[Taxacom] Do rogue taxonomists need rogue publishers?

Stephen Thorpe s.thorpe at auckland.ac.nz
Sun Jan 31 02:29:50 CST 2010

Neal - your email starts with a comment that I thought was going to lead to something I was just wondering about, but it didn't. That is, I have only heard about "e-only" in relation to the ICZN, but what do the bots think about it? Are they considering a change?

As for your other comments, I am in agreement, and would like to reiterate something I just said to Bob, namely that the restriction of taxonomy to those who are employed in corporate institutions is likely to be bad for taxonomy. I can only really speak from the New Zealand context, but here the main science funding body only funds certain institutions that it has a "close" relationship with, and the current round gave "New Zealand land biota" NZ$7m more this 4-year cycle, but we have had fewer than ever taxonomic publications (except perhaps in botany) as a result! For example, 2008-2009 is the only consecutive two years since its inception in 1982 that there hasn't been a single publication in the Fauna of New Zealand series...


From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Neal Evenhuis [neale at bishopmuseum.org]
Sent: Sunday, 31 January 2010 8:02 p.m.
To: TAXACOM; iczn-list
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Do rogue taxonomists need rogue publishers?

This thread seems to be restricted to zoologists. It would be interesting for comparison to hear from the botanists concerning their history of and mitigating measures toward "rogue" taxonomists -- who have been called on other lists “taxonomic vandals”. I know of one botanist who caused some grief by publishing hundreds of new names in a non-peer reviewed journal with only the minimal requirements (e.g., diagnosis in Latin but no full description). He has been called at worst a splitter, but never a vandal or rogue—although he probably has put into play more names than any of the zoologists of recent years that are currently causing folks to demand what is essentially censorship of their mode of publication. But no matter ....

Until the botanists chime in, let me give some background into the writing of the ICZN Code (of which the next edition is currently being worked on by an editorial committee) and some words on rogue taxonomists and private collections.

[Apologies for the long post -- Rich Pyle would be envious ...] [I am cc-ing the ICZN list as I think these words need to be read there as well as on this list]

The ICZN Code first and foremost follows the Preamble -- the rules and glossary follow from this [all three of these sections to the Code are the only enforceable parts. The appendices at the end (which include a Code of Ethics) and Recommendations sprinkled throughout are merely guides or recommendations; they are *not* enforceable. In the Preamble is written the following passage, which is the basis for the rules that follow: “The objects of the Code are to promote stability and universality in the scientific names of animals and to ensure that the name of each taxon is unique and distinct. All its provisions and recommendations are subservient to those ends and none restricts the freedom of taxonomic thought or actions.”

Every taxon of animal is comprised of two things that are obligately tied to each other: (1) a name; and (2) a name bearing type specimen(s). It is interesting that these two are under discussion with regard to perceived “bad” behavior on the part of a few people and the fear that many more people will resort to this type of behavior if given the chance.

Under point 1 we have the current discussion on whether or not to allow electronic publication with the fear that if allowed, rogue taxonomists or taxonomic vandals will seize the opportunity to publish non-peer reviewed papers that contain new nomenclatural actions, all to spite others and cause as much grief as possible.

Under point 2 we have separate discussion on whether or not deposition of types in private collections should be disallowed.

With regard to point 1 and electronic publication opening up a “Pandora’s box” or “can of worms” or [put your favorite metaphor here]: It has been pointed out that the ability to publish “rogue” taxonomy (i.e., without peer review) is not limited to or awaiting the acceptance of electronic publication by the Code. Papers can be considered validly published by the current Code if multiple copies are produced simultaneously and they be “obtainable” when first issued, free of charge or by purchase, and issued in such a way that they are being provided as a public and permanent scientific record. This can easily be achieved by the printing of multiple copies from an ink-jet printer and sent to a few libraries or other institutions with a statement that it is intended for the permanent public scientific record (the last as a safety measure in case someone questions it). Since this method is easily done, having the allowance of electronic publication as a valid method of publishing may not do any more damage than is already been done by those “rogues” and “vandals”. [However, methinks they would want a more public medium such as a journal rather than printing a few papers off their printer].

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. The fact that there are a few now who are causing problems is only a small snapshot in history. Yes, Pic caused a number of problems. So did Motschulsky, Robineau-Desvoidy, and I’m sure a host of others. The one fact that they all have in common? They die — and the problem of increasing the number of problems ceases. Sure, we still have to clean up whatever mess they may have left us, but they are a microcosm of the entire zoological suite of names (despite the huge numbers some of them proposed). Currently there are a few folks in herpetology and entomology (and related orders) whose deplorable actions and publications have caused the reaction that something must be done to mitigate or eliminate their involvement in taxonomy. This has included at one extreme of creating a whitelist of accepted journals to the other extreme of banning their works and/or the journals in which they have published. As much as their actions (and reactions to criticisms) may not be in accordance with the Code of Ethics and possibly bordering on slander in some cases, any attempt to limit their freedom of taxonomic thought or action goes completely against the Preamble. It would essentially be censorship.

As for peer-review, it ,may be difficult for us to believe, but in the context of 250 years of Linnaean taxonomy, peer-review is relatively recent. Many if not all papers published in the 19th century and earlier were not reviewed by anyone. Some may have been ‘read” at society meetings, but I have no evidence that after the reading anything might have been changed. A handwritten copy was sent to an editor who might have corrected spelling and grammar, and then handed it over to a printer. I am in full agreement for having constructive peer-review to help inform an author if they have missed something or to prevent them from producing errant statements (this includes publishing junior synonyms), but am not in agreement with some who only want peer-review to act as a method of censorship, even if under the guise of being a “helpful” review. Such an act is tantamount to being analogous to the Church declaring Galileo a heretic because his observations did not conform to a body of “reviewers”. We do indeed have to be careful even if we all disagree with the views of a rogue taxonomist. We do have a method that is much more civilized than the action of the Church against Galileo; we can publish a paper than contravenes another’s views. Granted, it can be viewed as a waste of one’s time to continually be doing that. But remember, there is the one defining moment that will cause the beginning of the end for the grief they may be causing—their death.

With regard to point 2 in not allowing types to be deposited in private collections: I think we need to look back into history to understand the origins of the public collections we currently have. Many of the largest and oldest collections (e.g, Paris, London, Vienna) derived from the private collections of the rich. After the death of the owner of those collections, the estates either put up for auction the specimens or they formed the basis of a public institution’s collections of biological specimens. A complete ban on private collections neglects history and would in its philosophy be saying that those major collections are tainted because they began as private collections. But more to the contemporary aspects, there are a few private collections that do exist today and they allow public access and have better environmental conditions for the care of their collections than some “public” collections. If a type were deposited in one of those “public” collections with horrible environmental conditions, the chances of the destruction of type material would be far greater than if they were deposited in one of those private collections. There is no easy answer to this situation as there definitely are cases where a private collection is only in existence because the owner feels more powerful or worthy by having types in their collections. And, with regard to amber and other paleontological specimens, there are indeed collections who would rather sell their “types” to make money than to deposit them in a public collections. The latter cases are not to be condoned, but they do exist. To ban them would be to possibly declare unavailable a number of names that may in fact be in common use. To initiate a ban on private collections after a certain date may not take into consideration the ability and productivity of the few "well-intentioned" taxonomists who own such private collections and who have full intent to have them eventually deposited in a public collection after their death. To determine who is good and who is bad really can only be done by Santa Claus.

Currently, all that is necessary to validate a name is that a type specimen “will be” eventually deposited in a collection. Thus, all that is necessary for the new Code editors to write in order to allow private collections to exist with a caveat that ensures an augmented sense of permanence of a type is to change “collection” to “publicly accessible collection”. I would think everyone realizes their mortality and would not be averse to their collections being eventually deposited in a publicly accessible collection.


Any good adjudicating body exercises its wisdom in legislation by being far-thinking when writing the words that form new laws or rules (that is, both looking to the past as well as looking to the future). Whatever is happening now is merely a small snapshot of the bigger picture. I hope the writers of the new ICZN Code will have such wisdom to take into account the full past history and impacts their decisions may have on the future and not merely be subservient to reactionaries and the pollings of the present.



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