Friday, November 22, 2013

Important kernels lost in the chaff.

There are clear, concise collections of criticism. And then there's this paper. At 94 pages, it's not a short read, so I don't blame you for skimming. It's already received a lot of flack. In short summary, Alain Dubois and 18 other authors published an almost op-ed style article on problems existing in zoological nomenclature, particularly in reference to electronic publication of names and nomenclatural acts. The above links already have eviscerated it.  By that standard, I shouldn't even bother. But wait, what's this?

Given the demands on their time, the ICZN members could probably do without a reprisal of the online versus print naming debate — a debate, remember, that saw the farcical printing to paper of hard copies of online-only papers, which were then handed to libraries to fulfil the exact wording of the code. The Zootaxa authors seem unwilling, or unable, to move on. They have a semantic bee in their bonnet over the code’s requirement that species descriptions must be always “available”. When the online publishers they contacted explained that, no, they did not routinely supply paper versions of the files on the journal’s websites, the authors, rather uncharitably, deemed the information unavailable to them. ---the Nature editorial
Uhhhh.....cue Indigo Montoya. "Availability" does not mean "I can pick it up at the library" under the Code. To be available is to satisfy all criteria within the Code necessary to be considered for validity, priority, and other things. It is a whole lot more than the location of the published work. For example, a nomina novum, or 'new name', is not available unless the type specimen(s) are referenced explicitly, as well as the location where the types are to be deposited. You forgot to do this? Sorry! Your new name might as well have never been put in the literature for all it means to the Code. Refining the articles on availability means that species descriptions have higher standards, which is considered good by anyone who's tried to wade through the old literature.

Given that Nature failed to understand that, a basic and important concept in the Code, I wondered how much more they were flubbing about the article. So I read it. All 94 pages.

What I discovered was, well, a mess. Oodles of footnotes, most of them irrelevant to the paper. CamelCase, really? Symbols in journal names? Philosophizing about supplementary materials? It doesn't matter if I agree with them or not, this is supposed to be a paper about problems with electronic publication of new names. Then there's the intentional emotive, non-academic language. See the footnote on page 29 for an example. And in all things there's this sort of ivory tower dictatorial outlook, as if their opinions are final. Maybe from the authors' point of view they are. The majority of the authors hail from old European natural history institutions. And there's the fact that Dubois cited himself 38 times in the references. 

It's unfortunate that within all this there are some actual relevant criticisms, some of which were not covered in electronic vs. paper debates before the 2012 amendment. For example, some journals mistook the allowance for optical disk deposition (sometimes called the "5-copy rule") to extend to all electronic publications, including PDFs. Which means there are a whole bunch of names between 1999 and 2012 which are not available due to poor reading of the Code. This does not include mixed-model journals like Zootaxa, which publish both an electronic and a printed version with separate identification numbers. In those cases, the printed versions satisfy the Code. The rest, not so much. 

There's also criticisms of pre-publication editions (which make establishing date of publication more difficult), publishing of new names in electronic supporting information (which does not fulfill the criteria of availability, even under the 2012 amendment), and the treatment of online checklists as authoritative. All of these are useful criticisms, as is the main (lost) point of the appendixes, namely, that authors and journals don't understand the changes in the 2012 amendment very well. BioMed Central has responded to the authors' complaints, which is understandable as they took the brunt of the criticism. They reference their editorial policies on describing new taxa, which is available for all to see. They also reference the "5-copy rule", saying they followed the Code. (Note: there is no 5-copy rule in the code anymore. Even if this prior rule could have been interpreted to include deposition not in the form of optical disks, all electronic-only publications before 2012 are considered unavailable.) All of this is irrelevant, as they are still publishing unavailable names even now, after the 2012 amendment. Again, I don't blame them for being upset. The Dubois et al. paper was purposefully inflammatory and should be derided as such.

In summary, there are still problems with electronic publishing of names. But this paper will not be remembered for valid criticisms. Instead, it will be another sign that taxonomy has lost sight of the times. As the Nature editorial pointed out, all the recent ICZN news seems to be bad press. Taxonomists look as if we are a bunch of doryphores, interested more in trivial piddly lawyerisms than solving actual problems. Spend some time on the listservs, for example, or read this paper, it's the same. Without change we'll be irrelevant.

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