Field of Science

What Would the ICZN Do?

The science-blogging world has seen a fair bit of discussion in the last couple of days over an alleged piece of unethical behaviour on the part of certain researchers at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, who have been accused of rushing articles into print deliberately pre-empting or even plagiarising the work of other researchers. I won't repeat all the sordid details here - instead, I recommend that you go to Tetrapod Zoology and read what Darren Naish has to say. However, a question has emerged in the comment thread at Darren's post that I feel is worth addressing.

Among the matters directly affected by this underhanded dealing is the correct name for what once was Desmatosuchus chamensis. Two separate papers were published in rapid succession (only two weeks apart) placing this species in a new genus, which the earlier-published paper dubbed Rioarribasuchus and the latter-published dubbed Heliocanthus. The principle of priority demands that the earlier-published name is the correct one, making the creature Rioarribasuchus. The problem is that the very brief earlier paper has been accused of being based on the PhD thesis of the author of the much more detailed later paper, which provided the basis for the later paper. If this is the case, it would be a serious ethical breach, and it would seem unfair to continue to use the unethically published name.

The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature is not completely silent on the question of ethics - a Code of Ethics appears in an appendix to the Code which states (among other things) that, "A zoologist should not publish a new name if he or she has reason to believe that another person has already recognized the same taxon and intends to establish a name for it (or that the taxon is to be named in a posthumous work). A zoologist in such a position should communicate with the other person (or their representatives) and only feel free to establish a new name if that person has failed to do so in a reasonable period (not less than a year)." However, this is included as a recommendation, rather than a rule. Indeed, the Code then goes on to state that, "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."* In other words, even if unethically published, Rioarribasuchus is still the correct name. Some of the commentors at Tetrapod Zoology have pointed out that people are entirely at liberty to ignore Rioarribasuchus and use Heliocanthus anyway, and to a certain extent they are quite right. After all, the ICZN is only accepted as correct by the compliance of the researchers using it - no legal penalties will attend a researcher who does not follow the letter of the ICZN. However, the problem with this approach is that the name Rioarribasuchus is still out there, and might always be re-introduced as the correct name by future researchers who are unaware of the controversy surrounding it. In such a case, the confusion potentially caused by having two "correct" names floating about for the same organism possibly outweighs the ethical advantages.

*Okay, so that might contradict my comment at the Tetrapod Zoology thread on the ability of the ICZN to declare the unethical name invalid. My mistake.

This may seem like a rather senseless state of affairs, but in fact there are good reasons why the ICZN has not made the ethical code obligatory. Deliberate ethical breaches are extremely difficult to demonstrate, and things might be overly complicated if names could be quashed for ethical reasons. To illustrate my point, I'll give you two examples of names that have been accused of ethical beaches that are less clear than the Rioarribasuchus case.

The name Archaeoraptor was attached to a fossil specimen illustrated in a 1999 issue of National Geographic. At the time of the Geographic article, a formal description of the specimen and the name was supposed to be published in Nature (the National Geographic article did not include a description of the specimen, and so does not count as valid publication for the purposes of nomenclature). However, before the formal description was published, it was discovered that the "Archaeoraptor" fossil was actually a chimera, composed of fossils of two different animals that had been joined into one (who exactly was responsible for the fusion, and whether it was originally done knowingly or inadvertently, remain open questions that will probably never be answered). The anterior part of the fossil was a basal bird, while the posterior part belonged to a small dromaeosaur that would later be described from more complete remains as Microraptor. The formal description was never published. However, Storrs Olson, a prominent palaeornithologist at the National Museum of Natural History who had made a public complaint about National Geographic's publication of the invalid name, published an editorial in the museum newsletter in which he briefly described the fossil and suggested that the name Archaeoraptor be restricted to the dromaeosaur remains (probably to directly prevent the name from becominng attached to ornithology). Unfortunately, Olson's publication actually pre-dates the publication of the name Microraptor, raising the possibility that Archaeoraptor is the correct name for this now well-known dinosaur. In this case, the general decision seems to have been to let sleeping dogs lie - there is a good case to be made that Olson's editorial also does not constitute a valid publication, and most researchers feel that it can be safely disregarded.

The other case involves another dinosaur name scandal. The dinosaur genus Syntarsus was named by Raath in 1969, but the name was later realised by a team of entomologists (Ivie et al.) to have been used for a beetle genus in 1869. Normally, it is considered good form to allow the original author the chance to replace the invalid name him/herself, and so not lose the connection to the organism he/she discovered (the ICZN Code of Ethics says that, "A zoologist should not publish a new replacement name (a nomen novum) or other substitute name for a junior homonym when the author of the latter is alive; that author should be informed of the homonymy and be allowed a reasonable time (at least a year) in which to establish a substitute name.") Ivie et al. claim to have attempted to contact Raath, but on receiving no reply assumed (incorrectly) that he had passed away, and in a 2001 issue of the entomological journal Insecta Mundi they somewhat facetiously published the replacement name Megapnosaurus (which translates as "big dead lizard"). The inappropriate derivation, the pre-emption of Raath and the publication in a source of whose very existence most vertebrate palaeontologists would be unaware meant that the name caused a great deal of protest - it was grudgingly admitted that the name was valid, but many continued to insist on the invalid "Syntarsus" in protest. In this case, the issue has only been resolved by the fact that most researchers no longer regard Megapnosaurus as a separate genus from the closely related Coelophysis, though it must be admitted that the desire to lose Megapnosaurus was certainly a factor in many people's willingness to accept the synonymy.

The main point of these examples is that in both it is pretty much impossible to say whether the offending authors can be said to have acted ethically or not - and indeed, whether or not their actions would be regarded as unethical depends rather strongly on the interests of the person doing the regarding. It is to avoid setting precedents that would lead to complex and potentially unresolvable debate on such grey areas that the ICZN makes the ethical code effectively voluntary. On the other hand, while their names may remain, it seems likely that a researcher who engaged in repeated unethical conduct would eventually find their career suffering as their peers realised what was going on!


The Wikipedia page on Archaeoraptor has a good overview of the controversy surrounding this name. The name Megapnosaurus was published in:

Ivie, M. A., S. A. Slipinski & P. Wegrzynowicz. 2001. Generic homonyms in the Colydiinae (Coleoptera: Zopheridae). Insecta Mundi 15: 63-64.


  1. Good essay--nicely illustrates some of the thornier issues in taxonomy.

    Here's hoping the aetosaur issue gets resolved. (Why do all these cases involve Mesozoic archosaurs?)

  2. Appropriate redress, in the case that this is actually fraud, would seem to me to have little to do with ICZN and a lot to do with the perpetrators being stripped of their academic positions and being forced to comply with whatever a civil court decides is acceptable compensation to the victims.

  3. Taxonomic 'courts' never stop to surprise me ;).

    In a more serious way, I think that if "Rioarribasuchus" was a product of a unethical behavior, it would be considered invalid (it can be declared a rejected name?). A penalty in a civil court is another thing. A hoax is a hoax, even if peer reviewed.

    By the way, it seems that Coelopysis has its own crazy taxonomic history, also including a "Rioarriba..." :P

  4. "By the way, it seems that Coelopysis has its own crazy taxonomic history, also including a 'Rioarriba...' :P"

    And also involving Lucas, although in this case there wasn't any possibility of unethical conduct (that I am aware of). Hunt and Lucas quite validly noted that the type specimen of Coelophysis bauri is a piece of crap, so they coined a new species, Rioarribasaurus colberti, for what everyone had been calling C. bauri. Unfortunately for the new name, the ICZN voted to reject it on the grounds that a new name would create instability. (Even though everything had been done according to ICZN rules.)

    Sullivan and Lucas later decided that, since the original material for C. bauri was now without a species, it should be given a new species: Eucoelophysis baldwini. Interestingly, this has turned out not to be dinosaurian (let alone coelophysoid)! Instead, it's an early dinosauriform, possibly close to Silesaurus.

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  6. no legal penalties will attend a researcher who does not follow the letter of the ICZN.

    Well, indeed not, but some journals require that authors follow the ICZN. Some even require that authors follow even the Recommendations of the ICZN, not just the Rules.

    BTW, the contact attempt by Ivie et al. consisted of sending a letter. Sending a letter to a white man in Zimbabwe in 2000. Now that's naïve. The ICZN Code of Ethics requires, oopsie, recommends an earnest attempt; that was not one.

  7. ok, it is time to answer some of these silly and nearly slanderous comments about the naming of Megapnosaurus. We sent a letter to Raath at the last address we had (and in fact Zimbabwe delivered mail the the many white men in that country all the time back then, you racist twit!), waited 2 years for a reply, then ask dinosaur researcher Jack Horner for help with an address. It was Jack that told me Raath was dead, not some assumption. Plus, Jack reviewed the note, and said that any group that used Bambiraptor would enjoy it.

    Mike Ivie

  8. Remember the name "Darwinius" for the so-called missing link, published in PlosOne? This name was when published not availabe under the provisions of the Code (Art. 9) because PlosOne was only published online. But the name was made public by the press and so the ICZN made a "deal" that PlosOne could re-publish the issue as paper copy, back-date it, and the name will become available. The "Code of Ethics" within the ICZN is useless unless the Commission uses their plenary power to attend legal penalties for breaching it! There already is a Code of Ethics in sciences in General. However, even if you receive penalties for breching this one, names proposed will still be available.
    What would be the case if an amateur (= not a professional scientist) breaches the Code of ethics of scienes and his "work" does not comply with the minimum standards of scientific work? However, he sticks to the Code and the names are available. Nobody can take any action against such works or names. So at the end, is you publish a paper in a journals that follows the Code, you would have to use these names or the ms will be rejected. That sucks, so to speak!

  9. The second part of your comment is a valid issue, and one that has come up several times: I've discussed it elsewhere, but an important point is that it is difficult to come up with a solution that is not potentially worse than the problem.

    In relation to Darwinius, there wasn't any 'deal', the resolution of re-publication was entirely valid under the code. Darwinius' publication was not backdated: its publication only counts as valid from the date of the paper copy.


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