Thursday, September 10, 2015

Zoobank is down (the future of taxonomic publishing).

ZooBank is currently down while I'm writing this, the "official registry of Zoological Nomenclature". This is the registry that all new electronically published names and nomenclatural acts must use before publication, and that all traditionally published nomenclatural acts SHOULD use before publication (but usually don't).

I don't know if this is just temporary down time, or this has been going for a while, but it's a definite problem. Especially with the way publishing is going.

I was just talking with Morgan Jackson about social media and taxonomic publications, because I woke up with a weird thought in my head this morning: what if I took the taxonomic portion of my dissertation, registered the new names with ZooBank, and published it as a PDF on my blog? Given the standards currently in the ICZN, and assuming I'm meticulous about referencing type specimens and depositories, etc., the new names would be totally available under the code! Any person can do this now, or at least they could if ZooBank was running.

This isn't only limited to nomenclatural acts originally published as PDFs. To quote Morgan,

"The Winnower is working to publish, assign DOIs and archive blog posts and reddit threads right now. There is very little standing in the way of someone publishing a new species name in an electronic place like reddit (with the proper [ZooBank] registration and everything) and having it become valid via Winnower sucking it up...As far as I know they haven't finalized their archiving with [CLOCKSS] yet, so they haven't met all of the Code requirements for digital publication, but last I talked to them it was in the works"

The Winnower, for those who aren't familiar, is an open access publishing site that uses an open access peer review system. They specialize mostly in commentary on publications (i.e., post publication peer review), but their targets include a wide variety of non-traditional publishing platforms like blogs and web forums. CLOCKSS is an archiving platform for electronic publications, which The Winnower is using to store publications as PDFs. What Morgan is suggesting is that a taxonomic work registered with ZooBank could be originally published on a blog, adopted by The Winnower, and archived with CLOCKSS; thus it would meet all electronic publication requirements of The Code despite not being available in it's original publishing context.

It seems convoluted, but the above scenario is totally workable under the current version of The Code. I can see both positive and negative elements of this. For one, the traditional taxonomic publishing method is incredibly ponderous, even with taxonomic journals such as Zookeys and Zootaxa. Publishing is further complicated by the general feeling in biology that taxonomic works are low priority under the categories "impact" and "significance". It also opens up low or zero cost ways for taxa-hackers to publish their work, and I'm all for that. (That new species of fungus gnat I've been sitting on, for example. Hmmm...)

Conversely, I see the recent trend in taxonomy for higher quality publications and the role Zootaxa, Zookeys, and other taxonomic journals have played in this. I would hate for taxonomic publishing to slide back into Townsend-esque quality or for taxonomic vandalism in the mode of a certain Australian snake hobbyist to become more common.

Someone will try one of the above methods eventually. Or whenever Zoobank is up and running again. At the time of finishing this, the registry website is available! But it still worries me, because electronic publication is only going to become more important in the next decade. If Zoobank is unreliable, then what of the future of animal taxonomy?

Thanks to Morgan Jackson (@bioinfocus) for help in fermenting these ideas.