Open access breakthrough for South Africa’s Rising Star discovery

On September 10, 2015 a new species of extinct Homo was published, H. naledi. Our genus has only one living species, H. sapiens (humans), but we know of a few extinct cousins from fossil remains. Such finds are exciting because, among other things, they are the rarest of all fossil finds.

Berger et al. 2015. “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa.” eLife. September 10, 2015. Avaialble: http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e09560

This news is making a big splash (it’s the cover story of the October issue of National Geographic magazine) for several other reasons as well. First, as the article’s abstract points out, the discovery represents “at least 15 individuals with most skeletal elements repeated multiple times…the largest assemblage of a single species of hominins yet discovered in Africa.” Second, the authors published their discovery in an open access journal, a breakthrough since no other major paleoanthropology find has been made so openly accessible, in this case in an online journal. The project’s initial media briefing announcement included comments by Prof. Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand (“Wits”) on the importance of open access:

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 (Quoted at http://savageminds.org/2015/09/16/homo-naledis-other-revolution/).

The amount of information available on this discovery is truly overwhelming. If (like me) you can’t get enough, there is a 2 hour episode of NOVA available for online viewing: Dawn of Humanity (the site also includes a good number of related blog posts). Team member and co-author John Hawks’ blog is also a good source of related news and information.

One more exciting element of this discovery and publication enaledi6539vent is that the specimens are documented on an open site as well, with 91 bones or fragments currently available as color image scans and/or as 3-D models available for downloading from morphosource.org. I’d never done so before, but yesterday I downloaded two femur models, only one week after the original announcement and publication. One of these 3-D printed models is sitting on my desk as I write this (and I’m going now to collect the other, with heartfelt thanks to my colleagues at the Marston Science Library)!

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