Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Impartiality Ethic.

     Among my many current projects, including a preliminary exam, I'm writing a novel. I was convinced by a colleague to join in the National Novel Writing Month goal back in November, and have managed to put nearly 20 thousand words into an original story. Since I write what I know, the story is about grad students, imposter syndrome, taxonomy, ICZNerdery, and natural history in a world where names have power. It will probably never see the light of day, but I did want to mention one thing. In the story, the idea of Universality of Names is taken very seriously. Since names have power, and the precision of that power is derived in part from universal usage, the process of naming is heavily regulated. There's even an analog of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which is both an arbitrator of disputes and a governing body. The Commission of that world polices the usage of names, to the point where people who do their work poorly are stripped from the books.

    The Commission of this world, does not.

      This is an important distinction, and lies at the heart of the matter I want to discuss. The Commission does not police names, it is solely an arbitrator of disputes. If the taxonomy of a particular paper is bad science, yet the names are otherwise available under The Code, it is not the place of the Commissioners to act upon it. That is, as things are now.

      In the latest edition of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Commissioners Yanega and Harvey published a Call for Comments about "Taxonomic Practice and the Code". Before I dive into that, let's look at why we're talking about it in the first place. 

      Taxonomy has a history of people with an itch, an itch to name things. And not just a need to name things, but to have one's own name be associated with those things forever. It comes from the formal practice of writing the name of the author and the date of the publication after a scientific name. The term "mihi-itch" is sometimes used to describe this affliction, as mihi is Latin for "mine; of me" (see Neal Evenhuis 2008 paper for a full history of the term). And they will often let the ends justify the means (including bad taxonomy).

     This is not new (cf. the bone wars of the 19th century for an extreme example), yet the recent explosion of journals and other easy routes of publication have enabled those with this "disorder". Furthermore, there's no requirement in The Code for science of any kind. The Code is "theory-free", it makes no comments on how to do taxonomy. In the introduction of the Fourth Edition, the late W.D.L. Ride writes, "The Code refrains from infringing upon taxonomic judgement, which must not be made subject to regulation or restraint." Nor is there a requirement in The Code that nomenclatural acts be peer reviewed, a relatively new academic invention. This hands-off attitude is important because, as arbitrators, the Commissioners must remain neutral in the cases they are hearing. The Code of Ethics in Appendix A states: '7. The observation of these principles is a matter for the proper feelings and conscience of individual zoologists, and the Commission is not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches of them.' All of this means that those with the mihi-itch do unwanted things that are outside the ability of the Commission to arbitrate upon.

      The impetus for this particular discussion is a case submitted by Ramond Hoser of Australia. Hoser is a herpetologist who has become infamous in taxonomy for what Darren Naish calls "taxonomic vandalism", and what I have heard others call "taxonomic inflation", or even hyperbolize as "taxonomic terrorism". The method is simple: Produce publications with a large number of nomina nova in the hope that some of them will pay out and actually be valid. In his recent paper "The Taxon Filter", Hinrich Kaiser writes, 

"...Hoser uses the Code as a ‘name-laundering scheme’: his mass-produced names go in and ‘clean’ names come out. The more names that are put through the system, the greater is the likelihood that some will by coincidence stand if science eventually produces supporting facts. None of these names have a rigorous scientific foundation..."

     So, the overall quality of work is poor. However, as long as the new names follow the letter of the Code, the names are still available. And if a few of the names which satisfy availability end up being new to science, they're valid. In which case occurred when he happened to raise cobra (Najas) subgenera in a scoop of other taxonomists in his own self edited journal. In particular, his genus Spracklandus was valid, and not just as a potential classification scheme, but in the exact manner these other taxonomists were working to publish as subgenera. Needless to say, Wallach, Wüster, and Broadly were not please, and published their own revision of the subgenera later that year. The three authors named the subgenus Afronaja, and claimed the Hoser publication was not available under the code because it was not properly published. They write,

"Although Hoser claims the existence of a printed version of his journal, we have found evidence of only one single copy, deposited in the Australian National Library (ANL). [...] On 9 May 2009, one of us (VW) recieved printed copies of all the issues of the Australasian Journal of Herpetology. Unlike the ANL copy of Issue 7, all these issues are printed on one side only, and give the appearance of having been printed on demand at the same time: all have a pair of longitudinal white lines along the midline of the entire page: issue 1 has the lines spaced about 2 mm apart but all the other issues have the lines spaced 5 mm apart, suggesting that they were printed at the same time. These lines are not present in the ANL copy of Issue 7. All the issues received by us are bound by a single large staple in the upper, left hand corner. We conclude that the Australasian Journal of Herpetology is an online publication that fails to fulfill the requirements of Articles 8.1.3 and 8.6, any printed copies are printed on demand and therefore do not constitute published work under the provisions of Article 9.7, and the electronic versions available from Hoser's website are not published under the provisions of Article 9.8."
     To make the rest of the story short, Hoser claimed the authors were frauds, saying, "the men chose not to look in the one place that the Zoological Rules said hard copies should be sent to, namely Zoological Record". (Which makes it seem like he isn't as familiar as he considers himself, since there is no provision in The Code requiring copies to be sent to the publication Zoological Record, only a recommendation.) People are now confused about which revision to use, and cobras are, as you might guess, medically important snakes. If the journal was published hardcopy, Spracklandus is available, and Afronaja is a junior objective synonym, and invalid. If the journal was not published hardcopy, "Spracklandus" is unavailable, and Afronaja is the valid name. All of this is the subject of Case 3601 Spracklandus Hoser, 2009. 

     And whatever decision comes out of that case is irrelevant to me. Before Mr. Hoser or any of his friends descend upon my blog like locusts to grain, I work on insects, not snakes, I have no stake in this. I don't care if the subgenus is named Afronaja or Spracklandus. Whatever the Commissioners decide is fine by me. I do find Hoser's journal atrocious and taxonomic methods (or lack thereof) appalling, but my opinion on that matter is powerless. Please leave me alone, I'm just a poor grad student.

      What is relevant to me is that this case has prompted a Call for Comments by Commissioners Harvey and Yanega. This is a request for opinions from the greater community of taxonomists. The Commission receives open comments on all their cases, but this is a more general call; not about the Spracklandus case in particular, but about the historic and continued neutrality towards ethics and unwillingness to police the taxonomic community. They write,

"The question has been put before us, however, as to whether the desires of the community can compel a re-evaluation of the policy of neutrality; specifically, whether taxonomic freedom requires us to remain blind to ethical considerations, including a failure to adhere to proper standards of scientific conduct. Therefore, we seek guidance from the taxonomic community as to whether there is a perceived need for change, and we wish to solicit comments in order to ascertain a clearer picture of public opinion. We are, ultimately, at the service of the community, and if there is a consensus indicating that the community feels neutrality does not serve their needs, then we wish to be clear about it. 

[...] Basically, what we seek to know is whether the taxonomic community wants to continue dealing with these issues at their own discretion, or whether they want the Commission to be empowered to do so (or something in between); we will not do so on our own initiative."

     I love that, a perfect exposition of neutrality, and the unwillingness to wield power unless asked. The antithesis of politicians. They're asking us how they may best serve all of us. Go over and read all of it, it's short and sweet.

     So. As stated above in the bold text, I'm just a lowly grad student. They're asking for comments, but I'm not confident enough to submit my opinion to the Commission on this matter. But if I were to submit a comment, maybe it would go something like this.

     The long standing neutrality of the Commission is an important part of remaining above conflicts within the taxonomic community. A reduction in the sort of neutrality described in the Code of Ethics will mean the Commission has the possibility of becoming a 'political tool' rather than a body for impartial arbitration of conflicts. It will set a precedent in a system which is supposed to avoid making precedents. The Commissioners should continue to arbitrate only on cases brought to them, and only on conflicts covered under the Code, and should not seek out problems for which to "apply justice". Instead, taxonomists should band together in rejection of those who fail to uphold scientific ethics and good taxonomy. 

     I am a student, and I have little power. But, if I am worthy, I would hope someday to be selected to serve this community. If I am honored with that task, I would like be the sort of arbitrator described illustrated in the Call for Comments: impartial, restrained, and dedicated.


Morgan Jackson said...

Good write up Kai. I agree with you that the ICZN should be staying well away from petty squabbles like this (even if it's supposedly not just about Hoser).

Slightly alarming is the further evidence that the ICZN is completely out of touch with modern communication. "Please only respond through the official channels and don't talk about this in public". Really? You want to try & have a "public" discourse on this, but you don't want us to discuss it in email listservs, Twitter, Blogs, etc? Good on you Kai for being a rebel, and adding more street cred to your taxahacker label! :D

ZL "Kai" Burington said...


I didn't see the notice not to talk about this in public. However, I'm just a grad student, what do I know anyway? ;)

More seriously, what better place to voice opinions than on a blog? No publishing time, a simple act to edit or correct later, can be shared instantaneously across the Internet, and the content is completely controlled by the author. I have practically zero publication power, so I doubt any comment I made would be taken seriously. Thus, I'm talking here.

Hell, I'd talk here even if I was directly criticized for this. It's a challenge. And, like you said, I'm a taxa-hacker. I have my own Code of Ethics, which includes free discourse.

Max Barclay said...

I think you SHOULD send something to the ICZN Secretariat; explain your status and state your opinions. They should listen to a 'grad student'-that is after all the next generation of Professors and Curators.

@Morgan, I think the plea wasn't not 'don't talk about it in public'- the plea was to send meaningful well thought out comments to the ICZN for consideration instead of wasting everyone's time having flame wars on list servers- My impression of Yanega is that he's quite sensible and democratic, and relatively 'in touch' (as they go)

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Max - I'll consider it, but as it stands I prefer this public message. I want it to stand in sharp contrast to the current taxacom flamewars.

My first reaction to your 'next generation' statement was cynical. Something like, "assuming there will be a next generation, or that I will be part of it". Which I guess shows how low the prospects feel to me. I do this because I love it, even though I'm not likely to succeed. That's just statistics and economics.

Tamsyn Fricker said...

This blog is absolute rubbish and clearly it seems to be written by a man with loose regard for the factual accuracy.
Historical record shows, Wuster first said Hoser's taxa were not valid entities (see Wuster’s papers from 2000 to 2009). Then after other scientists confirmed Hoser was right, Wuster now claims Hoser stole his work (see Wallach, Wuster and Broadley 2009 and later rants)!
As a herpetologist speaking to a would be insect taxonomist, I suggest you get your facts marginally correct before you lampoon a recognized expert in the form of Ray Hoser, who is a leader in his field and made a contribution to science few others have matched.
It is clear you have no intention to argue about Hoser’s science, so my suggestion is you stop casting aspersions about his credibility as well.
You should let your readers view a little more about Wuster and his cronies

Marsumies said...

^ Haha. Hoser at his twuntiest.

Matt Bruce said...

Had the pleasure of being taught by Wuster at Bangor University. Great blog and great to see grad students getting involved!

Anonymous said...

why bother creatign another fake account Ray? Everyone knows your self promotion the comments are identical every place you go.

Wolfgang Wüster said...

Very nice post and point of view, Kai.

Just one complaint about your post: there is nothing "lowly" about being a grad student.

I very much hope that you will submit a comment to the Commission. The most helpful, constructive and insightful comments will come from those who are not personally involved in the ongoing controversies but have their eyes and ears open and their brains switched on.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Hey, thanks for your kind comments, Matt!

And to the above obvious sockpuppet (really, I've been doing this internet thing longer than a few days, takes more than an obvious alt account to fool me) only this paraphrased quote: this taxahacker does not negotiate with terrorists.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...


It's good to know that one of the people involved thinks my post is nice! My point of view is that of a nomenclature nerd, because as hard as I try I can't seem to escape talking about this stuff. Maybe I was a lawyer in another life?

As for being "lowly", I mean that in the sense that my opinion on these things has little weight. I am not faculty at a university or staff member at a natural history museum, and I am much younger than most people interested in these things. I'm also inexperienced, and probably put my foot in my mouth quite often with respect to the Code. That said, being lowly has it's benefits; I am not constrained by politics, or by professional relations. There's a freedom in being title-less.

Like I told Max, I'll consider issuing a formal comment, but I like having this as a public contrast to the flamewars.

Scott Thomson said...

Kai.. I will also reiterate dont consider yourself a "lowly grad student" I won a student prize at a major conference while an undergrad, you can make a difference if you choose to take the opportunity.
Second, interesting blog, congratulations on that. I do not work on snakes so Hoser and I do not directly cross paths, but I have had to deal with protagonists in the turtle world. My view is that because of the increased speed in all this offered by the internet, including bloogs like this, the damage is much more significant than it was in the past. Maybe the ICZN will just have to wade into this. I have written a comment for them also. Cheers, Scott

Ron Pine said...

This is by no means merely a petty squabble, as one of you above said.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Scott- thanks for your kind comments. I'm starting to wonder if using the Hoser case example was a bad idea. There are plenty of examples of taxonomic vandalism in the insect world, the onemthat hits closest to home is CHT Townsend, who worked on calypterate fly taxonomy. The sme issues, going on 80+ years ago, long before internet.

Ron- I can't speak for Morgan's comment, but from my own point of view, the flamewars going on in the listservs do seem quite petty, people trying to get shots in as if any of it will make a whit of difference to the Commission's decision on this case. The commissioners will decide based on the evidence found in their invetigation, as it pertains to the Code, and will decide whether the name is available by whether the publication is properly published.

Morgan Jackson said...

Lots of great discussion going on here (mostly), and I fully agree that you should send this along through the formal channels to the ICZN! It'll be a great first step to becoming a Commissioner yourself!

As for the request for no public comments, Commissioner Doug Yanega explicitly said he didn't want this sort of thing happening at least twice on Taxacom. I can't understand why, but there it is.

ZL "Kai" Burington said...

Morgan- I ended up submitting a comment about an hour so your encouragement is quite timely. :) Though, I altered the second part to be less...cheesy. I'm not sure why you continue to sugget that there is the possibility that I might some day become a commissioner, but I'll take it as a complement.

Also, I'm trying to avoid the listservs right now, as they are full of spam and firey flamewars. But I do think my above post was useful, for myself, if not for anyone else.

Morgan Jackson said...

Anyone who lays awake at night thinking about the Code is the perfect candidate to do so formally, I believe. I don't even know how commissioners are selected, but I'll have a letter ready for you should you need it!

And I'm all for this rebellious discussion in non-official channels. Good work, and I'm glad to hear you've made it official as well.