[Taxacom] Proposed ICZN amendments on electronic publishing

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Thu Dec 11 16:11:17 CST 2008

> 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. 

Part of the reason this point hasn't been brought up before is that it may
not be a legitimate point.  Quite frankly, I would hazard the suggestion
that many/most GenBank depositers do not *think* in terms of century-level
archiving implications.  This is not a dig on sequencers (necessarily),
because it's probably true that *MOST* researchers (and people in general)
do not think in terms of century-level archiving either.  Two communities
who *do* think in these terms are librarians, and taxonomists.  Both of whom
are woefully underfunded for the magintude (and importance) of the
respective tasks they bear.

> 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? 

Billions of dollars and a few thousand human lifetime's worth of work are
downright trivial compared with the information legacy of all human history
(libraries), or the information legacy of 4 billion (ish) years of evolution
(i.e., the collective global genome). Producing the "card-catalog" for the
latter of these is the ultimate function of taxonomy.

> 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.

Although (as you know), I'm right there with you on the basic argument; I'm
still not sure I buy GenBank as a good comparator, of rthe reasons outlined

> 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?

It's not the data that are different -- it's the perspective of the people
who care about the data that are possibly different.

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

The question isn't whether they do worry; the question is whether they
*should* worry.  The lack of evidence for the former, does not address the

> 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?

As noted, I basically agree with your over-arching point here.  Just
quibbling with the contention that "just because GenBank people don't worry
about it, means there's nothing to worry about".


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