Monday, January 6, 2014

"By people who don't need them for people who can't use them."

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?

8 comments:

Gunnar said...

Back when I prepared my revisionary work on Afrotropical Psychodidae I wrote many species-level keys based almost exclusively on the literature, none of which are likely to ever be released. I started briefly releasing them in a wiki project; one example is on http://psychodidae.wikinet.org/wiki/Mystropsychoda ;
but I don't think I would do such a thing if I was not a taxonomic specialist on the group.

Christopher Taylor said...

I agree with your supervisor, you really should publish that. I don't think it would count as plagiarism, so long as all sources are appropriately cited.

I recently put out publications on Amphientomidae (barklice) and Caeculidae (mites) that both included keys compiled from the literature. In both these cases, previous keys were incomplete and not in English publications, so I think the need for them justified their publication.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Gunner, Christopher - thanks for the advice! I will move it up from my someday/maybe list to my projects list. The illustrations may be tricky, but I think with some museum visits I could pull it off.

~Kai

beetlesinthebush said...

I agree with your adviser and Chris - you should publish the key. Put in the effort with illustrations to make it a solid and useful piece of work, which also eliminates any possibility somebody would think of it as plagiarism. New keys are always welcome, even by experts (at least in my universe)! The litmus test is whether the key is a material improvement over currently available - if so it should be published, if not set it aside.

Michael said...

It's not plagerism if you cite the keys you incorporate. No one else is going to put out a key, and even if they do, great, because it's nice to have two.keys- you can double check your I'D or switch keys if you get stuck in one.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Thanks Ted, Michael - Now I'm convinced. There will be a key, it could be a while. May check to see if a Sciaridae key should be published as well.

Derek Hennen said...

Kai, glad to hear you're going to publish your key. I'm happy to say I now recognize that family after coming across it when I was working on my fly collection last semester.

Thanks for writing your post, I'm going through some of the same questions as I think about publishing some millipede keys. As far as worrying about stepping on anyone's toes: I don't think that should be a consideration at all, especially in your case. 30 years and still nothing published? Just go for it, it will be helpful to others.

With regards to worrying about plagiarism, I think as long as you're properly citing things, it shouldn't be a concern. I've seen couplets and images recycled in keys, with the only reference being in the citations (though the previous work should have been acknowledged better). As long as you're up-front and transparent about how you put the key together, it shouldn't be a problem.

It sounds like most of the work will come from museum visits and new illustrations, so keep at it and good luck! I'm trying to figure out a good work schedule for the stuff I want to do, so we should keep in touch as we both work on our publications. I can tell you more info about mine, and you might be able to help me out, since you're in Ohio. Good luck!

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Derek -

Thanks for your comments!It's cool you recognized the family, since the MND doesn't include them as a family separate from Mycetophilidae. Yet another reason to write a new key.

Yes, I'm in Ohio, but I'm not sure how much help I'll be for your millipede research; I don't know the myriapods at all.

~Kai