Heroine of science

 biodiversity informatics, Electronic resources, Fish  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Heroine of science
Feb 182016

I am one of those among many thousands, millions even, with privileged access to paywall-protected scientific publications through my affiliation with academic institutions.

I am not one among millions of students and scientists who are locked out from an enormous amount of scientific publications and consequently unable to fully develop their potential to reshape the world into a better place for all of us.

I am even privileged to support Open Access by paying for removing the paywall from my publications (occasionally it gets too expensive).

But what happens when I retire? Will I have to go back to the 20th Century procedures of tedious search for relevant literature and writing one after the other of reprint requests mailed to busy people which may or may not grant me the mercy of honoring my request (actually, nearly nobody declines a reprint request)? Not likely, things changed, irreversibly. But I may get locked out from information.

Before the Portable Document Format scientific publications were strictly published on paper, either by a scientific entity (university, museum, society) or by a commercial publisher. In taxonomy, Journal of Natural History, society journals such as Copeia, and museum bulletins like those of the American Museum of Natural History or the British Museum (Natural History) could thrive on subscriptions or exchange. Everything animalish was indexed in Zoological Record which also was affordable. Authors would be given or could buy reprints of their articles for further distribution. Old and antique books were available from academic libraries. From the 1970s on photocopying techniques enabled one to build up complete libraries of everything written about a taxonomic group (e.g., all cichlid papers) at very low cost. It was not ideal, but life was flowing more slowly in the old days. You could do time-consuming quality work. You didn’t have to publish in Nature at all cost. ”Impact factor” was unknown, everything had 100% impact.

With digital publishing and PDFs all that changed. Particularly publication metrics has inflated publishing, and science administration is no longer by experienced scientists but by anyone able to count impact points (don’t have to be able to count more than the total number of digits on two hands, however). On top of that, scientific publishing has gone commerical to an extent really unexpected for academics. The simple equation in science is idea->research->communication=>education->democracy and well-being. For any democracy full insight into scientific research and full free access to the results and communication of research must be a sine qua non. Instead patenting is bigger business than ever and ”copyright” laws become more and more idiotic.

While research as such has not changed at all since we got out of the Dark Ages, the last 20 years has seen an increase in publications and particularly commerical publications, as well as scientists. One study suggests a doubling of scientific papers every 8 or 9 years (Bornmann & Mutz, 2015) Publications are not necessarily less available today than in the Paper Age, but they are more numerous, and and more people need to be informed. This causes furstration over inequality between those that can pay for the information and those who can’t and there is no logical reason for this discrimination.

UNESCO statistics shows an increase in number of researchers globally from 3,954,280 in 1997 t0 4,908,293 in 2013, that is nearly one  million more researchers, but the reporting is incomplete. In Sweden there was an increase from 36,878 in 1997 to 62,994 in 2013, and China nearly tripled in scientists, from 548,000 in 1996 to 1,484,040 in 2013. So I think we can conclude that both researches and students are on the rise. This means more papers and more needs for reads.

The oligopoly consisting in only about four publishing companies publishes half of the scientific research and paywalls it (Larivière et al., 2015). A random scientific paper published by a commercial publisher may cost say 30 USD for downloading. Any scientist will read (at least skim through) between 100 and 1000 new papers annually. That means that a single article is supposed to bring in from China alone if only commercial papers are considered, 1,484,040*30*100= 42,120,000 USD. Every year. From that the publishing scientist gets exactly 0 (zero) USD, the funding agency gets exactly 0 (zero) USD, the reviewers get exactly 0 (zero) USD, and whoever funded the funding agency gets 0 (zero) USD. I must be exaggerating, of course, because universities pay large amounts for online journal packages so the individual article pricing only applies to those who cannot afford to pay; or authors pay 3,000 USD to make an article Open Access, which means 3,000 less for research and I suppose it is not discounted from the package subscription.

Profits in the leading commercial science publishers are over 30%, close to 40%, and profits over 2 billion USD have been reported for just one publisher (Larivière et al., 2015).

Why does this madness go on? And on? Actually it is only about vanity and sloppiness, chasing High Impact figures invented by the same publishers. Would you believe that you get 2 billion USD of real value each year? End of all disease, end of all wars, all species on Earth named, cars running on water as fuel… No, no, you get mostly words, words, words, powerpoints, and figures, mostly trivial stuff, , some of it not even edited or peer reviewed; nothing that could not be published by a small society for nearly nothing (but worth 2 billion USD). But perhaps it doesn’t matter because most people cannot afford the subscriptions anyway.

Lead author of Larivière et al. (2015), Vincent Larivière, is quoted by CBCNEWS:

”We need journals because of their prestige. Journals give discoveries and researchers a hierarchy.”

No no; we need journals to publish results of scientific research. When we let journals ”guide” us to ”correct” or ”best” or ”most relevant” (i.e., most expensive subscription) research and grade us according to how we fit their standards (i.e., how much they can charge), it is corruption and manipulation.

Enter as a heroine of science Alexandra Elbakyan and SCI-HUB ”…to remove all barriers in the way of science”. SCI-HUB is repository of research papers culling Open Access as well as paywalled papers and making them available at zero cost to humanity. Some say this is illegal, but that remains to be demonstrated. It is not illegal to read, download or store a PDF file that you find on the web. It is not illegal to search for paywalled publications on the web. It may be illegal to re-publish such publications, what do I know. SCI-HUB is not publishing anything, it only helps you find stuff. I like The Pirate Bay too. I have no need for it, but I believe it does miracles for people in small circumstances. The Pirate Bay, however re-publishes artistic material, so I guess it is not quite OK in many cases.  SCI-HUB is different, it enables recovering the information that scientists and the society have already paid for.



SCI-HUB is apparently operated by using the LibGen repository of paywalled scientific articles; and on top of that adding (also to LibGen) paywalled articles accessed from subscription codes. In my trials it works well with major publishers, but will not open lesser independent journals, and it will not open articles immediately upon publication. At the time of writing the SCI-HUB website reports that it has 47 million scientific papers.

In practice, if you stumble on a paywalled article that you need for your research or studies, you paste the DOI code in the search field in SCI-HUB, click on the button with an arrow on it, and if the publication date is not too close, the PDF file will be delivered to you. You may have to learn some cyrillic text to understand more, but do you really need to know more?

SCI-HUB is a research tool created by Kazakhstanian software developer and neurologist, and consequently heroine of science Alexandra Elbakyan in frustration over the pricing of scientific articles. She has been quoted (source not found) to refer to the Human Rights Declaration:

”Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Others have likened her to Robin Hood; or called her a hero, which testifies to masculinocentrism in the digital sphere,.. but we know what you mean. Alexandra’s story is told at length, and partly with her own words, in Simon Oxenham’s blog post.

Certainly, publishing is not free of costs. It takes time and or money to process a manuscript, and print it, but in science most of the work of producing a scientific paper is done without cost for the publisher. The overpricing of scientific journals, aimed to be charged to the producers of the content of scientific journals, is definitely worth concern and opposition. There must be other models of dissemination of scientific information. There must be a way also for researchers outside rich universitites to share information on the same conditions as institutionalized colleagues.

I do not see that SCI-Hub is doing anything that researchers do not do anyway, except removing the time-consuming work of asking people for pdf reprints, and the equally time consuming work of sending pdfs around by e-mail. Many of us have also scanned our earlier publication and distribute the scans instead of sending paper reprints.

Indeed, social networks such as Academia and ResearchGate are also used as vehicles for distributing publications in a free way. Those are equivalents of closed societies, for which reason at least some legislation must permit exchange of publications between members; but of course, Academia and ResearchGate do not provide the same amount of information.

Interesting as pirating may be, SCI-HUB signals something deeper: the need to reform copyright laws. Copyright on knowledge (scientific and educational communication) is an anachronistic phenomenon in a society that has gone beserk in control of profit. To start with, copyright must be lifted from scientific and educational papers, including technical drawings and background data. At some point we must also look over copyright on artwork. It makes no sense to prohibit use of whatever artefact for 70, 90 or 100 years after the author died. I really don’t understand what makes so valuable out-of-focus or otherwise inferior fish pictures on the web with a big copyright sign on them [Example][Example 2]. That’s an indication that copyright must be reformed or die.

An alternative to paywalled profit publishing and SCI-HUB is of course to publish and support by subscriptions to other, academically sound journals, like, in ichthyology, Copeia, Journal of Fish Biology, Neotropical Ichthyology (Open Access), Ichthyological Research, Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters … Not necessarily free, but a start away from the overpriced.

Support an ichthyological society:

American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (journal: Copeia)

Sociedade Brasileira de Ictiologia (journal: Neotropical Ichthyology)

Société Française d’Ichtyologie (journal: Cybium)

European Ichthyological Society (no journal)

Sveriges Fiskforskares Förening (no journal)

Ichthyological Society of Japan (journal: Ichthyological Research)

Fisheries Society of the British Isles (journal: Journal of Fish Biology)


Bornmann, L. & R. Mutz. 2015. Growth rates of modern science: a bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66 11: 2215–2222.

Larivière, V., S. Haustein & P. Mongeon. 2015. The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127502. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502


Enthusiasm for nominomania

 Biographies, Books, Fish, Ichthyology  Kommentarer inaktiverade för Enthusiasm for nominomania
Feb 172016

LundbergTitle2There is a little book – a dissertation actually – that lists every Swedish publication on fishes. Published in 1872 it of course had some advantage over any similar project to be raised today, but nevertheless it is a commendable work. It was presented as a doctoral dissertation at Uppsala University by Fredrik Lundberg, and  comprises 18 pages of introduction and 56 pages of bibliography. The author, Lundberg, vanished in the shadows of time, at least this dissertation is the only evidence I can find of the person. Both Fredrik (currently first name of 95962 men and 2 women in Sweden) and Lundberg (currently last names of 21123 persons, first name of 3 men and one woman in Sweden) are common names in Sweden.  Well, even if people may be interesting, it is a person’s work that counts, so I am basically content. Lundberg’s dissertation is important for tracking the history of ichthyology in Sweden, and for me it was the key to finding a rare publication that practically every other ichthyologist in Sweden refused to cite.

On page 29 Lundberg cites an article ”Om Ichthyologien och Beskrifning öfver några nya Fiskarter af Samkäksslägtet Syngnathus. Af G. I. Billberg, (Linn. Samf. Handl. 1832, p. 47-55 m. 1 col. pl. Sthlm 1833).” The article was evidently in a journal with the name encrypted. It was somehow resolved as Linnéska Samfundets Handlingar (Proceedings ot the Linnéan Society). Decryption of journal name abbreviations is not for the impatient and weakhearted; luckily this tradition has been abolished in favor of very short names easy to mix up or very long names difficult to remember. As I could not find any further mention of pipefish species named by Billberg in other Swedish fish literature, or elsewhere – they were not incorporated into the Catalog of Fishes until in February 2016 – it was too good bait to resist.

This was in 2004 and although libraries were already restricting access to their older publications, online antiquariats were few. A copy of the particular journal issue could be found, however, in a Real Life antiquariat in downtown Stockholm for a considerable price. A second copy was lent to me by Professor Bertil Nordenstam, then at the Phanerogamic Botany department of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. The author, it turned out, was mainly a botanist or horticulturist, and the publication contains images and descriptions of plants

Image used in various printed and online sources, probably public domain

”Om Ichthyologien …”, indeed, the whole issue of the Linnéska Samfundets Handlingar (the first and only), and not least the curious author, were found to be extraordinary in many ways, good and bad. It was a discovery of a forgotten milestone in Swedish natural science that certainly needed attention. Billberg, a lawyer and judge,  botanist and natural historian by devotion, and funder of of the Linnéska Samfundet, attempted to present a new classification of fishes, and also, a man of classical education more than biological, had a lot to say about other people’s scientific names on fishes. The publication is sprinkled with new names on all kinds of fishes, family names, generic names, species names, but practically all of them needed to be evaluated in relation to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and most of the fragmentary literature references pointed to sources not so easy to find in 2004 as they are now. So it wasn’t just the exciting discovery of three overlooked pipefishes. It was a true Pandora’s box, or can of worms, can of names.

Billberg proposed five new family names, only one of which survives as it is anolder homonym (Diodontidae). He mentions 61 genera of fishes, 41 of them listed only by name; out of  20 ”new” generic names, none is valid. He he lists 31 species of fishes.; out of 28 ”new” species names, one is potentially valid and a species inquirenda. Hardly anything in the taxonomy is justified by anything oyher than imprecise references. It turns out that Billberg probably based the whole paper on only one or two earlier works, by La Cepède (1798), and Cuvier (1817), with the outstanding exception of the description of three new pipefish species. The pipefish descriptions were based evidently only on three drawings made by Johan Wilhelm Palmstruch in 1806, probably from living specimens. So Billberg could have written his paper having examined zero fish, read two already long outdated books, and counted fin rays on three drawings. Of couse, the three new pipefish species are also junior synonyms.

Plate in Billberg 1833 showing new pipefish species 1, Syngnathus pustulatus (male 2, Syngnathus typhle), Syngnathus virens (female Syngnathus typhle), and 3) Syngnathus palmstruchii (Entelurus aequoreus)

Plate in Billberg (1833) showing new pipefish species 1, Syngnathus pustulatus (male Syngnathus typhle), 2 Syngnathus virens (female Syngnathus typhle), and 3 Syngnathus palmstruchii (Entelurus aequoreus)

What man had set his footprint so deep in the mud that it could not be retracted? In short, Gustaf Johan Billberg was born Karlskrona in Blekinge, southern Sweden in 1772. He studied law in Lund University and got a position as auditor in Stockholm in 1793. He took a similar position in Visby on the island of Gotland in 1798, but returned to Stockholm in 1808 and held various administrative and juridical positions there, mainly as a judge, until 1840. He became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1817, and corresponded with Linnaeus’s successor in Uppsala, Carl Per Thunberg, but he never had a formal education in natural sciences. He was a collector, with large entomological collections, and took particular interest in botany and economic botany. If he had not been caught in some controversy between the Academy and Uppsala University, perhaps he could have developed a career as a botanist. Instead he devoted his fortune and time to publishing more or less unfinished works that along with other events drove him to bancrupcy. Some of these publications are significant, like his two issues of the work Ekonomisk botanik (Economic Botany) and a few  parts of the book series Svensk botanik (Swedish Botany) and Svensk zoologi (Swedish Zoology), the latter in particular a pioneering work with descriptive text and hand coloured plates of Swedish animals. The society that he initiated, Linnéska Samfundet, was equally commendable, but quickly dissipated. The society produced just one issue of its proceedings, all articles in it written by Billberg, and apparently biologists showed no strong interest in the society. Billberg did make a lasting contribution, however, in developing one of the green areas in the heart of Stockholm, Humlegården. There he organised a Linnaeus Park, including a hilly flowerbed area still present today and known as Flora’s hill, named for his daughter Flora Mildehjert. Boethius (1924) wrote a detailed biography of Billberg.

Floras Hill

Flora’s Hill, May 2014. Photo Sven Kullander, CC BY-NC

Billberg’s enthusiam for natural sciences, particularly plants and animals, carried him high up among the clouds, and let him fall hard. When he died in the winter of 1844 he was broke and ill. By contrast, his brother Johan, without interest in natural history was ennobled af Billbergh in 1826. On the other hand Gustaf Johan brought up 9 children and one of them, Alfred, a medical doctor, became a well renowned pioneer in psychiatric medicine.

Years passed, however, as they tend to. ”Om Ichthyologien…” remained a resting treasure as many other projects called for attention. The idea remained, however, to present an analysis of Billberg’s paper, and particularly to call attention to the existence of three forgotten species description contained in it. I started, stopped, and started, compiling names and checking literature sources. At first I thought that a tabular presentation would be enough, but no, too much needed to be said about this work. Eventually, after a senseless, sleepless final effort in early 2015 could I deliver a manuscript for submission. But it should take long time to see it in print. The main problem was obviously finding a reviewer. At last things could be resolved and in October 2015 there was an accepted manuscript. I will spare you all the details why its publication (Kullander, 2016) was then delayed till January 2016.

As you can read the whole analysis of Billberg’s fish names here, thanks to Open Access and somebody paying for that, this is not the place for reiterating detail that is already there. If you want a different context you can also find much of the information in the Catalog of Fishes.

Billberg’s many publications drew considerable criticism already during his lifetime, especially his unsuccessful habit of reforming the Swedish names on animals and plants. Billberg’s fish paper was ignored by all Swedish ichthyologists first probably because he was not accepted by the contemporary academics, and later because he simply fell out of memory. Several large volumes on Scandinavian fishes were published in the period 1836-1893.

Billberg has been called enthusiast, dilettante, and many other things, but on the positive side he was really an educator at heart, and it is difficult to criticize a person following a vocation to investigate things and try to make the world a better place, no matter how awkward the result then can be. The history of science is full of worse people. The worst that Billberg did was to put newly constructed names on plants and animals. That is something that many of us do …. Perhaps the review of his fish names can contribute to make him remembered more for his good aspirations than his formal failures. And serve to remind one always to be very careful when playing with names.


Billberg, G.J. 1833. Om ichthyologien och beskrifning öfver några nya fiskarter af samkäksslägtet Syngnathus. Linnéska
samfundets handlingar, 1: 47–55. [at Internet Archive]

Boethius, B. 1924. Gustaf Johan Billberg. Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 4, urn:sbl:18212.

Cuvier, [G.] 1816. Le Règne animal distribué d’apres son organisation, pour servir de base à l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée. Tome II. Déterville, Paris, xviij + 532 pp.

Kullander, S. O. 2016. G. J. Billberg’s (1833) ‘On the Ichthyology, and description of some new fish species of the pipefish genus Syngnathus. Zootaxa, 3066:101–124.[at Zootaxa]

La Cepède, [B.G.] 1798. Histoire naturelle des poissons. Tome premier. Plassan, Paris, cxlvij + 532 pp.

Lundberg, F. 1872. Bidrag till öfversigt af Sveriges Ichthyologiska literatur. Akademisk afhandling med vidtberömda filosofiska fakultetens i Upsala tillstånd för Filosofiska Gradens erhållande till offentlig granskning framställes af Fredrik Lundberg Filos. kand. af Westmanl. Dala Landskap, å Zoologiska lärosalen, Lördagen den 25 Maj 1872, p.v. t. f. m. Stockholm Sigfrid Flodins boktryckeri. xviii+52 pp.


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