[Taxacom] Privacy laws and Science [SEC=UNCLASSIFIED]

Orchard, Tony Tony.Orchard at deh.gov.au
Sun Jun 18 19:24:58 CDT 2006

Why does the "taxonomic concept" have to be someone else's?  When I put
a determination on a specimen I am saying that the concept is *mine*, as
on that day.  It may be more or less the same as someone else's but not
exactly.  I have seen a different suite of specimens, I have different
field experience, I have different views on what constitutes a species,
subspecies, variety etc.  Whether you agree with my concept is a
judgement call on your part.  Some will, some won't.  Some will think I
am at the beginning of my career, some will think I am at the peak, and
some will undoubtedly think I am well past my peak, to use Jim's
example.  To descibe my concept on that day would require a summary of
all that I know about the group, all I have read about the group, all
the other specimens I have ever seen, and whether I was feeling
inclusive (ie a lumper) or exclusive (ie a splitter) on that particular
day.  And by the next day, having slept on the problem overnight, I may
have a different concept.  To suggest that the concept can be
encapsulated by a single reference is to be simplistic.

To insist that every determination has to be referenced back to someone
else's work perpetuates the sadly all too common myth, that everything
worth doing in taxonomy has already been done, that absolute truth
already exists, and all that is needed is for taxonomists to reveal this
truth that they have hidden away for their own secret rituals. No amount
of application of thumb screws in the dungeons of some database are
going to give access to this vast hidden revelation.  It doesn't exist.

It just doesn't work like that.  Vast numbers of taxa have not yet been
described, and many of those that have been described have been
inadequately described.  Many of the names being used are being used
wrongly.  Every determination is a statement of opinion and (hopefully)
an improvement on what we had before.  An opinion (by definition, I
think) is a statement of what one person thinks based on their life
experience, an amalgam of things they have heard, things they have read,
things that they have done and their prejudices.

Every determination is a small act towards developing greater
understanding of taxa.  Like it or not, taxonomic knowledge, like other
scientific knowledge is developing and expanding, every day.  To
suggest, as I have heard on several occasions, that "Taxonomists are too
slow.  Linnaeus died 200 years ago.  You must have finished by now.", is
absurd.  No one is asking why physics or chemistry isn't finished by

If you want to put a rating on determinations, fine.  Say, in effect,
that Fred's determinations only rate a C+.  But then you must do the
same to all other kinds of taxonomic outputs.  You will need to rate
Susan's monograph as only D-.  And the Flora of Lesser Utopia as beneath
contempt.  Who is going to do this?  Not me.  I have real opinions to
develop and real taxa to describe.  And I don't claim to understand the
abilities, background and knowledge of everyone out there who might feel
inclined to supply a determination on a specimen.


-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Jim Croft
Sent: Monday, 19 June 2006 9:01 AM
To: 'Karen Wilson'; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Privacy laws and Science [SEC=UNCLASSIFIED]

Karen et al.

I fully agree with these sentiments, but they really do not go far
enough to give real 'clout' to a determintaion and its use in scientific
biodiversity information management.

Without a statement of who did it, a name on a specimen is little better
than a general unfounded indication as to where to look next.

Once you have the name of the identifier you are in a position to
evaluate if it was a stab in the dark by a mere mortal, the considered
opinion of the world expert, or something in between.

The next most important thing is the date.  It is probably a reasonable
assumpion that early career identifications are less reliable or
authoritative than those made at the peak of career.  Although in many
cases it could be argued there is probably a significant body of
evidence to generate some debate on this assertion...  :)

The next most important item (and probably *the* most important item),
and hardly anyone ever does it, is an explicit statement of the the
taxonomic concept used in this act of identification.  It could be as
simple as the reference that contained the key the identifier was using,
or even the treatment they had in mind when they nonchalantly threw a
name at the specimen - anything, anything at all that will nail down how
wide, how narrow, how general or how specific the identifier thought on
that day the taxonomic concept was.

Without an enterprise wide shift in the practice of documenting
identifications, we are left with best guess, suppostion, implication
and inference as to what the identifier had in mind when they applied a
Current practice has served taxonomy well (or at least we all believe it
has) for centuries, but we should be able to do better as we seek to
document and improve the standards of out discipline.

Without an explicit statement of taxonomic concepts as part of the
determination gualifier standards, noble enterprises like the
Australia's Virtual Herbarium and the Global Biodiversity Information
Facility and the rest of the biodiversity alphabet soup will remain
conceptually little better than a  general scientific hint of the


-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Karen Wilson
Sent: Sunday, 18 June 2006 12:32 PM
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Privacy laws and Science

I also agree with Mary and Chris. The name of the person doing the
identification is the most useful information to give (knowledgeable)

A second useful piece of information to give users is the date of
identification. The date will indicate (again, to knowledgeable users)
whether, for example, the determination was made before or after that
person published a revision of the group concerned.
I say 'knowledgeable users' because they are the only group who will be
able to fully appreciate such information.
The general user will probably be happier with something like Arthur's
suggested A, B, etc., rating scheme.

The same principles apply when dealing with species information rather
than specimens. Thus, for each contributed species record in the
Catalogue of Life, Species 2000 and ITIS cite just the person's name
(where provided by the source database - not always provided) and the
date in the field 'Latest Taxonomic Scrutiny'. We considered a rating
scheme but decided that is invidious because it depends on someone
making an assessment of how to rank the abilities/knowledge of someone
else. This way, we leave it to the user to assess the authoritativeness
of the record for themselves.

General users will not be comfortable assessing this kind of information
but, as I say, there is a problem with implementing a rating scheme. Who
is willing to be a judge of whether the person identifying a specimen is
a global expert or a regional expert or a knowledgeable collector or
An invidious task, indeed!

Karen W.

-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Mary Barkworth
Sent: Saturday, 17 June 2006 6:22 AM
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Privacy laws and Science

I wholeheartedly endorse Christian Thompson's statement about knowing
who identified the specimen - and not some "authorityy level".  Indeed,
I have gone further and pointed out to some people that if they annotate
our specimens the benefits of their work are rapdily shared with others
because we post our data to GBIF on a regular basis.  Having said which,
I must check to see why the name of the person annotating the specimen
is not available on the records that I just checked.


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