing with a CC BY article, you can reuse passages of it in your own work, copy its illustrations into a Wikipedia article, hand out copies to classes you teach, extract numeric data and add it to your database, and so on.

You can augment — or, rather, restrict — the CC BY terms by adding other clauses:

The NC clause means “non-commercial”, and restricts downstream use of the work to non-commercial contexts — although exactly what that means is vague and difficult to define. The purpose of this clause is to ensure that if anyone makes money from the work, the author gets a slice. (We’ll discuss this more in a future post.)

The ND clause means “no derivatives”: you’re allowed to make copies of the entire article, but not to “remix” it: you can’t make translations, extract passages, adapt it into a blog post, etc. The idea of this clause is to protect authorial integrity.

By contrast, SA means “share alike”: you are allowed to make derivatives, but only on the condition that you release them under the same licence. The idea here is to make openness viral, to ensure that it’s passed on to other projects.

The ND and SA clauses are two alternatives: you can’t have both together, that would be a contradiction.

Finally, there’s CC0. This is not exactly a licence, but a formal declaration that the work is placed in the public domain, that copyright is waived, and that can you do whatever you like with it, subject to no conditions at all, not even attribution. (Some other classes of work are also in the public domain, notably anything produced by US Federal employees, including those who work for the BLM.)

These various CC licensing options can be stacked to make the following licences: CC BY, CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC-ND and CC BY-NC-SA. And CC0 makes seven.

SIDEBAR: If you’re familiar with the major open-source software licences, you’ll recognise CC BY as being similar to the Apache and BSD licences; and CC BY-SA as similar to the GNU General Public Licence (GPL). There are no open-source software equivalents of CC licences with the NC or ND clauses, as these would violate the open-source definition. CC0 is of course equivalent to public domain software.

Note that, as with any other licence, you have the option of routing around CC licences by negotiating with the copyright holder — which is often, though not always, the author. If for some reason you particularly wanted to reproduce an SV-POW! article and not credit me as the author, then this blog’s CC BY licence doesn’t give you permission to do that — but you can contact me and ask whether I’ll allow it anyway. More realistically, if you wanted to use CC BY-NC material in your business’s training materials, you might be able to negotiate its use, for a fee.

Other licences

No doubt there are other licences out there other than the CC ones and the ones that various publishers make up for themselves. (In the software world there are lots of these, to no-one’s benefit.) But I can’t think of any examples. Can anyone?

Varying licences

One last nasty problem needs to be mentioned. While journals tend to at least be consistent in the terms under which they make articles available, repositories often are not. For example, articles in arXiv are provided under four different conditions: CC BY, CC BY-NC-SA, public domain, and an underspecified “licence to distribute“. Worse still, I can’t see that their pages even specify which licence a given article uses.

This makes it harder, in general, to safely reuse content from repositories. It’s one reason why some people favour Gold OA over Green OA.

As we saw last time, the appeal of the Gold route to open access is that the publisher does the work of making the article freely available in an obvious, well-known place in its final typeset format. Conversely the appeal of the Green route is that it doesn’t cost the author or her institution any money.

What happens when we combine these two advantages, and get publishers to typeset, publish and archive open-access articles at no charge?

Yes, it does happen. One outstanding journal that does this is Acta Palaeontologia Polonica — this is one of the reasons that I have published there twice (neck posture, Brontomerus) and Matt has three other APP papers as well as being co-author on those two. Another is Palaeontologia Electronica. In a different field, the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) is of particular interest because the article An Efficient Journal explains in some detail how it’s done.

According to the definitions I gave last time, this best-of-both-worlds scenario is in fact the best case of the Gold route: because the key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available. The process of publication in these venues is identical to that in other Gold OA venues — the only difference is the lack of a fee.

Recently, I’ve started to hear two new terms used to describe zero-fee Gold open access: Platinum OA and Diamond OA. I am not very keen on either, because they give the incorrect impression that there is another route to open access, fundamentally different from either Gold or Green. But if either term is to be used, “Platinum OA” is a better term than “Diamond OA” because at least platinum is a precious metal like gold — so the connotation is “like Gold OA but ever better”.

So I recommend not using the term “Diamond OA”.

Last time, we looked at what the term “open access” actually means. We noted that its been widely abused, so that when you need to be specific about the full meaning you need to say “BOAI-compliant”; we recognised that much of what is described as OA is really only “gratis OA”, or as Ross Mounce called it, “gratis access”; and we noted that the term “libre open access” is literally meaningless and should be avoided.

At the moment, the big argument within the open-access movement is about Gold vs. Green open access. This time, we’ll look at what these terms mean, what they don’t mean, and some of the pros and cons of each.

What Gold and Green mean

Gold open access means that that publisher, which creates the final published form of the paper (i.e. usually a PDF) makes that final published form freely available.

Mostly that means they will host it on their own site, as for example BMC and PLOS (two Gold-OA publishers) do. In some cases, the papers may be hosted off-site: for example, eLife doesn’t host its own papers at the time of writing, but leaves them for PubMed Central to host. The key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available.

Well-behaved Gold-OA publishers will also do things like ensuring the papers are indexed in reference databases like PubMed, and that they are archived in schemes like LOCKSS and Portico.

Green open access means that the publisher locks the final published form of the paper behind a paywall, but the author takes steps to ensure that it’s freely available elsewhere.

The form of the paper that is made available varies: ideally it’s the final published form; sometimes it may be the final accepted manuscript, as it was when the author last touched it, before the publisher typeset it.

Often, Green OA uses institutional repositories (IRs). Another common option is a subject repository, of which the best known is arXiv — the vast preprint archive for maths, physics and astronomy, and occasionally palaeontology. Another (rather weak) form of Green OA is individual researcher collections on web-pages, such as Matt’s and mine. There may be other options, such as uploading the manuscript into a torrent space, and letting the world mirror it. The key point is that the author has to make this happen, rather than leaving it to the publisher.

Gold and Green are strategies

The first and most important thing to understand is that Gold OA and Green OA are not two different goals. They are two complementary strategies for reaching the same goal — which is open access.

A given downloaded paper is not a Gold OA paper, or a Green OA paper. It’s just an open access paper. It’s true, of course, that it reached its user by means of the Gold or Green routes. But by the time it’s arrived at its destination, the route it took is no more interesting than whether I took the M40 or M4 on my journey to London. Being in London is what matters.

This is why the loathing that some Green advocates seem to feel for Gold is so misplaced. We want to get to London. I may find the M40 route more convenient, but I really don’t want to get into a situation where I’m insulting those who chose to drive down the M4.

“Gold” does not mean “higher quality” or “more open”

In retrospect, it may be a bit of a shame that the Gold strategy was given the name Gold, which connotes quality, rather than a more value-neutral colour such as blue. You sometimes read people writing about Gold OA as though it’s the gold standard — the best OA you can get! But of course that’s not true.

The best OA you can get is OA that complies to the original definition of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI): that is, open access that permits all kinds of reuse as well as merely reading. You can achieve BOAI-compliant OA by the Gold or Green routes. And you can also take the Gold or Green routes to a paper that is merely “gratis access” — i.e. free to read, but with all other rights reserved. Whether the Gold or Green route was taken tells you nothing about what rights you have.

Advantages and disadvantages of Gold and Green

So why does it make any difference whether Gold or Green is used? Well, there are a few things:

  • Green requires more work from the author
  • Gold may require the author (or, more usually, her institution) to pay a publication fee.
  • Green may undermine publishers’ businesses. [Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage may be open to argument.]
  • In the common case where Green provides only the author’s final manuscript, there are two versions of the paper out there, which can cause confusion.
  • In that case, you don’t generally know the final published version’s page-numbers when working from the author’s manuscript, which means you can’t cite pages.
  • Fragmentation of papers across many Green repositories causes problems:
    • It can be hard to find a paper — there is no good cross-IR aggregator, and who wants to find the lead author’s institution’s IR on the way to discovering the paper?
    • Different IRs impose different bizarre and unnecessary reuse conditions, often preventing BOAI compliance.
    • Coverage of IRs is surprisingly patchy, and some very well-respected universities doesn’t seem to have one at all.

So the equation is a fairly complex one, and it’s perhaps not too surprising that some OA advocates prefer Gold on balance, while others feel that Green is better. (I may have my own opinions on this issue, but I’ll leave them out of this post.)

Green and Gold in open-access mandates

The best-known and most influential open-access mandate is that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, which requires that authors “Submit papers to PubMed Central (PMC) and approve public release”. This is is of course a form of Green OA, with a particular repository wired in.

The great majority of subsequent open-access mandates, whether from funding bodies or universities, have followed the NIH’s lead in requiring Green OA. Why? I don’t really know — mandating organisations don’t tend to discuss their reasoning. But one obviously appealing aspect of the Green route is that no-one has to think about money. In particular, funders don’t have to find more of it to pay for publication.

Against this backdrop it’s been encouraging to see that many of the more recent mandates are neutral on which route should be taken, caring only that open access is achieved. An obvious example is the new RCUK policy, which describes both Gold and Green (though without using either term).

[It’s true that RCUK has expressed a preference for Gold (and is providing money to make it possible), but they are clear that the choice is one for authors to make. The specific reasons given for preferring Gold in the linked post seem spurious, as I noted in my comment there, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate reasons.]

The Finch report strongly favours Gold

Finally a word on the Finch report, recently written to guide UK open-access policy. This report was produced by a committee containing researchers, librarians, administrators, and — crucially — publishers. Now publishers hate Green OA, because it doesn’t generate revenue for them. And it seems that the publisher lobby nobbled the otherwise excellent report by excising all mention of Green OA. My feeling is that expressing a preference for Gold would have been reasonable, but that pretending Green doesn’t exist was misleading and irresponsible.

The very unfortunate consequence of this has been that certain open access advocates who strongly favour the Green route have become very noisy with articles and comments that give the impression they’re opposed to open access — because the Gold emphasis of the Finch report (and the mild Gold preference of the RCUK policy) is different from the way they would like to do things. Folks, please stop this. It doesn’t help anyone, with the possible exception of Elsevier.

The real point here is that the world needs open access. How it gets open access is a very secondary issue in comparison.

I’m going to keep this free of advocacy. Hopefully everything I say here will be uncontroversial, because all I am doing is surveying definitions and clarifying distinctions. I’ll save my opinions for later articles (not that there is any secret about them).

Open access (or OA)

It may seem a bit surprising to have to define “open access” when we’ve all been talking about about constantly for a year. But one of the biggest issues that derails constructive discussion of the move to OA is that the term is used in different ways by different groups.

The term “open access” was coined in December 2001 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which gave the following very explicit definition:

By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Note, then that, open access as originally defined means much more than the ability to freely read a paper on the Internet, but also allows a far wider range of activities — including all forms of redistribution, repurposing and content-mining.

Of course it’s also a useful thing when an article is made available with fewer rights — typically only the right to view an article on the Internet, or sometimes to download a personal copy or make a printout. The right to do these things is valuable, and needs a name. Unfortunately, the name it’s often been given is “open access”, obscuring the important distinction between true open access and the more restrictive form of access-to-read.

This confusion is a very bad thing. Why? Well, first of all, because we’re scientists and we care about what terms mean. If I say “dinosaur” you know that I mean “descendant of the most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon“, and that I am not going to suddenly start talking as though Dimetrodon or Sarcosuchus were a dinosaur. In just the same way, if I say “open access”, you need to know what I’m talking about.

Second, there are big practical implications. The one that’s in the public eye at the moment is text-mining — having computers, rather than humans, read papers and extract the raw facts from them. When articles are open access in the original sense of the term, there is no ambiguity about whether you’re allowed to text-mine them or not. When they are “open access” only in the more limited sense, you may or may not have the rights you want. Often you can’t even tell, and the best you can hope for is that you’ll emerge on the other side of long, complex negotiations with permission. True open access has other important implications, such as availability to be incorporated into Wikipedia.

BOAI, BBB, “full open access”, @ccess

To be more explicit about what particular rights readers are given regarding an open-access article, several terms have been used.

  • The one I like best is BOAI-compliant, which refers explicitly back to the Budapest initiative (and has the advantage of using an acronym that can’t be confused with anything else).
  • You might also see BBB, which stands for Budapest/Berlin/Bethesda, the names of three very similar open-access declarations.
  • You occasionally even see the redundant BOAI/BBB. Please don’t.
  • Phrases such as “full open access” and “true open access” are sometimes used, but they don’t help because they are just as prone to abuse as unadorned “open access”.
  • Finally, the @ccess group started to use the term @ccess to refer to BOAI compliance. Although I am part of the @ccess group, I don’t think that adding yet another term has helped (and I am pleased to see that they seem to have dropped that usage).

So the unfortunate consequence of the unfortunate broadening of the meaning of “open access” has been the coining of four or five different terms all intended to indicate what was originally meant by the original term. Very unhelpful.

Gratis vs. libre

The most deliberate attempt to clarify exactly what degree of freedom is meant by “open access” was in a 2008 memo by Peter Suber, with input from Stevan Harnad. It defined the terms “gratis OS” and “libre OS”, to mean “free as in beer” and “free as in speech” respectively. That is, “gratis OA” means only the removal of price barriers, and says nothing about permissions.

So Elsevier’s “sponsored articles” could be described as “gratis OA”.

Unfortunately (and I seem to be using that word a lot!) the usually reliable Peter Suber completely fumbled the ball in the definition of “libre OA”:

I’ve decided to use the term “gratis OA” for the removal of price barriers alone and “libre OA” for the removal of price and at least some permission barriers. […] There is more than one kind of permission barrier to remove. Therefore, there is more than one kind or degree of libre OA.

This means that the term “libre OA” is completely useless. It tells you literally nothing about what you can do. Can you republish a libre OA article? Can you text-mine it? Can you use figures from it in your own work? You can’t tell. You may be able to do any or all of these; but the fact that the article is “libre OA” doesn’t tell you that.

A publisher could make an article free-to-read and add the stipulation that you’re allowed to reuse portions of it in your own work provided that your work is printed on sheets of pure diamond using ink made from snow-leopard foreskins. And that wholly useless concession towards reuse would suffice to make the article “libre OA” under the Suber/Harnar definition.

Conclusion: recommendations on terminology

  • Use “open access” (or OA) when talking in general terms, but be aware that in practice its meaning is vaguer than when originally defined
  • When more precision is needed, use “BOAI-compliant” to mean open access as originally defined. Avoid “BBB”, “full open access” and other such alternatives.
  • It’s fine to use “gratis OA” to convey that something is free to read but offers no further permissions. But:
  • Do not use “libre OA” because it’s meaningless.

In short, the only terms you need to use are “open access”, “BOAI-compliant” and maybe “gratis OA”.

A short one, because I’ve been commenting on other people’s blogs a lot recently (Scholarly Kitchen, Open and Shut, The Scientist) and it infuriates me how hard it is get a good back-and-forth discussion going in those venues.

The contrast of course is with SV-POW! itself, where we’ve often had excellent, busy, informative comment-threads (example 1, example 2, example 3) that have resulted in us learning a lot from our commenters.  So why is it that some blogs’ comment streams are lively and productive, whereas others are relatively sterile?

Here’s how to do it right.

1. Turn on comments.  It should be no-brainer, I know, but it always brings me up short when I find a blog post with commenting disabled.  When a blog keeps doing it, it’s one of the most likely factors that will make me give up on the blog altogether.  If it’s just one person preaching, it’s much less interesting than a discussion.

2. Do not require registration.  This one, too, should be too obvious to need stating.  Notoriously, the Scientific American blogs require you to register before you can comment, hence the fact that the SciAm incarnation of Tetrapod Zoology gets less than half as many comments as the old Science Blogs version used to get.  And that in turn is why even now, eight months after Darren stopped posting at the old site, it’s still Google’s top hit for “tetrapod zoology”.

Science Blogs lets you comment just by filling in your details on the comment form, and of course browsers do that for you, so the process is painless.  “But registration is fast and free”, say the SciAm people.  Doesn’t matter: it’s a road-bump.  At any given moment, the point someone wants to make in a comment is probably not enough to push them over that bump.  So don’t make them do it.  They just won’t.

There are various open-ID schemes that different blog platforms support.  Most people by now have at least one of a Google, FaceBook or Twitter account.  If you let people use those as their commenting identity, the problem goes away.  If your blogging platform doesn’t support this, you might have chosen the wrong platform.  (Why SciAm decided they needed to build their own, I can’t begin to imagine.)

3. Do not use CAPCHA.  I can’t tell you how much I loathe this.  I type a comment, try to submit it, and am met with this brain-damage:

What the heck does that say?  Is that “ri” or “n”?  Is that a “t” or and “f” just before that other thing that might be “1” or “l”?  And why are you putting me through this when I am trying to contribute to your blog?

Again: people will just shrug and walk away.

Bloggers who use blogger.com tell me that they have no choice about this, that the platform imposes it.  If that’s really true, then ditch blogger.com.  It’s just broken.

4. Do not moderate comments.  This is the potentially controversial one, because up till this point I don’t think I’ve said anything that anyone reasonable would disagree with.  But this one is counter-intuitive.  When you start a blog, the natural thing is to want to feel that you’re in control of it, and that means controlling what can be posted there.  But that’s a mistake.  Moderation means that people can’t see their own comments, which is alienating; but more importantly, it means other people can’t see them, which in turn means that all discussion grinds to a halt until such time as you happen to moderate.

What that means is that the site is only really alive when you’re at the keyboard, constantly checking your inbox, so that you notice moderation requests as soon as they come in.  It means you’ll never have the experience of waking up in the morning and finding that a discussion has broken out on your blog.

.

But what about spam?  On a good platform, it’s not a problem.  Since we started SV-POW!, 6,539 comments have been posted, and 3,552 spam comments have been automatically detected and held for moderation.  My and Matt’s manual moderation of those suspected-spam comments shows that detection has been 99.92% accurate: there have been only three false negatives in five and a half years.  There have been 63 false positives, i.e. comments that looked like spam but weren’t.  Those were held for moderation, and passed.

So.  You don’t need to moderate to filter spam, and you don’t want to moderate to control discussion.  Just open it up.

5. Allow subscription to followups.  Some platforms let commenters tick a box or click a link to ask that they be emailed when someone posts a followup comment.  That’s a very valuable feature, because it makes people aware of how the conversation they’ve joined is progressing, and gives them a chance to respond.

6. Reply.  A very obvious one: engage with the comments yourself.  You want to be a part of the conversation, as well as having the privileged position of setting the agenda.

7. Oh, and write something interesting.  Your posts catalyse the comments.  Once a comment stream is up and running, it has its own momentum, but it will only get started if you give it a push.  Now I am not suggesting that you deliberately set out to write controversial articles, or really that you set out to write anything other than what interests you.  There is really no point in writing about anything that doesn’t interest you — if you’re not enjoying your blog, then no-one else will, either.

Summary

Now that I come to review, I almost wish I’d said less — because one of these seven points is the burden of my message, and that one may have got a bit lost in the middle.  It will come as no surprise to anyone that if you want fruitful discussions in your blog’s comments, you need to turn on comments, avoid speed-bumps like registration and CAPCHA, let people subscribe to followup comments, reply, and write interesting articles.  The only remotely controversial part is do not moderate comments, and that’s the main point I want to make.

So here it is again: do not moderate comments.

In among all the open-access discussion and ostrich-herding, we at SV-POW! Towers do still try to get some actual science done.  As we all know all too well, the unit of scientific communication is the published paper, and getting a submission ready involves a lot more than just the research itself.  One of the most important aspects is preparing the illustrations — indeed Matt once told me that he thinks one of the best ways to put a paper together is to start with the illustrations, then write the text around them.

[Illustrations are often referred to as “figures”.  I don’t know how the tradition got started, but since that term also means numbers, I will try to avoid it.  If I tell you “I am working on the figures for my diversity paper”, you don’t know if I am accumulating statistics or preparing illustrations.]

Done well, illustrations can be things of beauty as well as scientifically informative.

Taylor et al. 2011b:fig. 1 -- Sauropod neck gallery

Taylor et al. (2011b: figure 1). Sauropod necks, showing relationships for a selection of species, and the range of necks lengths and morphologies that they encompass. Phylogeny based on that of Upchurch et al. (2004: fig. 13.18). Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (neck 9.5 m long) modified from Young & Zhao (1972: fig. 4); Dicraeosaurus hansemanni (2.7 m) modified from Janensch (1936: plate XVI); Diplodocus carnegii (6.5 m) modified from Hatcher (1903: plate VI); Apatosaurus louisae (6 m) modified from Lovelace, Hartman & Wahl (2008: fig. 7); Camarasaurus supremus (5.25 m) modified from Osborn & Mook (1921: plate 84); Giraffatitan brancai (8.75 m) modified from Janensch (1950: plate VIII); giraffe (1.8 m) modified from Lydekker (1894:332). Alternating grey and white vertical bars mark 1 m increments.

There are a few things to be said about preparing good illustrations, so we’re kicking off a short series on the subject.  This is the first.

But the zeroth was published here a couple of years ago.  Since the most important illustrations in many palaeontology papers are those of the specimens, the base you’re working from is your specimen photographs.  So you might want to refresh your memory by reading Tutorial 8: how to photograph big bones before we proceed.

There are various steps in getting from a photo to a finished, publishable figure, and we’ll look at those along the way.  But somewhere along the line, if you’re publishing in a conventional journal such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, you’re going to flatten your colour images down to greyscale. Postpone that step till the last possible moment.

That should be too obvious to need saying, but I’ve got it wrong myself.  When I was preparing the specimen photographs for the Xenoposeidon paper, destined for Palaeontology, I flattened the images too early in the process, with the result that the greyscale versions of the figures that were included in the paper are the only versions in existence.  The upshot is that if you look at the full-resolution illustrations in the unofficial supplementary information, you’ll see that the version of Figure 3 available there is greyscale, just like the one in the paper.

By the time the three of us did our neck-posture paper in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, we weren’t quite so dumb.  So although the illustrations in the published paper are all greyscale, the two that are based on specimen photographs, rather than assembled from previously published greyscale components, were prepared in full colour, then flattened as the very last process before submission.  As a result, the full-resolution illustrations in the unofficial supplementary information have figures 1 and 2 in colour:

Taylor et al. (2009: Figure 1). Cape hare Lepus capensis RAM R2 in right lateral view, illustrating maximally extended pose and ONP: skull, cervical vertebrae 1-7 and dorsal vertebrae 1-2. Note the very weak dorsal deflection of the base of the neck in ONP, contrasting with the much stronger deflection illustrated in a live rabbit by Vidal et al. (1986: fig. 4). Scale bar 5 cm.

So we were pretty happy with that.  But by the time we came to submit the Brontomerus description a couple of years later, we’d had a rather obvious (in retrospect) thought: just because we can’t have colour in the printed journal, does that mean we can’t have it in the PDF?  We asked the good people at Acta Pal. Pol., and they agreed that we could submit colour illustrations, they’d use them in the PDF, and then flatten them to greyscale themselves for the printed edition.

Since about fifty times as many people see the PDF as see the printed journal [yes, I just made than number up out of my head], that solution suited us very well.  The outcome was the the PDF has gorgeous figures like this one:

Taylor er al. 2011a: fig. 4 -- Brontomerus caudal vertebra

Taylor et al. (2011a: figure 4). Mid-caudal vertebra of the camarasauromorph sauropod Brontomerus mcintoshi from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah, OMNH 61248 in dorsal (A), anterior (B), left lateral (C), posterior (D) and ventral (E) views.

(I’m slightly sorry to be displaying all our own illustrations here, but they do make the point and frankly I like looking at them.  Especially that beautiful caudal vertebra.)

Why am I making such a big deal about colour?  Because colour is information, and as scientists we love information.  When you flatten a colour image to greyscale, you lose information, and that should never be done without regret.  It’s perfectly possible that adjacent regions of a fossil will be a different hue but the same brightness: flatten the image and the two colours look the same, but in the original you can see a distinction.  That’s valuable.

So in this day and age, The Right Thing is:

  • Prepare your figures in colour
  • Submit them in colour
  • If the journal has a printed edition (and charges extra for colour printing, as most do), tell them to flatten to greyscale.

On the other hand, if you’re submitting to an open-access journal — and you should be, if you want to be widely read — there’s a good chance that it’s online-only (as with PLoS ONE and Palaeontologia Electronica), in which case the use of colour is a complete non-issue.  The only reason to prepare monochrome figures then is (as with the Taylor et al. 2011b sauropod-neck bestiary above) when you’re constructing them from pre-existing greyscale images.

References

Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2):213-230.

Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Richard L. Cifelli. 2011a. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi: 10.4202/app.2010.0073

Taylor, Michael P., David W. E. Hone, Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2011b. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285:150-161. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x

And so we come, rather belatedly, to the fourth and final part of this series on preparing and giving talks at scientific conferences.  If you’ve followed the previous installments, you should have figured out a clear, compelling story that you want to tell from your research; you should have clear slides with striking, relevant images and no visual distractions; and you should have rehearsed your talk so that it’s clear and coherent, and fits into the time available with a minute or two spare.  Now we come to the business of actually delivering the talk.

Matt’s talk in Bonn

If you were paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I used the word “clear” three times in the previous paragraph — once for each of the three previous stages.  That’s not by accident: the whole business of giving talks is about clarity, and that’s not going to change as we talk about delivery.  Remember, once more, that your talk is one of maybe fifteen or twenty that your audience will hear that day: by the time they get to you, their brains will be half-frazzled.  They will thank you (internally if not out loud) for leading them by the hand through your argument.  You don’t want listening to your talk to be hard work.

Remember, too, that you are the expert on your subject.  Even if you’re a student giving your first ever conference talk, and even if the front row is full of Mike Bentons, Eric Buffetauts and David Normans, the magic of specialisation means that you know more than they do about your subject.  They want to know what you have to say.

And that leads us to Rule One, Rule Two, and Rule Three, which are so important that together they make up 90% of what you need to do to deliver your talk well.  Here they are.

The big three rules

  • Rule 1.  Speak up.
  • Rule 2.  Slow down.
  • Rule 3.  Don’t Panic.

So let’s look at these in order.

First: speak up.  It’s so simple that it seems almost insulting to mention it, but if people can’t hear what you’re saying, you might just as well not be saying it.  Not everyone has a naturally loud, resonant voice, but that’s OK: conference venues will provide a microphone.  Stay reasonably close to it — a foot or so will be fine.  Many microphones are extremely directional, so make sure it’s pointing directly at your mouth, not past your ear or at your belly-button.  If your natural tendency is to get quieter and quieter as you speak, have a friend sit at the back and wave at you if your volume falls too low.

And the second is like unto it: slow down.  Again, if people can’t hear what you’re saying, you might just as well not be saying it.  I know that I tend to go rather fast myself, but then I rarely finish before my time is up and I don’t think anyone has any problem making out my words, so it’s not a disaster.  Where it can hurt much more is if you’re nervous, and keep speeding up incrementally.  (Vanessa suffered from this tendency when she gave her talk at the sauropod meeting.  Fortunately we knew this from rehearsal, so I was ready with a big SLOW DOWN sign to hold up as a reminder when necessary.  I used it twice.  To my surprise, Matt needed a dose of the SLOW DOWN sign in his talk, too.  Maybe I should get a really nice one made and take it to all the conferences.)

You probably won’t need Rule 3; but if you get into a situation where it’s applicable, you’d better remember it.  First-timers are most likely to feel panic; and the only advice to give is, don’t panic.  Take your time.  Everyone’s on your side.  (It’s always interesting to see how an audience’s tenor changes from talk to talk: for some speakers there’s a sort of hunger to hear what’s coming next, and for some there’s a subtle challenging feel, as though everyone is silently saying “Oh, yeah? Show me.”  But without exception, every time I’ve heard someone giving their first talk, the audience has been polite, respectful and encouraging.  They want you to do well; so don’t panic.)

The best example I’ve seen of not panicking was at this year’s SVPCA in Lyme Regis.  A student, giving her first talk, lost her thread completely and just stopped.  It was a horrible position to be in and my heart — everyone’s, probably — went out to her.  But she just stood still and silent for as long as it took (felt like twenty seconds but was probably more like five), thought hard about the line of her argument, then when she’d found the thread, carried on like nothing had happened.  It was actually really impressive.  If I remember right, she didn’t even apologise, and that is definitely the right way to go.  The idea was just “I was gone for a moment there, but now I’m back; so ANYWAY …”  Good stuff.

Mike’s talk in Bonn

Different styles

It’s worth pointing out there are very different styles for giving a talk, and cliched as it sounds it really is true that none of them is better than another.  To pick examples from among the SV-POW!sketeers …

When Matt prepares and gives a talk, he does it not by learning the talk itself at all, but by learning the source material, and by knowing his own work inside out.  The slides then function (for him) as a visual cue, reminding him what to talk about next — even as they are also functioning (for the audience) as illustrations that support what he is saying.  The specific words that he uses are made up as he goes along.  (If real-time improvisation sounds hard, just think that this is exactly what you do every time you have a conversation.)  I’ve heard Matt rehearse a talk the night before, then give it on the day, and hardly a word is the same between the two performances; but the substance is the same.

By contrast, I have the impression that Darren prepares every word, and that if he gives that same talk twice it will be the same both times.  That’s not to say that he won’t take the opportunity to throw in new comments that occur to him at the time; but basically I think he writes and memorises a script, which he then plays out when the time comes.

Both approaches can work really well.  (They both did in the sauropod conference, where both Matt’s and Darren’s talks were outstanding.) Doing it Matt’s way can have the advantage of feeling more informal, and it gives you more opportunity to engage the audience non-verbally — eye-contact, responding to laughs, and so on.  On the other hand, Darren’s approach lets you use the time more efficiently — you know you’re not going to waste time repeating yourself or going off on a tangent.  It also means your running-time is more predictable, so you can keep cramming in more material till you get right up to the end of the slot.

Personally, I use the first approach — I like the freedom of approaching each slide’s discussion in a way the reflects how people have been responding.  Many students start out doing it the other way — probably because, in an intimidating environment, it feels better to be fully in control of content.  Let me say again that neither approach is intrinsically superior — you should feel free to do it whichever way feels most natural to you, and that may or may not change over time.

The one thing you don’t want to do is write a script, then not memorise it, so that you have to read it out from a printed copy. That’s a recipe for not engaging.  All the time your eyes are on the printout, you’re not looking either at the audience or at the same images they’re seeing.  How can anyone in the audience join you on your journey if you’re off on your own somewhere in a stack of index cards?

Hints and tips

Face the audience.  It sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it not done.  At the Bonn conference, the talks were given from a laptop sitting on a surface to the side of the screen.  At one point in the conference, it got turned around so it faced more towards the screen than the audience, so one speaker gave her entire talk looking at the screen, with her back towards the audience.  Straight away, bam, you’ve lost people.  If they can’t see your face, you don’t come across as a human being.  They might just as well be paging through a copy of your .ppt.

More generally: engage.  Sense the mood of the audience.  Feel the atmosphere.  Make eye-contact with a friendly face.  If you crack a joke and people laugh, take a moment to enjoy it, don’t plough determinedly onwards through your list of points.  As a rule of thumb, treat it the way you would if you were giving a talk to a group of friends in a pub.  You don’t want to sound like a technical paper, you want to sound like a person.  (Example: when Matt ran his talk the night before his presentation, he said that in birds, the pneumatic diverticula run “subcutaneously and intermuscularly”.  But there was no reason for him to say that instead of “under the skin and between the muscles” — it’s harder to say and to understand, and carries no greater precision.  So he changed it for the actual presentation.)

Vanessa’s talk in Bonn

You don’t need to say “This work is from my Masters project”, or from your Ph.D, or whatever it may be.  Doesn’t matter.  Your work will be evaluated on its content, not on what stage in your academic career you’re at.  Some — no, most — of the best talks I’ve ever heard have been given by grad-students, or even on occasion undergrads.  Some of the least engaging were by seasoned, even respected, professionals. Basically, once you’re standing at the podium, the playing-field is level.  No-one cares about your status, they want to hear your ideas. In academia, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Leave the laser pointer alone.  If you really need to point at something, pick up the laser pointer, point to it, and then put it down again.  DO NOT WAVE IT AROUND.  Do not circle it repeatedly around the feature of interest.  These behaviours are distracting us from your talk.  Don’t you want us to concentrate on your talk?

Don’t read the slides out loud.  We can read.  If you say the words on the slide, we will be reading along with you; but because reading internally is faster than speech, we’ll be ahead of you, and frustrated that you’re not keeping up.  You don’t want that.  When you’re giving your talk on the subject that you know best out of everyone in the whole world, you don’t want to seem like the dumb one.

The worst possible thing you can do combines both of the last two DON’Ts, yet I’ve seen it done more than once.  The way you do it is, you slooowly read the words off the screen while tracking each word as you say it with the laser-pointer.  About two slides of that is enough to make the audience want to gnaw off their own heads so they won’t have to see any more (or, if they are clearer thinkers, gnaw off your own head).

Finally, a time-saver.  Many talks finish with a summary slide and an acknowledgements slide.  Both are very wordy and take a long time to read.  So don’t.  Skip the summary completely — we should be able to remember what you told us only fifteen minutes ago.  And don’t read the acknowledgements — just put them on the screen as you finish, and people can read them as you take the questions.

Handling questions

Not too much to say about this.  The questions at the end of talks fall into a few categories.

— Someone doesn’t understand something you said in your talk and wants clarification.  Just explain.  It may be worth going back to the slide in question.

— Someone wants to demonstrate that they know a lot about your subject by commenting on an esoteric point.  Sad to say, yes, this does happen.  Quite a lot.  Best just to let him (it’s nearly always a man) get it off his chest, acknowledge the point, and move on.

— Someone has useful information for you.  This is the best kind of “question”.  For example, at the end of my Bonn talk, Phil Manning happened to know the relative thickness of the cartilage between the cervical vertebrae of a hadrosaur mummy, and threw that in.  Very useful.

— Finally, someone might have spotted a real flaw in your work.  This is rare — after all, you’ve been working on this stuff for months or years, and the audience are only just hearing about it for the first time — but it does happen.  In this case, it’s probably best to say as little as possible, beyond acknowledging the issue, and save the deep thinking for later.

Darren’s talk in Bonn

To finish, here is (what I think is) an example of the latter.  I was at SVP in Austin in 2007, when Jack Horner gave his talk claiming that Dracorex and Stygimoloch are successive growth stages of Pachycephalosaurus. At the end I stuck up my hand and said something like the following (Darren remembers the actual words much better than I do):

We’re used to seeing animals develop more elaborate crests and other display structures through ontogeny, but in the sequence you’re proposing here, the cranial ornamentation becomes progressively less flamboyant.  Do you know of any extant animals that follow this ontogenetic trajectory?

Horner paused briefly, then replied as follows (and this is word for word):

No.

There is much to be said for such economy.

Update: one more thing (from Matt)

I hate to destroy the elegance of Mike’s ending by tacking something on, especially since he let me do an editing pass and I had a chance to get this in before he published. But it’s important, and it’s not worth a post of its own, so here goes.

Please don’t say at the beginning of the talk, “I hope in this talk to convince you that…”, and likewise don’t end the talk with, “I hope by now you’re convinced that…” Blecch. This is just gross and lame, for several reasons.

Reason 1: You shouldn’t hope that your audience is convinced by you. Either your argument is sound and your evidence solid, or not. If so, then your job is to make those things clear, and once you’ve done so, to some extent it is out of your hands. You can’t force people to come to the same conclusions. And if your argument and evidence are not good enough, then you don’t want people to be swayed by rhetoric–that might make you feel good, but it would be a loss for science. And clever people in the audience would notice anyway. (Also, if your stuff isn’t that convincing, give a different talk!)

Reason 2: It’s not your job. You’re there to talk about your science, not how the audience should feel or think about your science. So don’t pull people out of the talk by talking about the talk (another reason never to apologize for the talk during the talk). Get out of that meta-level and tell your story, simply and directly. Or quit and go into marketing.

Reason 3: It sounds pathetic. You absolutely can affect your audience, but you do so by connecting with them, being responsive, and above all knowing your stuff and presenting it clearly. Telling the audience that you hope that they’re convinced is pleading, plain and simple. It makes you sound weak, and corrodes your credibility. Just don’t do it.

If you’re a scientist, then one of the things you need to do is prepare high-quality images for your papers.  And, especially if you’re a palaeontologist, or in some other science that involves specimens, that’s often going to mean manipulating photographs.  So image editing has become one of those “grey skills”, like word processing and phylogenetic analysis, that you need to have a little of, even if you’re not specialising in that direction.

Here at SV-POW!, none of us is anything remotely approaching wizardly when it comes to image-editing.  But we’ve done enough of it that we have a few tips to pass on, so this is the first in an occasional series that will offer some random but relevant hints.  (Matt and I both use GIMP, a free image-editing program, but I’m sure PhotoShop has the all the same facilities and more.)

Today: thirty-second colour-balancing.  It’s a technique that comes in handy every now and then, especially if you take a lot of specimen photographs in poorly lit basements that make everything look greenish.  It came up because in the previous post Matt included this photo of a partially dissected turkey neck:

All the orange made my eyeballs hurt.

So you can spend hours on colour-balancing a photo carefully, and that can be appropriate if you’re preparing a figure for publication.  But to fix a photo like this one in thirty seconds, here’s what I do.

Load the image.

Bring up the Layers window and use it to duplicate the layer:

With the top layer selected, choose Colours -> Auto -> Equalize. (There is also a Colours -> Auto -> White Balance option, but I never find that it gives good results.)

Equalize will make the top layer look truly horrible:

Now go back to the Layers window, and play with the top layer’s opacity, so that you get a blend of the original and equalised images:

In this case, I found that 50% opacity looked about the best:

(While it’s still no oil-painting, it’s much better than the all-orange-all-the-time original.)

With the top layer still selected, choose Layers -> Merge Down to make the layers into one, and save the result.

It really does take about thirty seconds total, including the time to start up and shut down the image editor.  (Yes, GIMP starts up more quickly than PhotoShop!)

Update (11 April 2012)

If you’re wondering why this is “part 0”, it’s because it was originally posted as a stand-alone article, and we only realised much later that it fits into the tutorial sequence — in particular, the planned multi-part tutorial on preparing illustrations.