Response from NATURE

B.J.Tindall bti at DSMZ.DE
Fri Jun 14 08:11:46 CDT 2002

Oh dear this is what I thought. Much of what has been written in Nature and
on the list highlights the "problems" in "taxonomy". Most comments however
refer to initiatives, or the lack of them in botany and zoology. MOST of
what has been discussed is already implemented in bacteriology - we have
central registration, we have two websites giving all new names and
combinations, with references, all new types are clearly defined and it is
a requirement that type material of species be deposited in appropriate
collections (also listed)...... sequences are also deposited and have been
for at least the alst 10 years. Most major microbial culture collections
are present on the Internet and also publish their catalogues online. Most
journals publishing taxonomic work in bacteriology also produce either PDF
of HTML files. All this is on the Internet, all this has been in place for
20 years. It would seem to me that it is not a case of the information and
data not being there, but those involved in compiling such reports do not
seem to have done their homework properly......... All this was done with
minimal funding (if at all) and continues to be done without major funding.
The sad fact is that understanding systematics is becoming increasingly
important in the interpretation of the molecular-genetic data - get your
taxonomy wrong and you are also in danger of getting your interpretation
wrong. It is a bit like walking into a chemistry lab and doing experiments
without knowing the periodic table and its relevance to the way the various
elements behave and then wondering why helium extinguishes a flame while
hydrogen blows your head off!!

At 17:53 13.6.2002 -1000, Richard Pyle wrote:
>Greetings Taxacomers....
>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
>"The opinions expressed are those of the sender, and not necessarily those
>of Bishop Museum."
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Gee, Henry [mailto:H.Gee at]
>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
>administrative convenience.
>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
>Yours sincerely,
>Dr Henry Gee
>Senior Editor
>Henry Gee
>Senior Editor, Nature
>h.gee at
>'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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