NATURE to save taxonomy!

Bill Shear wshear at EMAIL.HSC.EDU
Fri Jun 7 12:13:44 CDT 2002

On 6/7/02 11:52 AM, "John R. Grehan" <jrg13 at PSU.EDU> wrote:
> I find myself in complete agreement with the above sentiments. As a
> biogeographer I am continually frustrated by the time and effort required
> to scan current literature to find useful taxonomic and systematic works
> for biogeographic analysis. There has to be a lot of good stuff out there,
> but finding it is another matter. Even with electronic searches its a bit
> hit and miss. Ironically I have sometimes been able to find information on
> sources in the web more effectively than something like Biosis (Biological
> Abstracts). Taxonomists who are making the effort to post web pages on
> taxonomic groups should be congratulated. When I was writing the Galapagos
> paper I recall one of the most helpful of such sources was Platnick's world
> coverage of spider taxa and their distributions. Wonderful work! I think
> efforts such as these are currently more useful and effective at least for
> me) than all the fancy 'informatics' one hears about all the time in Nature
> and Science. In the 'old days' I was fortunate to be in a library where
> there was an extremely good coverage of journals and it was possible each
> month to simply scan the pages. Now I am at a typical library that is
> undergoing a policy of continual attrition that cannot be compensated by
> electronic searches. The latter are perfect for the specialist, but not for
> the generalist. It almost seems that in the modern information age' we are
> actually facing a form of information illiteracy.

It seems to me that what John is asking for is not access to original
taxonomic works, such as descriptions of species, genera or families, but
more material like Platnick's catalog, which was compiled by an authority
from the literature on this one group, which he knows so well.  This is a
NEW WORK, not old literature.  Such catalogs can only be compiled by the
specialists within taxa.  Useful as they may be to workers in biogeography
and other fields, catalogs are deadly boring to prepare, as well as being
time-consuming.  We owe a great debt to those who actually do this kind of

While there is limited support for such work (NSF's PEET program encourages
cataloging, especially if it is done electronically), it might be kind of
hard to get a grant just to do a catalog.  From a perusal of NSF grants
recently made, it would appear that the majority of funding in systematics
is going to approaches to microevolutionary problems using molecular
evidence, preferably on vertebrates.

Unfortunately, with the demise of expertise in many groups, the chances that
catalogs will be done in the future are diminishing.

Bill Shear

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