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.
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