Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Taxonomy - crisis, what crisis?

Following on from the last post How many species are there, and why do we get two very different answers from same data? another interesting paper has appeared in TREE:

Lucas N. Joppa, David L. Roberts, Stuart L. Pimm The population ecology and social behaviour of taxonomists Trends in Ecology & Evolution doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.07.010

The paper analyses the "ecology and social habits of taxonomists" and concludes:

Conventional wisdom is highly prejudiced. It suggests that taxonomists were a formerly more numerous people, are in 'crisis', are becoming endangered and are generally asocial. We consider these hypotheses and reject them to varying degrees.

Queue flame war on TAXACOM, no doubt, but it's a refreshing conclusion, and it's based on actual data. Here I declare an interest. I was a reviewer, and in a fit of pique recommended rejection simply because the authors don't make the data available (they do, however, provide the R scripts used to do the analyses). As the authors patiently pointed out in their response to reviews, the various explicit or implicit licensing statements attached to taxonomic data mean they can't provide the data (and I'm assuming that in at least some cases the dark art of screen scrapping was used to get the data).

There's an irony here. Taxonomic databases are becoming hot topics, generating estimates of the scale of the task facing taxonomy, and diagnosing state of the discipline itself (according to Joppa et al. it's in rude health). This is the sort of thing that can have a major impact on how people perceive the discipline (and may influence how many resources are allocated to the subject). If taxonomists take issue with the analyses then they will find them difficult to repeat because the taxonomic data they've spent their careers gathering are under lock and key.