I haven't been a member of the DML for a while so I missed the controversy of the last few days over the publication (or not) of a book called Notes on Early Mesozoic Theropods. Mike Taylor has written about the situation at SV-POW! and I recommend reading his post. Basically, the question of whether or not this book (and the new theropod taxon described within) counts as 'published' circles around the fact that the book is distributed as "print on demand". In other words, copies of the book are printed as they are ordered rather than being printed in a single run of multiple copies and some people have questioned whether this satisfies the ICZN requirement of "simultaneously obtainable copies [produced] by a method that assures numerous identical and durable copies" (Art. 8.1.3)*. Print-on-demand has been rare in the past because the cost of preparing templates made printing single copies uneconomical; as printing has become cheaper, it may be expected to become more standard. Indeed, one could argue that it should be so, being potentially less wasteful than producing large runs of potentially unwanted copies.
*In the comments for the SV-POW article, I indicated that the electronic publication procedure proposals being considered by the ICZN (ICZN, 2008) included disqualification of print-on-demand publications from availability. I was wrong about this; the proposal merely includes a discussion of issues potentially connected with print-on-demand (specifically, the possibility of alterations between printings).
In previous posts, I've discussed the availability of electronic publication, rare publications and self-published works. One issue I haven't discussed in detail, but which is perhaps the most important of all, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the non-specialist to decide what is 'published' and what isn't. In the past, media such as private letters, theses and conference handouts have been disqualified as valid 'publications' because they were of ephemeral nature and/or limited distribution. Conversely, anything that was widely available could usually be safely assumed to be published because there really was little way for it to be otherwise. Electronic publication has changed all that; supposedly 'unpublished' works may have audiences running into the thousands.
Even most printed journals are now more widely read as electronic versions. The largest zoological taxonomic journal currently operating is Zootaxa which now publishes issues on more or less a daily basis (twenty issues in a single day on 14 May earlier this year). The vast majority of Zootaxa's articles are distributed electronically; printed copies are effectively only produced to confirm availability. But most of us have only the word of the Zootaxa editors that these printed copies exist; we're not tracking them down ourselves because the electronic version meets our needs. For all most of us know, Zootaxa may have halted printed production some time ago (or be printing on demand). The same goes for a great many other major taxonomic journals.
The minutiae of determining whether or not a taxonomic work has been validly 'published' can be daunting enough for experienced workers; for non-specialists, they may seem impossible to follow. Nor, in an ideal world, should a non-specialist ever have to make such a decision, no more than someone should be expected to assemble the motor themselves before taking their new car for a drive. Like it or not, I'm afraid there is no escaping the conclusion that electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable and will be accepted by the taxonomic community with or without the endorsement of the Code (Taylor, 2009). It's simply too confusing otherwise.
So what, practically speaking, should we actually be doing about it? To begin with, I agree with Mike Taylor's statement in the SV-POW post that we need to make registration of new nomenclatural acts (as currently beeing developed for ZooBank) compulsory. There are potential objections that could be made to compulsory registration (I've made some in the past myself) but I think that, overall, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Registration will not solve the problems surrounding marginal publications but it will make it easier to manage them (especially if specialists are able to upload comments on the availability of registered names). And at least non-specialists would be able to feel secure that names not properly registered can be safely ignored.
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.
Peter Thiel's interesting comparison of biotech with software
6 hours ago in The Curious Wavefunction