[Taxacom] FW: Do rogue taxonomists need rogue publishers?

Wuster,Wolfgang w.wuster at bangor.ac.uk
Mon Feb 1 05:48:47 CST 2010

Stephen Thorpe wrote:
> It would be naive to think that you can always make things better by
> solving individual problems. I agree that it would make the life of
> the "good taxonomist" easier if we disregard names by "bad
> taxonomists", but that is not the point. Actually, the situation with
> N.Z. beetles is similar to what you describe - Thomas Broun described
> thousands of them between 1880 and 1923, mostly on single specimens,
> and without a clear notion of variation. Just about all his types are
> in London - accessible, but less so than if they were here. I recall
> seeing a draft key by a now deceased N.Z. coleopterist which said
> "types not seen, identifications based on little more than inspired
> guesswork"! Perhaps it would be easier to disregard all Broun's names
> too, and start again? Then in a hundred years, after the invention of
> new techniques, they can throw out all our present names, and start
> over yet again! The problem is that the "good taxonomist"/"bad
> taxonomist" distinction is not clear cut! ...

Neal Evenhuis wrote:

 > Also remember that throughout history, there have been rogues and
 > vandals in virtually every group of zoology and taxonomy has endured
 > them, although a few taxonomists may have lost a few years off their
 > life dealing with them.

I'm afraid I find this combination of perspectives immeasurably 
depressing. "Vandalism is causing workers in a threatened scientific 
discipline to waste years of their working lives, but it's always been 
like that, so deal with it, and nothing will be done to prevent more of 
the same in the future". Is that really the best we can do? Does that 
really lead to "standards, sense and stability for animal names in science"?

A few other comments:

Much has been made of issues of "censorship" or "freedom of speech". The 
problem with the latter is simply that one person's right must be 
limited where it infringes on the rights of others. In most spheres of 
human endeavour, your right to freedom of speech is compensated by 
everyone else's right to ignore you. In taxonomy, we don't have that 
right. Nowhere else in the sciences can one individual force the rest of 
the discipline to take notice of their work and use their "product" 
without any regard whatsoever to its merit. This makes the issue of 
freedom of speech in taxonomy a complex and special case.

Second, I would not regard white-listing proposal as either infringing 
freedom of speech or constituting censorship. After all, everyone is 
free to continue publishing wherever they like, including species 
descriptions in their own publication, it's just that the rest of us can 
then ignore it.

Perhaps other avenues could be explored, such as a kind of 
"white-listing plus" - in this, white-listed publications would be 
treated as normal, but the use of names published in non-white-listed 
would be subject to the discretion of the wider taxonomic community. One 
could envisage a situation whereby a name proposed in a non-white-listed 
publication would not automatically fall under the wings of the 
Principle of Priority until it has been used as the valid name by X 
authors in N publications, in a manner analogous to Article 23.9. If a 
name published outside the white list is accompanied by suitable backing 
information, such as a reasonable diagnosis, type description etc., then 
one would hope that the vast majority of subsequent taxonomists would 
have the decency to recognise that intellectual priority (and their 
failure to do so would certainly be noticed to the rest of the taxonomic 
community and thus subject to censure). On the other hand, an 
evidence-free piece of "shotgun taxonomy", describing multiple taxa that 
the author has never seen in the hope that some of the names will 
eventually be found to belong to valid, previously undescribed taxa, 
would not debar a later taxonomist from describing these as new and 
under a different name. Looking at the works of herpetological taxonomic 
vandals that I am familiar with, there are certainly some names that 
have a basis in the personal experience of the author and in evidence, 
however limited, that I would feel obliged to recognise through use of 
their name, whereas others are entirely unfounded. This approach would 
give authors the choice of either publishing in white-listed outlets, or 
preserving their right to choose alternative avenues, but at the risk of 
being ignored.

The point of all this is that we should think outside the box. Even if 
we have to continue to deal with the work of 19th and 20th century 
taxonomists who published large numbers of unsubstantiated names under 
the rules of the time, surely that should not oblige us to preserve 
those same rules for the rest of the 21st century?

Dr. Wolfgang Wüster  -  Lecturer
School of Biological Sciences
Bangor University
Environment Centre Wales
Bangor LL57  2UW
Wales, UK

Tel: +44 1248 382301
Fax: +44 1248 371644
E-mail: w.wuster at bangor.ac.uk

Herpetological Journal: http://www.thebhs.org/pubs_journal.html

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