NATURE to save taxonomy!

Jim Whitfield jwhitfie at LIFE.UIUC.EDU
Thu Jun 6 13:07:02 CDT 2002

        I must agree for the most part with what Donat just said.
While I think the designation of the Linnaean Society as repository
might not be the best solution (it would be interesting to know how
THEY plan to handle this, since universal ACCESS, as Bill Shear
points out, is needed), some kind of central repository of
information similar to GenBank is probably inevitable (and highly
desirable). In my opinion we as taxonomists need to recognize that
the end-users of our information  are as much the reason for our
scientific existence as our own curiosities and academic or other
institutional reward systems.   Each time one of us does a revision,
we have to sort through often months of literature searches,
interlibrary loans, differential application of nomenclatural rules
over time, etc.  Unless we develop some kind of general-access
database of current information, we are basically condemning all
end-users to either going though the same process (good luck for a
non-taxonomist!), or going through us to get the information.  Given
the number of active taxonomists working today, we could better use
our time actually adding to the information base, rather than
rescuing information from a dispersed information retrieval system.
        Bill Shear's comments are well taken about how science works,
and about how effective the web is for integrating people worldwide.
Scientific research NEEDS to work in a massively parallel way, with
free access among the disparate scientists.  Taxonomists can and
should also do this with our research (even the descriptive)
publications.  But the NAMES and REFERENCES and DEPOSITORIES
associated with our work NEED to be deposited in a central,
universally accessible database.  To make an analogy with GenBank,
molecular systematists don't put all their publications in the same
journal, nor do they put the trees they infer in a universal source
(although this is the desirable goal of Tree BASE).  They DO,
however, put their primary data into sequence databases, so that it
contributes in a cumulative and easily usable universal way to our
knowledge.  I think we can do the same with proposed names.   I am
not sure we need (or want) the "administrators" of such a database to
make so  many value judgements as Barry Roth fears (I must admit to
having those same data-control fears myself).   I would feel that a
HUGE advance would have been made if we even got all legitmately
proposed names anywhere in the world, and their source publications
and voucher locations, anywhere in the world, organized into an
easily accessible central database, even if we could not be sure
which names will be recognized and used by which taxonomists.  The
last problem is not fundamentally a database problem, but it is one
we will probably always have to deal with.  One could even then have
alternative synonymies, classifications, etc, also available, but
these are interpretations of the primary NAME information, which it
seems to me can be very basic and relatively non-controversial to
        I'll be interested of course in other viewpoints!
                                                        Cheers, Jim

James B. Whitfield
Associate Professor
Entomology, 320 Morrill Hall
505 S. Goodwin Ave
University of Illinois
Urbana, IL 61801
tel. (217)333-2567 (office)
(217) 265-8123 (lab)
FAX (217) 244-3499
email jwhitfie at
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