[Taxacom] revisiting patronym auctions

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Wed Aug 13 19:42:39 CDT 2008

A recent newspaper interview I did, plus something else I just came 
across, prompts me to ask this question directly to the readers of 
this list, to see whether one of my concerns is something others see 

Consider this scenario: a legitimate taxonomist discovers that they 
can auction off new species names for $10-20,000 apiece to supplement 
their research grants. The species are all legitimately new, and the 
work is legitimately published. Most folks would see no problem with 
this, at face value.

Now the question: what if, as is common for many legitimate 
taxonomists, some of the material (maybe even a holotype or two) used 
to describe these new taxa originated at other institutions besides 
the one where that taxonomist worked? Is it still perfectly fine for 
this taxonomist to keep all of the proceeds from the auctions, or do 
those who supplied material have a justifiable claim to a share?

To my mind, I see such a scenario as one that could create tension 
and ill-will between institutions; if institution A has no publishing 
taxonomists on staff, for example (perhaps due to budgetary 
difficulties), and taxonomists from institutions, B,C,D, and E are 
all using specimens from A and auctioning off the names, and giving 
nothing of the proceeds to A, then doesn't it seem likely that A will 
decide that enough is enough, and either (1) insist on a share of the 
proceeds, in a signed agreement, before it makes any more loans, or 
(2) start auctioning off its own names, using the money to fund their 
own in-house taxonomist?

Either of those two decisions would be detrimental to the science and 
practice of taxonomy; the first because the taxonomists at B,C,D and 
E would probably simply opt NOT to borrow material from A any more 
(so their new taxa would be described from a smaller amount of 
material), the second because A would simply stop making any loans, 
so their holdings would no longer be available to the rest of the 

Yes, if patronym auctions are a temporary craze, a "blip", then this 
may amount to nothing - but I don't think this is going to do 
anything but increase in frequency, since it can result in amazing 
windfalls for those institutions that have researchers running this 
sort of operation (one such researcher pointed out that they have 
over 20 new species ready to describe, and people now basically 
lining up to pay for them - and who is going to say no to making an 
extra 200,000 dollars on *top* of the money they've been given by 
NSF?). Is there anyone here who would refuse to make an extra $10,000 
every time they describe a new species, just by agreeing to name it 
after someone? That kind of money is a powerful motivator. But given 
the financial realities of modern alpha taxonomy, and how so many 
institutions and researchers are struggling to stay afloat, isn't the 
proliferation of this sort of thing likely to promote competition 
rather than cooperation?

Who would want to loan out specimens when they might be undescribed, 
and let someone ELSE make all that extra money? Who would choose to 
co-author and share money, when they could opt to publish solo and 
keep it all? Heck, one might have to work in secrecy, lest someone 
else catch wind of your new taxon and beat you into print. What would 
it do to international relations and permitting issues if foreign 
scientists descend on species-rich nations and auction off their new 
species without sharing the proceeds? Might it not also put pressure 
on taxonomists to start auctioning, or fail at tenure review? After 
all, if a position can be filled by a researcher who brings in 
$200,000 in *extra* money every year on top of their grants, how many 
administrators are going to prefer employing a taxonomist who does 
NOT auction off patronyms? Or, if you are working on taxa that no one 
wants to buy names for, wouldn't this represent a powerful incentive 
to switch your expertise?

Am I alone in foreseeing problems like this, or do people believe 
that the only consequences will be good ones, for everyone in the 
global community, even if only a tiny handful of institutions employ 
taxonomists who are in a position to bring in the money?


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (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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