Here’s BYU 12866, a mid-cervical of a neosauropod from Dry Mesa Quarry. It’s cataloged as Brachiosaurus, an identification I’ve never found any compelling reason to doubt. It’s definitely brachiosaurid, and for now Brachiosaurus is the only game in town for the Late Jurassic of North America. I expect that will change when more and better material comes to light, based on the different coracoid shapes of the Brachiosaurus holotype and the “Ultrasauros” scapulocoracoid.

I reckon it’s probably a C5 or so, based on its proportions and comparisons with Giraffatitan (for example).

As you can see, it’s a bit distorted, sheared over with the dorsal side to the right and the ventral side to the left.

I don’t think there’s any major anterior/posterior shearing – the zygs are set forward of their respective centrum ends by about the same amount in this specimen as in Giraffatitan.

Kent Sanders and I CT scanned this vert back in the day and those scans made it into several papers, including Wedel et al. (2000b) on Sauroposeidon and Wedel (2005) on sauropod pneumaticity and mass estimates.

I have the original, uncropped, full-res photos, and I’ll probably get them posted at some point (faster if people bug me to do so, so speak up in the comments if you want them). But for now I’m sticking to getting stuff posted quickly, easily, and regularly, and I found these as-is on my hard drive, so here we are.

References

 

Lots of discussion online lately about unpaid peer reviews and whether this indicates a “degraded sense of community” in academia, improper commoditization of the unwritten responsibilities of academics, or a sign that we should rethink incentives in academia. (NB: that’s my galloping sound-bite-ization of those three posts, which you should go read in full.)

Part of this “reviewers don’t get paid” thing is good, because it indicates that academics broadly are waking up to how badly they’ve been had by commercial publishers. It’s part of that necessary anger that Scott Aaronson wrote about back when. But I can also understand why people are pushing back and saying, “Oh, if you don’t review you’re not supporting the academic community that (in part) makes your career possible. We should all pitch in and do the work.” Until recently, there was no way to separate those two strands: in doing peer reviews (and editing, etc.), one was both supporting the community as a good citizen, and also, unavoidably, helping commercial publishers line their pockets. But now that previously single path has bifurcated (no, not that way). Now it’s possible to be a good citizen for the community by editing and reviewing for OA journals, and stick it to the barrier-based publishers by not editing and reviewing for them (here’s how to politely decline, and see more discussion here).

Here’s how jacked the situation is: if you edit or review for a barrier-based publisher whose journals you also subscribe to or otherwise pay for, then in effect you are paying them for the privilege of reviewing. Put like that, it sounds insane. In any normal transaction, I give you X and you give me Y in return, because we’ve jointly agreed that these things are of roughly equal worth. In barrier-based publishing, academics give publishers (1) their papers, which publishers then exert copyright over, (2) their effort as editors and reviewers, and (3) their money, in subscriptions or other access fees, individually or collectively as institutions. And publishers sell the work back to us, retaining the copyright, and reap massive profits. There is no part of that sequence where academics – and indeed humanity at large – are getting the upside of the deal. The publishers are running the table on us, because for a long time, there were no other options. That’s not true anymore.

In his post on community, Zen Faulkes wrote, “I think people are refusing to do reviews in part because they don’t feel connected to the academic community.” Possibly. But maybe people are refusing to do reviews because they’re tired of being had. Has anyone done any work that would allow us to test those hypotheses? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

TL;DR: The separation of community goals and corporate profits shouldn’t be a fine theoretical point of discussion. It should be what we lead with. Yes, I will support the academic community. No, I won’t donate my time and effort to rapacious barrier-based publishers. It’s possible to achieve both of those things at once. And we should.

“But wait, Matt”, I hear you thinking. “Every news agency in the world is tripping over themselves declaring Patagotitan the biggest dinosaur of all time. Why are you going in the other direction?”

Because I’ve been through this a few times now. But mostly because I can friggin’ read.

Maximum dorsal centrum diameter in Argentinosaurus is 60cm (specimen MCF-PVPH-1, Bonaparte and Coria 1993). In Puertasaurus it is also 60cm (MPM 10002, Novas et al. 2005). In Patagotitan it is 59cm (MPEF-PV 3400/5, Carballido et al. 2017). (For more big centra, see this post.)

Femoral midshaft circumference is 118cm in an incomplete femur of Argentinosaurus estimated to be 2.5m long when complete (Mazzetta et al. 2004). A smaller Argentinosaurus femur is 2.25m long with a circumference of 111.4cm (Benson et al. 2014). The largest reported femur of Patagotitan, MPEF-PV 3399/44, is 2.38m long and has a circumference of either 101cm (as reported in the Electronic Supplementary Materials to Carballido et al 2017) or 110cm (as reported in the media in 2014*).

TL;DR: 60>59, and 118>111>110>101, and in both cases Argentinosaurus > Patagotitan, at least a little bit.

Now, Carballido et al (2017) estimated that Patagotitan was sliiiiightly more massive than Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus by doing a sort of 2D minimum convex hull dorsal vertebra area thingy, which the Patagotitan vertebra “wins” because it has a taller neural spine than either Argentinosaurus or Puertasaurus, and slightly wider transverse processes than Argentinosaurus (138cm vs 128cm) – but way narrower transverse processes than Puertasaurus (138cm vs 168cm). But vertebrae with taller or wider sticky-out bits do not a more massive dinosaur make, otherwise Rebbachisaurus would outweigh Giraffatitan.

Now, in truth, it’s basically a three-way tie between Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, and Patagotitan. Given how little we have of the first two, and how large the error bars are on any legit size comparison, there is no real way to tell which of them was the longest or the most massive. Still, to get to the conclusion that Patagotitan was in any sense larger than Argentinosaurus you have to physically drag yourself over the following jaggedly awkward facts:

  1. The weight-bearing parts of the anterior dorsal vertebrae are larger in diameter in both Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus than in Patagotitan. Very slightly, but still, Patagotitan is the smallest of the three.
  2. The femora of Argentinosaurus are fatter than those of Patagotitan, even at shorter length. The biggest femora of Argentinosaurus are longer, too.

So all of the measurements of body parts that have to do with supporting mass are still larger in Argentinosaurus than in Patagotitan.

Now, it is very cool that we now have a decent chunk of the skeleton of a super-giant titanosaur, instead of little bits and bobs. And it’s nice to know that the numbers reported in the media back in 2014 turned out to be accurate. But Patagotitan is not the “world’s largest dinosaur”. At best, it’s the third-largest contender among near equals.

Parting shot to all the science reporters who didn’t report the same numbers I did here: instead of getting hype-notized by assumption-laden estimates, how about doing an hour’s worth of research making the most obvious possible comparisons?

Almost immediate UPDATE: Okay, that parting shot wasn’t entirely fair. As far as I know, the measurements of Patagotitan were not available until the embargo lifted. Which is in itself odd – if someone claims to have the world’s largest dinosaur, but doesn’t put any measurements in the paper, doesn’t that make your antennae twitch? Either demand some measurements so you can make those obvious comparisons, or approach with extreme skepticism – especially if the “world’s largest dino” claim was pre-debunked three years ago!

* From this article in the Boston Globe:

Paleobiologist Paul Upchurch of University College London believes size estimates are more reliable when extrapolated from the circumference of bones.

He said this femur is a whopping 43.3 inches around, about the same as the Argentinosaurus’ thigh bone.

‘‘Whether or not the new animal really will be the largest sauropod we know remains to be seen,’’ said Upchurch, who was not involved in this discovery but has seen the bones first-hand.

Some prophetically appropriate caution from Paul Upchurch there, who has also lived through a few of these “biggest dinosaur ever” bubbles.

References

Step 1: Include the Share-Alike provision in your Creative Commons license, as in the mysteriously popular CC BY-SA and CC BY-NC-SA.

Step 2: Listen to the crickets. You’re done. Congratulations! No-one will ever use your silhouette in a scientific paper, and they probably won’t use your stuff in talks or posters either. Luxuriate in your obscurity and wasted effort.

Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis by Andrew A. Farke, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of PhyloPic.org.

Background

PhyloPic is the incredibly useful thing that Mike Keesey made where makers upload silhouettes of organisms and then people can use them in papers, posters, talks, on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and so on.

At least, they can if the image license allows it. And tons of them don’t, because people include the stupid Non-Commercial (NC) and even stupider Share-Alike (SA) provisions in their image licenses. (Need a refresher on what those are? See the tutorial on licenses.)

Why are these things dumb? Well, you could make a case for NC, but it will still probably kill most potential uses of your images. Most journals are run by companies — well, most are run by incredibly rapacious corporations that extract insane profits from the collective suckerhood that is academia — and using such an image in a for-profit journal would break the Non-Commercial clause. Even open-access journals are a bit murky.

But Share-Alike is way, way worse. What it means is that any derivative works that use material released under CC-BY-SA have to be released under that license as well. Share-Alike came to us from the world of software, where it actually has some important uses, which Mike will expand upon in the next post. But when it comes to PhyloPic or pretty much any other quasi-academic arena, including the Share-Alike provision is misguided.

As of this writing, PhyloPic has two silhouettes of Panphagia. I can actually show you this one, because it doesn’t have the Share-Alike license attached. The other one is inaccessible. Image by Ricardo N. Martinez and Oscar A. Alcober, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of PhyloPic.org.

Why not Share-Alike?

Why is Share-Alike so dumb for PhyloPic? It’s a viral license that in this context accomplishes nothing for the creator. Because the downstream material must also be CC BY-SA (minimally, or CC BY-NC-SA), almost any conceivable use is prevented:

  • People can’t use the images in barrier-based journals, because they’re copyrighted.
  • People can’t use the images in almost all OA journals, because they’re CC BY, and authors can’t just impose a more restrictive license on them willy-nilly.
  • People can’t use the images in their talks or posters, unless they want to make their talks and posters CC BY-SA. Even people who do release their talks and posters out into the wild are probably going to use CC BY if they use anything; they care about being cited, not about forcing downstream users to adopt a pointlessly restrictive license.
  • People probably can’t use the images on t-shirts or bumper stickers; at least, I have a hard time imagining how a physical object could meet the terms of CC BY-SA, unless it’s being given away for free. And even if one could, most downstream creators probably won’t want the headache — they’ll grab a similar image released under a less restrictive license and move on.
  • I can’t even blog the CC BY-SA images because everything we put on this blog is CC BY (except where noted by a handful of more restrictive museum image use policies), and it would more than a little ironic to make this one post CC BY-SA, which it would have to be if it included CC BY-SA images.

You may think I’m exaggerating the problem. I’m not. If you look at the Aquilops paper (Farke et al. 2014), you’ll see a lot of ceratopsian silhouettes drawn by Andy Farke. We were making progress on the paper and when it came time to finish the illustrations, most of the silhouettes we needed had the Share-Alike provision, which made them useless to us. So Andy drew his own. And while he was doing that, I took some of my old sauropod drawings and converted them to silhouettes and uploaded them. Both of us used CC BY, because all we care about is getting cited. And now people are using — and citing! — Andy’s and my drawings in preference to others, some arguably better (at least for the sauropods), that have pointlessly restrictive licenses.

So we have this ridiculous situation where a ton of great images on PhyloPic are essentially unusable, because people put them up under a license that sounds cool but actually either outright blocks or at least has a chilling effect on almost any conceivable use.

Is this a good silhouette of Camarasaurus? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s beside the point: this is currently the only silhouette of Camarasaurus on PhyloPic that you can actually use. By Mathew Wedel, CC BY 3.0, courtesy of PhyloPic.org.

What I do about this

Here’s my take: I care about one thing and one thing only, which is credit. All I need is CC BY. If someone wants to take my stuff and put it in a product and charge a profit, I say go for it — because legally every copy of that product has to have my name on it somewhere, credited as the creator of the image. I may not be making any money off that product, but I’m at least getting exposure. If I go CC BY-NC, then I also don’t get any money, and now I don’t even get that exposure. Why would I hack my own foot off like that? And I don’t use CC BY-SA because I don’t write software, so it has only downsides to offer me.

Now, there are certainly artists in the world with sufficient talent to sell t-shirts and prints. But even for them I’m skeptical that CC BY-NC has much to offer for their PhyloPic silhouettes. I know we’re all nuts around here for monochrome filled outlines of dead animals, but let’s be real, they’re a niche market at best for clothing and lifestyle goods. Personally I’d rather get the citations than prevent someone in Birmingham or Bangkok from selling cladogram t-shirts with tiny copies of my drawings, and I think that would still be true even if I was a professional artist.

What you should do about this

I suspect that a lot of people reading this post are dinosaur enthusiasts. If you are, and you’d like to get your name into published scientific work (whether you pursue writing and publishing yourself or not), get drawin’, and upload those babies using CC-BY. Make sure it is your own original work, not just a skin thrown over someone else’s skeletal recon, and don’t spam PhyloPic with garbage. But if you can execute a technical drawing of a critter, there’s a good chance it will be used and cited. Not only because there are still holes in PhyloPic’s coverage, but because so many otherwise great images on PhyloPic are locked up behind restrictive licenses. To pick an example nearly at random, PhyloPic has two silhouettes of Pentaceratops, and both of them are useless because of the Share-Alike provision in their licenses. You have an opportunity here. Don’t tarry.

If you already uploaded stuff to PhyloPic using CC BY-SA for whatever reason (it sounded cool, Joe Chill murdered your folks, you didn’t realize that it was academic reuse equivalent of radioactive syphilis), change it or replace it. Because all it is doing right now is driving PhyloPic users to other people’s work. Really, honestly, all you are doing is wasting your time by uploading this stuff, and wasting the time of PhyloPic users who have to hover over your pictures to find out that they’re inaccessible.

You don’t get any credit if no-one ever uses your stuff. Or, more precisely, you get 100% of a pie that doesn’t exist. That’s dumb. Stop doing it.

Reference

Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055

Cryptic Aquilops, by Brian Engh. Available as a poster print – see below.

One of the many nice things about getting to help name new taxa is that once you let them out into the world, other people can unleash their considerable talents on ‘your’ critters. Which means that every now and then, something cool pops up that you have a deep personal connection to. Things have been fairly quiet on the Aquilops front for a while, and all of a sudden I have news.

I’m still waiting for a plush Aquilops – c’mon, Homo sapiens, how has this not happened already? – but if you’d like a life-size Aquilops in bronze, sculptor James Herrmann has you covered. James got in touch with me last fall when the project was just in the planning stages. His timing was excellent – I’d just seen the presentation on camouflage in Psittacosaurus at SVPCA, and the paper by Vinther et al. was out a week or two later. I sent James some papers and photos of dead animals, he sent back photos of the work in progress, and now his Aquilops is done.

About the sculpture, James writes:

I am offering the sculpture for sale as a limited edition of 25.  The sculpture is life sized, it is approximately 60 lbs and is 33″L x 14”H x 11”W.  The price I am asking for it is $4500.  I am getting a slab of green soapstone for the base although it does display well without the stone so it will be bolted on from below and not epoxied. […] The gingko leaves and log part of the sculpture were made from molds taken from plants growing locally.

I dig it. If you’re interested in getting one, please visit his website, HerrmannStudio.com.

Aquilops ’14. I was there, man. It was crazy. A Brian Engh joint.

Next item: back in 2014, Brian Engh created the public face of Aquilops with the wonderful graphic art he did for the paper and the press release. Now he’s gone back to the well and reimagined Aquilops, based in part on what we know of its paleoecology – that’s the image at the top of the post. He explains his new view of Aquilops in a thoughtful and wide-ranging video on his paleoart YouTube channel. (If you miss his rap videos set in the Daikaijucene, he also has a YouTube channel for music and monsters. And a blog. And a Patreon page. You get the picture.) You should also check out the two-part interview with Brian at the PLOS Paleo Community blog (part 1, part 2).

Here’s the aforementioned video:

Poster prints of Aquilops Classic and Next Gen can be purchased through Brian’s website, DontMessWithDinosaurs.com.

Finally, a couple of older Aquilops-themed art things that I didn’t cover when they happened. Lead author Andy Farke is also an award-winning homebrewer and he concocted his Eagle Face Oatmeal Stout in honor of our little buddy. He has lots more beer-and-dinosaur crossover goodness on his brewing blog – check it out.

Last fall artist Natalie Metzger did a bunch of drawings of extant animals wearing the skulls of extinct animals for Inktober. In the very first batch was this awesome squirrel looking unexpectedly badass in an Aquilops skull. I don’t know what it means, but I would totally play that D&D campaign. Natalie has a bunch more cool stuff on her blog and Patreon page, and she’ll be at the Rose City Comic Con in Portland this September, so go say hi and buy her art.

Really finally, I am not on Twitter – trust me, I don’t need less of a filter between my occasional stupidity and the world – but for all the rest of you, keep an eye on #Aquilops and, if you’re a heartless jerk, #Aquilopsburrito.

Have more Aquilops stuff I haven’t covered but should? The comment field is open.

References

Things remain frantic on the Sauropocalypse tour. Today, we were back at the BYU Museum of Paleontology, working on four or five separate projects. Here’s Matt, photographing broken bone of the iconic Supersaurus cervical BYU 9024, while a pallet of Big Pink Apatosaur cervicals wait for attention in the background:

2016-05-11 15.42.40

You’ve seen this bone before – I first posted on it 8 years ago this month, and it turned up again here and here. It is still the longest known vertebra of any animal that has ever lived.

And here’s Mike, getting Jensen’s sculpture of the same vertebra down from storage to compare it to the original:

IMG_9232

In Jensen’s (1985) original description of this vertebra – which he at first referred to Ultrasauros – the only relevant illustration he included was one of the model, so it was good to see this bit of history in the flesh (Jensen did include photos of the actual bone in later papers). We’ll show the two vertebrae, real and sculpted, side by side in a future post.

References

  • Jensen, J. A. 1985. Three new sauropod dinosaurs from the Upper Jurassic of Colorado. Great Basin Naturalist 45, 697-709.

As I was clearing out some clutter, I came across this hand-written list of projects that I wanted to get completed:

old-poop

Sadly, I didn’t put a date on the list. But I can estimate it as before 2013 (because of the reference of Why giraffes have short necks as a project still to be completed) but after 2011 (because the no necks for sex project is not listed.) So it’s probably from 2012, which means four years have passed since I wrote that list.

What have I achieved in that time? Not nearly enough.

  • ICZN checklist refers to the short set of name-a-new-animal instructions that I was crowdsourcing here on SV-POW!. We started this on 10 February 2011, had it nearly done less than two weeks later, then … stalled for no reason at all. Eighteen months later, the ICZN changed to allow electronic publication, instantly rendering the in-progress document obsolete. Now I don’t know whether to kill the project or update it. Should have just published it in 2011.
  • WTH (Why giraffes have short necks) was published in PeerJ, hurrah!
  • PBJ stands for “Pneumatic Butt on a JANGO“. It was published in the PLOS ONE’s sauropod gigantism collection, hurrah!
  • Archbishop is of course the Natural History Museum’s Tendaguru brachiosaur, which I have been planning to describe since 2004. Still not done. Shameful.
  • Apatosaurus” minimus is a descriptive project. Real work has been done, and I gave a talk about it at SVPCA in 2012. Not much progress since then. Lame.
  • Astrolembospondylus refers to the starship-shaped cervical vertebra of the Barosaurus holotype YPM 429. That project has seen daylight as both an SVPCA talk in 2013 and a PeerJ Preprint — which is great. But once the reviews were in, we should have turned it around and got it submitted as a proper paper. For some reason, we didn’t, and this project, too, is in limbo. Weak.
  • ODP is the Open Dinosaur Project. Do not get me started on that train-wreck.
  • Neck cartilage: giraffe, ostrich, croc. This refers to a comparative dissection project to determine whether sauropods had intervertebral discs. I proposed it as a Masters project twice, but no-one bit; then I offered to up to anyone who wanted it on SV-POW!, with the same (lack of) result. Looks like it’s not sexy enough for anyone to invest the time into, which is a shame because it’s important.
  • Limb cartilage limiting mass refers to the second talk I ever gave, at Progressive Palaeontology in 2004. It’s ridiculous that I never wrote this up. Ridiculous.
  • Haemodynamics refers to Matt’s and my looong-running plans to write up our thoughts about Roger Seymour’s work that suggests blood-circulation issues prevented sauropods from having habitually erect necks. I’m going to blame Matt for this one’s lack of progress. (Not because he’s any more to blame than I am — just because I’ve been taking all the blame so far, and I want to share it around a bit.)
  • Immature sauropods, pop. dynamics. Parts of this made it out in the recent Hone, Farke, and Wedel (2016) paper on dinosaur ontogenetic stages. Not as much as I’d have liked to see, but enough to make a dedicated paper about this not really feasible.
  • Ostrich skull atlas. I made lovely multi-view photos of nearly every bone in my ostrich skull. My plan was, and sort of still is, to publish them all in a text-light paper. No progress on this. I still have a few bones left to photograph, and may need to completely disarticulate the mandible before I can do that.
  • Wealden sauropod vert. analysis. I’d planned, going back to the earliest posts on this blog, to properly redescribe and analyse the many fascinating isolated sauropod vertebrae of the Wealden Formation. This is another one that I gave a ProgPal talk about before getting distracted. Not sure if this will ever happen: I’m still very interested in it, but even more interested in other things.
  • Fossils explained is a series of articles for geologists, explaining various fossil groups in laymen’s terms (here is an example). Darren’s done half a dozen of them. Once many years ago I expressed an interest in doing one on sauropods, and the editor liked the idea. Then … nothing. My bad.
  • Ventral compression bracing is a section that, heaven help us, we somehow decided we should remove from Why Giraffes Have Short Necks and make into its own paper. It got stalled on some croc-dissection work that Matt was doing with his student Vanessa and is now in limbo.

That’s fifteen projects that I had on the go, or planned to work on, four years ago. I make it that two of them (WTH and PBJ) have been published and one (Barosaurus) has made it as far as a the preprint stage. Three more are probably dead for various reasons, and that leaves nine where I’ve made woefully inadequate progress — in most cases, none at all.

Meanwhile, needless to say, I’ve added a bunch more projects to my To Do list since I scribbled this one out. (And to be fair to me, I’ve got a few other projects out in this time that weren’t mentioned in the note: neural spine bifurcation as Matt’s co-author, lead author on intervertebral cartilage and sole on its addendum; I slipped in as last author on Haestasaurus; and I wrote the SPARC briefing paper on evaluating researchers.)

What does all this mean?

I don’t know. Some of those no-progress yet projects are still very much alive in my mind — notably the Archbishop, of course. Others might never happen. Some are 90% done and I should just push them out the door.

One moral of this story is that I shouldn’t have burned 250 hours since Christmas playing Skyrim. But maybe a more constructive one is that it’s just really hard to know what projects are going to take wings and fly and which aren’t. My guess — and I’d love to hear some confirmation or denial in the comments — is that most researchers have a similar palette of half-done projects floating around their hindbrains, continually projecting low-level guilt rays. I guess I long ago gave up on the idea that I would ever finish all my projects, because the only way that would happen would be if I never started any more new ones — and that ain’t gonna happen.

Oh, here’s a better moral: ideas to work on are cheap. In fact Matt and I have so darned many that we sometimes just give them away here on SV-POW!. (I am pretty certain that there are lots more similar project-giveaway posts somewhere here, but we didn’t tag them at the time.)

Ideas are cheap; actual work is hard.

Whatever else Sci-Hub may or may not be, it’s becoming apparent that it functions as a litmus test. It focuses people’s thoughts on the problems of scholarly communication, and draws out their ideas in their clearest form.

Who is sympathetic?

For example, on one side, you have Duke librarian Kevin Smith, whose radical thoughts about Sci-Hub are radical in the literal sense of the word: going to the root. He goes back to what the actual purpose of copyright is — To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts — and discusses the consequent moral and legal standing of copyright:

Laws come in different forms and carry different kinds of moral authority. Lawyers distinguish, for example, between illegal acts that are “wrong in themselves” (malum in se) and those that are only “wrong because prohibited,” or malum prohibitum. […] Copyright infringement is, of course, the latter; a violation of the law but not of any moral imperative. Such a law merely enshrines a decision about the distribution of resources, and it can be changed without causing the collapse of human society. Precisely the kind of situation where acts of civil disobedience to provoke discussion and change are most supportable.

Very interesting stuff, and carefully argued. While it would be overstating things to say that Smith is pro-Sci-Hub (at least based on what he’s said in the linked post), he is certainly sympathetic. Maybe more important, he’s interested in what Sci-Hub has to tell us about the present situation in scholarly communications.

At the more radical end, we have Björn Brembs, who writes of Sci-Hub As Necessary, Effective Civil Disobedience. He points out that while twenty years of careful, polite negotiations with publishers have won only slow, incremental progress for the open-access movement, Alexandra Elbakyan has simply blown right past the barriers. He characterises her as a David taking on the Goliath of Elsevier:

Collectively, these two decade-long concerted efforts of the global OA community, to wrestle the knowledge of the world from the hands of the publishers, one article at a time, has resulted in about 27 million (24%) of about 114 million English-language articles becoming publicly accessible by 2014. Since then, one single woman has managed to make a whopping 48 million paywalled articles publicly accessible. In terms of making the knowledge of the world available to the people who are the rightful owners, this woman, Alexandra Elbakyan, has single-handedly been more successful than all OA advocates and activists over the last 20 years combined.

Let that accomplishment sink in for a minute.

There’s no ambiguity about where he stands:

Clearly, two decades of negotiations, talks and diplomacy have led us nowhere. In my opinion, the time to be inclusive has come and passed. Publishers have opted to remain outside of the scholarly community and work against it, rather than with it. Actions of civil disobedience like those of Aaron Swartz and Alexandra Elbakyan are a logical consequence of two decades of stalled negotiations and failed reform efforts.

But is it fair to characterise publishers as enemies? I’ve done it myself, and been criticised in response by publishers (not that I accepted that criticism). But have things changed since 2012? Have scholarly publishers started to come round to the idea that they have been entrusted with a mission rather then merely handed a cash-cow?

Who is hostile?

Sadly, publishers’ responses to Sci-Hub do nothing to suggest any softening of their position. Unsurprisingly, The Scholarly Kitchen is leading the way — not so much with its posts (a mostly pretty thoughtful piece by Angela Cochran, and a more reactionary one from Joe Esposito) but with the comments.

Esposito likens Elbakyan to Mafia accountant Meyer Lansky — a completely inappropriate comparison which I hope he is ashamed of. And he makes this bizarre assertion:

A PDF is a weapons-grade tool for piracy: a fixed document that can be passed around the conversational channels of the Internet without alteration (it is the Portable Document Format, after all).

But it’s in the comments that things get really weird. Even the usually reliable David Crotty writes Elbakyan off as:

… a criminal [who] visits a professional forum and tries to spread misinformation in an attempt to justify her criminal actions to the very people she is stealing from.

A grotesque misrepresentation that is not worthy of him.

Meanwhile, Sandy Thatcher suggests retaliating with unambiguously criminal acts:

How about mounting a “denial of service” attack on her website? What would she do–go to court to challenge such action?
[…]
Seems ironic that DoS attacks would be illegal against sites that are themselves illegal. If those harmed cannot fight back, what are they to do? Gee, maybe drone attacks? Hire Blackwater operatives?

(To be fair, in a later comment he claimed that the latter part of this was a joke; but it should give pause that it’s not easy to tell. As far as I can tell, the suggestion of a DoS attack was deadly serious.)

In response to Boris’s description of the problems of getting copies of older papers — especially those whose authors have died, so can’t be asked for copies — David Wojick offers perhaps the most bizarre suggestion of the thread:

Boris, I suggest you try to get a grant to dig up these old papers.

The comments on the second piece are, in places, simply inexplicable. Harvey Kane asks, apparently with a straight face:

In what manner are publishers and holders of copyright denying anyone access to their materials?

He argues that access is not denied because:

I can go to my local university library with my drivers license in hand and access all their holdings and all the holdings they have access to.
[…]
For a person in a third world country lack of access was and is a matter of economic decisions on behalf of the government in power.

Got that? Because magic building syndrome provides a “solution” in Kane’s case, the lack of even that stopgap for third-world researchers can be ignored because it’s the fault of their own country.

It’s worth taking a moment to think about that. From this perspective, it’s more important to obey a copyright law which is achieving the exact opposite of what it was intended for, than to help a third-world researcher struggling under an oppressive government.

But as before, it’s David Wojick who takes the biscuit:

I personally doubt that there are large numbers of people who (1) have the expert knowledge required to read and benefit from the scholarly literature but who (2) cannot find a way to access what they need. The arguments I have seen to this effect are completely unconvincing.
[…]
This is one of the fundamental fallacies of OA, namely that non-experts should read journals. […] Only a few people can understand the typical journal article. (Local government officials are certainly not among them.)

This is the kind of arrogance and elitism that makes so many people want to throw up their hands and walk away completely from the encumbents in scholarly publishing. That leaves people wanting to say “Well, screw you then” and go straight to Sci-Hub. I find it literally incredible that the Everyone Who Needs Access Has It myth still lives on in some minds. If all the people on Who Needs Access? and the millions like them truly mean nothing to publishers, then I guess the publishers mean nothing to them, either.

But the last word undoubtedly belongs to Joe Esposito:

I do not agree that unaffordable access is a problem for many. Access is a privilege of membership (e.g., being a student at a university), not a right. Can we stop this debate now and simply agree that we have no common ground upon which to base a conversation?

No common ground? That’s certainly how it looks. (Björn Brembs’ response to this comment simply takes Esposito at his word: Academic Publishers: Stop Access Negotiations.)

So what should we think about Sci-Hub now?

As previously noted, my position on Sci-Hub has been “Heck if I know”. It’s complicated. Sci-Hub offers real value, and also poses a real danger. There is no reliable way to estimate how great either the value or the danger is, so it’s hard to land on a firm position.

But I’m getting there. Reading recent pieces, both for and against, is helping me start to condense the cloud of ideas into some more solid and defined thoughts.

I found it very helpful when David Crotty pointed out that parents of sick children can gain some free access through PatientInform and PatientAccess. It crystalised my thoughts. It made me realise that, as with HINARI and its kin, we’re seeing a very fundamental problem here. All these programs, laudable though they are, amount to special boons handed down from on high by the grace of publishers who still maintain ultimate control. Researchers, teachers, doctors, parents and all the rest are reduced to the status of peons, going cap in hand to the almighty publishers in the hope of picking up some of the scraps from under the table. That is simply not acceptable.

Sandy Thatcher rightly says “It is not the purpose of private enterprises to serve the public interest; it is to serve the interests of their stockholders”. That is precisely why private enterprises must not be handed control over scholarship.

What we see at the Scholarly Kitchen is that Esposito’s post is the work of someone who believes the whole purpose of scholarly publishing is to make money for publishers. At least you have to credit him for not hiding his position: as he’s argued before, “Scientific and technical publishing is a business.” But we simply cannot entrust the critical process of scholarly communication to people who don’t, or won’t, see that it’s a mission — and that the publishers are servants of that mission, not its masters.

So all in all, I am finding myself increasingly lacking in sympathy for publishers whose arrogance and sense of entitlement doesn’t generate a lot of warmth; and increasingly inclined to be positive about Sci-Hub, which ultimately is about providing something that people need.

As a long-standing proponent of preprints, it bothers me that of all PeerJ’s preprints, by far the one that has had the most attention is Terrell et al. (2016)’s Gender bias in open source: Pull request acceptance of women versus men. Not helped by a misleading abstract, we’ve been getting headlines like these:

But in fact, as Kate Jeffrey points out in a comment on the preprint (emphasis added):

The study is nice but the data presentation, interpretation and discussion are very misleading. The introduction primes a clear expectation that women will be discriminated against while the data of course show the opposite. After a very large amount of data trawling, guided by a clear bias, you found a very small effect when the subjects were divided in two (insiders vs outsiders) and then in two again (gendered vs non-gendered). These manipulations (which some might call “p-hacking”) were not statistically compensated for. Furthermore, you present the fall in acceptance for women who are identified by gender, but don’t note that men who were identified also had a lower acceptance rate. In fact, the difference between men and women, which you have visually amplified by starting your y-axis at 60% (an egregious practice) is minuscule. The prominence given to this non-effect in the abstract, and the way this imposes an interpretation on the “gender bias” in your title, is therefore unwarranted.

And James Best, in another comment, explains:

Your most statistically significant results seem to be that […] reporting gender has a large negative effect on acceptance for all outsiders, male and female. These two main results should be in the abstract. In your abstract you really should not be making strong claims about this paper showing bias against women because it doesn’t. For the inside group it looks like the bias moderately favours women. For the outside group the biggest effect is the drop for both genders. You should hence be stating that it is difficult to understand the implications for bias in the outside group because it appears the main bias is against people with any gender vs people who are gender neutral.

Here is the key graph from the paper:

TerrellEtAl2016-fig5(The legends within the figure are tiny: on the Y-axes, they both read “acceptance rate”; and along the X-axis, from left to right, they read “Gender-Neutral”, “Gendered” and then again “Gender-Neutral”, “Gendered”.)

So James Best’s analysis is correct: the real finding of the study is a truly bizarre one, that disclosing your gender whatever that gender is reduces the chance of code being accepted. For “insiders” (members of the project team), the effect is slightly stronger for men; for “outsiders” it is rather stronger for women. (Note by the way that all the differences are much less than they appear, because the Y-axis runs from 60% to 90%, not 0% to 100%.)

Why didn’t the authors report this truly fascinating finding in their abstract? It’s difficult to know, but it’s hard not to at least wonder whether they felt that the story they told would get more attention than their actual findings — a feeling that has certainly been confirmed by sensationalist stories like Sexism is rampant among programmers on GitHub, researchers find (Yahoo Finance).

I can’t help but think of Alan Sokal’s conclusion on why his obviously fake paper in the physics of gender studies was accepted by Social Text:it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions“. It saddens me to think that there are people out there who actively want to believe that women are discriminated against, even in areas where the data says they are not. Folks, let’s not invent bad news.

Would this study have been published in its present form?

This is the big question. As noted, I am a big fan of preprints. But I think that the misleading reporting in the gender-bias paper would not make it through peer-review — as the many critical comments on the preprint certainly suggest. Had this paper taken a conventional route to publication, with pre-publication review, then I doubt we would now be seeing the present sequence of misleading headlines in respected venues, and the flood of gleeful “see-I-told-you” tweets.

(And what do those headlines and tweets achieve? One thing I am quite sure they will not do is encourage more women to start coding and contributing to open-source projects. Quite the opposite: any women taking these headlines at face value will surely be discouraged.)

So in this case, I think the fact that the study in its present form appeared on such an official-looking venue as PeerJ Preprints has contributed to the avalanche of unfortunate reporting. I don’t quite know what to do with that observation.

What’s for sure is that no-one comes out of this as winners: not GitHub, whose reputation has been wrongly slandered; not the authors, whose reporting has been shown to be misleading; not the media outlets who have leapt uncritically on a sensational story; not the tweeters who have spread alarm and despondancy; not PeerJ Preprints, which has unwittingly lent a veneer of authority to this car-crash. And most of all, not the women who will now be discouraged from contributing to open-source projects.

 

Thirteen years ago, Kenneth Adelman photographed part of the California coastline from the air. His images were published as part of a set of 12,000 in the California Coastal Records Project. One of those photos showed the Malibu home of the singer Barbra Streisand.

In one of the most ill-considered moves in history, Streisand sued Adelman for violation of privacy. As a direct result, the photo — which had at that point been downloaded four times — was downloaded a further 420,000 times from the CCRP web-site alone. Meanwhile, the photo was republished all over the Web and elsewhere, and has almost certainly now been seen by tens of millions of people.

Oh, look! There it is again!

Oh, look! There it is again!

Last year, the tiny special-interest academic-paper search-engine Sci-Hub was trundling along in the shadows, unnoticed by almost everyone.

In one of the most ill-considered moves in history, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub for lost revenue. As a direct result, Sci-Hub is now getting publicity in venues like the International Business Times, Russia Today, The Atlantic, Science Alert and more. It’s hard to imagine any other way Sci-Hub could have reached this many people this quickly.

5WaysToStopSabotagingYourSuccessArticle

I’m not discussing at the moment whether what Sci-Hub is doing is right or wrong. What’s certainly true is (A) it’s doing it, and (B) many, many people now know about it.

It’s going to be hard to Elsevier to get this genie back into the bottle. They’ve already shut down the original sci-hub.com domain, only to find it immediately popping up again as sci-hub.io. That’s going to be a much harder domain for them to shut down, and even if they manage it, the Sci-Hub operators will not find it difficult to get another one. (They may already have several more lined up and ready to deploy, for all I know.)

So you’d think the last thing they’d want to do is tell the world all about it.