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The world of scientific publishing is coming in for a lot of criticism these days, and rightly so in many cases. Peer review is under attack from many quarters, although none of its critics have been able to suggest anything better. From the reviewers’ point of view, it is a pretty thankless task, and it is not surprising if it is sometimes not done well. More worrying, however, is the increasing dominance of a few large commercial publishers, making large profits but providing poor service, and sometimes setting their own eccentric standards. One, at least, demands not merely that a budding author lists his or her institution, but it has to be an institution on a list generated by that publisher. No independent researchers need apply!

Then there is open access. At first sight, a great advance. Who could possibly object to the principle of making published research available free to every scientist who wants to read it? Except, of course, that in many cases there is a catch. Some of these publishers are demanding guarantees of future payment of fees amounting to thousands of Euros before a paper will even be considered. Again, it is only the top slice of institutions that can afford such largesse, and even amongst those, not all are willing to pay. Reasonably, a university might ask why, having already spent large sums of money paying its staff to do research, it should then have to pay again to have it recognised, and in doing so building up the profits of a commercial company with what is usually public money.

But are scientists not also in some respects their own worst enemies, making rods for their own backs by custom and convention rather direct outright instruction? I was made to wonder about this, just a few days ago.

I have been lucky in many things during my life, and one of those is that I was fortunate enough to begin working in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s, when large areas remained unmapped, and almost unvisited by Europeans. Speaking geologically and geophysically, the low-hanging fruits were there for the picking, and those of us who were sent to the TPNG by Australia’s Bureau of Mineral Resources made full use of the opportunities. Getting around the country was not necessarily easy, but we had helicopters (the iconic Bell 47 in it G3B-1 version, supercharged for work at high altitudes), and bureaucratic obstacles were almost non-existent, since the country was still an Australian colony. Working in Indonesia beyond its Javanese heartland in the 1970s and 1980s, it was just those sorts of obstacles that were most daunting, but the scientific fruits were almost as abundant.  Almost everything we saw was new, and if we published, the necessary reference lists were notable mainly for their brevity. There was not much to put in them, because we had got there first.

Not so these days, and this is what has prompted these thoughts. In a literature search for something I had been writing as a consequence of attending a meeting of Alpine geoscientists in Ljubljana, I came upon a useful paper dealing with the rotation of Borneo. Coincidentally, one of its authors had reviewed the paper I had been working on (we’re still quite an incestuous lot, us workers on SE Asia) and one of his comments had been that I should have provided references to something that I thought to be so much part of the plate-tectonic paradigm as to need no reference. I was therefore interested to see how he and his co-authors handled this sort of thing.

At the heart of their paper were some new palaeomagnetic results from the Kutai Basin in eastern Borneo, but it is, of course, no longer enough for authors to simply provide bare reports of their results. These, quite rightly, had to be placed in the context of all the palaeomagnetic results that had ever been obtained in the subject area, which included Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia but not Java (which appears on the included maps even though there seem to be no reliable palaeomagnetic results from that island) or West Sulawesi (which could be rather important, does have at least one published set of results, but doesn’t even appear on the maps). Even with these omissions, however, no fewer than 149 earlier papers are referenced.

How did this impressive total come about?

There were, of course, papers describing the previous work that had been looked at, analysed, accepted or rejected. There were twenty-three of those, although from a far smaller number of sources. There were six papers by Neville Haile, five authored or co-authored by W. Sunata of the Geological Survey of Indonesia and two by Mike Fuller. There were also ten dealing, in one way or another, with the basics of palaeomagnetism, not all of which seemed strictly necessary. The online book Paleomagnetism: Magnetic Domains to Geologic Terranes seems likely to be very interesting, but was its citation really necessary?

Also, the palaeomagnetists had decided to broaden their scope somewhat by calling in the assistance of the seismic tomographers. That accounted for another eleven citations, and, to bring it all together, there were the palaeogographers. Twenty-one citations, although again, a far smaller number of first authors. A total, in directly relevant topics, of sixty-five citations. Quite enough, one might have thought, but what about the other eighty-four? They would have to be catalogued, were they to be listed, as simply ’geology’. Important in some cases, to be sure, but surely a great deal of that ground would have been covered in the palaeomagnetic citations (palaeomagnetists can at least be expected to define the formations that they have sampled), and by the palaeogographers, who must surely have discussed the geological evidence for their reconstructions, to some extent at least.

Eighty-four references on topics that were often only peripherally related to the topic of the paper! Are things not getting a little out of hand?