Thomas G. Lammers
lammers at FMPPR.FMNH.ORG
Tue Mar 25 15:54:08 CST 1997
Andrey Sharkov raises some excellent issues regarding electronic
publication. He is absolutely correct when he points out that few would
object (once copyright issues are resolved) to electronic publication of
most systematic information: keys, descriptions, specimen data,
distribution maps, lists of ecological associates, multivariate statistical
analyses, phylogenetic reconstructions, sequence and restriction site maps,
illustrations, scans of specimens, photographs taken in the field,
recordings of vocalizations, film clips of behavior, ad infinitum.
But the important point is: Will we accept this new medium as an appropriate
place in which to create new names for organisms?
Nothing else that biologists do is as rigorously codified and controlled as
nomenclature. Nothing else we do smacks so closely of The Law and legal
procedures, of the sorts of things attorneys or legislators do. In very
many ways, a protologue is like a bit of "enabling legislation". It brings
into existence a name, it enables us to use that name to refer to an
organism or group of organisms. This action can have important,
wide-ranging, and often unforseen effects elsewhere in biology. THAT is why
we collectively have decided to rein it in, to exert very stringent controls
on it. The framers of modern codes of nomenclature knew all too well the
result of a relaxed approach to nomenclature; of letting individuals decide
what was best; of allowing personal taste, prestige, or other human foibles
dictate how nomenclature was done. We're STILL trying to clean up the mess
left by a century-and-a-half of such chaos. (I've often pondered how much
easier our lives might be, if only we could somehow send dear ol' Carl
Linnaeus copies of the ICZN and ICBN, with a note recommending he follow
Because of these legalistic aspects of nomenclature, it is absolutely
essential that descriptions of new taxa and the creation of names for them
be effected in the most conservative manner possible. By this I mean that
the words that legally cause a name to come into existence must be protected
in such a way that they can never be altered nor destroyed, and that they
will be as widely available as possible. Imagine the chaos if the United
States Code were ONLY published electronically, and it fell victim to
malicious hackers or a virus run wild. If electronic publication can meet
these criteria of security and availability, fine. IMHO, it does NOT meet
those criteria today, but soon may. (On the other hand, conventional paper
publication often also scores poorly on wide availability.)
To clarify this discussion, let me ask: Where is the pressing need to
publish new taxa electronically?
I have not heard anyone articulate clear problems with conventional means of
Is speed what we seek? I can routinely get new species into print in about
a year via conventional methods. In the greater scheme of things, is that
so much slower than whatever span electronic publication would require?
Do we see this as a cheaper way to publish? To avoid often burdensome page
charges? There are costs to electronic publication as well, though perhaps
Do we see it as a way to avoid reviewers, particularly those who seem more
interested in demonstrating their own wit rather than in honestly evaluating
merit? If so, do we really WANT new taxa that have not passed peer review?
Do we seek a fuller description than now possible? Color plates are
expensive in conventional media and audio or video recordings nearly
impossible. A laudable goal , if that's what we seek.
Do we see rapid publication as a means of enhancing our ability to protect
endangered communities and ecosystems? Will we be better able to argue for
preserve status if the new species endemic to an area have names already
published rather than "ined."?
Do we see electronic publication of new taxa as a means of giving
traditional taxonomy a little more lustre, a little more respectability in
the eyes of our peers? By embracing the latest technology, do we hope to
deflect some of the accusations that descriptive systematics is passe? Do
we hope that molecular biologists will stop picking on us and agree that
we're scientists, too?
Are we simply enamored of the new and the shiny, and derisive of the old and
traditional? Is there something inside us that rebels against the tired
ways of doing things, that seeks "the latest thing"? Well, that's how our
species makes progress. Were we content with our lot, we'd still be wearing
bearskins and banging rocks together to make fire.
In short, I'd like to see this thread turn to a discussion of just what
exactly we hope to accomplish by allowing new names to legally come into
existence via the WorldWideWeb/Internet or CD-ROM rather than by
conventional paper methods. In order to judge intelligently whether this is
a good idea or bad, we need to have a clear idea of WHY we are doing it.
Especially helpful would be anecdotes from those actually describing new
taxa, relating how work they've done in the past would have been improved
(or not) had they been able to publish electronically.
Thomas G. Lammers
Department of Botany Classification, Nomenclature,
Field Museum of Natural History Phylogeny and Biogeography
Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive of the Campanulaceae
Chicago, Illinois 60605-2496 USA
e-mail: lammers at fmppr.fmnh.org
voice mail: 312-922-9410 ext. 317
"... library science is the foundation of all sciences ... we will survive
or founder depending on how well the librarians do their jobs."
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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