NATURE to save taxonomy!

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Sun Jun 9 08:27:14 CDT 2002

I just finished going through this very interesting thread, and I'm glad to
see that it has generated so much good discussion.  As I've made my
perspectives on this and similar topics known on this list in previous
discussions, I won't delve into them here, except to say that my views are
probably best represented by Doug Yanega's contributions to this thread.

However, I would like to draw attention to the aspect of Nature's
announcement that caught my attention the most, seems to me the most
ill-conceived aspect of their plan, and about which nobody seems to have
commented yet.  Following Chirstian Thompson's original quote from the blurb
in Nature:

> So starting 1 August 2002 Nature will require "the authors of any paper
> containing the formal nomenclature and description of species ... shall be
> required to send a preprint to the Linnean Society of London ..."

The two words that perplex me the most are "preprint", and "authors". Based
on my understanding of a "preprint", its value to the field of taxonomy
represents something nearly indistinguishable from zero (to paraphrase one
of my favorite Dawkins' quotes).  The thought of sending a PREprint of a
taxonomic work -- particularly an original description -- to some sort of
taxonomic information repository seems not only misguided, but potentially
dangerous.  Given that an original description amounts to little more in
taxonomy than ink on paper until it has been published according to IC_N
requirements, the plan to deposit such preprints at a centralized registry
opens the possibility for taxonomic confusion on those (rare?) occasions
when the final published version differs from the presumably "draft"
preprint version (or worse yet, when the preprint never ends up getting
published at all).  This comes back to the issue discussed earlier that an
original description is the precise facsimile of what is actually published
(as opposed to, e.g., the word processor file that the author(s) submitted
to the journal, or a straight ASCII translation of the description without
accompanying image-scan of the published text).

This leads me to the second word of concern:  "authors".  Given that the
meaningful entity is the *published* article (i.e., REprint, instead of
PREprint), then why does Nature put the burden of submission on the
shoulders of the authors?  Wouldn't it be a LOT cleaner, easier, better,
more reliable for Nature to have stepped up to the plate themselves and
announced that *they* would send a REprint of all descriptions to some
repository? (I would have suggested BIOSIS, but the Linnaean Society is
reasonable.)  Imagine how much more powerful Nature's new policy would have
been if it had come out with a plea to all journals to follow suit and get
serious about cataloging and organizing the original descriptions that they
publish.  As to whether to send the reprints to the Linnaean Society, or
BIOSIS, or Species2000 or ITIS, or whomever...that could possibly be left
unspecified.  Maybe there could be a list of different specific
repositories, all of whom have agreed to cooperate with each other and
exchange the submissions they receive among themselves, such that sending a
reprint to any one of them is functionally equivalent to sending it to all
of them.

I'll be interested to see the letters to Nature that come in response to
this announcement.


Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at
"The opinions expressed are those of the sender, and not necessarily those
of Bishop Museum."

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