Field of Science

The Claim-Jumpers and Grave-Robbers of Taxonomy

In a recent paper in Zootaxa (openly accessible), O'Hara (2011) has become the most recent of a number of authors to discuss one of the more irritating taxonomic developments of recent years: the rise of the serial homonym replacer. A taxonomic homonym, in case you aren't already familiar with the term, is when a new taxon is given a name previously assigned to a distinct taxon (usually because the later author is unaware of the earlier usage's existence). Because the various nomenclatural codes require that any name can refer to only a single taxon, the more recently named taxon would generally need to be re-christened if it is to be accepted into polite society. However, in many cases homonymous names can lurk undetected in the literature for a great many years. After all, there is a heck of a lot of taxonomic literature out there, and it may only be a matter of luck if the existence of a homonymy is even noticed.

In recent years, this has changed somewhat. The appearance of easily searchable taxonomic databases such as Nomenclator Zoologicus have made it much easier for authors to detect if a given name has been used previously. Unfortunately, as well as making it much easier to allow authors of new taxa to avoid creating homonymies, such databases have allowed the rise of the serial homonym replacer. Serial homonym replacers scour databases on the hunt for unreformed homonyms. Having collected a bundle of them together, they then publish short papers in which they publish replacement names for said homonyms, generally in obscure little journals probably published by the authors themselves.

Most working taxonomists regard such behaviour as unlaudable at best, and as downright unethical and injurious at worst. It is felt that the publication of replacement names is best done within the context of a larger-scale review of the taxonomic group to with a homonymous name belongs. From a practical viewpoint, the publication of replacement names without putting them into a larger perspective may reduce the chance of them coming to the attention of the appropriate workers (a worker on Braconidae, for instance, will almost certainly read a paper entitled 'Taxonomic Review of the Braconidae', but may not notice potential significance in 'Five new replacement names for homonymous insect genera'), increasing the chance that they will themselves publish further, unnecessary replacement names. From an ethical viewpoint, the serial homonym replacer is, through the required practice of author citation, inflating the apparent significance of their own work and diminishing that of more exacting researchers who are forced to work more slowly.

Perhaps even more problematic, the publication of replacement names outside the context of a proper review often leads to mere compounded errors. In practice, not every junior homonym needs a replacement, because sometimes any replacement would not actually be used, and would simply clutter up the literature. If the homonym is synonymous with another previously proposed name, then that name is already available for use. For instance, the name Platypus published by Shaw in 1799 for (naturally) the platypus is a junior homonym of a genus of beetles named by Herbst in 1793. However, no replacement name is required because Blumenbach had also described the platypus in 1800 under the name Ornithorhynchus. Authors have also refrained from publishing replacement names in cases where the identity of an original homonymous name is uncertain (for instance, if the type specimens are lost): any replacement would be equally mysterious and practically unusable. In one case described by O'Hara (2011), the replacement name proposed for a genus of fly was unnecessary because the supposed 'senior homonym' had not actually met the requirements for valid publication.

In addition to the examples discussed by O'Hara (2011), let me direct your attention to one particularly horrid little paper that manages to cover many of the errors perpetrated by database scourers. Özdikmen (2009) proposed replacement names for 48 homonymous genera of unicellular eukaryotes. Let me just start by noting that Özdikmen seemed unaware that by 2009 the taxonomic concept of 'Phytomastigophorea' was more anachronistic than the ruffed collar and velvet doublet. Twelve of the supposed homonyms treated are dinoflagellates, a silicoflagellate and a chlorophyte(!), and hence members of groups whose researchers have long since generally agreed to follow the Botanical Code rather than the Zoological. Under the Botanical Code, these names are not preoccupied (because botanical names do not conflict with zoological names) and replacement is unnecessary. Even if the names were somehow problematic, I would not be surprised if the different publication requirements of the Botanical Code meant that Özdikmen's replacements were somehow not valid.

Özdikmen's (2009) proposal of a replacement name for amoeboid-endosymbiont Perkinsiella Hollande 1981 is unnecessary because a replacement name had already been published by Dyková et al. (2008), in the context of a broader molecular analysis. His proposal of a new name for the dinoflagellate family Goniodomataceae because its type genus was preoccupied is unnecessary, not only because Goniodoma is not preoccupied (see above), as family names had already been based on other genera within the Goniodomataceae and would then take precedence. Ethically speaking, many of the homonyms replaced by Özdikmen (2009) were originally published in the 1980s and 1990s and their authors are probably still alive and working today.

So what are the practical effects of this homonym harvesting? It can cause confusion and extra work for researchers, if it leads to the introduction of superfluous replacement names. It can lead to general ill will, if workers on larger projects feel that they are being unfairly pre-empted. And they can have something of a cooling effect on the very process of nomenclatural clean-up they purport to effect. Since the work of Özdikmen and his ilk became publicised, I've personally become apprehensive about the possibility of publicising, however casually, any unresolved homonyms of which I am aware.

One such homonymy I discovered nearly ten years ago, when I was fresh out of university and did not yet have any publications to my name. As the animal in question was in a group which did not then have anyone actively working on it, the idea did cross my mind that I could perhaps publish a note on it myself. My first publication! But, even at that early stage in my career, and without the benefit of mentor advice, I was able to work out that, in the end, it would be a publication of little, if any, virtue. And I hoped that I was more mature than that.


Dyková, I., I. Fiala & H. Pecková. 2008. Neoparamoeba spp. and their eukaryotic endosymbionts similar to Perkinsela amoebae (Hollande, 1980): coevolution demonstrated by SSU rRNA gene phylogenies. European Journal of Protistology 44 (4): 269-277.

O'Hara, J. E. 2011. Cyber nomenclaturalists and the “CESA itch”. Zootaxa 2933: 57-64.

Özdikmen, H. 2009. Substitute names for some unicellular animal taxa (Protozoa). Munis Entomology & Zoology 4 (1): 233-256.


  1. I for one wish you would have published a replacement for everyone's favorite stub-fingered oviraptorid, since the original author still hasn't despite being aware of the situation for all this time. At some point, aren't we justified in thinking "they've had their chance, let's get this thing a name so we can stop using quotation marks everywhere"? As much as it (and basically all of his taxa) need redescription, I don't think anyone's working on his oviraptorids even now.

  2. Oh, this is excellent Christopher. Publishing a slew of homonyms replacements from various groups reminds me of the old time taxonomist tendency to publish papers like "66 New Diptera" (Cecil BD Garrett was very fond of doing this, as was Nathan Banks). Of course, a good number of those ended up being homynyms and junior synonyms. At least we can say that the number of homonyms in recent years is much less than in the past.

  3. It must be a rule... every time something becomes widely available on the Internet, somebody figures out how to make spam out of it.

  4. Mickey: the main issue here is not the renaming of other people's homonyms, so much (which may not always be an issue: one author to whose attention I brought an inadvertent homonym she'd created replied with a message suggesting that I rename it myself as she was no longer working on that taxon at that point). The issue is the practice of nomenclature for nomenclature's sake, without any concern for wider significance. No value-adding, as the marketers would put it.

    Kai: Perhaps not so injurious in the long term as those, admittedly. Still, both examples of the issues that can arise from the first-in-best-dressed nomenclature system (not, of course, that it's easy to design a workable alternative).

    Paul: Very good way of putting it.

  5. I liked O'Hara's paper a lot, but the main problem seemed to be the entomologists were being lazy/sloppy in renaming genera that didn't need it, and also that they were assholes who inserted their organization's acronym into tons of their names. For "Ingenia", you knew there were no competing senior synonyms that could make renaming it useless, no one was working on it who you could be usurping, and you presumably wouldn't have called it Chrisgenia.

    It seems to me that as long as workers...
    - Make sure their name is necessary.
    - Make sure the original author doesn't want to rename it.
    - Make sure no one is working on a review of the taxon.
    - Get word out in the community about your publication (easy nowadays with the Internet).
    - Don't self publish or the near-equivalent of doing so in a journal you edit.
    - Don't make it a dickish name.
    ... then I don't see what the issue is. If you're worried about looking greedy, just credit the name to the original homonym's author. It seems silly to say "No, we'll keep on calling this taxon the wrong thing until someone decides to review it, which may not be for decades."

  6. Excellent write up on one of the more humorous (sadly) technical taxonomic papers from the past few years. Although it's but a small percentage of "taxonomists" which spoil the pot, these names will continue to linger in perpetuity, perhaps the draw for some of these paper-grubbers.

    Mickey, all those qualities that you say should be followed are the basics for a taxonomist working on a group. Being intimately familiar with the taxa and literature behind it are vital to good taxonomy, and if someone meets all those criteria, then chances are they are in a position to fully revise the group in question, not just change some names!

  7. I should also probably apologise, as my use of the term 'review' may have been a little unfortunate, as I was thinking in a broader sense than some would have attributed to that word. If you look at the paper I cited approvingly that renamed Perkinsiella as Perkinsela, for instance, it's not itself primarily a taxonomic paper but a molecular analysis. Similarly, while the oviraptorid in question might not be itself the subject of revision, I would not think it out of place for any other paper on oviraptorids that happened to include the preoccupied one in its analysis to insert a new name for it.

    Last I heard, the case of 'Ingenia' was complicated slightly because the original author had indicated their intent to publish a replacement, but it's been slow in forthcoming. That was a few years ago now, though.

  8. So, can I write a paper on Cyanea then? A jellyfish as well as a genus of plant endemic to Hawaii.

  9. As mentioned in the post, names don't clash when they're covered by different codes of nomenclature, so an animal and a plant can potentially have the same name (and many do).

  10. Perhaps the original intent of the homonym pot-stirrers was well intentioned, but the actual practice has made nothing but messes. I think the ICZN looked into what could be done about them a couple of years ago and decided there was nothing they could do.

    The internet, however, does reset the standard of when a replacement name may be needed. For example, I can think of a google search for a family name that mixes together mites and jellyfish. That could make for some interesting DNA-based trees. Although the mite and jellyfish family names (based on valid male and female forms of the genus name) have coexisted with no problem for many decades, I think it is time for a change.


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