Jon Tennant (May 6th, 1988- April 9th, 2020)

By Nick Crumpton

Jon Tennant (Photograph by Rebecca Tennant)

Jon Tennant, who died in a road accident in Ubud, Bali (Indonesia) at the age of 31 on 9th April 2020, was a gifted scientist, an influential promoter of science, and a fearless champion of open access publishing.

I first met Jon at a conference for young palaeontologists when we were both PhD students and was very quickly struck not just by his fervour for his science, but also how personally driven he was at such a young age. While most of us were floundering, unsure of the directions our careers would take us, Jon already had clear ideas of where his passion would lead him. Academically, his enthusiasm for the lesser known Mesozoic vertebrates was infectious, whilst his popular science blog Green Tea and Velociraptors was already read widely. He was even then one of the first of us to build a substantial following on social media to engage with everyone and anyone as widely as he could about all things Earth Science. But Jon was also fun. He was the dynamo that kept parties running, and the last of us to call it a night.

Jon completed his PhD with his thesis The Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary: a hidden mass extinction in tetrapods? in 2017 (for which he was awarded the Janet Watson award for research excellence). By this time he had already been published in Nature Communications, the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society and Proceedings of the Royal Society B as first author. He would continue to publish his palaeontological research alongside his work on the accessibility of research until just a few years before his death, by which time his research on open access platforms had become his main line of enquiry. 

Jon had become heavily involved in the open access community during his PhD and by the completion of his studies was using his new role as the communications director for ScienceOpen to further his quest to make science “open, transparent, and equal”. He was always eager to talk about making science accessible to all, and needed no encouragement to speak eloquently on the benefits of open access in front of large audiences, and frankly to anyone one-to-one, regardless of their position or rank, who did not share his views on the exploitation of researchers by publication houses. His vehement opposition to the standard model of authorship and intellectual copyright granted him membership into the Global Young Academy, and a considerable reputation as the enfant terrible of the Open Scholarship movement. 

Despite his heavy involvement in open access, Jon was still an enthusiastic member of the palaeontological community and was this year planning new research projects on tetrapod diversity. He maintained research links and gladly gave time to his geoscience roots when he could.

Two weeks before he died, Jon, juggling deadlines and working remotely from Bali, still managed to carve out time to run a fresh analysis for me based on his 2017 work on dinosaur diversity through time. Not for a high impact research paper or academic talk, but just for a children’s book I was writing. He felt this was as important a use of his time as working on his multiple other projects. This dedication to science communication in all its forms was clear throughout his career. He acted as a community Editor for the PLoS palaeontology network and wrote for Discover magazine and the Nature network. I remember him happily interviewed live on Sky News on the replacement of the NHM’s Diplodocus cast and was amazed at how easily he spoke with authority and warmth. I volunteered him to speak at events such as the Cambridge Science Festival, and it wasn’t long before he had earned his membership card for the Vertebrate Palaeontology Club: he wrote a children’s book about dinosaurs.

His standing continued to rise throughout his career, as he became an executive editor for Geoscience Communication, a member of the Mozilla Open Leadership Cohort and an ambassador for the ASAPbio movement and the Center for Open Science, whilst founding paleorXiv, a free, open source and community-led digital archive for Paleontology research. However, his meteoric rise paused on October 31, 2019. From this date until the end of his life, Jon was dogged by unverified public accusations by Open Con, the details of which were never made known to Jon and remain unreleased and opaque, much to the pain of his family. The resulting social media mobbing led to Jon losing positions and experiencing huge damage to his career and reputation. Nevertheless, he took this as an opportunity to retreat to Bali in order to research and write on how men can help to make academic conferences safer places, how to promote healthier online culture on social media, and the nature of crowd-based online bullying.

Despite the enormous repercussions of these allegations on Jon’s life, he used his time in Indonesia as a period of self-reflection, writing two weeks before he died that “now is not the time for selfishness, moral grandstanding, and hostility. Now is the time for compassion, action, and unity”. Even under the greatest of pressures, Jon was able to maintain a characteristically empathetic view and spent his time seeking clarity and understanding rather than wallowing in resentment and bitterness.

Irrespective of the final five months of Jon’s life, I am sure his legacy will remain one celebrating his pushes to increase inclusivity and diversity within the sciences, his limitless enthusiasm for engaging the public with scientific research and, principally, his extraordinary energy and work to limit the exploitation of researchers by publishers. It is hard to believe that with Jon’s untimely passing, such an unstoppable proponent-powerhouse for open access publishing has been stopped.

Finally, Jon’s engagement influenced so many people in his short life it seems only fitting to end with some of his own words. My last email to him bounced back with his out-of-office reply. Even in this – the most impersonal of interactions – he was trying to help those who had been mistreated by the science machine they had dedicated their lives to:

“Please make sure to take some time for yourself today. Taking just 10 minutes to sit in silence away from a laptop and mobile phone will do you wonders. Breathe. Make sure to be as kind to yourself as you are to others.”

N.B. In order to pay for the legal costs involved in bringing clarity to the accusations targeted against Jon which he faced over the last months of his life, Jon’s sister, Rebecca Tennant has set up a Go Fund Me page.

The Author

Nick Crumpton is a zoologist and writer currently employed by the Royal Society. Nick is a member of Council of The Systematics Association. See his personal website here.