"There is a cube of crystal here - though I can no longer tell you where -no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other."
--Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer.
The ICZN is currently debating amendments to the Zoological Code that will formally accept the validity of names published in electronic publications (ICZN, 2008; if you're not familiar with the subject, I'd recommend reading the post just linked to before this one). Electronic publication raises a host of issues related to such matters as long-term availability and accessibility, but even an old curmudgeon like myself has to admit that it's gonna happen, whether we like it or not - in fact, it's already happening - and the question of whether or not to accept it has become more or less moot. The question, rather, is how to best respond to it.
I do have to apologise in advance for a few things I'm going to quote here without attribution that I know I've heard someone say somewhere, but I can't remember where or who. This post was partially inspired by Taylor (2009; that's Mike Taylor of SV-POW! fame, not me) and its rather snotty little title, but I wouldn't call it a direct reply. I'll also note that one of the interesting side effects of the debate on how to handle electronic publication is that it provides a much-needed impetus to tackle some of the neglected questions of how we handle printed publications.
Many of the complaints about electronic publication revolve around permanence. Supporters of electronic formats point out (and correctly so) that on-line publications* are both more readily and widely distributable than printed publications. However, for the purpose of taxonomy, we need to be thinking not only about current distribution, but also future distribution. Preservation of taxonomic works, theoretically, needs to be permanent (in the long term, of course, this is a problem for both printed and electronic works). It has been claimed that the large number of electronic copies floating around on people's private computers provides a guard against loss of an electronic publication, but this is not a sufficient guard in the majority of cases, because of the simple fact that not all organisms garner the same degree of attention. Taylor (2009) refers to the public interest around the publication of Darwinius masillae Franzen et al., 2009 - I mean, come on, it's a bloody monkey with its own bloody TV documentary, of course it raises a lot of interest. But taxonomy doesn't only concern fossil monkeys or honking great lizards, which are the other cases Mike cites. Yochelson (1969), working on Palaeozoic molluscs, estimated that the species description he wrote were "read by a worldwide audience that ranges from three to seven persons"**. This is not an audience that guarantees preservation. Also, there is a potential generational issue - when a researcher passes away, her copies of printed publications may be donated to a library and archived, but her hard-drive is likely to be thrown away or wiped.
*Including on-line versions of printed publications, which in a significant proportion of cases have become the effective primary version.
**Yochelson (1969) is a rather interesting publication for the current debate because he wrote it arguing that the ICZN should accept publications on microfilm. The more things change...
However, while permanent storage may be more of an issue for electronic media than printed media, it's one that is already being addressed, with the current proposals already including requirements for archival that, while arguably not perfect, are perhaps good enough for government work. The really major problem is not long-term availability, but long-term accessibility. To read a printed publication, I have simply to use my eyes, and for most of us they come pre-installed*. Reading an electronic publication, however, requires appropriate machinery and software. Claims that there will "always be a way to read PDF" are just hopelessly naïve, as are claims that we will be able to rely on conversion of electronic publications into newer formats as they gain prominence. Media will be converted if there is an immediate demand for their conversion, and the longer a given publication goes without being converted, the lower the chance that it will ever be converted (I'm pretty sure that a significant number of movies once available on VHS have not become available on DVD and probably never will). In the quote at the top of this post from a book set in our world's far-distant future, the librarian Ultan refers to what is obviously some sort of electronic storage device. What he fails to mention is that the technology to read the material stored on it no longer exists.
*Of course, it has to be in a language I can read, but that issue applies equally to electronic and printed media.
So electronic publications are not sufficiently reliable, but electronic publications are already here and only going to become more predominant. Are we doomed to confusion then? No, because I don't think that the means of evading the issues are really that difficult. The current code allows for the effective publication of electronic media if a permanent copy is deposited in a number of libraries on CD. The proposals in front of the ICZN include phasing out CD publication, and rightly so in my opinion - CD publication carries all the issues of accessibility associated with electronic media, without any of the advantages of online publication. But why not request the deposition of print-outs? That both allows for the validity of the electronic publication (with all its advantages of disseminability), while still maintaining the printed counterpart as a back-up.
Taylor (2009) points out that the current requirements for back-up deposition are vague and difficult to comply with. I would definitely agree that, if nothing else, they lead to something of a logical paradox in their current requirement that the publication itself include details of its own depositories. A simple reprint of the current requirements with "printed copy" substituted for CD would not help matters. But what about ZooBank? ZooBank is the proposed register of zoological names currently being developed. The current code does not require registration of names, but it is being considered and the electronic publication proposals include compulsary registration for electronically-published names at least (though as pointed out in the comments to the post linked to at the top of this one, if they're going to make it compulsary for some they might as well make it compulsary for all). A separate proposal that has been made that would make registration compulsary for all new names (Polaszek et al., 2005) allows a window of two years between publication and registration for a name to be validated*. Perhaps ZooBank could be expanded to also hold listings of archives of printed copies for electronic publications with, again, a two-year window to allow the authors/publishers to arrange the depositories and submit the info. Heck, the same thing could be done for names published in rare printed publications such as the journal Lansania that I've discussed previously.
*And it was this simple point that made yours truly no longer an avid opponent of registration. In a workable system, registration would have to come after publication, because the potential consequences of a name being published but not registered afterwards are minor compared to those of a name being registered but not published.
One potential complaint is that the printed version may not be identical to the electronic version. This would be particularly unavoidable if the electronic version includes such features as video that are not reproducible on paper. But for the purposes of taxonomy, what does the permanent record actually need? Name, type material, description/diagnosis. If the entire publication cannot be stored in printed form, then maybe allowances could be made for an abridged version containing the vital points to be deposited in its stead. Cantino et al. (2007) provides something of a precedent in botanical nomenclature (which currently excludes electronic publication) - a shorter, printed version of this work on plant phylogenetic nomenclature was published containing the essentials of definitions and such, while a longer electronic version allowed for more expansive discussion. So long as the two were not in direct conflict, then the existence of two versions does not actually pose a problem for nomenclatural purposes. For those wishing to guard against potential issues, perhaps a clause could be included in the code giving one of the versions priority over the other - I'd suggest something to the effect of the electronic version having priority so long as it remains available and accessible, because that's the version people are more likely to have access to in such cases.
Cantino, P. D., J. A. Doyle, S. W. Graham, W. S. Judd, R. G. Olmstead, D. E. Soltis, P. S. Soltis & M. J. Donoghue. 2007. Towards a phylogenetic nomenclature of Tracheophyta. Taxon 56(3): E1-E44.
Franzen, J. L., P. D. Gingerich, J. Habersetzer, J. H. Hurum, W. von Koenigswald & B. H. Smith. 2009. Complete primate skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: morphology and paleobiology. PLoS One 4 (5): e5723.
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).
Taylor, M. P. 2009. Electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable, and will be accepted by the taxonomic community with or without the endorsement of the Code. Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 66 (3): 205-214.
Yochelson, E. Y. 1969. Publication, microfilm, microcard, microfiche, and the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Systematic Zoology 18 (4): 476-480.