Field of Science

Electronic Publication in the ICZN - new proposals

Hot on the heels of the Les debacle, the ICZN has released its proposed regulations allowing electronic publication. For those interested in the full legalistic details, a complete description of the proposed amendments is openly available at Zootaxa (full reference at the bottom of this post). Because this is (needless to say) A Big Thing, and the proposals affect printed as well as electronic publications, I'm going to give my own comments on a number of points.

Before I do, though, I think that it's important to stress that these proposed amendments are not yet in effect. The Zootaxa paper (and an apparently upcoming release in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature) have been released to publicise the proposals and allow researchers to submit comments before they are voted on by a future meeting of the ICZN. The alterations to the Code that end up coming into force will not necessarily be exactly those proposed in the Zootaxa paper. Some or even all of them may be altered in the process.

On to the paper. Italics in sections quoted below come from the original paper. When presenting ICZN articles, the paper uses normal text to indicate regulations that are in the current Code and italics to indicate proposed text alterations.

In Paris, Commissioners voted separately in favour of three principles relating to publication. None of these passed unanimously, but all had at least a two-thirds majority among the twelve voting.

    • Electronic-only publications should be allowed, if mechanisms can be found that give reasonable assurance of the long-term accessibility of the information they contain.

    • Some method of registration should be part of the mechanism of allowing electronic publication of names and nomenclatural acts.

    • Physical works that are not paper-based (e.g. CD-ROMs, DVDs) should be disallowed.

The primary issue with online publication has always been long-term availability. As noted before, guaranteeing the availability of publications to future researchers is a far more difficult issue for electronic rather than printed formats. The half-life of a website is far shorter than that of a book. Will the electronic publication still be available ten years in the future? Twenty years? Two-hundred years? The ICBN has, to date, avoided the question by refusing to accept electronic publication entirely. The current code of the ICZN attempted to ensure availability by requiring that copies of electronic publications be lodged as compact discs or some other permanent, unalterable electronic format in major libraries. However, this rule has caused a lot of debate. While CDs may be fairly permanent, the problem is that reading something on a CD requires that one have the appropriate equipment to do so, and the rapidly changing nature of electronic equipment could cause problems if CDs become no longer the storage format of choice in the future. When was the last time you saw an ultrafiche reader, for instance? The proposed amendments suggest that the development over the last few years of reliable electronic archiving services "such as Portico, which offers a permanent archive for electronic journals, and LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), an international, communal initiative based at Stanford University Libraries" may offer a more suitable alternative to CDs.

8.1. Criteria to be met. A work must satisfy the following criteria:

    8.1.1. it must be issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record,

    8.1.2. it must be obtainable, when first issued, free of charge or by purchase, and

    8.1.3. it must have been produced in an edition containing simultaneously obtainable copies by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies (see Article 8.4), or widely accessible electronic copies with fixed content and format (e.g. PDF/A, ISO Standard
      19005-1:2005) (see Article 8.5)

No problems here, but it's necessary background for what comes after. Note in particular the requirement that an electronic publication have "fixed content and format". One of the potential issues with electronic publication is that a document may be altered after its release, which is obviously undesirable for the purposes of a permanent archive. Should an altered edition of an electronic publication become available, then it would be required to be treated as a new publication and archived separately and in addition to the original version.

8.4.2. Works on CD-ROM or DVD. To be considered published, a work on CD-ROM or DVD must have been issued after 1999 and before 2010, and
    must contain a statement naming at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries in which copies of the CD-ROM or DVD were to have been deposited.

Because of the aforementioned potential problems with CD publication, the ICZN is proposing removing the option in favour of electronic archiving. However, the general principle in amending the ICZN is that new regulations should generally not be retrospective, because of the obvious issues that could arise if the availability or otherwise of a publication was to change many years after its publication. Therefore, anything validly published on CD during the period when that publication method was allowed will still retain its availability.

8.5. Works issued and distributed electronically. To be considered published, a work issued and distributed electronically must

    8.5.1. have been issued after 2009,

    8.5.2. state the date of publication in the work itself, and

    8.5.3. be archived with an organization other than the publisher in a manner compliant with ISO standard 14721:2003 for an Open Archive Information System (OAIS), or the successors to that standard. (For documentation of the location of the archive, see Article The archiving organization’s website must provide a means to determine which works are contained in the archive. The archiving organization must have permanent or irrevocable license to make the work accessible should the publisher no longer do so. If it is found that the work was not deposited in an archive within one year after the work’s stated date of publication, or that after the publisher or its successor no longer supports distribution of a work it cannot be recovered from an archive, the case must be referred to the Commission for a ruling on the availability of any names and nomenclatural acts contained in the work.

You got all that? This is the real meat of the discussion, and there are a number of really interesting provisions to try to ensure availability as much as possible. Take note of the proposed Articles and According to the Zootaxa article, "Both [Portico and LOCKSS] are curated, dark archives; “dark” in that a work will be released by the archive only if the publisher no longer supports distribution; “curated” in that the archive takes responsibility for migrating the content to new formats as needed to address changes in technology" (note that the article states that there is no intention to mandate the use specifically of those two archives, simply that they are used of examples of what a suitable archive service might be like). The archive services will not release copies of publications so long as they are available from the publisher - this is comparable to current "fair use" copyright regulations for in-print vs. out-of-print publications. The ICZN requires a guarantee that, should the publisher make a work unavailable direct from them, they will not be able to also prevent the archive from distributing the publication. I can see potential issues with determining exactly when the publisher "no longer supports distribution" (just as, with a printed work, it might be debatable whether a publisher "supports distribution" if one print run has been sold out but the next print run has not yet been started), but this is more a matter for copyright law than the ICZN.

Article is particularly significant. I think that it is quite appropriate that, in the case a supposed "permanent" electronic publication proves to not be so, that the question of how this affects any names published therein should be decided on a case-by-case basis rather than by a blanket rule. For instance, if the validating information (type data, etc.) has been republished in a later source, such as a redescription, it may be possible to conserve the taxon as described in the later publication with priority retained from the original publication, and potentially maintain greater nomenclatural stability than if the name should become unavailable. In a way, this would be comparable to the current procedure of designating neotypes for species whose type specimens are no longer available. What is surprisingly not mentioned in the Zootaxa article is that this could have implications for more than just electronic publications. While I am not aware of any printed publications actually having become permanently unavailable, some very old publications have become exceedingly difficult to obtain. the day may yet come when all available copies of a printed publication have fallen to the ravages of time, and it may be useful for the ICZN to have procedures in place for dealing with such situations.

8.6. New methods of publication and archiving. The Commission may issue Declarations to clarify whether new or unconventional methods of production, distribution, formatting, or archiving can produce works that are published in the meaning of the Code.

This proposed regulation would mean that if further new non-paper methods of disseminating information are developed (say, direct brain-to-brain data downloads), the ICZN would potentially be able to decide whether or not such methods produce nomenclaturally valid results without having to publish a whole new edition of the Code.

Recommendation 8B. Minimum edition of printed works. A work on paper should be issued in a minimum edition of 25 copies, printed before any are distributed.

Can I just say that this is absolutely fantastic? One funny thing about the ICZN to date is that while the current edition laid down very strict guidelines on what constituted a valid electronic publication, the only requirement for a printed publication (except for various formats specifically excluded by Article 9) was that "it must have been produced in an edition containing simultaneously obtainable copies by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies" (Article 8.1.3), a sufficiently vague phrasing to have caused much debate in the past as to whether or not a given publication counts as taxonomically valid. For instance, Rafinesque's (1815) Analyse de la nature, ou tableau de l'univers et des corps organise's was a privately-published pamplet distributed to only a small number of friends and leading zoologists (Bock, 1994). Or try running an internet search for "Avgodectes". In my opinion, it is long since time for the ICZN to be more explicit on what are the basic requirements for a printed publication.

According to the Zootaxa article, this has become more of an issue in recent years with computer technology leading to the increasing availability of "print-on-demand" publications, where rather than a number of copies being produced in a single print-run, only a small number or even single copies of issues are printed off as ordered. Such "publications" are particularly difficult to assess as regards their availability under the ICZN, especially if the possibility exists for corrections and alterations to be made to the source document between successive printings.

10.8. Availability of names and nomenclatural acts in electronic works. New names and nomenclatural acts cannot be made available in electronic works issued before 2010 (Article 8.5.1; see Article 10.9 for other requirements).

    10.8.1. Where stability of nomenclature would be promoted thereby, a name or nomenclatural act appearing in such a work may be referred to the Commission for a ruling under the plenary power on its availability, if the work otherwise fulfils the requirements of Article 8.5.

This follows on from the principle described earlier that changes in regulations should not be retrospective. So Scansoriopteryx is still Scansoriopteryx, unless someone successfully petitions the ICZN otherwise.

10.9. Registration of names and nomenclatural acts. Registration in the OFFICIAL REGISTER OF ZOOLOGICAL NOMENCLATURE (Article 78.2.4) is required for a new scientific name published in an electronic work (Article 8.5) to be available. Additional requirements for availability of such names are:

    10.9.1. the registration number assigned in the OFFICIAL REGISTER must be cited in the work itself, and

    10.9.2. at least the following information must be recorded in the OFFICIAL REGISTER: for the name of a taxon at any rank, sufficient bibliographic information to identify the work in which the name is proposed, and the name and Internet address of the archiving organization, and for a species-group name, the depository for the name-bearing type and the location of that depository; for a genus-group name, the type species; for a family-group name, the type genus.

    10.9.3. Registration of nomenclatural acts other than the proposal of new names in an electronic work is voluntary.

    10.9.4. Names and nomenclatural acts published on paper may be registered voluntarily and retrospectively; such registration does not affect their availability.

    10.9.5. Registration without publication in conformity with Articles 8 and 9 does not confer availability.

One of the biggest changes that is being proposed for the new edition of the ICZN is the introduction of ZooBank, an online register of all zoological names. While it appears that mandatory registration may not be introduced for new names in printed publications, it is being suggested for electronic publications. I suspect one major reason for this is to facilitate proceedings if situations arise as covered in Article above.

Even though the proposed article explicitly states that a name is not available if it is registered but not published, I can see definite confusion arising in such situations. An alternative is the previous proposal (Polaszek et al., 2005) that had authors releasing publications prior to registration, then having two years to register the name on ZooBank.

21.8.3. Some works are accessible online in preliminary versions before their final publication date. Advance electronic access does not advance the date of publication of a work.

Again, Scansoriopteryx is still Scansoriopteryx. However, as the Scansoriopteryx example shows, this could still lead to problems if the early online version is widely publicised, and personally I think this is one of the more problematic proposals. Harris' (2004) proposal that would allow the date of DOI registration to count as the date of publication might have been preferable.

And finally:

21.9. Works issued on paper and electronically. A name or nomenclatural act published in a work issued in both print and electronic editions is available from the one that first fulfils the relevant criteria of availability.

This seems fairly obvious - however, I'm wondering if researchers could be confused as to how this article interacts with Article 21.8.3 given just above. So online early editions do not count as proper publications, except for cases where they do? Scansoriopteryx might not be Scansoriopteryx after all? Mind you, as pointed out in the Zootaxa article, this issue is not actually unique to electronic publications - "The same situation already exists with repaginated reprints, or second printings that still state “new species”". The Zootaxa article suggests that the new Code will make explicit what sensible researchers have generally been doing all along - when the same content is published twice, it should be counted as a single publication dating from the first valid appearance.


Bock, W. J. 1994. History and nomenclature of avian family-group names. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 222: 1-281.

Harris, J. D. 2004. 'Published works' in the electronic age: recommended amendments to Articles 8 and 9 of the Code. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 61 (3): 138-148.

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. 2008. Proposed amendment of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature to expand and refine methods of publication. Zootaxa 1908: 57-67.

Polaszek, A., M. Alonso-Zarazaga, P. Bouchet, D. J. Brothers, N. Evenhuis, F.-T. Krell, C. H. C. Lyal, A. Minelli, R. L. Pyle, N. J. Robinson, F. C. Thompson & J. van Tol. 2005. ZooBank: the open-access register for zoological taxonomy: Technical Discussion Paper. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 62 (4).


  1. There's a lot of stuff to wade through here and I have no time at the moment but if I understand it correctly electronic publications are not yet considered published works by the ICZN. Does that mean Aerosteon is not a valid name?

  2. Online publications are not valid in themselves at the moment, no. They are only valid if they (or the site they are on) contain a statement that at least five permanent copies (either printed or on CD) have been deposited in at least five major libraries. I know that PLoS fulfilled the requirements when they published an ant taxonomy paper a little while back, so I expect they did the same for Aerosteon.

    As a caution, the official date of publication under the current rules for such a paper is the date that the permanent copies were produced and accessed, not the date that the electronic version appeared online. Also, if there is any discrepancy between the permanent and online versions, the permanent version is the correct one. If the publication has been properly managed, neither of these points should be a significant issue, but they are something to be aware of.

  3. Very progressive! I'd like it even better if they mandated registration for all new names (as the PhyloCode will).

  4. I would steer clear of CD media (see the CD eating fungus


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS