First off, notification of the focus of this post came via the Dinosaur Mailing List.
It is almost a truism that the internet has changed the face of scientific publishing. Online versions of journals have become the first port of call for many, if not most, researchers. The paper reprint has become an endangered species, and articles are exchanged via e-mail as pdfs. Online-based journals such as BMC Biology and the PLoS collection have abandoned the standard journal format with articles collected into issues, and release articles as and when they become available. Even among those journals that still release regular issues, many have begun offering advance online releases of upcoming articles. For most branches of science, these advances are mostly all for the good. Good science, after all, is largely dependent on access to information, and there is much to be said for allowing the dissemination of new information as quickly and easily as possible. However, at least one branch of science, taxonomy, remains firmly attached to the printed page, and has good reasons for doing so.
As alluded to here before, taxonomy differs from other sciences in that it provides the means for communication between biologists working in other disciplines as well as being a target of investigation in its own right. In order to facilitate communication, it makes sense that (a) the taxonomic system should be as stable as possible*, and (b) when conflicting taxonomies do arise, then the means for determining the correct nomenclature to use should be as simple and automatic as possible. It is to satisfy this second requirement that taxonomic systems employ the principle of priority - if two separate names exist for the same taxon, then the correct name to use is the one that was published first.
*Though, as with governments, "stable" in this context does not necessarily mean "unchanging". Rather, it means "not prone to change without proper cause".
Of course, saying that the first name to be published is correct immediately raises the question of what counts as publication. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (Article 8) requires that a published work must be issued in a permanent format, and must be generally made available upon publication. These are pretty broad criteria, but any work (and any new names within) cannot be considered published until they are met. The date at which these criteria are met becomes the official date of publication. Release of an article online (such as in a pre-print) does not count as publication in this sense because a webpage is not permanent. While a book requires little or no attention once it has been accessed in a library and can sit there more or less indefinitely*, a webpage requires continual upkeep to remain available. The ICZN does allow a name to be published online if some form of permanent copy (such as a print-out or CD) of the webpage is deposited in a number of major public libraries (such as the American Library of Congress). As far as I know, the Botanical Code still insists on printed publication.
*Okay, theoretically a book may be at risk of decaying after a few hundred years, but that's still pretty permanent compared to a website.
In June last year, the Nature group launched Nature Precedings, an online repository for preliminary findings and manuscripts, allowing researchers to share data of interest that might or might not be sufficient for an eventual completed paper, obtain feedback on said preliminaries that might improve the final manuscript, and just generally keep other researchers informed on what was going on. Entries on Nature Precedings are not peer-reviewed before becoming available, and are generally not regarded as completed publications. A few days ago, a new entry was loaded on Nature Precedings by Zhang et al. describing a decidedly interesting new dinosaur species, complete with attached name. Officially, this taxon is not yet published. Because of the interest that surrounds any new dinosaur discovery, you can bet your ass that that won't stand in the way of its becoming widely known.
As I said, there's a name attached to the new taxon. It's a very nice name, too - kind of rolls off the tongue. But because I'd rather avoid using an unpublished taxon name, I'm keeping shtum (of course, click on the link and you'll find the name right away, so my protest is really pretty pointless). Because the new species is a member of the family Scansoriopterygidae, I'm going to call it LES (standing for "Looks like Epidendrosaurus or Scansoriopteryx"). Les was a small bird-like theropod about the size of a pigeon, and represented by a very nice nearly-complete skeleton, complete with preserved feathers including a tail of four long ribbon-like feathers that were about as long as the rest of the animal. Phylogenetically, Zhang et al. position Les as more closely related to modern birds than the dromaeosaurs (Velociraptor et al.) but less closely related than Archaeopteryx. Les is exactly the sort of thing that might eventually be published in Nature, and its appearance in Nature Precedings gives the impression of leading into doing so.
The family Les belongs to, Scansoriopterygidae, has become something of a poster child for the issues surrounding online publication. Two genera have previously been named for scansoriopterygids, Scansoriopteryx and Epidendrosaurus, but most researchers suspect that these two names refer to the same animal. Unfortunately, determining which of the two names has priority is not a straightforward question, as discussed by Harris (2004). Both names were published in 2002, but the book naming Scansoriopteryx was probably less widely read than the journal naming Epidendrosaurus. Epidendrosaurus appeared in an online preprint on the 21 August, but the printed version didn't appear until 30 September. The exact date of publication of Scansoriopteryx is a little debatable, but it seems to have become available by 2 September - after the name Epidendrosaurus became widely publicised online, but before the official publication of Epidendrosaurus. Technically, Scansoriopteryx has priority, even though Epidendrosaurus was the name that became known to the public first.
The lesson from cases such as Scansoriopteryx is that the time has well and truly arrived for us to re-evaluate what it means for a name to be "published" in the digital age. In the past, the first a public would generally hear of a manuscript and its contents was when the finished publication arrived in all its official glory. Now, as demonstrated by Les, it may be possible for a manuscript to appear online as a rough draft, as a polished pre-print, as the final official product. Should these early appearances be regarded as valid publications? When the manuscript first appears, or only as it approaches its final form? The initial format for publication of Epidendrosaurus may not have been permanent, but should we regard the later appearance of a permanent printed edition as having validated that initial appearance? The rules of the game are changing. It is time to decide whether we should keep playing.
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.