Field of Science

The ICZN and Electronic Publication: Where Did It Go Wrong?

Reconstruction of the dinosaur Aerosteon riocoloradensis, from here. This species was published in electronic-only format in September 2008; it was nearly six months before anyone noticed that this was a problem.

Since the ICZN approved electronic publication, we've had a few weeks to get over the initial heady rush of excitement and further assess the situation. Which means that we have to ask the question: what is wrong with the new rules?

There is no question that some of the new rules on electronic publication will need to be adjusted. This, I hasten to point out, is not an indictment. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature for dealing with paper publications first appeared over fifty years ago, in 1961, and the earliest attempt at a formal code of nomenclature had been proposed by Hugh Edwin Strickland another 120 years before that. Despite all this time, the Code as it pertains to paper publications has still not been perfected, and revisions continue to be proposed and published. Indeed, some of the issues the code grapples with (such as what does or does not constitute 'publication') are, in the end, probably not universally soluble, because they deal with factors such as judging ethical behaviour that cannot be expressed in simple formulae applicable to every situation. So it should hardly be expected that rules for electronic publication should have immediately attained perfection when not even those for paper publication, with 170 years or more of a head start, have not yet done so. What is more, some of the failings in the current rules will not become apparent until they are able to be tested. Loopholes will have to be closed, terms will have to be clarified. And as I airily critique issues with the current rules in this post, I am well aware that the rules' composers will have probably already discussed them to death, and any suggestions I make may have their own problems that I have overlooked.

What, exactly, is an electronic publication?

As I noted in the earlier post linked to above, the ICZN effectively requires that any electronic publication has an associated ISBN or ISSN (this does not have to appear in the publication itself, but it is required for the registration of the publication on ZooBank). To a certain extent, this makes sense: it means, for instance, that taxonomists do not have to worry about taxa being 'accidentally' published in mailing groups, blogs, etc. that may not be reliably archived. But it does raise the question: in the electronic age, why should a publication necessarily be a 'book' or a 'serial'?

The ICN (International Code for Nomenclature of plants, algae and fungi; what we used to call the ICBN) apparently requires that electronic publications be in pdf format. The ICZN does not make this an actual requirement, though pdf is cited as an example of a format that meets the requirement of 'widely accessible electronic copies with fixed content and layout'. I think that the ICZN is in the right here; while it is difficult to see pdf being superseded at the present point in time, it is perhaps hazardous to assume that this will never happen. I suggest that the requirements of an electronic publication should be that, (A) at least the content (if not the format) should be intended to be immutable*, and (B) it should be somehow 'stand-alone', not requiring a larger context other than the standard requirements for reading electronic files (so, for instance, a database entry that can only be accessed as part of that database may not be acceptable).

*It is worth noting at this point that even a paper publication is, in a sense, not 'immutable' if its publishers do not behave ethically. If a publisher produces a second, altered print run without explicitly marking it as a revised edition or changing the reported publication date, there may be no indication that it represents a distinct publication from the original run. Most people will not read through two separate copies of a publication just on the off-chance that they may differ.

Do pre-releases count?

There is one clause in the new rules that I expect will be guaranteed to cause immediate problems. This is the new Article 21.8.3: "Some works are accessible online in preliminary versions before the publication date of the final version. Such advance electronic access does not advance the date of publication of a work, as preliminary versions are not published (Article 9.9)."

Remember old Scansoriepidendrosauropteryx? This was an animal that first debuted in an electronic online-early form in a well-known journal, but before the print edition of that paper was finally published the animal was described under a different name in a paper-only publication. The resulting confusion, when the earliest name publicised was not the one with technical priority, was one reason why at least some people were calling for electronic publication to be recognised. Well, guess what? Under the current rules, this case would have played out no differently. Some would look askance at accepting pre-releases as validly published because of the possibility of alteration between the pre-release and the final edition, but as I said above, perhaps this is something that requires us to discuss what exactly we regard as a 'publication'.

There is also the new Article 21.9 to consider: 'A name or nomenclatural act published in a work issued in both print and electronic editions takes its date of publication from the edition that first fulfilled the criteria of publication of Article 8 and is not excluded by Article 9.' Some may read this as saying that an electronic pre-release counts as a valid publication if, in itself, it meets the requirements of electronic publication. Some may read this as being trumped by 21.8.3.

And what about electronic versions of paper publications?

To be validly published, an electronic publication has to be registered with ZooBank and include evidence of its registration. Paper publications, on the other hand, do not yet have to be registered. The problem is, many researchers are now more likely to access electronic copies of paper publications than the original paper edition itself. And if I do so, how can I be sure that the paper edition actually exists? Even for some of my own publications in recent years, I've never actually laid eyes on the original journals. I've only seen the pdfs, and I've trusted in the publisher that the paper edition exists and that taxa I've erected are indeed validly published. Similarly, if I come across a publication from an unfamiliar journal (and with hundreds if not thousands of journals publishing in biology worldwide, I will not be familiar with them all) when searching online, would I necessarily know whether that represents an electronic-only publication or an electronic copy of a paper one?

When the question of electronic publication was still being debated, I stated more than once that the biggest problem with not accepting it was that, for many readers, it was all too difficult to distinguish valid publications from invalid. I have my doubts whether this problem has yet been solved.


  1. Naive question:

    what is the purpose of zoobank as a website? - the search function there brings up nothing; none of the names pubished in plosone recently come up; LSIDs don't resolve inspite of the plosone instructions.


  2. I just tried doing a couple of searches on ZooBank and got results without difficulty. Have the PLoS One names been registered properly, I wonder?

  3. I do seem to replicate some of the problems mentioned by 'Anonymous' with regards to PLoS One nomenclatural acts. For example, Stenopterygius aaleniensis was published on August 1, and neither a search for the name or the LSID brings up any results. The same is true for Mochlodon vorosi, published on September 21; and Europejara olcadesorum, published on July 3. Even taxa published at the beginning of this year (e.g., Acamptonectes densus) do not come up in Zoobank.

  4. I just tried searching for a couple of taxa recently published in ZooKeys, and also failed to get a result. But these taxa, like the PLoS One examples you mention, have an LSID cited in the paper. If they're not registered, how did they have an LSID to cite? Something's funny here...

  5. Me again (the anonymous poster)

    I noticed this some months ago, but didn't say anything because I assumed I 'doing it wrong'.

    plosone authors obviously don't make up the LSIDs, so perhaps it's a case that the request the LSIDs from zoobank, but that zoobank haven't entered these in their system - or that the authors of the plosone articles have to do that themselves.

    But I'm really worried about these new names so..I just find it depressing that iconic names like 'Tyrannosaurus' or 'Diplodocus' bring up no results in what is supposed to be an official registry.


    1. Scrub portions of my last post. I meant to have said:

      1. "I noticed this some months ago, but didn't say anything because I assumed I was 'doing it wrong'"

      2. "But I'm not really so worried about these new names so..I just find it depressing that iconic names like 'Tyrannosaurus' or 'Diplodocus' bring up no results in what is supposed to be an official registry."

    2. Hmm, I thought I'd responded to this, but it looks like I had my comment etherised. Sorry.

      Anywho, the problem you raise isn't one with ZooBank per se. Registration currently is only compulsory for taxa published electronically from 2012 onwards; for all older and paper-published taxa, it's a purely voluntary process. So if these names don't bring up a result on ZooBank, it's just because nobody has gotten around to entering them there yet. It doesn't affect their availability or anything.

      Now, you may argue that there should be more of a concerted drive to get such names uploaded, but that's a separate issue. And one that potentially would require funds that ZooBank doesn't currently have access to.

      (I hasten to add that some people have voluntarily been very proactive in adding older taxa to ZooBank's records. But with probably well over a million names to get through, that's going to take a while.)

  6. About paper not being 'immutable' either: I think you miss the point. In the "good ol' days" before e-publication, you could check validity of publication (in principle) by visiting some libraries and finding paper copies *date stamped* on receipt by the library. Any further print runs or alternative versions which can't be shown to predate the above copies are irrelevant to nomenclature. Now, we can't really do that with e-publications??

  7. Pdfs, at least, have the date of creation contained in the file metadata. You can see it by looking at the 'Properties' tab in the 'File' menu. So for them, checking the date is even easier than it is with paper.

    1. Well, maybe? Problem is that library date stamps were done by trusted libraries with no reason to fake anything. The date of creation of a PDF might be fakable by an author or rogue editor of a dodgy e-journal ...

    2. Actually, more to the point, PDF creation dates aren't directly relevant to their publication dates, whereas we know if something was datestamped by a library that it was indeed published at that stage ...

  8. PDF creation dates aren't directly relevant to their publication dates

    Nor are library date-stamps. It's correlatory evidence. No more, no less.

    whereas we know if something was datestamped by a library that it was indeed published at that stage

    Actually, we don't. Why should we assume that the deposition of a copy with a library post-dates its release to the public? In an earlier post I've discussed the super-rare journal Lansania, some later issues of which we don't really know if they count as 'published' because we don't know if they were ever really distributed. Again, date-stamps prove nothing of themselves, they're just a source of evidence. Nothing more, nothing less.

    1. Yes, I agree that there is no such thing as 100% certainty, but the percentage we can hope for has now gone down somewhat ...

  9. Good article, Christopher. Thanks for giving the issues - both positive and problematic - some thought and airtime.


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