[Taxacom] Proposed ICZN amendments on electronic publishing

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Thu Dec 11 12:08:46 CST 2008

Jim Croft wrote:

>Making it cheap does not make it robust.
>One of the points I was trying to make was that the volume of data is
>or will be so huge that it will be impossible to verify it all at each
>technology migration point and glitches, once introduced may not be
>detected an will be propagated through future iterations.  It was not
>perfect in the olden days and the equivalent were errors of
>translation and transcription - but the generation times were much
>much longer and there was always likely to be an 'original' somewhere
>to go back to.
>As for the leadership, wisdom and vision of managerialist economic
>rationalism forcing libraries into discarding knowledge and the
>foundation soul of the planet, what can I say?

I've been holding back on this thread, to see if and when someone 
would raise the most obvious counterargument to all this, but as it 
has not yet happened...here I go again:

No one who deposits sequence data in GenBank's digital archives seems 
worried at all that their sequences won't still be available in 200 
years. Lots of those sequences have not been, and possibly never will 
be, printed on paper. How can all these scientists be so calm, so 
unflustered, at having BILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF DATA 
(representing the entire life's work of thousands of researchers) 
that exists *solely* in digital format? If *any* of the arguments 
that taxonomy has to be on paper to be secure in perpetuity had *any* 
value, then those exact same arguments would ALSO apply to GenBank - 
and yet, GenBank exists, and no one worries about the lack of 
hardcopy archives for all that absolutely irreplaceable information.

Why? In what *possible* way could digital taxonomic data be any 
different from digital sequence data, so that the latter is secure 
and the former is not?

Because GenBank is a central archive (and it helps that depositing 
sequence data there is mandatory to get things in print).

If taxonomy goes the same route, then we never have to worry about 
our data, the same way GenBank never has to worry.

Yes, if there are a million digital copies of a document but they are 
all on people's desktop computers, or in scattered independent 
library archives which might not overlap (or might not be truly 
permanent), then those copies *might* all become untraceable, 
destroyed, or unreadable at some point. But is that *really* the best 
we are willing to aim for as a community? Basically, this whole 
"debate" on whether taxonomy could go digital and still be secure in 
perpetuity boils down to people abandoning (or neglecting) the notion 
that we could ever be like GenBank. Why *can't* we? Is taxonomy 
really, truly SO mired in the dark ages that we cannot have a 
permanent central digital archive with mandatory deposition of 
documents, and - accordingly - never have to COMPEL taxonomists to 
publish on paper ever again? If it's SOLELY a question of "Well, 
GenBank has guaranteed money to run their archive, but taxonomy has 
no such guaranteed funding, so we can't have a guaranteed permanent 
archive" then why can't we just join forces with GenBank, and arrange 
it so GenBank not only stores all the DNA sequences of life forms on 
this planet, but all the original descriptions OF those life forms? 
How would that NOT be a "win-win" scenario?

We have an example that shows exactly how we can solve our problem. 
We just need to follow that example; the wheel has already been 
invented, so why continue arguing over whether we can (or should) 
invent the wheel?


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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