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.


Gunnar said...

Luckily the problem of blognames is just a theoretical exercise for now, and my guess is that it will remain so if us in the taxonomist blogger community behave. The economic incentives for professional taxonomists are for journal articles rather than for erection of new taxa, meaning that we probably will have to worry a lot more about bogus journals (which can't be easily stopped under ICZN) than about blogs and reddits.

What can the ICZN do if the vandalism starts drowning out the legitimate science? In Microbiology, all new names have to be published in the same journal, and prior to publication there the taxa in question are referred to as "candidate taxa". I don't think a single journal would be received well in zoology, for good reasons -- it would put too much control in the hands of publishers. I could envision a "first-reviser" requirement in the Code, though, in which each taxon would have to be accepted by a subsequent, ideally independent author.

This would all lead to more convoluted taxonomic publishing, which will be unpractical given that so much diversity remains to be described and published. If we can avoid this, we should; so despite the lack of foolproofing in the current system I think we should stick to it as long as it works (as I would argue that it does today).

Kai said...

What you're talking about isn't a nomenclatural issue, it's a taxonomic and ethical problem, and those problems aren't the purview of the ICZN. The availability of self published or "bogus" journals is already well established, because the criteria for availability are exactly the same as any other work published in a journal. As much as many people would like to say it isn't so, it's not currently the job of the Commission to rule on such things apart from how they effect stability of nomenclature.

Publication via blogs is interesting because it's a potentially rich avenue for publication, and no one's tried it yet, or at least not successfully. It's a New Game; even electronic journal publication is becoming old hat now, because Journals, bogus or not, are part of the established publishing regime. Blogs, forums, and other such places are uncharted territory, and I find that fascinating.


Croose Hackle said...
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David Marjanović said...

bogus journals (which can't be easily stopped under ICZN)

The obvious solution is to copy the future International Code of Phylogenetic Nomenclature and make peer review a necessary condition for every nomenclatural act.

The availability of self published or "bogus" journals is already well established, because the criteria for availability are exactly the same as any other work published in a journal.

There are borderline cases. The Australasian Journal of Herpetology or whatever it's called – in any case you know exactly what I mean – counts as properly published if you believe certain very specific things its author/editor/publisher has said about it; if you believe what his detractors say about the same details, it's not validly published. (Nobody has tried to claim that it's peer-reviewed.)