Field of Science

A Question of Availability

About a year ago, I wrote a post discussing the potential difficulty of establishing whether a taxonomic work of restricted availability has been validly 'published'. If you head over to Mickey Mortimer's Theropod Database Blog, you'll be presented with a perfect (and perfecty 'orrible) example of just this issue, concerning the dinosaurological publications of one Stephan Pickering. Mickey has regarded the works as not validly published; Pickering himself has posted a number of comments to argue otherwise.

The arguments that have been made there about copyright (a completely separate issue from ICZN availability), private publication and peer review (in which the ICZN effectively has no interest) are irrelevant to the question of whether the works count as published for ICZN purposes. The important details in that regard are:

    1. Pickering had 50 copies of each of the works professionally printed in 1995 (at least one was printed later in 1999). I have not personally seen the works in question, but the indications are that the diagnoses presented therein would satisfy ICZN requirements.

    2. No printed copies of the works were deposited in institution libraries (and Pickering has objected strenuously to suggestions that he should have done so); however, copies were distributed to various recipients. At least some copies were distributed shortly after printing.

    3. An excerpt or reprint of one of the works was distributed as an insert in 1996 with an issue of the popular magazine _Prehistoric Times_.

As a reminder, the ICZN requirements for a work to count as 'published' are:

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.

Do Pickering's works meet those requirements? 50 copies is low for a publication run but I don't think it can be argued to fail the requirements of 8.1.3. Publications existing in similar or lower numbers have been accepted as valid in the past. Similarly, the fact that Pickering distributed copies to various recipients suggests at least a nominal accordance with 8.1.2 (that most of these recipients, such as Michael Crichton and Stephen Spielberg, appear to have not been working palaeontologists is problematic but does not violate any explicit ICZN requirement). However, I think that a strong argument can be made that by refusing to place any copies in public depositories, Pickering has failed to meet the requirements of 8.1.1, a "public and permanent scientific record", whatever his original intentions may have been ("by their fruits you shall know them", to insert a touch of pretension). To provide a permanent scientific record, it is necessary that future researchers be able to evaluate the publication; if they are unable to gain access to a copy then they are unable to evaluate it. Unless any of the recipients of Pickering's publications take it upon themselves to secure the future availability of the works, they will end up being lost to history. As already noted by Mickey, the _Prehistoric Times_ insert, having had a much wider distribution, is a potential exception to this problem; my personal inclination would be to accept the names diagnosed therein as available though again the future availability of the work is a pending question.

Indeed, hovering over all of this is a much broader question about the publication requirements of the ICZN. Implicit in the current rules is the assumption that "once available, always available" but time, of course, is a great destroyer. In my earlier post, I discussed the rare Japanese journal Lansania, for some issues of which only a handful of (or even single) copies survive while others may have been lost entirely. There can be no doubt that the publisher of Lansania, Kyukichi Kishida, intended these issues to provide a "public and permanent scientific record"; they have evidently failed to meet that intention. What becomes of taxa whose original descriptions can no longer be evaluated?


  1. Excellent post. To your final question, taxa names that are not remembered will of course disappear. And so much of the original works of alpha taxonomy are of poor quality and/or very rare. This is especially true of entomology.

    In Principles of Systematic Entomology (1928), Ferris suggests that even more important than the description of new species is the redescription and revision of previously described species and other taxa. Running around putting names on organisms does no good when the previous names are near useless.

    Overall, I agree with your post. Unless there is a public record of taxonomy where descriptions are put in the collective human memory, they are completely useless.


  2. Lost descriptions that are not remembered are not of much concern because of course no-one remembers that they were there in the first place. Where problems arise is when lost names are referenced in secondary sources (as apparently happened with a couple of the Lansania names).

    One possibility in such a situation that I suggested in one of my electronic publication posts is that, if the taxon has been redescribed, the name could be conserved with the redescription effectively acting as the original description but with priority retained from the original lost publication. Names that have not been redescribed would probably be best treated as nomina nuda.

  3. OK, I was going to say something more serious, and I'll admit that this is utterly frivolous, but the verification word required of me is "menerd" which I take to be a thinly veiled warning from the gods of the internet not to get involved in this discussion.

  4. Thanks for the followup post. I can confirm Pickering's diagnoses satisfy ICZN requirements. I should clarify the 1996 work that came with Prehistoric Times is quite different from any of the Archosauromorpha excerpts, though the taxa named in it will be featured in his book if it is ever published.

    It certainly is a tricky problem. For instance, even though the magazine supplement had a much higher distribution, do you think it was deposited in public records like the magazine itself was? Also, 8.1.1 seems to involve the author's intent, and Pickering certainly intends his material to be a permanent scientific record. How are Pickering's works different from Olshevsky's Mesozoic Meanderings (which named Valdoraptor, Becklespinax, etc. that everyone accepts as valid) besides having a lower distribution?

  5. I agree that Pickering would certainly claim intending a permanent record but I think it would be difficult to make that claim convincingly when one is acting in a manner directly detrimental to it. In the case of the Prehistoric Times insert, I would expect that if there are libraries accessioning (is that a word?) Prehistoric Times then they would also be retaining inserts but I agree it'd be nice to have confirmation.

    Yes, it's hard to define any qualitative difference between Pickering's works and the privately published works of authors such as Girault and Rafinesque that have been accepted as valid by subsequent taxonomists. Essentially, we're having to judge whether the work is likely to remain available another fifty or more years down the track, and that can only be determined conclusively by time.

  6. So the real trick here is to see if libraries treat these inserts as anything more (or less) than a Nat Geo Mag map insert.

  7. Chris, I agree. More often than not, a redescription simply requires a reexamination of the holotype and new specimens, and the making of some proper drawings or taking of photographs. If the holotype is lost or damaged the redescriber may designate a lectotype at the same time, but all of this would be retained under the original name. A good example of this is HH Ross's paper on Trichoptera Lectotypes from the Harvard MCZ (1944). The original types by Banks were either in terrible condition or the primary descriptions were useless, so Ross retained all the names and just put new descriptions, drawings and type specimens on them.

    At least, that's how I would approach it.



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