Recently, I discovered the long awaited revision of the North American black winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae) has finally been published (Note: link is only the first page). Studia Dipterologica is a relatively obscure publications for fly nuts, so it took some digging to get a copy. In my excitement upon arrival, I scanned through the entire text, looking for the thing I was really excited about. And it's not there, there's no genus key.
A bit of background: The Manual of Nearctic Diptera remains today a masterpiece, 30 years after publication. It includes generic keys to every family of Diptera in North America, for adults and sometimes for larvae as well. And it's freely available online, too, so all the better! But even in this continuing piece d'resistance of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, there are problems. Things have changed since 1983, there are new genera, synonyms of old genera, and elevated subgenera. And some keys simply don't work very well, or are not trustworthy. This is not true for all the keys, of course. Most of them still work perfectly fine. And even for some of the ones that don't work perfectly, that's just the nature of the game for those groups. I'm looking at you, Tachinidae. It doesn't matter how well a tachinid key is designed, they're the most difficult group of flies and they are going to be difficult until the end of time.
In other cases, however, it's more a matter of updating. Black winged fungus gnats are not the easiest group of flies to identify, but there have been changes since Volume 1 of the Manual was published. What's frustrating is, the Mohrig et al revision is a very nice catalog of all the described North American Sciaridae, with updated names, descriptions, and genitalic illustrations in many cases, but there is no revised genus key. Why? Not THAT much has changed since 1983, it wouldn't be that difficult. Why didn't they include an updated key to the genera in their revision?
This reminds me of another situation.
For about two years now, I have been sitting on this key. It's an updated genus key to the keroplatid fungus gnats of North America, meant to replace a section of the Mycetophilidae in the Manual of Nearctic Diptera. It's even available online, though not exactly pretty. Last week, my adviser said, you know, you should really publish that. Emphatically, he said it. And he's right, I should publish it. But I'm not going to, not now, anyway.
Why? Three reasons:
1. I can't verify it without more research. I've used a combination of several publications, the world checklist, and intuition to build it. But I've looked at very few specimens, and I have no collection to back it up. This was the preliminary work for what was going to be my dissertation, and when I ended up working on tachinid flies instead, well... The Orfeliini is the real problem, with the previous genus Orfelia split up into a large number of what used to be subgenera. Since I don't have a good collection, I don't know if species in the World Catalog are correctly placed. There may even be genera in North America not currently in my key. And I haven't had time to follow up.
2. It needs illustrations. I could quickly and easily format the thing for ZooKeys or the CJAI, but without illustrations it's not going to be easy to use. Especially for all the 'new' Orfeliini genera. I don't have illustrations because I need specimens from all the genera to make them. See item 1.
3. I feel like I'm going to be stepping on someone's toes. I don't think anyone is working on this right now, but I can't be sure. And the key is derived, it's a synthesis; there isn't really any new stuff there, it's a combination of the MND key PLUS Lane 1951 PLUS Vockeroth 1981 PLUS the Manual of Paelearctic Diptera and others. I'm afraid someone is going to accuse me of plagiarism, or of trying to inflate my publication number, or tell me the Manual is good enough as it is, just leave it.
The title alludes to a common saying about identification keys, that they're written by people who don't need them (experts), for people who can't use them (non-experts). Yet they are incredibly useful, even in this day and age when digital HD photographs are a click of a button. Keys are the technology side of our work, they're the tools we create to make our lives easier. Not every specimen is perfect, and not every taxonomic group is nicely defined by a single, specially shared character that no other group has (cf. Tachinidae, again), it's true. Digital identification keys such as Lucid Keys allow much greater flexibility, with multiple starting points, the ability to account for character variability (e.g. lengths), and overall more characters to work with. However, in most cases, a good dichotomous key is much faster to use, in spite of the learning period.
But there seems to be some barriers to publishing keys, especially updates of older works. There's only so many ways I can split up Keroplatidae. Since the parsimonious way is the best way, and since THAT way is the way the Manual is set up, why NOT use the Manual's key as the basis? Maybe my reasons are the same reasons for no updated Sciaridae key in Mohrig et al.
So, some general questions for ya'all:
Is the reworking and synthesizing of old keys into a single, updated key for publication plagiarism?
Is the publication of revisions without dicotomous keys a trend, or is this an isolated case?
How much extra work needs to be put into an update before it becomes worthwhile to publish? Half? One-fourth? The whole shebang?
Do any of you have any keys you're sitting on, not publishing, for the above reasons or others?