[Taxacom] RE revisiting patronym auctions

tyler tyler.smith at mail.mcgill.ca
Fri Aug 15 09:13:16 CDT 2008

Doug Yanega writes:
 > Tyler wrote:
 > >The purpose of these repositories is to enable research, not to
 > >impose additional burdens on researchers.
 > 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? 

Of course not, but then the motivations of the funding agency are
different than the motivations of the private donor. While I don't
have the academic experience of many readers of this list, I have
spent time working in under-funded agencies with a conservation
mandate. Without access to research funding agencies, we look for
private donors to support our work. 

There are very few donors that wish to serve as anonymous benefactors,
and inevitably something gets named after someone. It might be a
boardwalk, a building, a forest, a species, or even a person (I notice
that the second hit on a google search for 'endowed chair' provides a
list of professors at UC whose positions are named after donors). But
in my experience, the conservation projects wouldn't have been
completed otherwise. If the work itself is valuable, then what you
call it is a secondary concern in my books.

Of course, whether the work *is valuable* is a concern. But that's
always a concern, whether or not the corrupting influence is financial
or egotistical in nature. 

 > 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"? 

I am familiar with "Fair Use", which applies only to copyrighted
material. If the book in question is still protected by copyright,
selling copies would be a copyright violation and the aggrieved party
would be the copyright holder, not the library. If copyright has
expired, no-one has any monopoly on the words on the page, so there is
no violation if I sell copies, regardless of the source. 

If you were the library in question, you could take offence that
someone has profited from your resources without compensating you for
it. But you have no legal right to a cut, anymore than you have a
legal right to a cut of the profits from a historical romance novel
whose author did their research in your library. That being the case,
a more productive response may be to acknowledge there is untapped
economic potential in your collection, and start selling copies of any
uncopyrighted material yourselves.

In a sense, this is already happening, with initiatives by Google and
several large libraries to scan uncopyrighted material to be made
available on-line. The libraries win, by extending their relevance and
fulfilling their mandate in a digital age, Google wins by extending
the range of its advertising program, and readers win by gaining more
access to books.

One of your main concerns seems to be that the library might respond
by shutting their doors, and hording their collection, lest anyone
else profits from it. But even if that's legal (which I suspect it
would not be for any publicly-funded institution) it would completely
defeat their mandate, and everyone would lose, including the library.
Are we so petty that we'd rather hurt ourselves than allow others to

 > >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. 

Yikes. Does this mean we need collectors to start signing waivers
prior to depositing specimens? At some point we need to allow people
to look after themselves. Otherwise we end up in the ridiculous
situation where I am allowed to pay $5 for a lamp because I have no
idea how much it's worth, but the gentleman beside me, who knows how
much it's worth must pay a thousand times more. 

 > 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.

Ok, and how do we decide which herbaria need a cut for a given name?
Just the one that holds the type, or all the ones with specimens
examined in for the description? As Alexander Pope has pointed out in
another message, there is no way to eliminate the influence of money
from the program. And I maintain that there is no way to make sure
that the money is equitably distributed to everyone who has some moral
stake in it. Acknowledging that we cannot eliminate these problems,
what's the best system we can develop under the circumstances?

 > - 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.

Are museums closing because of lack of altruism, or lack of money?
Altruism alone does not generate money.

 > >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. 

Again, using my library example, I think it would be more productive
to view this situation in a different light. "We have lots of
specimens, and other institutions are profiting from them. We could
too, if we had a taxonomist on staff who could name them after
patrons. Therefore, we should hire a new taxonomist. There was a guy
on taxacom who said he was looking for a job, lets hire him."

I think the scarce resource here is taxonomists, not specimens. And
with enough incentive we can produce more taxonomists.

 > >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

This is the crux of the debate for me. I agree with nearly everything
you've said, except that patronym auctions will lead to this sort of
damaging competition among institutions. Just because I don't gain
anything doesn't mean I've lost something. I don't lose anything when
someone at your herbarium names a new species of Aster using specimens
from my collection. They don't lose anything when I name a new species
of Carex from their collection. I think the primary motivating force
in this situation should be to emulate the success of our peers,
rather than to try and restrict it.

 > 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! 

Which means your herbarium has to have the taxonomist on staff. Which
brings me back to that guy on taxacom ;)

 > 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). 

This situation already exists though, doesn't it? KEW and the other
big collections have access to financial support unimaginable to local
herbaria in the tropics. A researcher at KEW has the support necessary
to turn specimens into publications, and publications into research
grants. I imagine this process is much more arduous in poorer
institutions in poorer countries. From what I understand, though, the
big guys recognize this is a problem, and programs are being developed
to transfer training and support from the haves to the have-nots. I
see this as a very important, but separate issue.



Only YOU can stop forest fires.

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