Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, September 21, 2007

Why not OA for fossil CT scans?

John Hawks, Openness, casts, and CT scans, john hawks weblog, September 20, 2007.

Background:  Paleoanthropologists need to compare fossils, but this is hard because fossils are usually stored in different places and rarely travel.  Plaster or plastic casts ease this problem, but they introduce some distortions and are still hard to produce or ship around to all who need them.  CT scans are more accurate than casts and should be easy to share.  Excerpt:

...Another aspect of gatekeeping behavior is the availability of CT scans. One of my correspondents wrote that CT scanning will make casting irrelevant, because everybody will have CTs of all the fossils and will be able to make their own casts when they want to. Boy, it sure seems like this ought to happen. After all, CT scans are even better than casts in some ways -- they let you see internal details and allow computer reconstructions, for example. They're not perfect, particularly for close details beyond the resolution used in today's CTs. But they should be very cheap to distribute. A world that can disseminate Craig Venter's complete genome to anybody who wants it ought to be able to find some way to get a few hundred CT scans sent around.

A number of efforts are starting to make CT distribution possible -- notably, NESPOS, the Vienna Virtual Anthropology group, and a few others. I expect these efforts will improve, and we will see more and more students able to access the essential data of paleoanthropology.

But for those who've been reading the blog for any length of time, you'll remember I wrote about this problem two years ago.

During the two years since that post, there has been a great deal of progress in scanning fossils. Most papers about new fossils are supported by data from scanning. A small proportion of these scans have been made available to paying professionals, or soon will be. Most are locked away, with no long-term prospect of ever being distributed. Today, none are openly available. Not a single scan of a hominid fossil can be obtained in the open, free of charge.

Why do I argue so strongly for completely open access? I believe it is a matter of credibility. A fundamental principle of science is replicability. If someone else cannot replicate your results, they have no reason to believe you. You have no scientific credibility....

The beauty of science is that it is self-correcting. You can read this blog to find the obvious mistakes in papers published in those marquee journals. This self-criticism is essential to science's credibility. But it is hampered by secrecy....