[Taxacom] revisiting patronym auctions

Sven Kullander Sven.Kullander at nrm.se
Fri Aug 15 00:34:05 CDT 2008

Doug, All

An excellent summary of a significant proportion of the dilemma. Several
of these points have been up for discussion here and there already, and
there are more arguments, particularly concerning ABS on species from
other countries, but the economic consequences of name-selling are
rarely penetrated at any depth.

So far, most auctioning has been disguised as charity, but the signals
of taxonomy as being commerce rather than science, are obvious. A recent
aquarium journal issue has an ad wherein the authors ask for money to
describe new shrimps because they cannot get research funding.

Selling species names is an egoistic, unethical abuse of an open system
with enormous benefits for all taxonomists. Big institutions may have
huge gross costs for loan management, but individual researchers can get
away with almost no costs for access to material (they can also have
huge costs for travel and other activities, but they have a choice of
adapting the study to available funding).

Selling species names is business. Business must be charged, and if done
at a public institution, there must be corresponding cuts in the budget.
However, if one museum starts charging the real costs of maintaining
collections and services, others have to follow and in the end museum
collections become unavailable for scientists. Which means no research
on them, and then administrations will likely want to get rid of them.

Not only museums will want to charge. Land owners, collectors,
publishers, every part of the system that is now serving science for
free should have a cut. In the end we may have one global name-selling
company taking care of all taxonomy because it bought the rights to all
new species of every country and keeps all type specimens and all
original descriptions available only for employees and customers? 

I would expect that no collection, private or public, will ever permit
an outside individual to sell names based on their collections, or even
permit access to the collections for such individuals. So, the question
is, can we live with these irresponsible individuals in the outskirts of
ethics using their own material, within or outside those institutions?
If we want to have a free and open system, we may need to be able to
cope with abuse. Or should those commercial names be treated as
unavailable for nomenclature? Should we abandon the option of patronyms,
which is at the root of this evil? After all, are we compelled to use
those names?

It has already been suggested that as long as name-selling is scarce, a
few individuals may make money for a short while. Most of the world's
organisms are probably off-market ugly, and when it gets commonplace to
buy names, when names get synonymized, and customers realize that
"their" species is just one insignificant item among several million and
that the greedy person who baptized "their" species is not a real
scientist, the market will disappear. Just one failed name will scare
customers off. The charity auctions were after all not primarily selling
names, but the name selling was just to spice up the charity event. They
also work only with some rich people in some countries where charity is
tax-deductible, and is less attractive in countries where you have to
pay tax on the income of the name-selling business. At the end of the
line we are talking about selling names for up to USD 100, or ten for
USD 20, with vacation sales at 30% off. I would value a good reputation
as a scientist a lot more than all the money in this world.

Thousands and thousands of institutions and scientists obtain their
funding year after year based simply on the quality of their research.
Imagination, ambition, seriousness, quality, and visions pave the way.
Are we to sacrifice the credibility of taxonomy for those who lack those
competences? Take one more step away from chances in the competition for
research funding? 

Perhaps the best option is to offer a website/publication with
alternative names that can be used instead of the commercial ones? 


Sven O Kullander, PhD, Associate Professor
Swedish Museum of Natural History
Senior Curator of Ichthyology
FishBase Sweden, GBIF-Sweden

-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Doug Yanega
Sent: 14 Aug 2008 02:43
To: TAXACOM at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: [Taxacom] revisiting patronym auctions

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
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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