[Taxacom] RE revisiting patronym auctions

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Thu Aug 14 17:37:11 CDT 2008

Tyler wrote:

>purpose of these repositories is to enable research, not to impose
>additional burdens on researchers.

Are patronym auctions the same as research? When you write a grant 
proposal, do you ask the funding agency to throw in an *extra* $20K 
for every species you name, to help support future research at your 
institution? No, and if you did, your proposal would be rejected. If 
a researcher borrowed 100 specimens from you, said they wanted to 
retain 20 of them, and then turned around and sold those retained 
specimens on eBay for $1K apiece to support their research, would you 
consider that acceptable? If I borrow a book from a public library, 
for which copyright has expired, make copies, and sell them, is that 
fair to the library? Are you familiar with the concept of "Fair Use"? 
The question here is whether patronym auctioning IS "Fair Use". I do 
know what you're saying, but we're getting into a fuzzy area between 
where research ends and exploitation begins.

>For the sake of argument, let's say that there should be some kick
>back from anyone who profits from herbarium research. How far does it
>go? Why stop at the herbarium? If it's wrong for me to profit from
>information gathered from a herbarium specimen, is it not wrong for
>the herbarium to profit from specimens deposited there without some
>remuneration for the collector, or their descendants?

That would depend on whether the person donating the material was 
aware that the herbarium might be able to profit from those 
specimens. I suspect most donors and collectors are okay with the 
general principle, but might be a little peeved if they were told 
"Yeah, one of the specimens you gave us was used to generate $500K. 
Thanks!" - especially if they were unemployed and almost penniless. 
Generosity is great when it's philanthropic, and when the donor 
realizes the value of their donation, but it's not the same if the 
donor is completely unaware of its potential value. Is it ethical to 
buy a Tiffany lamp at an estate sale for $5 when you not only know 
that it's worth $50K, but that the family you're buying it from is on 
the verge of being evicted from their home? As for why stop at the 
herbarium, it's because the herbarium has operating costs to house, 
curate, and maintain those specimens - costs not shared by either the 
donor or the researcher using the material - and if they have no 
policy for "profit-sharing" then those costs may never be defrayed by 
those using that collection. Whoever is funding that herbarium 
presumably has to be doing it altruistically. Yes, there IS a long 
and honorable tradition of scientific service to the community that 
way, and at least a FEW of our museums and collections are secure and 
well-funded enough to be able to act altruistically, but it's not 
true for all institutions in all countries - a lot of the entities 
overseeing a lot of the world's collections are NOT altruistic, which 
is why so many collections are losing staff, or having their doors 
shut permanently. It's not pretty, it's not traditional, but it's 
happening more and more.

>I think this is all backwards. We *want* people to make use of museum

I agree completely, in case you were getting the wrong idea.

>Publishing a field guide, or a new species, or a
>monograph, these are a real tangible benefit to the collection. It is
>easier to support a collection if you can point to the projects it

That's not tangible, actually. If "having people use/visit your 
collection" was tangible, then no museum in the world would ever have 
to charge admission. It also depends entirely upon who you're asking 
for support, and what their mandate/motives are. If your boss' 
mandate is "You either bring in outside money, or you lose your job" 
then having someone else making a profit from your resources without 
giving anything back is not going to make your boss happy - not one 
bit. Normal species descriptions or monographs do NOT generate a 
profit - most field guides, and things like auctions, DO, so there is 
no reason that the revenue could NOT be shared. Yes, I know that if 
you're asking NSF for a collections improvement grant, then things 
like that do help you gain support, but that's not what we're talking 
about here.

>Are you suggesting that it would be better to have your budget or
>staff slashed than to accept outside sponsorship?

No, I'm saying that YOU might find that you are getting not one penny 
of outside sponsorship money, even if it were your specimens being 
used to raise $500K worth of sponsorship for someone else's 
institution. It's not a matter of "accepting sponsorship" - no one is 
*offering* any sponsorship to YOU. The sponsors are giving other 
people money to put names on your specimens. That doesn't help you 
keep your doors open, or your staff employed. That money is hiring 
staff and paying the budget to run someone ELSE's herbarium. All of 
the *tangible* benefit is going to someone else - until and unless 
(1) the people auctioning the names are altruistic, and pay you a 
share voluntarily (2) you  start running auctions yourself, or (3) 
you begin insisting on a cut. Unless scenario #1 takes place in every 
single case, how can this sort of business NOT drive a wedge between 
the haves and the have-nots?

In every case I'm aware of to date, I have yet to hear of anyone who 
has auctioned off a name sharing any of the proceeds with 
institutions from which they borrowed material. Either no one is 
reporting it, or no one is doing it (or, by accident or design, no 
one is using borrowed material). Does anyone here actually have 
information indicating otherwise?

>I think we'd be in a better position with administrators if
>we could demonstrate a larger interest in herbarium research, rather
>than walling ourselves off in our collections and simply demand more

Again, I know what you're saying - truly I do - but this isn't about 
a larger interest in research, it's about whether your institution 
can *afford* to be playing "dove" if everyone else is playing "hawk". 
Seriously, how do you think the following statement would go over 
with the average administrator:

"We're asking for a $30K budget this year, and we believe we've 
earned this level of support because last year, specimens that were 
borrowed from our collection generated a total of $500K in revenue 
for three other collections."

Do you think many administrators are going to feel THAT charitable? 
Or, more likely, is their first thought going to be "What!? Wait a 
minute - why couldn't WE have made those $500K in revenue, if those 
were OUR specimens?" or "If you could be generating $500K in profit, 
why are we *paying* you $30K instead?"

>Of course it's tasteless. But in an increasing number of cases, the
>choice is not between sponsorship and the status quo, it's between
>sponsorship and shutting the doors.

Only for whoever is running the auctions. I'm talking about how to 
deal fairly with the people who are supplying them with their 
specimens. That's why I raised the ESS model above (the hawk/dove 
game); the game only works smoothly if everyone plays dove - if 
anyone plays hawk, then the whole system will collapse into chaos, 
until *everyone* plays hawk, all the time. And even if everyone 
agrees in principle to profit-sharing, with no hawkish "cheaters" in 
the system, then all one needs to do to avoid the penalty of 
profit-sharing is simply to stop borrowing material. To use your own 
analogy, "walling ourselves off in our collections" - again, dividing 
the community into haves and have-nots, if only because many 
collections have no taxonomists in them. Such collections would be 
largely abandoned, because they'd be outside the proverbial walls. 
Or, how about this scenario: you have two researchers asking to 
borrow the same material, one of whom auctions names and agrees to 
profit-sharing, the other who does not. Would that not lead you to 
NOT loan specimens to the second person?

>Wow, do you really think it might come to that? Funders lining up to
>sponsor herbarium research, jockeying to get themselves associated
>with researchers working on the least studied, and thus most likely to
>yield new names, taxa? Maybe instead of railing against the
>possibility, we should be thinking of ways to encourage this to
>develop in a more dignified direction.

No, I see funders lining up to have the next new orchid, or 
butterfly, or bird named after them. At least, the funders who don't 
mind paying $250K or more per species. But even if the least 
charismatic taxa can yield an extra $5K per species, your herbarium 
still needs to be the one running the auction! It's not about being 
dignified, it's about figuring out if there's any way to keep it from 
turning into a competition.

>Not everyone on this list has a job yet, and for those of us looking
>for work the pickings are slim. I would certainly prefer secure work
>in a sponsored herbarium over continuing on the postdoc treadmill.

One last time, the issue I'm raising is of the herbarium (or whatever 
other kind of collection) that gets NOTHING from sponsorship, but 
whose specimens are being used by others to garner sponsorship for 
*their* collection(s). Heck, you wouldn't even need to *have* your 
own collection. Just go from herbarium to herbarium, auction off 
their species, and keep the money for your personal research. Really, 
altruism doesn't pay unless you're all clones.


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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