Ah, irony (was: Unknown fruit & other plants...)

jason at jason at
Sun Jan 19 10:35:41 CST 2003

A recurring theme in some of the e-mails seems to be that many taxonomists,
being public workers, cannot charge for their services. However, there are
many professions (medicine, law, architecture) in which there are public
employees (for “free”) and private enterprise (for profit). Hence this does
does not apply to the argument against charging. (having mentioned the p
word I have most likely condemned my soul).

As for supply, it is already below demand. The supply isn’t, of course, the
information per se. This is freely available to “anybody” who has access to
a very good natural history library. Hence the information is not
“proprietary”! It is already available, albeit in a usually indigestible
form. The supply is the taxonomist, whose job is managing this information
and makes it useful to others. And as other information managers (=
consultants) you can charge for your services. If the person asking is a
friend, colleague or a kid who has just found a large bug (yes, I am an
entomologist) you can waver the cost… or you could introduce a two tier
system. The point is that charging is possible and that claims that charging
for it is morally wrong, groundless (it is easier to make a case for
medicine to be free than taxonomy… which by the way, isn’t).

Some have argued that few people are willing to pay for an I.D. That may be
so, in which case we have to advertise our profession more. On the other
hand when stuff is free (air, water, taxonomic services) we tend to think of
it as “unimportant”. Maybe putting a value on our services would help people
understand the cost of taxonomy. It is unlikely that this will deter
potential customers. As has been pointed out, charging for I.D. services is
commonplace now in museums and there are small consultancy firms appearing.
So there is willingness for at least a proportion of the public to pay for
our services. These “customers” are not so much interested in the nametag,
but in the information associated with it (is it a pest, if so how bad,
control, phenology, etc.: information management). Hence there are
possibilities beyond the “it’s a something or other… that will be 25$”.

In the end I also got into the field for the enjoyment I get, and I’ll do it
regardless of the circumstances. However, doing it for free fosters the
image of taxonomists as people who never grew up and who have nothing
important to offer society; hardly the image we want to foster.



Department of Entomology
The Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD
j.mate at nhm.ac.uk
0207 938 5016

jfmate at hotmail.com

>From: Doug Yanega <dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU>
>Reply-To: Doug Yanega <dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU>
>Subject: [TAXACOM] Ah, irony (was: Unknown fruit & other plants...)
>Date: Fri, 17 Jan 2003 11:00:29 -0800
>Maybe I'm in a funny headache-induced mood today, but when Börge wrote:
>>This remarkable possibility to benefit from global knowledge is
>>surely one of the strongest sides of the TAXACOM list.
>It struck me again with a mixture of pride and sadness that this sort
>of thing - our collective ability to recognize the living things on
>the planet, combined with our willingness, even *eagerness*, to share
>that information - is not only our great strength, but our proverbial
>Achilles' Heel. If we were lawyers looking up esoteric legal
>precedents, or doctors rendering diagnoses of exotic ailments, we'd
>be charging several hundred dollars for the sort of specialized
>information retrieval that folks here gave Börge for free. Sure,
>we're colleagues, and even doctors might share knowledge among
>colleagues without assessing fees, but taxonomists (with an admitted
>few exceptions) perform such services routinely for people who are
>NOT colleagues. I know this has come up here before, and is not a new
>concept for nearly all of us on this list, but the impression that
>society marginalizes us and our profession is a strong one, and I'm
>not alone in thinking that a fair part of that lack of respect stems
>from the apparent lack of "value" (in the commercial sense) of what
>we do; by refusing to treat our knowledge as proprietary, we imply it
>has no real value, that it comes cheaply. Even within our own
>community this is evident, in the way that there are still studies
>proposed, funded, and published which rely upon taxonomic information
>and yet have nothing in their budget to compensate the taxonomists
>called upon to assist - or may not even involve taxonomists at all
>(especially evident in many of the works which use "morphospecies" as
>the foundation of the study).
>Among the recurring ideas this train of thought leads me to is one
>I've raised here before, and I'm prompted to do so again, though
>maybe I can lead into it via a pair of questions: (1) Is there any
>particular reason - some hurdle that cannot be overcome - that makes
>it impossible for the taxonomic community to form its own
>professional association, akin to those of doctors and lawyers? (2)
>Would it not be to our long-term benefit if we did so, and
>accordingly took the unified stance that our knowledge *is*
>proprietary, and we merited compensation for making that specialized
>expertise available?
>Yes, I realize that question #2 implies adopting a mercenary attitude
>contradictory to that spirit of sharing Börge was applauding, and
>even I who pose the question would be very uncomfortable with this
>(some of you here may know that I'm actively involved in *several*
>on-line resources that involve making frequent insect
>identifications, purely voluntarily), yet I can't help but wonder if
>something along these lines may not ultimately be useful or even
>necessary. However, I don't rule out the possibility that the dilemma
>could be resolved by finding philanthropic support for our efforts
>(in fact, I see it as one of our best hopes), but if you think about
>this, it's immediately evident that there does not now exist any
>single agency or association to which such philanthropic support
>could be *directed* in any meaningful manner, in terms of channeling
>this support exclusively to taxonomy. People who want to donate money
>for conservation (to *preserve* life on this planet) have SEVERAL
>non-profit agencies to turn to, but there is no such agency to which
>people can donate in order to *document* life on this planet! In
>essence, then, I see question #2 as representing what we might need
>as a "bargaining chip" - making a public statement that we can no
>longer afford to give out our services for free, so the public and
>private sectors need to ante up if they want our continued help -
>while question #1 addresses creating a unified front, a single
>interface between our community and the user community (a potential
>base of support that is largely untapped).
>In other words, then, couldn't we some day form a (potentially
>non-profit) international society of taxonomists, in order to
>directly and visibly promote our profession? Are there steps we could
>or should take to bring it about? Or am I the only one who imagines
>this would be a good thing?
>Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
>Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
>phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
>            http://entmuseum9.ucr.edu/staff/yanega.html
>   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
>         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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