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Dinosaurs and Open Access: the State of the Field

Open access publication has, for the most part, long since ceased to be controversial. Although it certainly isn’t without its minor issues, open access is generally accepted to be a good thing by most scientists. So, how is that reflected in the scientific literature? As one barometer, I took a look at the new dinosaur species named in 2013.

The armored dinosaur Europelta, one of many open access dinosaurs named in 2013
The armored dinosaur Europelta, one of many open access dinosaurs named in 2013. Image  modified from Kirkland et al. 2013, CC-BY.

A total of 38 new species of non-avian dinosaur were coined in 2013 (including a handful that were new genus names for previously described species). Of these, 16 (~42%) were published as freely readable publications (note that this is a very broad definition of open access–12 of the 16 names were in CC-BY journals).

Seven different journals are represented in the mix for freely readable papers; of these, PLOS ONE is the most frequently utilized (7/16 names – that’s 44% of the open access dinosaur species). In fact, more new dinosaurs (seven) were named in PLOS ONE  in 2013 than in any other journal.

So, what does this mean for paleontology? A few random thoughts:

  • There doesn’t seem to be a major bias for which dinosaurs are named in the open access literature, either by clade or geographic location.
  • It would be really, really nice to see more non-dinosaurs named in open access publications. For whatever reason (probably related to a broader uptake of open access within the dinosaur researcher community), dinosaurs seem to predominate in the open access literature. We need more open access insects, trilobites, plants, and foraminifera!
  • New names are nice, but it is absolutely crucial that newly coined names hold up to scientific scrutiny. The last thing anyone wants to see are unneeded names cluttering up the literature. My glance through the list of 2013 dinosaurs shows that those published in open access journals are probably just as robust (or not robust) as those published in closed access journals.
  • There is room to diversify the open access ecosystem within dinosaur paleontology. I do love PLOS ONE [full disclosure – I am a volunteer editor, and have published there, in addition to my PLOS blogging activities], but it can only be a good thing if more open access venues are used and available. Competition encourages quality.
  • In 2008, only 7 of the 28 (25%) named new species of dinosaurs were in freely readable or open access publications.
  • 2014 is on track to meet or exceed the “openness” of 2014 – 7 of the 13 new dinosaur species named so far have been named in open access journals!

Why do I care so deeply about this issue? Beyond my general interest in open access and dinosaurs, I feel that we paleontologists have a unique opportunity in hand. Our field generates a disproportionate amount of media interest compared to many other fields. This in turn is shown by the number of individuals without easy journal access who want to read and engage with the scientific literature. There are numerous bulletin boards, art websites, and the like where amateurs discuss and build upon the scientific literature (and, let’s be frank, share non-open access papers without publisher authorization). Sure, most of these won’t lead to direct citations–but does that matter? This is public engagement with our work!!! How many botanists working on an obscure but threatened plant species would kill to get that kind of exposure?

Furthermore, there is a renewed interest within the professional community for engaging directly with amateur paleontologists (e.g., The FOSSIL Project) and other enthusiasts. Paleontologists are working hard to limit the black market for poached fossils and devise workable regulations for legally collecting fossils on public lands, in recognition that fossils are part of our shared planetary heritage. This is often up against claims of elitism and an “ivory tower” mentality leveled against some vertebrate paleontologists. I generally disagree with these accusations (when I was on the amateur side of things, I found the majority of paleontologists to be open, helpful, and accessible, and not at all opposed to most forms of legal amateur fossil collecting*), but I do think that the field of paleontology has a special obligation to be accessible, if only on grounds of public interest. Open access publications are one way to reach this goal.

Partial skull of the tyrannosaur Lythronax.
Partial skull of the tyrannosaur Lythronax. Modified from Loewen et al. 2013.

*to stem the inevitable quibble, amateur fossil collecting is NOT the same as commercial fossil collecting.


Dinosaurs named in freely readable (“open access”) publications in 2013. Source: Wikipedia. Note: I counted only those names for which the papers were available from the journal website; a handful of other papers naming new dinosaurs can be found on the open web, but these are on author websites or other venues of dubious permanence.

Dinosaur   Journal
Canardia garonnensis ornithopod PLOS ONE
Dahalokely tokana theropod PLOS ONE
Dongyangopelta yangyanensis ankylosaur Acta Geologica Sinica
Europelta carbonensis ankylosaur PLOS ONE
Gannansaurus sinensis sauropod Acta Geologica Sinica
Jianchangosaurus yixianensis theropod PLOS ONE
Jiangxisaurus ganzhouensis theropod Acta Geological Sinica
Juratyrant langhami theropod Acta Palaeontologica Polonica
Lythronax argestes theropod PLOS ONE
Nankangia jiangxiensis theropod PLOS ONE
Nasutoceratops titusi ceratopsian Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Nyasasaurus parringtoni [named in 2012, not 2013] dinosaur(?) Biology Letters
Oohkotokia horneri ankylosaur Acta Palaeontologica Polonica
Saurolophus morrisi ornithopod Acta Palaeontologica Polonica
Wulatelong gobiensis theropod Vertebrata PalAsiatica
Xinjiangtitan shanshanesis sauropod Global Geology
Yunganglong datongensis ornithopod PLOS ONE

Update: Nyasaurus was first published in 2012, so I have adjusted the stats in this post accordingly.

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