[Taxacom] Do rogue taxonomists need rogue publishers?

Stephen Thorpe s.thorpe at auckland.ac.nz
Sun Jan 31 15:13:50 CST 2010

Some comments on Wolfgang's stated opinions:

(1) >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
Reply: Actually, you make a good point here, but IMHO misapply it to the wrong cases! I have always maintained in relation to a couple of local "corporate professional" taxonomists that their behaviour patterns may not be obvious from any single publication but will be obvious from the consideration of the totality of their works. They habitually pick the lowest fruit from the tree, and dress it up to look substantial, when in fact there is very little of substance in it - just endless catalogues, or "taxonomic revisions" of small groups that don't need revision, packed with endless appendices giving the same info over and over in slightly different ways, etc., all chewing up public funding! Another one of them always finds someone else to do the taxonomic bits, and personally contributes ... well, I'm not sure! It was amusing in the early days when this guy first suggested to one of the previous two people that they collaborate together on a revision - he apparently said "you can do the descriptions and the illustrations!". When asked "what are you going to do?", he replied "I'll supervise!" Needless to say, that revision never got off the ground! :)

(2) > tendency for glorification of self, family and close friends, whose names are bestowed on species after species, genus after genus
Reply: I see this as a complete red herring! Firstly, not even Makhan, Hoser, Wells or Wellington, or anyone to my knowledge had ever broken the unwritten rule and named something after themselves. So what if they honour members of their family? Again, from the local "corporate" taxonomic context, we have had species named after the prime minister, as an inane attempt to facilitate more funding. And in just one publication are the following names, all of which are named after various random colleagues with no particular relevance to the species, and without their prior knowledge:
Allocinopus belli
A. bousqueti
A. wardi
Maoriharpalus sutherlandi
Parabaris hoarei
Parabaris lesagei
Tuiharpalus clunieae
T. crosbyi
T. halli
T. moorei
Hakaharpalus davidsoni
H. maddisoni
H. patricki
H. rhodeae
Kupeharpalus barrattae
K. embersoni
K. johnsi
Lecanomerus marrisi
Syllectus gouleti
Kiwiharpalus townsendi
Pholeodytes helmorei
P. nunni
P. palmai
I feel quite honoured NOT to have been included in that list!

(3) >extreme abusiveness towards critics
Yes, but which came first - the abusiveness, or the obstruction and marginalisation which forced them into retaliatory mode? It becomes an arms race, but how did it start?

As for the rest of Wolfgang's comments, I just think that "rogue taxonomy" is at worst a minor nuisance, and the real rot lies elsewhere, hiding under a guise of false reputability in some corporate institutions. People like Trevor Hawkeswood are reacting against this very problem - perhaps not in the best of ways, but nevertheless I think Wolfgang needs to be just a bit more thoughtful about how and where he draws the "good guy/bad guy" distinction ...


From: Wolfgang Wuster [w.wuster at bangor.ac.uk]
Sent: Sunday, 31 January 2010 10:56 p.m.
To: Stephen Thorpe
Cc: Donat Agosti; taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu; Matthew.Graham at unlv.edu; mesibov at southcom.com.au; taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu; Frank.Krell at dmns.org
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Do rogue taxonomists need rogue publishers?

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

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