Friday, January 1, 2010

2009: Open Access Hits Paleontology

2009 will go down as the year when open access publication really, truly made its mark in the field of vertebrate paleontology. Last year, more than ever before, open access journals featured some of the most high-profile, and in many cases even the highest quality quality, research out there.

No small amount of credit goes to the journal PLoS ONE (full disclosure: I am a section editor for that publication). From Ida to T. rex, from Ice Age extinctions to good mother whales, PLoS ONE articles made a splash.

I would be completely remiss if I did not lead off with "Ida," the exquisitely preserved primate specimen from Messel, Germany (image from the original paper). Announced with an unprecedented media fanfare, the little creature more formally known as Darwinius masillae set off a firestorm [see this blog carnival at Laelaps for a great summary]. Some questions--quite fairly, in my opinion--centered around the perception that the media blitz was just a little too big and too coordinated with the publication (although less attention was paid to this aspect of a similarly coordinated event by another major journal later in the year). There were also some concerns--rightfully so--that claims made in the popular press overplayed the discovery more than a little. At the dawn of 2010, the working consensus is that Darwinius is likely closer to lemurs than to humans, despite highly publicized claims to the contrary. Furthermore, issues were quickly raised about the validity of the name--the ICZN currently doesn't recognize electronic-only publications as valid. Although this problem isn't unique to Darwinius or even PLoS ONE (see virtually every major journal that issues electronic preprints, from Science to Proceedings B), the "Ida" escapade did bring such concerns roiling to the surface. Thankfully, the problem was quickly addressed. Perhaps the biggest lesson from Ida is that the Internet is a force to be reckoned with. The great majority of the debate on this specimen--from the ethics, to the science, to the validity of the name--happened in the blogosphere. I predict that this trend of bloggy discussion will only continue.

Dinosaurs of the Winton Formation of Australia, including Wintonotitan (left), Diamantinasaurus (middle), and Australoraptor (right). This and the above images are modified from the originals by T. Tischler, under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

On a much less controversial note, several papers clearly showed how awesome the electronic publication medium can be. A paper on three new dinosaurs from the Cretaceous of Australia--in many ways, a far more earth-shaking discovery for paleontology than any old primate--took full advantage of unlimited length and high resolution figures. This wasn't a four-page teaser with three tiny figures and 80 pages of on-line supplementary information. Hocknull and colleagues produced an honest-to-goodness monograph! This sort of extensive treatment wasn't the exclusive domain of PLoS ONE - Sereno and Larsson published a 143 page, open access, electronic monograph on crocs from the Cretaceous of Africa in ZooKeys. As more paleontologists realize the benefits of electronic publication (relatively low or no page charges, high resolution images, rapid and broad distribution), I predict that we'll see more of these monographic treatments in the open access literature.

PLoS ONE also pioneered a more transparent form of "impact factors" this year. With their article-level metrics, it is now possible to find out how many downloads a single paper garnered, and when. For instance, there have been nearly 8,000 views of my January 2009 paper on Triceratops horn use co-authored with Ewan Wolff and Darren Tanke; Darwinius has racked up nearly 75,000 views since May. I would wager this is a good deal more than either paper would have garnered on a pay-per-view website. In combination with article-level citation indices (10 citations so far for the Darwinius article, according to CrossRef), these new, individualized impact factors represent a massive step forward from the journal-level, irreproducible impact factor sold by Thompson-Reuters. In another prediction, I expect that more journals will begin to adopt these new measures of article "impact." It is more transparent and, quite frankly, more relevant for many applications.

On a personal note, I am proud of the achievements of the Open Dinosaur Project. Launched in September 2009, the ODP crowd sources data collection for a project studying the evolution of limbs in ornithischian dinosaurs. Furthermore, all aspects of the project--from data collection to analysis to publication--are being blogged. If all goes well, 2010 should witness the first publication of a major paper from the project.

So what will 2010 bring? As described above, we're going to see the blogosphere continue its rise as an important factor in scientific discourse. Open access publishing will continue to expand, and a public archive of NSF-funded publications may well become a reality. Overhyped specimens will appear in both the open- and closed-access literature, and new methods of skullduggery will keep us all busy. In short, business as usual! I look forward to the surprises and new technologies that 2010 has in store for all of us.


Jim Kirkland said...

As a paleontologist in government employ (funded by the citizens of Utah), I'm a huge fan of open access. At the Utah Geological Survey of Utah all our publications; paleo, geologcal reports and maps ect. go on line for free. Additionally our hard copy publications are basically sold at cost and many are now CD publications. We have a four tier review system that is a complete pain, but insures high quality publications. Our job is to disperse information for the betterment of our citizens and our scientists. Open access is certainly the model I prefer. A lot of for profit publications are going to take a big hit, but then the pony express was a nice way to deliver mail cross country in its time. The biggest limit is getting us old farts up to speed with all the new technology. I personally envision 3-D scans as the future of figures in electronic publication. After all most people just look at the pictures. Virtual specimens will be the ultimate democratization of our science. It will eventually lower our carbon footprint as well.

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