NATURE to save taxonomy!

Eric Dunbar erdunbar at MAC.COM
Fri Jun 7 12:05:12 CDT 2002

> I, personally, believe that such odd behavior, which happens in one out of
> ten thousand cases, is a price well worth paying for the freedom to publish
> legitimate scientific names without the interference of an outside
> authority, which could make arbitrary decisions about which names would be
> considered valid and which would not.  No, I don't find it satisfactory, and
> ultimately neither would the authors of such names--instead of
> self-aggrandisement (of a peculiarly trivial sort) they would more likely
> achieve lasting infamy among those very people they hoped to impress.

I don't think the desire exists to have a body/registry that decides which
names are valid or not (at least I don't... though, as an end-user of
taxonomies I would prefer them to be as accurate as possible). Biologists
(e.g. ecologists, biogeographers, molecular biologists, geneticists, plant
breeders, etc.) need a centralised location (nowadays on the web) devoted to
taxonomies in which they can find taxonomic information, or at the very
least, relevant references.

Once the initial references are found then the individual researcher can
make their own assessment of validity, or find other people's assessments

In my [limited -- I'm only 27 and not active in taxonomy] experience only
the larger institutions carry the taxonomic journals, and even then, it's a
hit-and-miss proposition so access to journals is an issue.

The wild frontier of taxonomy may be an appealing romantic notion, but it is
not of particular use to anyone but those who seek to colonise it if it
means an inaccessible literature. Ecology can afford to be a discombobulated
mess because it is both perceived, and is a widely divergent group of people
who create *very* different types of information. In contrast, taxonomy is
so elegantly simple that it lends itself to centralised repositories, which
(a) facilitate information distribution to taxonomists and non-taxonomists
alike, and (b) improve the exposure of taxonomy to the general public and to
the general biological public (which, probably also means more funding $$$
or Euros).

I can only speculate as to why there is such a great reluctance to easy
access to information.

With my cynical world view I have come to the conclusion that a sizeable
minority of academics (taxonomists included, I'm sure) are comfortable with
their role as keepers of the gate, and either for reasons of personal
aggrandizement, or for fear of losing control (I repeat, pure cynical
speculation) might prefer to have a dysfunctional information distribution
system. There's also the possibility that people didn't understand the
potential of the technology (a lot has changed since 1999) but I'm not
comfortable with that view. Academics tend to have some brains to them and
are capable of learning, so there should be no fear of the unexplored...
Then again, the "establishment" has always been composed of a well educated
and intelligent group so I guess that proves nothing ;) [I'm sure Samuel
Clemens wrote some pithy remark about "the establishment"].

Anyway, I've procrastinated enough for the day. Time for some research.

Eric Dunbar.

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