[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Simon TILLIER tillier at mnhn.fr
Thu Jan 27 08:33:22 CST 2011

Dear Bob,

Some answers (a bit long, but..)
> 1. Does the number of new species described depend on the number of active
> taxonomists? If it does, and the number of taxonomists is static, then the
> productivity gains in recent years that Rich Pyle celebrates, from digital
tools and
> faster, easier publishing, may not be very large. If those gains are
important (and I
> think they are), then you can get the same number of species per year (for
a time,
> anyway) from a declining number of active taxonomists.

This needs to be checked; however see point 2 below, and the number of new
species per year is nearly the same as before IT tools were available.

> 2. Do 'authors' equal active taxonomists? Is malacology representative of
> overall? McLain's article gives examples to the contrary.

First point: this also needs further analysis. Doubtless the modern trend is
to associate as co-authors people (technicians, collectors, providers) whose
former participation would have been acknowledged in the text only (long
term trend: going further back, Cuvier had a whole team of naturalists
writing for him, and he was instructing, controlling, editing and finally
signing the books alone...).

Second point: my hypothesis is that decrease / increase in numbers of
authors / species descriptions in one taxon is overall compensated in others
in the medium term. I believe that I have seen a demonstration in some of
Philippe Bouchet's presentations on numbers of marine species descriptions
(less nematodes, more fishes within ten years, if I remember well).

> 3. Last year (2010) I published 20 new species. I'm retired, and I was
paid zero
> euros to do this work. Don't you think your multiplication of 18000+ new
species by
> euros-per-species described by a fabulously well-paid fulltime taxonomist
might be
> a little... um, generous?

I am not considering what is paid to taxonomists for doing taxonomy, but
what is spent for taxonomy, whoever pays (including pension funds), taking
an average scientist salary as a basis for valuation. Considering only
professionals to analyze taxonomic production is fundamentally false: Benoit
Fontaine et al, based upon Fauna Europaea analysis, have shown that people
who are not paid for doing taxonomy have produced 54% of all new European
species descriptions in Europe in 2000-2003 (40% by non-professional, 12% by
retired professionals (the category of your 20 2010 n sp), 2% by students,
and only 46% by professional taxonomists (recent correspondence in Nature). 

This is by no way new, and actually my hypothesis is that since 1960 the
proportion of species described by professionals has been higher than it had
ever been. In what we consider the golden age of alpha taxonomy (between
1870 and 1914), most descriptions were produced by amateurs; and an average
lab in my museum would have at most three staff. This figure raised to 20
staff and more in the 60s; and even if now these 20 produce mostly some
research which is not alpha-taxonomic, the taxonomic production induced is
still higher than it had ever been before.
Our dominant model, in which most and best quality taxonomy is done by
professionals and second rate taxonomy is produced by amateurs of doubtful
legitimacy, simply does not and possibly never did correspond to the
I think that we can progress collectively by thinking in a model where a
minority of professionals provides standards, protocols, quality control,
infrastructures, and scientifically sound conceptual framework to a majority
of non-professional who produce more species descriptions than
professionals, and may know species better; and taxonomic institutions like
mine, of which taxonomy is part of their mission, should elaborate their
business models accordingly. In the modern jargon, what we have called
amateurs witheringly for two centuries are no more nor less than members of
the fashionable category of citizen scientists.

> 1) Training in taxonomy has largely disappeared from universities around
the world
> and has not been replaced by any other kind of taxonomic training. There
is a
> declining 'replacement stock' in taxonomy.
This needs to be first refined, and then documented: should taxonomic
training provide an expert in one taxon, or should it provide an expert in
theory, methods, standards, etc who can understand alpha taxonomy produced
by others and himself? Once this is defined, we can try to document the
condition of training in taxonomy, in function of an estimate of the needs
and taking into account the actual non-professional work force.

> 2) Replacements are needed because the existing taxonomic workforce is
> or getting near retirement. A 2008 Australian study reported that 30% of
> [taxonomic] workforce consists
>   of retirees working voluntarily; a large number of paid taxonomists are
> retirement (43% of working taxonomists are over 45 years of age...); an
average of
> 4 taxonomists are lost every year and only 1
>   taxonomist gained; 50% of the workforce will be lost by 2028.
More analysis needed: one cannot draw sharp a general conclusion from a
local situation - and are non-professionals considered in the figures of the

 3) The number of full-time jobs in taxonomy is declining around the world.
> reasons seem to be primarily economic:
Again, I am ready to believe it when I am shown figures which can be
checked. The two first ideas which come to my mind are that this may be only
the lowering tide, after the incredible increase in the 60s; and that again
the consequences cannot be estimated without taking the non-professional
into consideration for analysis.
As a conclusion, I would like to emphasize that defining who is and who is
not a taxonomist is so difficult that the best approach is to analyze the
situation of taxonomy first through production, which is measurable
objectively, and not through producers whose categories are tricky and have
to be defined in function of the question to which we want to answer 

Simon Tillier

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