Monday, February 25, 2013

The ICZN is Broke; Anyone have a hat?

This unfortunate news came to my attention over the past week:

Since 1895, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has helped ensure animal names are unique and long-lasting, with a panel of volunteer commissioners who maintain naming rules and resolve conflicts when they arise. But the U.K.-based charitable trust that supports all this is slated to run out of money before the year's end—and that could spell trouble.

This isn't just a problem for the arbitration process. Six months ago, the Commission passed an amendment allowing electronic only publication of names and other nomenclatural acts. Part of this amendment was provisions for an official registry of nomenclatural act publications, with a mandate that all electronic only articles must be registered with Zoobank prior to publishing. Otherwise, these names and acts are not considered available. A large portion of the ICZN's trust funds have gone to building and supporting the registry, so that may explain why the Commission is suddenly out of money after 66 years with "the Trust".

When the electronic publication amendment was decided on last year, I was worried. Then the worry went away as the Taxonomic End of Names did not arrive and tear asunder the work of centuries. (Note: taxonomists do not actually believe in an End of Names.) And now, the worry is creeping back.

If the ICZN cannot find funds in time, and Zoobank can no longer be supported, the rules of electronic only publication will fall apart, at least under the amendment. I won't even go into arbitration; you can imagine how bad it would be if the ICZN became a static document with no governing body. 

Not that there hasn't already been trouble with people not following the amendment rules. The best example is of a number of fossil species described recently in PNAS, including a lizard named 'Obamadon', after President Obama. Not only did the authors fail to register the publication with Zoobank, they published these descriptions in supplementary information, which is explicitly not a valid way of publishing species. (Catalogue of Organisms has a complete summary.) And the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences isn't exactly a low impact journal, so you can expect this sort of thing is happening more often than once.

But back to the point, which is that the stability of animal names is in trouble. Dr. Roderic Page pointed out on his blog that the funds aren't impossibly high; only 78 thousand is needed to get through the year. While Dr. Page suggests hitting up Kickstarter, and the chair of the trust's board says he will be begging for money at natural history museums (which are woefully funded as it is), a better idea may be to go to online bioinformatics organizations for help. Websites like Encyclopedia of Life, Integrated Taxonomic Information System, Discover Life, and BOLDS require accurate taxonomic information for their databases, and so have the greatest benefit from seeing Zoobank succeed. It would make sense for these large scale databases to collaborate funds and help out the Commission, because that rides well with their individual missions.

Another idea may be to go the way of the Other Code. The International Botanical Congress is a completely volunteer organization that meets every six years and updates their Code of Botanical Nomenclature, as well as arbitrates disputes. The argument against this is that there is no equivalent meeting for zoology that is well attended. Although, if things continue to worsen for zoological nomenclature people may find it more reasonable. I'm hoping it won't reach that point.

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