Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reaction to taxonomic reactionaries

Nature header edThere is a fairly scathing editorial in Nature [The new zoo. (2013). Nature, 503(7476), 311–312. doi:10.1038/503311b ] that reacts to a recent paper by Dubois et al.:

Dubois, A., Crochet, P.-A., Dickinson, E. C., Nemésio, A., Aescht, E., Bauer, A. M., Blagoderov, V., et al. (2013). Nomenclatural and taxonomic problems related to the electronic publication of new nomina and nomenclatural acts in zoology, with brief comments on optical discs and on the situation in botany. Zootaxa, 3735(1), 1. doi:10.11646/zootaxa.3735.1.1

To quote the editorial:

...there might be more than a disinterested concern for scientific integrity at work here. A typical reader of the Zootaxa paper (not that there are typical readers of a 94-page work on the minutiae of nomenclature protocol) might reasonably conclude that the authors have axes to grind. Exhibits A–E: the high degree of autocitation in the Zootaxa paper; the admission that some of the authors were against the ICZN amendments; that they clearly feel that their opinions regarding the amendments have been disregarded; the ad hominem attacks on ‘wealthy’ publishers as opposed to straitened natural-history societies; and the use of emotive and occasionally intemperate language that one does not associate with the usually dry and legalistic tone of debate on this subject. (The online publisher BioMed Central, based in London, gets a particular pasting, to which it has responded; see

One of many recommendations made in the diatribe is that journals should routinely have on their review boards those expert in the business of nomenclature — in other words, a cadre of people who are, unlike ordinary mortals, qualified to interpret the mystic strictures of the code. A typical reader is again entitled to ask whom, apart from themselves, the authors think might be suitable candidates.

Ouch! But Dubois et al.'s paper pretty much deserves this reaction - it's a reactionary rant that is breathtaking in it's lack of perspective. From the abstract:

As shown by several examples discussed here, an electronic document can be modified while keeping the same DOI and publication date, which is not compatible with the requirements of zoological nomenclature. Therefore, another system of registration of electronic documents as permanent and inalterable will have to be devised.

So, we have an identifier system for publications which currently has 63,793,212 registered DOIs (see CrossRef), includes key journals such as Zootaxa and ZooKeys, and which has tools to support versioning of papers (see CrossMark) but hey, let's have our own unique system. After all, zoological nomenclature is special, and our community has such a good track record of maintaining our own identifier system (LSIDs anyone?).

Now that the financial crisis faced by the ICZN has been averted by a three-year bail-out by the National University of Singapore (for three years at least), maybe the guardians of scientific names can focus on providing tools and services of value to the broader scientific community (or, indeed, taxonomists). As it stands, the ICZN can say little about the majority of animal names. Much better to focus on that than trying to rail against the practices of modern publishing.