[Taxacom] Do rogue taxonomists need rogue publishers?

Wolfgang Wuster w.wuster at bangor.ac.uk
Sun Jan 31 03:56:15 CST 2010

Stephen Thorpe wrote:
> do rogue taxonomists come charging out of the undergrowth at you when in the field? There is no such beast! It is a devisive label for anyone who falls outside of the "ingroup" - completely meaningless ...

I would beg to differ with that statement.

First, I think there is a clear difference between “bad” taxonomy, which 
is both inevitable (as in any human enterprise) and in any case often a 
matter of opinion, and taxonomic vandalism / rogue taxonomy. Taxonomic 
vandalism is probably best recognised as a behaviour pattern that may 
not be obvious from any single publication but will be obvious from the 
consideration of the totality of the works of the authors. Obvious 
manifestations include:

- large volume of evidence-deficient descriptions produced over time 
with no change in standards

- tendency for glorification of self, family and close friends, whose 
names are bestowed on species after species, genus after genus – e.g., 
Hoser has gifted us the (sub-)genera Shireenhoserus, Lenhoserus, the 
STD-like Hoserea, Leiopython hoserae, Oxyuranus scutellatus 
adelynhoserae , Pseudonaja textilis jackyhoserae, Chondropython viridis 
adelynhoserae , as well as Jackypython, Katrinus, Aspidites 
melanocephalus adelynensis, Chondropython viridis shireenae, Katrinus 
fuscus jackyae, Jackypython, all named after his family. OK, nothing 
wrong with naming an animal after a family member but this seems a 
little obsessive; I understand that Makhan also named large numbers of 
species after his family.

- extreme abusiveness towards critics, either in their “scientific” 
output (e.g., Hoser ad nauseam) or elsewhere, such as internet forums or 
in personal correspondence – here are some splendid examples by Makhan: 

- threats to use taxonomic publications as a weapon of retaliation 
against adversaries and critics – phrases such as “the criticisms have 
only encouraged to do more of the same” recur in these threats, 
certainly in the case of Hoser and Wells & Wellington.

All of the above point to individuals whose sole purpose in life is to 
use taxonomic descriptions as a means of self-promotion, 
self-gratification and/or revenge. This is entirely different from those 
who publish what most would consider poor taxonomy, but in good faith, 
because they do not have the ability or means to do it well.

I also think that many not directly involved underestimate the impact of 
taxonomic vandalism. this comes in many guises, some of them 
considerably more serious than irritation and waste of time for bona 
fide taxonomists. They include:

- nomenclatural confusion outside of the taxonomic communities – there 
are a number of reptile species, for instance, where numerous “rogue” 
publications have created extensive uncertainty about the correct name 
to use.

- poor reputation of taxonomy; I don’t think many major funding agencies 
would see endless musings over the availability or otherwise of a name 
coined in a self-published, perhaps-printed-perhaps-not publication an 
appropriate use of time.

- disincentive to future work: species descriptions are an important and 
highly visible part of the output of many biodiversity studies. If just 
about everything possible has been named, that will reduce the incentive 
to carry out such studies. In Australian herpetology, a common modus 
operandi of the taxonomic vandals has been to simply open a standard 
work like Cogger, identify all allopatric populations of a species from 
the distribution maps in the book, and name them, giving spurious 
diagnostic information, and statements such as “the new species can 
further be differentiated by mtDNA analysis”, even though no such data 
exist. While phylogeographic studies of these taxa will still be 
fascinating from a biogeographical point of view, part of the potential 
output has been robbed from those who, in future, might gather the 
required evidence to justify taxonomic recognition of these taxa. “A 
redescription of Vandalophis vandalorum VANDAL 2003” just doesn’t have 
the same appeal as “A new species of snake from Xland”.

- Loss of publicity and PR for serious taxonomy and biodiversity 
discovery. Public support is a key facet of ensuring funding for 
taxonomic research. New taxon discoveries are one of the few facets of 
biological research that both media and the general public understand 
(to a point) and universally consider to be “good things”. 
Biogeographical, phylogenetic and ecological insights tend to go over 
most peoples’ heads. So does the fact that the “redescription of 
Vandalophis vandalorum VANDAL 2003” carries 99% of the intellectual 
merit that would have accrued had the taxon not been previously named in 
an evidence-free rogue publication.

Finally, with reference to another one of Stephen Thorpe’s messages, I 
would also like to make the point that the issue isn’t about the 
affiliations of academic qualifications of any publishing taxonomist. 
Especially as descriptive taxonomy is rather neglected by funding 
bodies, non-institutional taxonomists play, and will continue to play, 
an important part in this, and should be encouraged. I have personally 
produced and sent DNA sequences for non-institutional colleagues to 
support their work (no charge, no co-authorship). This is not an issue 
of institutional vs. “amateur” taxonomy, it is an issue about the 
psychological pathology of a few individuals causing disproportionate 
disruption to what should be a keystone 21st century science.

The only reason vandals are common in taxonomy is that because in 
taxonomy, we are obliged to acknowledge them by dealing with their names 
and using them if they are available, which the vandals then claim as 
vindication. In any other science they would simply be ignored. Asking 
that taxonomists should have the same rights as other scientists is not 
censorship. Whether and how this is achievable is of course another issue.

I appreciate the multiple points of view spelled out in this list. I 
also appreciate the historical insights provided, and that the problem 
of vandalism is something that taxonomy has had to put up with since its 
inception. The question is, wouldn’t we be better off learning from 
history, rather than being its prisoner?


Wolfgang Wuster

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

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

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