[Taxacom] Proposed ICZN amendments on electronic publishing

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Thu Dec 4 08:53:18 CST 2008

First of all, like Frank and Denis, I am absolutely *delighted* to see this
conversation happen on Taxacom.  It needs to happen much more, on many more
issues.  There are ICZN-related lists, and the conversations should happen
there as well, but we really need input from the broader community.

Frank has already addressed the issue of perr-review, and Denis has
addressed the role of ITZN.

I would like to comment on the following from Dick Petit

> As for the on-line only publishing, it will be terrible for 
> many reasons.  Servers go down, lightning strikes, whatever - 
> it is entirely possible that all papers published on-line 
> could be lost.  

It is also entirely possible that all papers published on paper could be
lost.  I am reminded of the same joke I posted here a while back about the
two guys in the woods, and the bear chasing them, and one of the guys
putting on his shoes to outrun the other guy (not outrun the bear).  In this
case, the guy with the shoes is e-publishing; the other guy is paper-based
publishing, and the bear is the permanent loss of information.  In other
words, the e-publication paradigm does not need to be (indeed, CANNOT be)
perfect -- it need only be as good as, or better than, paper-based

I have given this issue a great deal of thought, and I've seen many "Red
Herrings" about e-publication.  As far as I'm concerned, the three most
important "real" issues are as follows:

1) Paper publications have a MUCH longer history/track-record than
electronic archiving.

2) Electronic files cannot be read directly by humans; they minimally
require (at least with today's technology) three things: appropriate
hardware, appropriate software, and electricity.

3) Compared with paper documents, electronic files are MUCH cheaper and
faster to replicate and distribute globally in large quantities, and it is
MUCH easier to assure that copies are identical.

So, as should be obvious, #1 & #2 favor paper, and work against electronic
documents.  #3 favors electronic documents.

There's really not much to say about #1.  Until we have another few
centuries of time passing, we won't know how much the legacy of paper
documents outweighs the much shorter legacy of e-documents.  It is certainly
possible that e-documents can survive as long as (or much longer than)
paper, but there is not as much empirical support for this as for paper.

I think #2 is the real issue that supporters of e-documents need to think
about.  I strongly suspect that the three necessary ingredients (hardware,
software, electricity) will persist as long as human society persists.  File
format issues are mostly a Red Herring.  That lesson has already been
well-learned.  Bottom line: important e-documets, and the tools necessary to
read them, will be carried forward.  There may well be a very real risk that
electricity becomes unavailable for some future period of time (or, at
least, electricity could conceivably become a LOT more expensive and
difficult to access).  This, in turn, could impact the ubiquity of the
requisite hardware and software.  There is an argument that, if human
society sinks to this leve, we will have much bigger issues to worry about
than loss of taxonomic information.  I actually do not agree with this
argument; I think biodiversity, and the documentation thereof, is
demonstrably the most important human endeavor of all (I actually have a
non-biologically-biased argument for this). But that's a topic for another

So I think the real issue is concerning the trade-offs between 1+2, and 3.
I honestly don't know what I believe to be the best course -- which is why I
am always happy to see more thoughtful discussion.


> All of the talk about having 
> this approved by the Commision appears to be a smoke screen 
> as it is already a "done deal."  

This is absolutely, categorically NOT true!  The only thing the Commission
has done is to put forth a *proposed* amendment for commentary by the
community.  That commentary period is to last a full year.  It is entirely
possible that the proposed amendment will not be ratified.  Moreover, there
is plenty of opportunity to re-word the amendment, in response to public
commentary. So if you have any issues with the proposed amendment -- no
matter how major or how minor, please, PLEASE let your comments be known!

One final point on the issue of pre-publication in electronic form, with
later paper-publication.  The only issue here involves date of availability.
The e-document does not pre-empt the paper document. The code is clear:  the
names/acts become available when numerous copies of the durable-media
publication are obtainable. There is, of course, the risk that someone will
intentionally or otherwise usurp the paper-based nomenclatural acts by
citing the e-documents; but this is not a new risk.  It is just compounded
by broader awareness/access to the e-version (compared with, e.g., MS forms
of a paper-only publication distributed to reviewers).  Actually, this may
well act to REDUCE the risk of intentional (at least) usurpment, because
doing so will be obvious to many more people; and thus not be a wise career
move by the would-be unscrupulous usurper.  One of the reasons for the
proposed amendment is to eliminate this risk altogether, by establishing the
date of availability as the date of obtainability of the e-version of the
published work.


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
  and Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org

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