The other day, Rob Taylor of the DML was asking about the status of electronic and Advance Online publications in the eyes of the ICZN - do they count as officially published? You can read my response to him here (unfortunately, the DML archive has borked Rob's original message, otherwise I'd link directly to that, but the greater part of the original is present in indented form through my reply). I've discussed electronic publication on this site before (see here and here). I think I've stayed fairly neutral in those posts, though my personal attitude towards electronic-only publication is roughly comparable to my attitude to such things as prostitution and recreational drug use. They're probably a bad idea, but they're going to happen anyway, so it's probably more important to structure things so that they can be properly managed than to simply hope they're going to go away.
But in all this discussion of how to establish when online references are validly published - what are the necessary archiving requirements, if a publication comes out online before it appears printed on paper should it be dated from its online or printed appearance, etc. - there is one ugly but widely-known secret that has been mentioned surprisingly little. As difficult as it may be to establish whether an online resource has been validly "published", it can be equally difficult to establish the same for a printed resource.
In the eyes of the ICZN, it is not enough for the printed resource to simply exist, and for fairly obvious reasons. If I set up a printing press in my garage (after all, seeing how I don't own a car, I'd have no shortage of space in a garage) and printed myself a copy of some pamphlet naming a new taxon, that new taxon still wouldn't be valid. Taxonomy, like all other sciences (indeed, in some respects even more than other sciences) is ultimately dependent on communication if it is going to work properly. It's no coincidence that the word "published" is so similar to the word "public". If there's only a single copy of my little pamphlet, how is it going to be communicated? How are my fellow taxonomists going to be able to critique the validity or otherwise of my new taxon? What is the likelihood of that pamphlet being available ten, twenty, two hundred years down the track after I myself am dead and buried*? There's also the credibility factor - say some amazing new taxon is published in a high-level journal (Ubertyrannosaurus ohbuggerme, or something), and I start waving around my little pamphlet, which is dated to earlier than the journal, shouting that I described this new taxon first. If nobody else has seen it before, what evidence do I have that I didn't print out the pamphlet after the journal article came out and slap a fake date on it?
*Though if I am the type of person who churns out secret pamphlets on my own printing press in the garage, that would possibly be buried within a raccoon.
So instead of letting just anything go, the ICZN has the following requirements:
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.
I can still print papers out on my private press at home (alas, some people do) but in order for anything in those papers to be valid, there has to be a decent number of copies, those copies have to be readily available after publication, and there has to be a decent chance that copies are still going to be out there and available thirty years down the track. Still, it's all just a little vague, innit? Just how many copies is a "decent number"? It's one of the great ironies of the ICZN (and it hasn't gone uncommented on) that the Code has strict guidelines for the one form of electronic publication it does currently allow (CD publications must have at least five copies deposited in separate major public libraries), but has no such baseline for the paper publications that are its supposed backbone.
It doesn't take a great deal of imagine to develop hypothetical problem cases for these rules. Say I print out a large number of copies of my private paper, more than enough to satisfy that part of the requirements. But then instead of distributing them right away, I keep them stacked in a box in my basement*. Even though the copies exist, they're still not satisfying the desired purpose of communication. They shouldn't really be counted as "published" until I actually get off my arse and start distributing them to people. The problem is, though, that the date on their cover would be the date I printed them out, not the date I made them available (this is exactly one of the issues involved in the Scansoriepidendrosauropteryx fiasco). There are a number of cases in taxonomy of synonymous names being published at very close times, and working out which of the two (or more, if your luck is really evil) names has priority can be an absolute bitch. The longer ago the papers were published, the harder it can become to establish their relative priorities. What's more, there's always a nearly comical sense of bleak futility about such investigations. In the case of the aforementioned Scansoriopteryx, it's currently widely known that its source, the Dinosaur Museum Journal (volume one, if I recall correctly) didn't become publicly available until a while after its printing, making the date on the book out by at least a month (during which time, the probable synonym Epidendrosaurus appeared in an Advance Online publication). The thing is that while that may be general knowledge now, will it necessarily still be general knowledge in twenty years' time. If the information floats around in informal communications, but no-one actually mentions in print that the date is out**, then that piece of info is going to be forgotten, and the claimed date will become treated as correct by default.
*I seem to have both a garage and a basement - I'm beginning to like this hypothetical house of mine.
**In this specific case they have (Harris, 2004), but let's make allowances for hypotheticals.
As a concrete example, I'm going to present you with one of the worse cases out there. The journal Lansania was privately published in Japan by the zoologist Kyukichi Kishida from 1929 to around-about-1941, and its history was recently reviewed by Tennent et al. (2008), whose article makes recommended if somewhat disturbing reading for anyone interested in the subject of this post. For the first couple of years, Lansania seems to have a fairly normal run, with issues appearing as one might expect. After that, though, it all seems to have gone a little pear-shaped (funding for publication may have become an issue). Issues appeared erratically, and not necessarily in order. A number of scheduled issues never seem to have been printed in any form. For others, individual articles exist as offprints, but there is no sign of a complete issue. Issue 58, for instance, is represented in offprints by pages 113-115 and pages 125-128, but there is no sign of 116-127*. What happened to these intervening pages? Did they ever actually exist? It seems that what happened was that Kishida assigned individual articles to planned issues as they were submitted for publication, had them printed as offprints when they had been prepared for publication, then printed the final issue when all the articles for it were ready.
*Ironically, the article represented by pages 113-115 of this issue, which does exist, is supposedly a supplement to an "earlier" Lansania article that seemingly doesn't exist.
Things were not improved by Kishida's somewhat lax attitude towards publication and dating. There is evidence that in many (but not all) cases, the date placed on a published issue or article was the date the article was submitted for publication, not the date it appeared in print (which might not have been until some years afterwards). One publication of Kishida's bore a date of "1938", but gave his address as one which he did not reside in until 1957! When asked by a colleague to explain the discrepancy, Kishida apparently replied that he had begun composing the article in 1938. On a number of occasions, Kishida also seemingly cited as if published articles and names from articles that would have still been "in press", not all of which ever made it into actual print.
Unless they did... You see, Lansania never had a huge circulation, and copies of issues have become few and far between (Tennent et al. give a listing of all the holdings for Lansania they could find - for instance, the latest issue they could locate, no. 127, is only held by two libraries in Japan, while it is possible that only a single copy still exists of each of the issue 58 offprints). Kishida stored a number of unpublished manuscripts and published journals in a shed behind his house that were disposed of after his death in 1968 - could these have included some of the missing issues of Lansania? A lot of Kishida's material had earlier been taken for use as waste paper in times of shortage during the Second World War. Could some of the "unpublished" issues (or even extra copies of the rare published issues) still be held in private libraries? Should the taxa described in the exceedingly rare printed issues or offprints of Lansania even be treated as published at all?
Though extreme, the case of Lansania is not unique. Anyone who has had to invest a fair amount of time in obtaining copies of old publications knows that they can sometimes be exceedingly difficult to find (one of the first pieces of advice I would give to a student starting taxonomic research is to make friends with a really good interloans librarian). They may have satisfied all the requirements for valid publication when they first appeared - but over the years, copies get lost, destroyed... Are there taxa out there in current use for which copies of the original descriptions simply don't exist anywhere anymore? What is the status of these taxa under the ICZN? Can an available name become unavailable?
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.
Tennent, W. J., M. Yasuda & K. Morimoto. 2008. Lansania Journal of arachnology and zoology – a rare and obscure Japanese natural history journal. Archives of Natural History 35 (2): 252-280.