[Taxacom] Proposed ICZN amendments on electronic publishing

Jim Croft jim.croft at gmail.com
Thu Dec 11 14:54:01 CST 2008

Curtis, Doug, Rod et al.

Don't get me wrong - I really love this digital stuff and its
potential in biology (and life in general) but what I am really
worried about is that in all the current enthusiasm for the new infant
cleansing technology and grime removal paradigm we are running the
risk of leaving behind the bath, the bath water and the baby in it.

Genbank is an interesting comparison.  I do not have any data there,
but if I did I would be worried about it, just as I worry (with
currently demonstrably justified good reason) about the money I put in
the bank. I know there is not a pile of dollar bills there, just a
computer with massively replicated ones an zeros.  And I worry about
it.  Where is the reality?  Where is my accumulated wealth (or lack
thereof)?  Where can I see it?  Where can I count it?  Can I trust the
people with it?

The banking analogy is probably worth pursuing.  I no longer get paid
in food and clothing.  I no longer get paid in coin, an abstraction or
representation of food and clothing.  I no longer get paid in notes,
an abstraction of coin.  I no longer get paid by check, an abstraction
of notes.  Now the worth of my labour is represented by an invisible
string of ones and zeros.  At each step there was a massive leap of
trust involved.

And that is what we are taking about now - the leap of trust involved
of going from cash or cheque in hand to a direct digital transfer.  In
theory it could work just fine.  In practice we need to ensure that
our money is safe and that we can still (always!) go back, look at it
and count it again and get the exact same answer.  Anything less is a
diminution of science.

The Fort Knox gold standard  behind it all will always be the herbaria
and museums (I hope).  It is the bloody banking system and the big end
of town we need to keep our eye on...  I am a taxonomy shareholder, I
vote, and I'm watching you, Rich...  :)


On Fri, Dec 12, 2008 at 6:42 AM, Roderic Page <r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk> wrote:
> GenBank doesn't have to worry in part because their data are mirrored
> in Japan and Europe (so it isn't entirely centralised), and because
> the data is freely available for bulk download (and terrabytes are
> downloaded each month), even if those three centres go up in smoke,
> the data is massively replicated in labs across the planet.  Lots of
> copies keeps stuff safe.
> Regards
> Rod
> On 11 Dec 2008, at 18:08, Doug Yanega wrote:
>> 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?
>> Sincerely,
>> --
>> 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)
>>              http://cache.ucr.edu/~heraty/yanega.html
>>   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
>>         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82
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> ---------------------------------------------------------
> Roderic Page
> Professor of Taxonomy
> Graham Kerr Building
> University of Glasgow
> Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK
> Email: r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk
> Tel: +44 141 330 4778
> Fax: +44 141 330 2792
> AIM: rodpage1962 at aim.com
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> Blog: http://iphylo.blogspot.com
> Home page: http://taxonomy.zoology.gla.ac.uk/rod/rod.html
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Jim Croft ~ jim.croft at gmail.com ~ +61-2-62509499

"Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality."
- Joseph Conrad, author (1857-1924)

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