More GBIF questions (was: ITIS)

Doug Yanega dyanega at UCR.EDU
Thu Jun 24 16:13:37 CDT 2004

Tom Lammers wrote:

>At 02:41 PM 6/24/04, Neal Evenhuis wrote:
>>This does not mean we allow taxonomists to dictate the Code (Tom's
>>"wagging the dog" bit above).
>My point was that it should not be modified for ad hoc purposes, for the
>convenience of a single user-group, but rather on the basis of what is best
>for science as a whole.  Modifying the Code to accommodate "informatics"
>types is putting the cart before the horse: the informatics types should
>modify THEIR procedures to bring them in line with what taxonomists do and
>have done for years.

Like insisting that only paper publication of names is viable, and
tolerating non-reviewed publications? Certain traditions are
worthwhile, and others are problematic. The Code-mandated reliance
upon traditional print media is a hindrance to the efficient and
timely compilation and dissemination of taxonomic information. That's
not simply one user group that benefits if the Codes are changed,
it's ALL user groups, AND the taxonomists themselves (i.e., "science
as a whole").

Wouldn't it be useful to everyone if every taxonomic publication in
existence could be found on a single website? Wouldn't it be useful
to taxonomists if they no longer had to worry about things like
turnaround times, or page charges, or additional costs if they want
to use high-resolution, full-color digital images in their works?

That's the kind of thing I had in mind when I suggested the Codes
might need to change to better reflect our times. Opening the door to
digital publication also allows for other significant changes, such
as regarding the following:

Meredith Lane wrote:

>While the means to do this is not yet a reality and it will take some time to
>put it in place, you can bet that such a means will be easier (and
>much faster,
>given the antipathy that taxonomists in general have toward agreeing with one
>another---I will brook no argument here; there is too much empirical evidence
>for this right here on Taxacom) than developing a "consensus taxonomy" across
>the whole of life.  Am I arguing that we should not strive for such a
>consensus? Of course not. It's just that it is much harder to see that
>happening than it is to imagine GBIF's goals achieved through flexible IT
>developments based on accepted standards for data and metadata, and
>mappings to
>ontologies that can grow and evolve.  The only way that information
>systems that
>are truly helpful to science and society will become truly useful is if they
>come to encompass the flexibility, contentiousness, and ability to encompass
>more than one opinion at the same time that our own brains have --
>forcing such
>systems to "consensus" (not to say uniformity) will stifle true progress.
>If we wait for a consensus in taxonomic opinion, biodiversity is going to be
>long gone (we all know this is true: just witness the years and years worth of
>arguments on Taxacom about species concepts that show no sign of reaching a
>conclusion, much less a consensus!), and so that consensus opinion will not
>matter one iota.

I fully understand your objection, but still believe that if the
system is properly constructed, we *can* attain a functional
consensus without any delays (i.e., no "waiting"), and without
stifling progress. Consider a hypothetical example based on the
status quo: taxonomist A, one of only two living experts on a certain
group, publishes a paper in journal X, after it is seen by 3 peer
reviewers and takes 9 months from submission to publication. Two
months later, taxonomist B (who had been explicitly avoided as a peer
reviewer at A's insistence) reads it, disagrees, and after 9 more
months, publishes another paper in journal Y (which he personally
edits, so there's no chance of rejection), and the two papers differ
in several respects of classification. Some people will simply use
whichever is more recent, some people will only see one (by chance)
and use that one by default, some people will read both and choose
one, some people will derive their own hybrid scheme using elements
of both, etc., etc. - but the point is that the vast majority of
users will never interact with other users when making their
decision, nor will they interact with the authors of the papers in
question, nor will the authors interact with one another in a
constructive fashion.

Now consider the type of system I'm proposing: taxonomist A puts up a
draft manuscript onto the global taxonomy website, and every
subscriber in the world who has flagged that as a taxon of interest
is instantly notified (including taxonomist B). Taxonomist B puts up
a rebuttal within a week, with a detailed list of objections, and an
alternative classification. All the other subscribers reading this
exchange can, if they desire, sign on as a reviewer at any point with
questions or criticisms of their own for either taxonomist, and both
A and B can respond directly to the questions and criticisms, even
altering their classifications as they go along, in response (i.e.,
real-time feedback). So, rather than a handful (or zero) reviewers,
and one bout of editing, there can be dozens, even hundreds, and all
without long delays or wasted paper. After a certain period, one or
the other (or both, if neither has capitulated) would be "published"
and officially available for use by the general public - meaning, in
a practical sense, little more than a date stamp on a version the
authors and reviewers agree is final; it might never need be
committed to paper, if proper digital archive protocols are in place,
and the whole thing might not even take a month from start to finish.
So, instead of "Taxonomists who expect the world to await their final
pronouncements", we would have taxonomists who have to appease
anywhere up to hundreds of their critical peers, and possibly work it
out in public with their detractors in an actual coutroom-style
*debate*, evidence and all, and - even more - be able to edit,
update, or completely retract their pronouncements, even after

Under such a system, it seems unlikely that two (or more) opposing
opinions could share the spotlight for long, and one could even have
a vote solely for the purpose (and I stress the word "SOLELY"!) of
deciding which classification should be adopted by the community as
the one to be used in the Consensus Classification. No one is
ultimately prevented from publishing their views (except, of course,
if they cannot muster a single favorable review, which is the way it
works with paper publication), and folks can keep track of
alternative classifications in the master database, but at any given
moment, there would be a single Consensus Classification available to
that large pool of users who do NOT want to worry about
contentiousness or flexibility. While I understand what Richard is
getting at with his "I feel lucky" approach, I still do think that
the user community will - on the whole - *resent* being told that an
element of classification, be it order name, family, or species, is
"ambiguous" or "tentative". If we want public support *for* taxonomy,
I think we need to give the public something that won't leave them
feeling queasy *about* taxonomy. For that matter, with the use of
GUID's, changes in the Consensus can be instantly propagated
throughout the entire dataverse, so no one ever has to rely on
outdated information, nor ever wait for a consensus to emerge; the
consensus opinion on a suggested change or addition would be made
simultaneously with the act of publication.

This is a RADICALLY different view of how the taxonomic community
could operate than the context Meredith is thinking of, I'm certain -
under the status quo, yes, consensus among taxonomists is definitely
a pipedream, but the status quo assumes a fragmented community with
no central meeting place, no one venue where everyone can interact.
Now imagine how differently we could do things if we dump the status
quo and choose instead to be a truly interactive community. This is
*not* a fantasy, and I sincerely hope that you don't see it as such;
it's a *choice*, available if we want it to be.

Put it this way: if you were offered the chance to publish, quickly,
for free, without page limits, without restrictions on graphics,
tables, data matrices, or other ancillary materials, and knew that
every other researcher in your field would be able to review your
work (without fear of plagiarism, or unfair criticism), and that
every reader who needed your work would have instant access to it,
would you *refuse* to publish this way? If so, why? If none of you
can say that you would refuse, then what exactly is keeping us from
implementing such a system?

That's essentially the "brass ring" that Richard says I'm suggesting
we aim for. I don't see what we'd *lose* by attempting it, nor see it
as a fantasy.


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)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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