Modernizing systematics-long I'm afraid-

Gerald R. Noonan carabid at MPM.EDU
Thu Nov 15 17:14:31 CST 2001

-----Original Message-----
From: Panza, Robin [mailto:PanzaR at CARNEGIEMUSEUMS.ORG]
That's a fine and noble thought, Doug, and I agree wholeheartedly in theory.
But who's going to pay the bills?  
My 2 cents.
We need to seek national permanent funding such as has been done for
GenBankĀ® (a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services), see
        Until systematists think that scientific names are important enought
to warrant such funding, there will be no single registery. Systematists
don't seem to pull together for broad funding needs as regards technology. 
        Perhaps part of the problem is that systematists tend to belong to
and attend scientific societies based on taxonomic groups--I go to
Entomological Soc. of America myself.  I used to be interested in Society of
Systematic Biology until that society's journal became just another
molecular biology journal with few papers treating nomenclature or other
taxonomic issues. I have no quarrel with the use of molecular based
technology but just wish that the society seemed to have an interest also in
issues such as nomenclature.
        Another part of the funding problem might and I emphasize the word
might be that systematists tend to make less use of technology than people
in some of the other scientific disciplines. I'm just raising this as a
possibility and don't pretend to have any clear evidence on the issue.
However, I can say the following. My research has been in systematic
entomology and in biogeography. Over the years the applied entomologists
that I have met seem for the most part to have been using what at the time
was leading edge technology. Often they have seem to be using technology not
yet adopted in systematics.
        Here is an example. I'm finishing up the first draft of a manuscript
that reviews the use of GIS software in entomology. I did extensive
literature searches for the manuscript. Conventional searches such as
examining Biological Abstracts were done. I also spent much time searching
on the Internet using terms such as GIS and the names of various insect
groups. The Internet searches led me to online curriculum vita of people
using GIS to study insects and other organisms. I sent out more than 100
e-mail letters to such colleagues asking for reprints, names of other people
using GIS to study insects, addresses of Web sites with relevant
information, etc. I assembled a database of 476 records. Each record refers
to a conventional printed journal paper, an online article, or the address
of an Internet site with relevant information such as GIS compatible data.
Less than approximately 10 references are for systematics. The remainder are
for other areas such as economic entomology, medical entomology,
conservation, ecology, etc.. I posted a message sometime ago on Taxacom
asking for additional references in systematics as regards insects. Some
people wrote to say that systematists probably are using GIS but simply not
mentioning the term in the abstract, title, or keywords. Such articles would
probably be missed by my literature searches. But such papers would also be
missed by the literature searches in other fields such as economic
entomology, medical entomology, etc.. My inquiry to Taxacom yielded a
handful of references for areas of entomology other than systematics but
only a single additional reference for a systematics paper using GIS
technology. GIS software with its capability of producing maps and of
assisting with biogeographic analyses would seem to be an interesting and
useful tool for systematists. But it doesn't seem to be receiving much use
by systematic entomologists as compared to entomologists in other fields.
Actually there still is a considerable number of references to be entered
into the database -- however none of them are in the field of systematics.
        Over the last quarter of the century I've received a modest number
-- but sufficient for my needs -- of NSF research grants in systematics. I
learned to try and avoid mentioning new techniques in grant proposals. Such
mention inevitably lead to declines and reviewers complaining that I was
trying to do things that hadn't been done before. -- Actually I thought that
was part of what scientists did!  I learned to write grant proposals that
mentioned interesting things I did only under previous proposals. The
reviewers would then write comments stating what interesting work I had
done. In other words it has been difficult to obtain funding for proposals
that incorporated new technology unless I avoided mentioning such
technology, but I have gotten funds for proposals that were kept bland
without mention of interesting new technologies. Once I showed that such
technology worked, I could then propose to use it again. 
        I think that systematists need to start asking how we can do things
rather than telling ourselves that we can't. How can we modernize things to
more efficiently to our work? Are we needlessly spending precious resources
to produce printed publications instead of electronic ones? Should we be
investigating and pushing for an international archive for electronic
publications similar somewhat to GenBank? Certainly we could save a lot of
funds by producing monographs electronically rather than by paper. Why don't
we get funds for putting onto the intenet old original descriptions that are
not covered by copyright and that are scarce in libraries? 
        An example -- I found myself in the situation where I had several
thousand dollars available from my museum for a conventional printed
publication of a monograph of a group of insects. However, I didn't have
funds for necessary SEM work and for various other things necessary before
publication. And I lacked funds for a new computer needed for other studies.

        After much thought I decided to publish electronically. Taxonomic
names will be validated by publication through CDs and through simultaneous
distribution of CDs as per the international code. PDF files containing the
monograph will be on the CDs also be posted on the Internet. With the
electronic publication (both by CDs and Internet)  I will be able to include
items that were prohibitively expensive for paper publication. For example,
there will be color illustrations of habitats. The electronic publication is
saving enough funds to provide me with a new computer, funds for necessary
SEM work, and funds for other needed things. The PDF files on the CDs and
also those posted on the Internet will provide a publication that is
"fixed". That is a publication that will not be edited over time by me or
others. However, on the Internet it will be easy to establish an Appendix
section that will allow for the addition of new information, with such new
information kept separate from the original monograph. I can also if desired
put in the dynamic appendix revised versions of the monograph, with such
versions kept separate from the original monograph. People will be able to
print out the original monograph and also print materials from the Appendix.
I'm happily using the new computer purchased with former funds for printed
publication--2000mz, 100 gig hard drive, 512 megs RAM. Should be state of
the art computer for at least a week.
        During the literature searches for my review article on GIS
technology I caught a glimpse of how the future could work. For some papers
I found that it was possible to go directly to an Internet site that had the
complete article. I could read the article on screen or print it out as
desired. No time lost going to the library and searching for the paper. No
time lost filling out interlibrary loan forms and waiting and waiting for
the interlibrary loan to finally show up. No money spent paying for
prohibitively expensive page charges or for outrageous fees charged to
people wanting to view the articles online or to receive reprints. Our
future systematics papers could be "only a click away."
        I suggest that systematists should be looking for strategies that
will make electronic publications the preferred choice. Preferred because
they are cheaper, easier to access over the Internet and readily available
throughout the world, and they can contain extensive materials that cost too
much to publish by printed means. We need to work out archival mechanisms.
If DNA sequences can be databased and archived, then certainly the same is
true of electronic publications in systematics. I suspect that archiving
electronic pubs will be cheaper than archiving paper ones--but have no
comparative costs in this regards. Archives can be moved onto new media as
such media are invented, moving from CD's to the next cheap media, and then
to the next. I have some CP/M era files that are still worthwhile to keep
because they contain the text of previous printed publications.
        Well, it was easy for me to say all of the above. But I know that
implementing is not as easy as saying. I think a major hurdle for
systematists to surmount is the fact that we do not have a single national
organization that speaks for us. Instead we have entomological
organizations, mammalogy organizations, herpetology organizations, etc.
        We also need to look seriously and deeply at the rationale that we
provide to justify the way in which we handle scientific names. We claim
that what we're after it is stability. Yet to someone working in another
field the names always seem to be changing. I've lost track of the number of
times entomologists in other disciplines have complained to me about the
fact that scientific names keep changing. I understand why the change occur
due to improved knowledge of species, transfer of species from one genus to
another, combining of formerly separate species, etc. But I don't think we
are providing the stable nomenclature that is desired by people in
disciplines other than systematics. Is there a better way of naming
organisms? I'm not sure. But we should be thinking about the issue along
with the issue of electronic publication.
Gerald R. Noonan Ph.D., Curator of Insects, Milwaukee Public Museum, e-mail:
carabid at, office telephone: (414) 278-2762,
fax: (414) 278-6100, WWW homepage: 

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