Formality of Latin description

Wolfgang Wuster w.wuster at BANGOR.AC.UK
Wed Nov 22 11:07:17 CST 1995

On Mon, 20 Nov 1995, Joseph E. Laferriere wrote:
> Wolfgang Wuster replied:
> > Requiring the description to be in Latin will not prevent this kind of
> > thing. What will prevent it is a requirement for a holotype to be
> > deposited in a major natural history collection, and a requirement to
> > publish description in peer-reviewed journals - the peer-review process
> > would hopefully weed out bad descriptions.
> Laferriere  replies:
> The Latin description does indeed prevent the sort of thing to
> which I was referring, i.e. inadvertant publication by someone not even
> realizing the name he/she is using is new. The Latin description at least
> forces the author to make the conscious decision to coin a new name.
> Invalid names are still used frequently today, in contexts similar to
> that which I described. However, without the Latin description they are
> nomina nuda devoid of any standing. Thus we can all just ignore them.

How common a problem are these inadvertent publications of new names? In
herpetology at least, my impression is that in practically all cases,
authors using new names do so deliberately and know what they are doing. I
appreciate that this may be different in other disciplines.

The far bigger problem in herpetology is a large number of amateur reptile
keepers, without any training in systematic techniques or theory, who go
around describing new taxa "because they kinda look different". These
lousy descriptions are then published in an obscure language in the even
more obscure Bulletin of the Greater Bloggsville Naturalists' Club, where
they are extremely difficult to find, and may trip up serious workers
later. At least in the case of European amateurs of this sort, I suspect
that introducing a requirement to have a latin diagnosis would merely
result in these amateurs buying a latin dictionary and writing "it's red
with two black spots on the head" in latin. Elementary latin is much
easier to pick up than taxonomic theory, unfortunately. What is really
needed is both a quality control mechanism, and a mechanism that will stop
obscure publications from being used as a means of publishing descriptions
which are too awful to appear in any reviewed journal.

>     The requirement for holotype designation has been in effect in botany
> for nearly 40 years, and I support it.

Agreed 150%

> However, requiring that the
> publication be in a peer-review journal is not currently the case, and I
> for one would strongly oppose any move to institute such a requirement.
> Several reasons: 1) I would envision a 30-year debate over what would
> quaify as a "peer-reviewed journal;" 2) how would a reader tell whether a
> journal is peer-reviewed or not by looking at it;

This could be remedied by instituting an official list of acceptable
journals, which could be based on the likes of Current Contents (although
with a broader coverage). Such a list would settle point 1 and 2. I
appreciate that this would not be easy and would generate considerable
debate, but I do feel that it would at least be worth considering.

The proposed 5-year rule for inclusion in the Zoological Record would
solve some of these problems, but, as previous debates here and/or on
ICZN-4 have shown, this measure is not uncontroversial either.

>3) many species today
> are published in book-length monographs, not journals, and I see no
> compelling reason to change this.

I see no reason why the authors of such monographs should not either
publish their monographs in periodicals which specialise in monographs and
are reviewed (e.g., many museum journals), or why they should not take the
descriptions from the monographs and publish them in journals. The
information of the original description can then be presented again as
part of the general monograph. Examined and published doctoral
dissertations might constitute an acceptable exception.

I accept that these proposals may turn out not to be good ideas, but it
may be worthwhile to discuss them in a forum such as this.

Wolfgang Wuster
School of Biological Sciences, University of Wales, Bangor, UK
e-mail: w.wuster at

Thought for the day: If you see a light at the end of the tunnel,
it is probably a train coming your way.

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