Field of Science

"Electronic Publication of Nomenclatural Acts is Inevitable"

The Jurassic mecopteran Lichnomesopsyche gloriae, one of six new fossil species not published today. The black line is highlighting the long proboscis; the scale bar represents 10 mm. Image from Ren et al. (2009).

So sayeth Mike Taylor (for my own confused ramblings through the quagmire of electronic publication, read my earlier posts on the subject). And this day presents us with a spectacular demonstration of that point.

In a paper in today's issue of Science, Ren et al. (2009) have presented an analysis of Jurassic to early Cretaceous long-proboscid scorpionflies and their role as probable pollinators of nectar-producing gymnosperms (as has also been suggested for kalligrammatid lacewings). As part of this study, Ren et al. present descriptions of six new species and two new genera of fossil scorpionflies. Nothing out of the ordinary here, except that (Science being Science, with its notorious restrictions on article length) the species descriptions are published in the Supporting Online Material.

From the point of view of the ICZN, Science is a perfectly valid forum for publication - thousands of copies are printed every week. But these printed editions don't include the online supplements, so the online-only component of the journal is currently not a valid publication. Technically speaking, the new species of Ren et al. (which are referred to and illustrated but not described in the print version) are nomina nuda. They are not valid names. But these online-only names have not appeared in some far-flung unfrequented corner of the internet, they have appeared in one of the world's most prominent science journals (like it says on the label). Their validity is going to be pretty much taken for granted.


Ren, D., C. C. Labandeira, J. A. Santiago-Blay, A. Rasnitsyn, C.-K. Shih, A. Bashkuev, M. A. V. Logan, C. L. Hotton & D. Dilcher. 2009. A probable pollination mode before angiosperms: Eurasian, long-proboscid scorpionflies. Science 326: 840-847.


  1. Srsly, have we all swooped down on the same paper at once?

    Admittedly, I only skimmed it though... as I should technically be imaging stuff right now (again!)

    So to be considered as 'published in print' the material has to be in wide circulation; ie. not just be 'printed off' somewhere? How wide must this circulation be? Some of Science's supporting materials could easily have a wider circulation than some obscure print journals...

  2. I don't understand why these authors didn't go for the obvious solution; publishing the descriptions elsewhere simultaneously or prior to the Science paper. In addition to ICZN-compliance, they'd get two published articles for the effort of one and opportunities galore for high-impact journal self-citing!

  3. I would have thought the sensible thing to do was to put the nomenclatural act (ie. establishment of the species name, designation of holotype and brief diagnosis) in the printed paper. This need only take a few lines. Then put the actual description in the online supp. material.
    In a way this is a good thing. Supp material becomes a significant and important and there is more incentive to look after it, keep it online and make sure it stays there.

  4. A similar publication with a species description in the supplementary material came out either in Science or Nature not too long ago. A few months later, the description itself got republished as a letter to the editor to satisfy the ICZN requirement.

  5. Gunnar, I'm not sure how publishing the descriptions separately like that would affect Science's embargo policy. Also, the current tendency to divide everything up into LPUs (Least Publishable Units), which is an inevitable consequence of evaluation methods that value quantity over quality, is not something that I think is doing the current state of science any favours.

    Adam, previous papers have done just that. And as you allude to, more than one paper has had its online supplement disappear into the black vortex of cyberspace, never to be seen again.

  6. Yes indeed. In fact I'm adopting this strategy in a paper coming out next week.
    I see the problem with disappearing supp. info. as a problem of people's lax attitudes towards supp. info. rather than a problem with having supp. info. at all.
    Presumably there are safeguards to stop PLOS papers or Palaeontologia Electronica papers from disappearing so why can't the same measures be applied to supp. info.?

  7. I heartily agree with Adam's sentiments. Even if Suppl Info becomes ICZN acceptable in the future, I still think it is always important to put the nomenclatural acts in the main text of the paper. Naming new taxa is not trivial, and should not be marginalized to supplementary information! Having published a variety of papers with Suppl Info, I can tell you that A) Suppl Info is often *NOT* edited by the editors of the journal, and B) it is highly variable as to whether the reviewers took a serious look at the Suppl Info. I have submitted papers with over 50 pgs of supplementary information and not gotten a single comment on this section in the reviews I got back. Putting the nomenclatural act (and preferably the description) in the main text forces the reviewers and editors to take a good hard look.

    P.S., Christopher, the link to the Science paper doesn't work because you've misspelled "http".

  8. It's nice to see Science getting in on the act!

    For all the reasons Randy mentions, I still think that Supplementary Information is A Bad Thing, and we'd all be better off if the idea was junked and everything worth saying went into our actual papers.

  9. The spelling has now been corrected. Thanks for the heads-up.

    The comment about supplementary info not being edited doesn't surprise me at all. One of my personal bugbears with supp. info is the usual lack of formatting therein. I'm one of those terribly antiquated types who still likes to keep printed copies of articles, and it always bugs me when I'm printing out sixty pages that I know with a little formatting input could have easily been cut down to thirty without removing any actual data.

  10. Mike - I disagree with you there. I don't think Suppl Info is a "bad thing" at all! There are lots of data and other information that go into Suppl Info that used to not be published at all, or just slapped up on someone's personal website, etc. The key is we just need a concerted effort for editors to specifically ask reviewers to provide their thoughts on the Suppl Info, and to actually edit the contents. It is unrealistic to expect every journal to become like PLoS One, so I think there is a place in the world for Supplementary Information.

    I think in most cases, the mysterious disappearance of Suppl Info files from journal websites was an early problem related to the medium that has largely been taken care of. In any case, you make effective arguments in your BZN article as to why this is not an issue - lots of people download the files and act as independent archives.


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