Friday, 30 January 2015

Biology of the Reptilia. Carl Gans's Magnum Opus Online

The 22 volumes of Biology of the Reptilia can now be read online, and access is free. The Gans Collections and Charitable Fund, established in the memory of Carl Gans (1923-2009) who ran the whole show from the first volume in 1969 to the final one published in 2010 just after his death, has somehow managed to overcome problems of copyright with five publishers, to scan all the volumes and to present the articles in an accessible form.

Like a number of series, Avian Biology and Lactation, for example, Biology of the Reptilia began as a publication of Academic Press, now sadly part of the Elsevier empire. Much as the effort to make the Biology of the Reptilia available will be appreciated, over the years I have found that the Academic Press series of multi-author books had a certain interest at the time of publication, they soon fell into the category of 'very rarely looked it' —and that includes a long article of mine. I suppose that is because in an active field, a review paper in an edited volume was just a snapshot at a particular time, useful for drawing the old literature together, but soon passing into the category of ephemera as the field moved on. Somewhat paradoxically, I suppose, such volumes will be most useful in fields that are no longer popular or have run out of steam simply because the article will be a more complete statement of knowledge. For those rare beings researching the history of a field of research access to the Gans volumes will be very welcome. All too often publishers (including learned societies) are charging for access to old literature that should be freely available; they have already made their pile from selling books and journals. Charging for access to research decades old and paid for by the taxpayer is outrageous. So the appearance of Biology of the Reptilia online is a case for applause to the Carl Gans charity.

I never met Carl Gans but I did have a correspondence with him over several months. Amphisbaenians were his great interest and he had arranged with the late Harold Fox, the then editor, to have a whole issue of the British Journal of Herpetology (now Herpetological Journal) devoted to that group of lizards, with Gans inviting the authors. When I took over as editor from Harold Fox*, I had a whole issue in the pipeline that required very little editorial work since Carl got the papers in and did what was necessary before sending the whole package to me by airmail. I was extremely grateful because the journal had been printed by Harold Fox's family publishing company and I was establishing a new format with a new printing company to try to bring the journal into the 1970s.

*Harold Fox, 24 October 1922-29 May 2003, worked at University College London from the late 1940s until 1994. The family bequest funds the Harold and Olga Fox Scholarships in Biological Sciences, supporting four students at a cost of £23,000 per annum.