Thursday, October 25, 2007

IISE Planet Bob: bringing Taxonomy to the public

This week the International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE), a new research institute based at Arizona State University, released Planet Bob. This short, humorous film is the first effort within the IISE's commitment in educating and bringing the science of Taxonomy closer to the public. It does a good job in shaking off Taxonomy's reputation as a dead science and in describing the field's central role in biodiversity studies.

Watching the clip reminded me how unbelievable it seems that ants entered the realm of cybertaxonomy more than 10 years ago with the creation of antbase by Donat Agosti.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Publication of species names on the Web

I recently found a letter Donat Agosti, Jim Carpenter and I sent to the journal Science some years ago. The letter was prompted by the journal's publication of a new species of a pre-Cambrian bilaterian fossil. The issue was that no introduction of a new scientific name was to be found in the printed version of the article, since this had been relegated to the electronic, on-line only, supplemented materials. The fossil, thus, remain unnamed in accordance to the Zoological Code of Nomenclature.

Our letter never got published, but we did receive a reply from the journal some months later. I for one was pleasantly surprised that the editors consider the matter and cared to write us back. It is very interesting. You can read both our original letter and Science's reply below.

The issue of electronic publishing of scientific names for organism continues unsolved, but great progress has been made by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature itself with initiatives like ZooBank.

(Submitted to Science magazine on July 13, 2004)
The report on the oldest bilaterian fossils by Chen and co-workers (“Small Bilaterian Fossils from 40 to 50 Million Years Before the Cambrian,” 9 July, p. 218) invites reexamination not only of current theories of metazoan evolution but of the rules of zoological nomenclature as well. Although the interpretation of the fossils and discussion of the relevance of the discovery appeared in both the printed and online versions of this journal, the systematic paleontology section introducing the new generic and specific names appeared as an online supplement only. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), regulating the application of scientific names of animals, is yet to regard as valid publication of “text or illustrations distributed by electronic signals (e.g., by means of the World Wide Web)” (Art. 9.8.) exclusively. No scientific name for the new bilaterian fossils is thus yet available.

It is worth quoting Art. 8.6. of the ICZN as it also pertains online publication: “For a work produced after 1999 by a method other than printing on paper to be accepted as published within the meaning of the Code, it must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself.” The explicit rejection by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature of the WWW as a mean of publication responds to valid concerns regarding the permanence of such electronic media. The growing popularity of exclusively electronic, peer-reviewed, scientific journals is a welcome trend, and there is no reason why publication of scientific names for organism shouldn’t follow in that direction. However, permanence of electronic-only published scientific research should be a universal concern and not just an issue of zoological nomenclature. Greater discussion and involvement in this area by the scientific community and the publishers can result in a successful model that will prompt the ICZN to modify its rules to allow the use of electronic media as a valid form of publication for the purpose of scientific nomenclature.

Roberto A. Keller, Donat Agosti and James M. Carpenter
Division of Invertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park west at 79th Street, New York, NY 10024, USA

(reply by Science on April 27, 2005)
Dear Dr. Keller,

Thank you for your letter regarding the policies of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) regarding publication of new generic and specific names on the WWW. We were unaware of that policy. We feel that the publication of electronic only information has reached a level of sophistication such that we are confident in the ability of libraries, of HighWire Press (our online publisher), and other non profit institutions to maintain copies of our electronic only publications in perpetuity. Sciences online version is the journal of record and multiple redundant copies are held at HighWire Press and at numerous libraries. Science has been published since 1880 and is fully confident that its archives from the first issue indefinitely onward will be available for future scholars. Thus we disagree with the premise of the ICZNs policy and would urge them to revisit it.

Nevertheless, we will keep the ICZNs view in mind in the future when reporting new species in the pages of Science.

Best wishes,

Katrina L. Kelner, PhD
Deputy Editor, Life Sciences

Since the bilaterian fossil publication, I have not seen new species published in Science magazine where the nomenclature does not appear in the printed version. I will always wonder how much our letter played a role in that.