Homo Naledi’s other revolution

When the Homo Naledi discovery was announced I was excited to see that the initial publication was in an open access journal, eLife. In fact to me this was a huge relief for, now that my adjunct teaching days are done and I am gainfully employed in the museum sector, I no longer have access to journals through a university library. (But, then again, I won’t have to rewrite my human evolution lecture. So there’s that.)

One day at work I decided to abstain from my usual time wasting behaviors of Facebook and reading the comments section of the Washington Post, and instead invest my downtime in reading the Naledi piece. Look at me! I’m reading an article for fun! Truly this is one of the most liberating experiences of being outside the academy: now I read scholarship for pleasure.

I was proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, feeling like I got it. Okay, so I skimmed over some of the anatomy stuff, but not all of it. Nothing I can’t handle with a dictionary nearby. With no one to impress with my studiousness except my fellow librarians (who are all, of course, very studious), I looked forward to sharing a bottle of wine with my wife (a biologist and “real” scientist) and telling her all about the findings. We frequently have animated discussions about human evolution, so it came as a surprise when she didn’t want to talk about Homo Naledi rather what grabbed her attention first was that the authors had chosen to go OA.

Jessica has established herself an open access skeptic in our previous kitchen conversations, which unfolded something like…

Her: So where did they publish? Didn’t you say it was the cover of Nature?

Me: No. Cover of National Geographic. Lee Berger had a NGS Explorer grant.

Her: Where then? Science?

Me: No, they went open access. Something called eLife.

Her: Really?! Wow. But why? *gives side eye*

Me: I don’t know if they’ve stated a reason.

Her: Faster to press maybe? That is one thing that the open access journals have over traditional venues.

Me: IDK, but I think it shows how OA is really mainstreaming in anthropology.

Her: Who makes that call? Like, do you think the post-docs and assistant professors on that pub were like, “Hey man, this could be the cover of Science. This could be Nature.”

Me: IDK. Do you think if you’re the sixth or seventh author on the discovery of the decade it really matters? You’re on the discovery of the decade!

Her: Maybe… But then getting on those pubs is how people get jobs. it could make a difference in whether or not someone gets tenure. Some administrator could be like, “Eh, I’ve never heard of eLife” and you get denied.

Me: But how often does that really happen? People getting denied tenure by administrators once they get past their departments.

Her: It happens all the time. Every year. All the denials (at her uni) come from administrators because everyone gets past their departments.

Me: But do people get denied tenure because of which venue they choose to publish in, or because of some bizarre, internecine political struggle?

Her: Probably more likely the latter.

Me: You are correct that accumulating the right kind of publications is all about economies of prestige, but that’s an artifact of academic culture. And culture being learned behavior is something we can change. That’s why they say “Only the Senior Faculty Can Save Us Now”. We need the senior faculty to publish OA, bringing their prestige with them to burnish these new titles to get people to change their attitudes.

Her: *looks skeptical*


The following day I’m back at work, checking out what’s on tap over at my favorite NPR talk show when lo and behold its blogger extraordinaire and Fedora model John Hawks (who is also known in some circles as being pretty good at this anthropology thing) with several of his colleagues talking about Naledi. I start thinking that what I need to do is call in to the radio show and pitch him an open access question so he can knock it out of the park.

Much to my delight (and to the surprise of my co-workers as I started pumping my fists in the air) the host read my tweet.

drshow1 drshow2 drshow3

John, who was on the phone from South Africa, had to go before the host read my question (which came second-to-last in the show), but as Jamie Shreeve, who wrote the National Geographic cover story, made clear time to publication was a major factor in the decision to go with an open access publisher. The authors did have Nature in mind. But the scale of the study, which included some 1,500 individual fossils, contributed to the complexity of navigating traditional scholarly communication venues.

h/t to the Wife, for getting it right.


One final note. As one who uses an information science framework to research open access I am often struck with how OA activists will sometimes claim that once the toll-gates come down that, naturally, articles will reach wider audiences and receive more citations. Seldom is this demonstrated empirically, which is a shame because it would be easy to do. Take something like Cultural Anthropology which was formerly toll-gated and is now OA. How did the downloads circulate before and how do they circulate now? What were citation rates like previously, what are they like now? Let’s do some good ol’ Compare and Contrast.

What is more typical is for OA advocates to merely make the assertion and not back-up their statements, and I think: If I an anthropologist was making a knowledge claim like this in their own area of expertise, this would never fly.

So its cool to see Lee Berger tweeting about the success of his team’s decision to go OA with numbers to back it up. You catch a scent of the enthusiasm and excitement, which probably motivated this tweet more so than a desire to satisfy LIS bean-counters like myself, and its hard not to get wrapped in the moment too.

This is indeed a proud moment for open access science. Here’s to many more!

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger currently working to describe a collection of approximately 14,000 photographs produced by the Army Signal Corps during WWII. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

10 thoughts on “Homo Naledi’s other revolution

  1. This is such an important topic to us, and it will be great to revisit it when we have some better assessment of the effects of the overall strategy. Several of our early career team members are pursuing publications in more traditional journals, for many of the reasons (or at least the perception of those reasons) that Jessica gave.

    But with our first papers, I think the whole team feels a stronger obligation to the idea that this is an African-led project, and the knowledge generated should be free to all people. Obviously there are economic reasons why traditional publishing is unsustainable in a developing world context, but it is not only — or even mainly — economic.The Vice Chancellor of Wits University, Prof. Adam Habib, gave some remarks at the Homo naledi announcement that should be shared widely, because I think he captures the reason why open access is so important:

    “We often talk about science as having no boundaries, but in our world scientific knowledge has become commodified, and too often, what should be the bequest of the world, the bequest of a common humanity, is locked up under paywalls that postgraduate students and researchers cannot get access to. So what we did when we made this discovery, was we put cameras in the cave, and we streamed it live from day one. We partnered with eLIFE, an open access journal, to make sure that the discovery was available to all of humanity. And what we did in that practice, is create the first elements of a common global academy.”

    “What we said is open access is important because knowledge is the bequest of the entirety of humanity. And we are not simply going to be beneficiaries of open access, but we are going to be contributors to the open access, to the knowledge of a common humanity. In a sense what we did is pioneer a practice of science for the twenty-first century, a practice that says knowledge is not only for the people who can pay for it, but it is here for all of humanity.”

  2. Matt: The articles I have read indicated that the reason for not publishing in Nature was the restrictions on word count/length, not time to publication. Nature could not accommodate an article that comprehensively presented data on so much fossil material. That’s another benefit of the OA alternative they chose, but I did not get the impression that philosophical issues of open access were a consideration until after the fact….

  3. It’s a breakthrough- who would think that a species with a brain as small as Homo sapiens would finally twig that information doesn’t need to be on dead trees to be valid and significant. All newspapers, magazines and journals have no future unless they shift their focus to on-line and digital formats at once. Many people don’t read books, newspapers and journals anymore, and that’s not because they are dumb. It may even mean that they are smart.

  4. I think that I read somewhere (a Tim White comment In some pop press piece I believe) that they initially submitted the paper to Nature but it got rejected.

  5. Palsy– I’ve looked around the Net for the comment you’re describing and I haven’t been able to find anything by anyone about the authors’ choice of venue.

    Tim White is on the record as questioning whether Homo naledi deserves a new species (he seems to think it’s some kind of Homo erectus). He also has been critical, skeptical, and occasionally uncharitable towards Berger whom he seems to perceive as something of a showman.

  6. Matt: Try the following quote

    “Instead of taking years to assess the fossils and publish reports on their features in a long series of studies, White complained that the discovery team had tried to publish a dozen papers on the find. But this effort led to their rejection by the prestigious journal Nature, a diss widely discussed in paleontology.”



    which goes on to make the point I mentioned, that Nature could not accommodate a long article.

  7. Following some antropology for years just out of curiosity, me too did read the complete paper for pleasure! A very nice read, your post, I really enjoyed it.
    On http://johnhawks.net/ I’ve seen his plea for open access much earlier. So I’m convinced their choice for eLife is honestly motivated, thus not just there because Nature couldn’t publish it.
    And a question. Matt, you end your citation of the radio show with people asking if there is a way getting DNA of these bones. Do you perhaps remember the answer? I can’t find it anywhere, despite I would love to know it. It should be in a video where I don’t have access to, because I don’t live on your continent. So, finding your post, I hope perhaps you can tell me?

  8. An exciting discovery for University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and mankind, but a sad example of poor science journalism.

    As many have already written here in South Africa about this PR stunt (http://www.rdm.co.za/lifestyle/2015/09/18/homo-naledi-when-nationalism-hype-and-science-collide), there has been no dating of the fossils and it is too soon to declare this discovery a new species.

    While I am a supporter of open access, the media failed to mention that the investigators’ paper was rejected from Nature for not having sufficient evidence.

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