"selling names"

Stuart G. Poss Stuart.Poss at USM.EDU
Thu Jan 27 14:05:13 CST 2000

Although support of taxonomy and biodiversity studies is a laudable goal, potential negative consequences may result in introducing financial considerations into the process of naming species.  The reason that potentially negative consequences must be of concern to those interested in using such names in the context of science is that ultimately scientific names are meant to provide a stable means of accurately
communicating information and ideas about species.   Although there may be a wide range of views as to what constitutes a species and how it can be recognized, as well as a large number of circumstances that can make the choice of the appropriate name difficult, the integrity of the systems of rules designed to insure  stability must be of paramount importance to the scientific community.

To interject other criteria into this process, such as a profit motive to name species for financial reward to be used to whatever end, introduces a scientifically unecessary frame of reference that may serve to destablize existing nomenclatural conventions.  It would be a mistake for the scientific community to have to expend effort not only to identify, describe new species, and demonstrate their
distinctiveness from other previously named taxa, but also resources to defend against the potential criticism that a specific name was proposed solely to obtain financial reward or done so in a way inconsistent with contractual obligations irrelevant to the scientific process.  Such a mistake could well have very serious consequences beyond the potential for impugned integrities of individual taxonomists or
their employing institutions. Becuase synonyms have the potential to create confusion and destabilize scientific nomenclature, the mere existence of synonyms has consequences that extend beyond the fact that rules of priority dictate that senior synonyms are to be used in preference to junior synonyms.

Although patronyms have played a colorful and often well-deserved element in the history of taxonomy, practicing taxonomists, whose primary objectives are science, are in very short supply for many phyla.  Few individuals have the training to both accurately identify organisms and also have the familiarity with the nomenclatural complexities pertaining to names used to identify these organisms.  It is difficult
enough already to find the resources needed to train future taxonomists.  Would such a profession be attractive if such work became associated with behaviors that suggested that the names were proposed more often than not for the purposes of receiving financial reward?  While certainly one would argue that taxonomist need a salary too, as a taxonomist I believe it is far more important for me to receive it for
the indirect value that my taxonomic decisions provide to the scientific community rather than directly, where the scientific rationale of taxonomic decisions might be viewed as potentially clouded by financial considerations.  It is perhaps even more important to others in the scientific community to have some confidence that such decisions are made according to strict adherence to nomenclatural conventions and
for reasons of science and not out of financial motivation.  Frankly, there are not enough scientists with such expertise to keep track of the potential nomenclatural chaos that financial incentives could pose.  At a time when humanity needs a stable nomenclature of organisms to understand the consequences of the calamitous loss of global biodiversity, the last thing scientists need is to develop mechanisms or
incentives to potentially destabilize existing nomenclature.  There are certainly must be better, more efficient, and easier ways to make money to advance science.

If such a practice is to be undertaken as part of institutional policy, then I believe at least the policy should be designed so that the monies raised are as detached as possible from the actual proposition of naming itself, lest the integrity of scientific investigation at the institution itself be subject to unnecessary question.  Perhaps the institution could auction off the "next available" new species from
a que of known candidate species and probably valid species to the highest bidder, so that the process of taxonomic discovery preceeds the actual naming of the species and the validity of the name given can not be seen as potentially influenced by the financial mechanism itself.  At least an auctioning mechanism would insure that a relatively high premium would be paid for disrupting what is necessarily a
scientific enterprise and the process would be as transparent as possible.  However, even in such cases additional considerations may need to be given to issues of homonymy, which have the potential of disrupting nomenclatural stability.

Although few would question the integrity or the goal of existing institutions or the taxonomists they currently employ to perpetuate and improve our taxonomic understanding, there is nothing in existing rules of nomenclature that restricts those with other motives from participating in the nomenclatural process.  Would science really be served by a proliferation of PATRONYM.COM-like websites that might compete
with traditional institutions? Such websites may not have the expense of maintaining type collections or employing trained taxonomists, who may be expensive relative to the income generated by the number of names they produce.  Consequently, they may be able to outcompete existing institutions for this service. This is no longer a theoretical issue as such sites do exist, or at least have on a few occasions in
the past.

Commercialization of the nomenclatural process has the potential to create other problems as well.  For example, what would be the result should the an operator or taxonomist affililiated with one of these existing or future websites borrow and then "loose" the type specimen of such a "commissioned" species to gain commercial advantage over competitors or perhaps to cover up the existence of a invalid species
perhaps to avoid embarrasing a wealthy patron?  What about higher category names, might these too be subject to financial considerations as well, and if so would evolutionary or cladistic classifications need to be modified to accomodate such considerations?  Would financial competition further restrict cooperation across taxonomic disciplines, perhaps resulting from the need for institutions to hire more
bacterial taxonomists or entomologists at the expense of other taxonomic disciplines?  Currently, there is little or no incentive for such behavior or to take up such issues, but this could change if financial considerations are widely adopted as an increasingly valuable element in the nomenclatural process, particularly if these are not carefully circumscribed with an eye on their potential impact on
nomenclatural stability.

Other issues may also eventually arise if financial considerations are interjected into the nomenclatural process. As the universe of taxonomic contracts and taxonomic contract law grew, other issues would inevitably emerge.  How would courts adjudicate "contract disputes" between institutions and taxonomists regarding "intellectual property", "malpractice", or "ownership rights" among institutions, taxonomists,
potential clients, or governmental entities claiming jurisdiction?  Could third parties sue to recoup damages associated with correcting nomenclatural errors, or losses they might suffer as the result taxonomic confusion reulting from inappropriate listing as part of an environmental enforcement action, or would they even have legal standing?  Could nomenclatural rules predating a contract be enforced in the
context of a particular contract?  If funds are paid for a name, who owns the name?  Would such decisions be made by individual taxonomists, by their employing institutions, by the publishing journal, or would they require circumscription in the various international codes of nomenclature?   Could the donor block use of a patronym, named after him or her, if used without their permission? Would the purchaser or
owner of such names entitled to royalites that might accrue as a result of subsequent use of such names?  Would such royalties be inheritable, as after all the name would persist?  Could court-ordered injunctions for siezure and protection of type specimens involved in such disputes preclude their examination by other scientists?  Would the equivalent of a US Securities and Exchange Commission be needed to
monitor taxonomic mutual fund futures markets that some might propose to stimulate further support for global biodiversity iniatives?  Could bearers of otherwise worthless synonyms bribe commission members into excercising their plenary powers to reinstitute a junior synonym to increse its value in such markets?  Could mergers between  the larger PATRONYM.COM websites and multi-national conglomertes patenting
gene fragments place existing corporate entities or even entire economies or political ideologies at risk?  How would international contract disputes be negotiated? Might it be in the geopolitical interest of countries to inflate or deflate the exchange rates associated with the number of species under contract to advance a particular negotiated treaty advantage? Could such disputes lead to renegotiation of
existing treaties, such as NAFTA, trade friction, or even war?  Are the legal staffs of existing institutions large enough to address such potential concerns?

Spoofing aside about what kind of a future "monetarized taxonomy" taxonomy might actually emerge, is there really an advantage to the scientific community in potentially so encumbering the nomenclatural process with such ancillary considerations?

Stuart Poss

Laurie Consaul wrote:

> The Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, has a program called the Nature Discovery Fund that was launched in December 1998, partly to make money for a biosystematics fund, but mainly to promote systematics. (Dr. Bob Anderson was describing new species from South America anyway, so it did not seem unreasonable to try promoting taxonomy and biodiversity to the public by offering a name in exchange for a donation).
> Interestingly, the first bug to be "sponsored" was by the novelist Margaret Atwood. She donated for a weevil to be named after her father, who was an entomologist (a little known fact to some biologists!).  Being televised and on radio, this event, if briefly, brought home systematics to (at least some) Canadians. If your are curious, have a look at http://www.nature.ca/english/natfunde.htm
> or http://www.nature.ca/francais/natfundf.htm. This fund is never going to make millions, but maybe it is not necessarily a bad idea. It will be interesting to see how the feedback is. If misused, of course, problems might occur.
> Minerals are not included in this fund, because payment for names is unethical in the field of mineralogy (because of commercial value).
> If a taxon were named for a donor before it went extinct, the benefit of biodiversity studies, and results of habitat destruction, might become more visible (personal). (The name would still be in perpetuity).
> As far as potential synonymy of a name, contracts could be drawn up if the donation price was high enough.  (Alternatively, the contribution could be considered like a stock market investment, with all the inherent risks. Picture folks following taxonomy and nomenclature (as well as their mutual fund reports) to see whether their name is still unsynonymized!)
> Laurie Consaul
> Laurie L. Consaul
> Research Division, Canadian Museum of Nature
> Box 3443, Station D, Ottawa, ON, Canada
> (613) 364-4074, Fax 364-4027
> >

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