Response from NATURE
deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Thu Jun 13 17:53:47 CDT 2002
It was suggested to me last week that the editors at NATURE ought to be made
aware of the discussion that took place on Taxacom relevant to their planned
new policy on taxon names. I sent them a note pointing them to the archives,
and yesterday I received the following response. I thought it might be of
interest to subscribers of this list, so at the suggestion of its author
(Dr. Henry Gee), I am herewith forwarding.
Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
"The opinions expressed are those of the sender, and not necessarily those
of Bishop Museum."
From: Gee, Henry [mailto:H.Gee at nature.com]
Sent: Wednesday, June 12, 2002 10:41 PM
Thank you very much for alerting us to the discussion "NATURE to save
taxonomy!" that has appeared on TAXACOM. For your information, here is how
the NATURE initiative came to be. You may share this with subscribers to
TAXACOM but only on the strict understanding that this information is
offered strictly on an informal and personal basis. It does not in itself
constitute any formal statement about NATURE's policy, nor should any such
be implied. It is simply a personal account of how and why the new
initiative between the Linnean and Nature came about.
I am the editor at NATURE responsible for handling manuscripts in those
areas of evolutionary biology that encompass systematics and taxonomy. I am
also a palaeontologist and a longtime Fellow of the Linnean Society, on
whose Council I now serve. Several recent events have made it clear to me,
as well as to the Council of the Linnean, and to Nature, that taxonomy is in
a poor state; that the status of taxonomy among scientists is low; and that
at least some of taxonomy's problems may be self-inflicted and could relate
to the way that taxonomic information is published.
In the UK, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has
published a report drawing attention to the state of taxonomy in the UK.
This is the second report in a decade -- the government made sympathetic
noises about the first one (from the late Lord Dainton) but little or no
money was forthcoming. In the latest report, their Lordships call
specifically on the Systematics Association and the Linnean to be proactive
in improving the status of taxonomy.
Some users of taxonomy have been frustrated by the difficulty of accessing
taxonomic information. We at NATURE were made aware of this by an article we
published from Charles Godfray (see Nature vol 417, pp17-19, 2002) who
called for some kind of centralized, web-based access. Professor Godfray had
expressed similar statements elsewhere and they had come to the notice of
the House of Lords Committee.
Experience at the Linnean has suggested that when complaints about the
peculiarities of taxonomy are raised from users outside the profession, the
response from within is to complain about "outsiders" rather than consider
that the users might in fact have raised legitimate points about access to
taxonomic information. However, it seems clear that uninformed outsiders
need information from informed experts if taxonomy is to serve any useful
purpose: if a retailer refused to supply customers with what they wanted,
the retailer would go out of business. One reason that taxonomy could be in
a bad way might therefore be a failure by taxonomists to understand matters
of supply and demand. Users require a service which they feel taxonomists
are not always particularly good at supplying.
These considerations led to the Nature/Linnean proposal that has been
discussed on TAXACOM. The initiative has the full support of the Linnean and
Nature. Here I shall answer some of the very good points raised on TAXACOM.
Some of these (though not all) were discussed by Nature editords and the
Council of the Linnean before the iniative was put in place. I suppose this
could serve as a FAQ list and I have presented it as such.
Q: Why is Nature doing this, when the Zoological Record and the Index
Kewensis already exist?
A: The IK and the ZR have no profile outside taxonomy, and among scientists
generally. They are explicitly publications for taxonomists and are less
accessible to users.
Q: Why is Nature doing this given that it publishes next to zero new
A: Nature is under no illusions about its status as a publisher of
nomenclature per se. The number of papers Nature publishes that contain
taxonomic information is small, and in the past 15 years or so, any
species-level descriptions and diagnoses published by Nature have concerned
extinct organisms only. However, we felt that we had to start somewhere, and
to send a signal to the community that some kind of high-profile centralized
initiative was urgently needed, without having to embark on a process of
consultation that would be time-consuming and possibly inconclusive.
Q: Why is Nature's decision unilateral? Why didn't Nature solicit the view
of other journals?
A: On the principle that he who travels furthest travels alone, we decided
to adopt this scheme unilaterally on the grounds that if other journals
might choose to follow this move, then that would also be their wish,
according to their needs. If they do, we would applaud them -- if they
don't, well, that's none of our concern, and at least we could say that we
tried to change things. Again, the fact that Nature publishes so little
taxonomy means that the initiative can be started with very littlecost. If
the scheme snowballs and other journals join, we'd have to think again. But
we -- Nature and the Linnean -- felt that to worry about this before the
scheme had been set up would run the risk of never doing anything at all.
Q: Why has Nature given so little thought to the implementation?
A: Again, we wanted to establish the principle before worrying about the
details. Now that our policy has been made public, I am due to meet with the
Library Committee of the Linnean to discuss implementation. It is
anticipated that access to all materials submitted under this scheme will be
free, and possibly electronic.
Q: Why ask for preprints, rather than reprints, when substantive information
could change before publication?
A: This would never happen. The opinion piece makes clear that papers should
be submitted only after they had been accepted in principle. That means that
Nature has made a commitment to publishing it, and papers in this form are
in their final state but for final editorial polishing and the supply of
final artwork and so on. All the substantive information -- and this would
mean species diagnoses and descriptions -- would have been finalized and
peer-reviewed by this stage. In any case, material wouldn't actually be
available until after publication, so the move is simply one of
Q: Why oblige the author to submit data to the Linnean, rather than making
this a duty of the editor?
A: It is currently the practice of Nature and many other journals that
authors (not the editors) of papers containing gene sequence information
submit the information to Genbank or EMBL, and that this is should be a
condition of publication. They are required to send us the accession numbers
and we print them. In the same way, authors of papers containing new
taxonomy will be obliged to declare in print that a preprint has been sent
to the Linnean. The onus is on authors to do this. We are editors, not
policemen, and the business of science publication is largely a matter of
In sum, it is good to see that the issue has caused a stir among
Dr Henry Gee
Senior Editor, Nature
h.gee at nature.com
'But Dr Gee believes he may end up holding his place as the oldest human
ancestor' -- Daily Mail, 22 September 1994
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