NATURE to save taxonomy!

Donat Agosti agosti at AMNH.ORG
Thu Jun 6 19:03:06 CDT 2002

In my humble view, the approach by Nature is one of the best things that
could have happened to our field. It is a signal from the publisher side -
based on an in- and oversight - that taxonomy is a dead science, unless we
open our huge important knowledge to potential users. Now, we should
convince our hundreds of publishers, that they accept a similar mode, that
is, that they can market our publications, but we retain the right to use
our publications for research and other not for profit uses.

I don't think, taxonomy "has evolved (evolution is a tinkerer!) to meet
emerging needs", indeed - I think, just the opposite. Ten years after the
Rio Summit and even more after the declaration of the biodiversity crisis,
species have almost disappeared from the agenda and being replaced by such
unquantifiable concepts as hotspots, more and more specialists are retiring
and not being replaced, and a new North-South information divide has been
constructed with horrendously expensive e-versions of our papers, in many
cases run by commercial publishers.
This is not only unfortunate and against the spirit of the Convention on
Biological Diversity, but disallows emerging new institutions (e.g. GBIF or
ALL) to link all the descriptions of species, which clearly are part of our
cultural and natural heritage, to provide the much needed access to our
data. This especially in a time, where IT is much ahead of us, and thus
offers many new options to provide access to data not possible ever.

Who cares, whether the Linnaean Society will be the sole repository of
descriptions, as long as they are put into the public domain and deposited
at a stable locality - similar to the deposition of types.

Every systematists goal should be, that as many people read and even better
make use of their revision. In this regard, the action by Nature is great,
especially, if they allow to format the publications and descriptions in a
way, so that applications can be developed to retrieve information in
various ingenious ways.

Donat Agosti
Research Associate, American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian

----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Shear" <wshear at hams-hsc.HSC.EDU>
Sent: Thursday, June 06, 2002 5:07 PM
Subject: Re: NATURE to save taxonomy!

> I really like NATURE for its sincere attempt to balance its coverage of
> sciences, including systematics and paleontology, and for its sly sense of
> humor, reflected in the titles of its news articles and columns.  I like
> better than the morbidly serious and self-important SCIENCE.
> HOWEVER--this step is misguided, as it sets up yet another "registration"
> authority which has no formal power to register names or the resources (as
> does Zoological Record, for example) to publish lists of such names.  It's
> just a peculiar requirement of one single, albeit very important, journal.
> The Linnean Society gets a preprint.  Big deal.
> And, let's face it, how many new names are actually published every year
> NATURE?  Six? Twenty? A dozen?  So the impact of this action is really
> small in practical terms.  Probably its most important meaning is that one
> of the two premier general journals of the sciences is signalling that it
> thinks something is wrong with the way taxonomy operates.
> Somehow I find this unconvincing.  "Great fragmentation" could be seen as
> happening in any area of scientific publishing, where journals run the
> from the highly specialized to those dedicated to all of (for example)
> biology, and on to those that, like NATURE, publish articles on all
> of science.  So what if descriptions of spider species appear in Novitates
> of the American Museum of Natural History, as well as the Journal of
> Arachnology?  Those journals and others, even the most obscure, are freely
> available via interlibrary loan or by electronic means, and such
> are daily proliferating and becoming more and more effective.  In fact,
> Balkanization of publishing in any science creates no problems so long as
> what is published is readily available.   Isn't this the message of the
> Despite a few strident voices, I think the vast majority of practicing
> taxonomists are pretty well satisfied with how the system presently works.
> Like organisms themselves, it has evolved (evolution is a tinkerer!) to
> emerging needs, and so far the equilibrium of that evolution has not been
> punctuated.
> If we are to make a sudden and great departure from the way we work now,
> like the Phylocode or some centralized system of names registration, it
> seems to me that it is up to the proponents of such change to make an
> overwhelming case that the problems are very serious indeed, and that the
> remedies they want are the ones we need.
> So far, I don't see it, and neither, I believe, do most of my colleagues.
> So, while this action by NATURE adds another voice to the debate, it will
> probably have very little long-term effect.
> Bill Shear
> Department of Biology
> Hampden-Sydney College
> Hampden-Sydney VA 23943
> (434)223-6172
> FAX (434)223-6374
> email<wshear at>
> Moderating e-lists:
> Coleus at
> Opiliones at
> Myriapod at
> MilliPEET website at
> ml
> SHAPE OF LIFE website at
> "The old naturalists were so sensitive and sympathetic to nature that they
> could be surprised by the ordinary events of life.  It was an incessant
> miracle to them, and therefore gorgons and flying dragons were not
> incredible to them.  The greatests and saddest defect is not credulity,
> our habitual forgetfulness that our science is ignorance."
> Henry David Thoreau, Journals, March 5, 1860.

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