Registration of Botanical Names

James Solomon jsolomon at LEHMANN.MOBOT.ORG
Thu Jul 23 11:24:35 CDT 1998

Dear colleagues:

Formal registration of plant names is a new concept which will be voted on
at the Nomenclature Session of the next International Botanical Congress,
St. Louis, 1999.

The following is a position paper on this concept and its mechanics. The
views expressed here are supported by a significant portion of the
botanical research staff at the Missouri Botanical Garden, whose names are
listed at the end of the article.  Please circulate this to your botanical
colleagues, as we consider it to be a critical and fundamental change to
the way in which botanical nomenclature operates.

Any comments about the concept or content of the paper should be directed
to Nick Turland (nturland at at the Missouri Botanical

This paper is also available over the Web at:


Registration of plant names: undesirable, unnecessary, and unworkable

Nick Turland & Gerrit Davidse, Missouri Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 299, St.
Louis, Missouri 63166-0299, U.S.A.

No botanist can afford to ignore registration. It is a new concept in
botanical nomenclature that would demand changes in our working methods. It
aims to address perceived inadequacies in the current nomenclatural
indexing services (e.g., Index Kewensis) by requiring that all newly
proposed names for plants and fungi, both fossil and non-fossil, be entered
into a central database, otherwise they will not be validly published. The
current International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN, Greuter & al.,
1994) added registration as an additional requirement to the four existing
ones for valid publication. However, this is only provisional: mandatory
registration will take effect, on 1 January 2000, only if ratified by a
vote at the Nomenclature Section of the XVI International Botanical
Congress in St. Louis in July 1999.

Many botanists oppose registration, but so far their views have scarcely
been voiced amid the steadily increasing publicity that registration has
been given by its supervising body, i.e., the International Association for
Plant Taxonomy (IAPT). Indeed, the impression given is that registration is
a 'done deal' - that its ratification is inevitable - rather than being
subject to a ballot at the Congress.

We in the Research Division of the Missouri Botanical Garden have carefully
studied the arguments and mechanism for registration, as published and
demonstrated to date (see Borgen & al., 1997; Greuter & Raab-Straube, 1998;
and We are
almost unanimous in opposing it for two fundamental reasons:

* The botanical community would for the first time depend on the authority
of a single organization (the IAPT) for the valid publication of names, in
contrast to the present practice of independent and unencumbered
publication in a book or journal.

* We do not consider that registration would usefully and significantly add
to the nomenclatural information already available; instead it would
duplicate or replace effective systems.

In addition, we see serious problems in the mechanism for registration that
seem not to have been addressed. We urge all IAPT members and institutes to
study the information presented, and then weigh the pros and cons before
voting on registration at the St. Louis Congress. Please use your vote!

An unwanted new concept

Registration brings an entirely new concept into the ICBN: dependence of
valid publication on an organization and its bureaucratic system. This is a
fundamental change from current practice, where valid publication simply
depends on the interaction between an organ of publication and an author
satisfying a well-defined series of requirements all within his or her

Why duplicate or replace effective systems?

Another stated benefit of registration is that data for newly proposed
names from all groups of plants and fungi, including fossils, would be
available in a central database. However, highly experienced operations
(Index Kewensis, the Gray Card Index, Index Filicum, Index of Mosses, Index
Hepaticarum, Index Nominum Algarum, Index of Fungi, and Fossilium Catalogus
II. Plantae) already scan the literature thoroughly, and almost all names
are traced and recorded. These indexes may be independent of each other,
but the concept of focal points for data access, with reduced duplication
of effort, is currently being addressed: Index Kewensis and the Gray Card
Index, together with the Australian Plant Name Index, are to be brought
together on the World Wide Web as the International Plant Names Index (see Two further projects are also in place to
provide pointers to various different online databases of plant and fungal
groups, as well as organisms from other kingdoms: the Index To Organism
Names ( and Species 2000
(  These indexing services have been operating
and successfully securing funding for many years (over a century for Index
Kewensis), proving that they can stand the test of time. Why mirror their
work, or even replace them, with a scarcely proven system full of

It has been said that the current indexing services routinely miss names in
obscure or 'clandestine' publications, thereby wasting the time of
taxonomists who may inadvertently publish illegitimate homonyms. This might
perhaps happen on rare occasions, but it is surely not a large or serious
enough problem to require an entirely new system.

A clumsy remedy for a few troublesome bibliographic citations

An argument used in support of registration is that precise publication
dates for names are not always clear,  thereby causing problems in
establishing priority of synonyms. In fact, only a very small minority of
names currently being published is ambiguous in this way, and the chances
of not being able to decide between competing synonyms is remote. It seems
extremely cumbersome to resolve this rarely encountered problem by
subjecting all names to a wholly artificial dating system where the date of
valid publication would not be apparent from the publication itself, but
would be the date of receipt by the registration office or center, and
would have to be ascertained from a database or list.

For names published in books and journal issues toward the end of a
calendar year, the unavoidable delays in the registration system would
often cause the date of valid publication (i.e., the registration date) to
fall in the year following the actual date of publication. If the date of
valid, not actual, publication were cited as part of a complete citation
(name, author, publication), then useful data needed in locating the
publication would be obscured.

A complex, bureaucratic, and fallible system

An author not publishing in a journal 'accredited' by the registration
system would have to apply for a registration form, or download it from a
World Wide Web site. There would then follow a bureaucratic process: the
new name(s) would have to be entered on the form (in triplicate), which
would then have to be sent together with two copies or reprints of the
publication to the national registration office or relevant registration
center. While filling in the form might not in itself be a complex task,
obtaining it and mailing it with the publication(s) could well be
logistically difficult and expensive for some botanists, particularly in
certain developing countries with unreliable postal service and difficult
access to the World Wide Web. Authors would also have to be fully aware of
registration to be sure that their names became valid: not all institutes
subscribe to Taxon or possess up-to-date versions of the ICBN (the Tokyo
Code describes only the principle of registration; it does not give

If an author did publish in an accredited journal, the onus of submitting
names for registration would then be transferred to the editor or
publisher, who might not have the same motivation to ensure that new names
become validated. What would happen if a journal did not fulfil the
obligations of its accreditation? How would the IAPT be able to enforce the
agreement signed by a journal's publisher?

Another weakness in the system is the reliance on effective communication
between the national registration offices and the registration centers.
Material deposited at certain offices could remain there and not be
transferred to the centers. How would an author know if his or her name(s)
had reached the registration center without repeatedly checking the list of
registered names (assuming he or she had access to that list). Authors are
already dependent on editors and publishers for their names to become
valid; the addition of another step to the process would increase the
uncertainties and further reduce authors' control.

Registration promises that no newly proposed name would be missed in the
huge amount of botanical literature. In fact, any name not received by the
system would remain invalid and nomenclaturally non-existent. It seems
likely, therefore, that many invalid names would result from authors'
insufficient awareness of the registration system, or from names not
reaching the registration centers through no fault of the authors. The
botanical community would then have extra work in dealing with these names,
identifying their status and submitting them for registration.

Inadequate access to registration data

The proposed system is overly dependent on computer technology. Not
everyone has World Wide Web access; not everyone has a computer fitted with
a CD-ROM drive (assuming that a cumulative lists of registered names were
to appear on CD-ROM - it is stated that such lists would 'hopefully' be
issued); not everyone has access to a computer! This situation will improve
with time, no doubt, but not necessarily for everyone. The only concession
to those without computer technology is the biannual publication of
non-cumulative lists. After ten years' lists had built up, it would be
necessary to scan up to 20 separate lists. This problem was inherent in the
printed versions of Index Kewensis, published only every five years; during
which time ten separate lists of registered names would accumulate.

As stated above, access to data would not be free of charge. Even World
Wide Web access is costly to institutes, even if not always to individual

Who would pay?

One assumes that the IAPT and the registration centers can at present, and
in perpetuity, secure funding for the central operation of the registration
system. If they cannot show that funding is reasonably secure, then we
clearly should not vote for validation of names to depend on a system that
may well collapse. Moreover, if IAPT funds are to be used, the members
ought to consider if it is an appropriate use of their dues. There is also
the question of who would pay for the staff time, equipment, consumables,
and other running costs of the national registration offices. This is not
mentioned in any of the publicity and progress reports. It is easy and
inexpensive to agree in principle to act as such an office, but to do so in
practice requires financial resources. So far, the botanical community has
not been assured that these issues have been addressed.

Mandatory registration would be an expensive bureaucracy. All the
information sent to and obtained from the registration centers would be at
the expense of the authors, editors, and publishers, who would have to pay
for reprints, journals, books, and postage. Botanists would then have to
pay to obtain information, e.g., World Wide Web access fees, subscriptions
to possible lists on CD-ROM. As we are all aware, alpha taxonomy is all too
often a shoestring operation, especially for those in developing countries.
The financial burden might be distributed widely and shallowly, but there
is no promise of help for botanists working on very limited budgets. For
some, financial considerations could mean delays in, or prevention of,
having names registered, and hence a barrier to scientific communication.
The existing systems (Index Kewensis, the Gray Cards, etc.) are already
funded on a more or less voluntary basis, and are not a mandatory expense
to the botanical community.

Another financial issue is ownership of the copious archives of published
material sent to the registration offices and centers. Would they belong to
the individual institutes, the IAPT, or the community at large? An enormous
amount of information would accumulate at the institute where the IAPT
Secretariat currently resides. What would happen when the Secretariat moves
to a different institute, or would the archive prevent the Secretariat from

Do we wish to grant undefined powers to the IAPT?

The system for registration is said to be decentralized because the
authority to register names would be delegated to the national offices.
However, the system as currently proposed is inherently centralized in
being supervised by a single organization and built around one to three
central clearing-houses for data. If we opt to depend on this bureaucracy,
we must be certain that it will be funded in perpetuity, and can only hope
that those persons currently promoting registration with such fervor will
be succeeded time after time by similarly motivated individuals.

Just how well-defined is the power that could be granted to the IAPT?
Unless an internationally agreed mechanism for registration is explicitly
defined in the ICBN, a green light for registration at the St. Louis
Congress would effectively give the IAPT carte blanche to modify the system
without going through the democratic process of submitting proposals to
amend the ICBN. An idea of the way registration might evolve can be gained
by consulting the Draft BioCode (1997), Art. 13 (Greuter & al., 1998; and, where registration would
involve external review and approval of all requirements for valid
publication (termed 'establishment'). The ICBN effectively operates as
'law' only because there currently exists a more or less international
consensus, without which it has no authority. That authority cannot derive
from one organization, based at one institute, imposing rules on the
international botanical community. Such a centralized system could easily
lead to alienation, a disintegration of consensus, and then the ICBN would
lose its authority. This scenario actually occurred during the 1920s, when
there were essentially two groups of botanists working under different


Registration would provide the botanical community with a few services that
are not already available: there would be a single list of all plant and
fungal names; gone would be the occasional need for us to decide if a new
name had been effectively published; there would no longer be rare
occasions where we could not establish priority among synonyms published
almost simultaneously but with unclear dates; and we would no longer have
the slight risk, in naming a taxon, of overlooking a homonym already
existing in an obscure or clandestine publication. Of course, none of this
would apply to names published before 2000.

We must consider these potential benefits and then ask ourselves: are they
really necessary, do they justify the cost and loss of independence, and
would the system work anyway? In our view, the answer to these important
questions is clearly no. We urge our colleagues to consider registration
very seriously, and to make their opinions known at the Nomenclature
Section of the XVI International Botanical Congress in St. Louis in 1999.
Remember, to make your opinion count, you must be an enrolled member of the
Nomenclature Section. If you are based at an institute from which no
delegate will be present, then your institute's vote(s) may be transferred
to a specified vice-delegate. Registration, if ratified, will directly
affect us all in the way we carry out our work. Please do not leave the
decision to others: use your vote!

Staff at the Missouri Botanical Garden supporting this paper

In addition to the authors, the following members of the Research
Division at the Missouri Botanical Garden wish to express their support
for this paper: Bruce Allen, Ihsan Al-Shehbaz, Anthony R. Brach, Marshall
R. Crosby, William G. D'Arcy, Robert Dressler, Roy Gereau, Michael G.
Gilbert, Peter Goldblatt, Daniel Harder, Peter C. Hoch, Porter P. Lowry,
Robert E. Magill, James, S. Miller, Amy Pool, George E. Schatz, Tatyana
Shulkina, James C. Solomon, W. D. Stevens, Charlotte Taylor, Carmen
Ulloa, Henk van der Werff, Alan Whittemore, George Yatskievych, Kay
Yatskievych, Elsa M. Zardini, James Zarucchi, and Guanghua Zhu.


The authors would like to thank all those who have participated in the
discussion leading to this paper and, in particular, the following for
specific comments on the text: Fred R. Barrie, Marshall R. Crosby, William
G. D'Arcy, Porter P. Lowry, James S. Miller, James C. Solomon, Elsa M.
Zardini (all MO), and William R. Buck (NY).

Literature cited

Borgen, L., Greuter, W., Hawksworth, D. L., Nicolson, D. H. & Zimmer, B.,
1997. Announcing a test and trial phase for the registration of new plant
names (1998-1999). Taxon 46: 811-814.

Greuter, W., Barrie, F. R., Burdet, H. M., Chaloner, W. G., Demoulin, V.,
Hawksworth, D. L., Jorgensen, P. M., Nicolson, D. H., Silva, P. C.,
Trehane, P. & McNeill, J., 1994. International code of botanical
nomenclature (Tokyo Code) adopted by the Fifteenth International Botanical
Congress, Yokohama, August-September 1993. Regnum Veg. 131.

Greuter, W., Hawksworth, D. L., McNeill, J., Mayo, M. A., Minelli, A.,
Sneath, P. H. A., Tindall, B. J., Trehane, P. & Tubbs, P. (ed.), 1998.
Draft BioCode (1997): the prospective international rules for the
scientific names of organisms. Taxon 47: 127-150.

Greuter, W. & Raab-Straube, E. von, 1998. Registration progress report, 1.
Taxon 47: 497-502.

 James C. Solomon            e-mail: solomon at
 Curator of the Herbarium    tel: (314) 577-9507
 Missouri Botanical Garden   fax: (314) 577-9596
 P.O. Box 299
 St. Louis, Missouri  63166

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