In May 2009, a small fossil mammal was announced to the world as Darwinius masillae. Despite looking (let's be honest) like some sort of road-killed rat, Darwinius attracted a lot of interest due to its being a well-preserved early primate. Around the globe, news reports, blog posts, and strongly-worded letters to the Times were composed on the subject of wee Darwinius. You can get some idea of this attention from the links provided here. But with a publicity machine as large as the one surrounding Darwinius, one should always expect there to be spanners nearby.
As reported at The Loom, it was soon pointed out that there were problems with the name 'Darwinius massilae'. Darwinius had been published in an online-only venue, the web-journal PLoS One. At the time, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature still did not allow for online-only publications, and a lively debate was going on as to whether provisions for such things should be made (eventually, they were). It looked like the name 'Darwinius' might have to suffer the fate of Akhenaten, erased from the public record and forbidden to be spoken aloud. In the end, a paper edition of the description of Darwinius was deposited in a number of institute libraries, which was believe to satisfy the letter of the ICZN. Peace was restored to the empire, and Darwinius was confirmed as an acceptable name.
For many who had been clinging to the fence on the acceptability of online-only publication, Darwinius massilae represented a bit of a water-shed moment. Online-only publication was here, it was happening, and it couldn't be ignored. Resistance was rapidly becoming futile. Or at least, that was the conclusion I personally felt compelled to draw from the event. The problem wasn't just the sideshow that had arisen around the christening of Darwinius. For me, the real poster-child for this mess was Aerosteon riocoloradensis, a theropod dinosaur that PLoS One had announced some eight months earlier than Darwinius. Like Darwinius, Aerosteon was subject to a fair whack of media coverage, despite the fact that, like Darwinius, its name wasn't acceptable in the eyes of the ICZN. The difference between Darwinius and Aerosteon, though, was that until the problem with Darwinius was realised, no-one had even noticed any issue with Aerosteon.
This, for me, was the very heart of the problem. In the days before electronic documents, the question of whether a given work was 'published' was largely an academic one. For most printed works, the evidence that it was 'published' was simply that it existed. Works that were regarded as 'unpublished', such as hand-written manuscripts and doctoral theses, probably only existed as one or two copies. The chance of your seeing them, except as an archivist, was fairly minute. Online publication changed all that. By the time it was realised that the name 'Aerosteon' might not be valid, its original description had been viewed by hundreds, if not thousands, of people (at the time of writing, PLoS One claims 22,417 views for this paper). The idea that all these readers should be commanded never to speak of what they saw, because they had not seen it in the required medium, seemed frankly ludicrous.
In this light, the amendment of the ICZN to allow for online-only publication (under certain conditions) was something I welcomed. As I noted at the time, it was possible (certain, in fact) that the rules would have to be further manipulated as we saw how they worked out in practice. Recently, a review in Zootaxa by Dubois et al. has purported to look at some of the issues that have arisen as a result of electronic publication. This review has itself received a brief, but snarky, commentary in the editorial section of this week's Nature. The Nature reviewer accuses Dubois et al. of having 'axes to grind'. This is probably true, but the reviewer may be sharpening an axe of their own: among the practices castigated by Dubois et al. are some, such as the publication of important taxonomic information in 'online supplements', that Nature has often been guilty of itself.
That said, I can't help but feel sympathy for the Nature reviewer's comments. I have become increasingly disenchanted over the years with any nomenclatural argument that strays too far towards the purely legalistic. For instance, Dubois et al. argue that the validation of Darwinius by the deposition in libraries of paper copies was itself invalid under current rules, as these prohibit validation through the production of 'facsimiles or reproductions as paper-printed copies of unavailable electronic publications' of the original online publication. They were also invalid under the rules current at the time, which required that a published work 'must be obtainable, when first issued'. Because the paper issues were only deposited in libraries, and were not obtainable by anyone from that first print-run, they didn't count. If PLoS One offered to print out a copy for anyone who demanded a paper issue, that didn't count either because the rules exclude 'print-on-demand' documents. If PLoS One pointed out that the paper was freely available at any time simply by going to their website and downloading a copy, that didn't count because electronic documents were not acceptable! In the meantime, their supposed 'unavailability' has been no barrier to use: Google Scholar returns 56 results on a search for 'Aerosteon', and 258 results on a search for 'Darwinius'! Dubois et al. complain that nomenclature doesn't get no respect, and call stridently for higher standards, stating positions such as that, "Publishers who since 2000 have published works containing nomenclatural novelties that do not comply with the Rules of the Code for publication availability...have betrayed the confidence of the authors who had entrusted their works to them for publication". I would counter that it is exactly this sort of legalistic bun-fighting and contrarianism that has caused many researchers (including many taxonomists) to lose respect for the nomenclatural process in the first place. We are not and we should not be here for the purpose of chanting shibboleths!
Dubois et al. complain that, "the recent decision [of the ICZN] to allow the publication of nomenclatural novelties in electronic form, was strongly influenced, if not “imposed”, by pressure from both the international biological community of non-taxonomists, and of non-scientists, e.g. Internet and Google “candid users”. Well, yes, this is exactly the point that I was making above. The users of taxonomy are not just taxonomists. They are researchers in other fields, they are policy-makers, they are farmers, they are fishermen, in fact they are absolutely everyone who has any interest, whether professional or amateur, in the world's biodiversity. The needs of these end-users cannot be simply ignored. And first and foremost among those needs is the need to not have to spend inordinate amounts of time contemplating nomenclatural angels on the heads of systematic pins before they know whether a name is usable. In the past we could be reasonably confident that if we were reading a publication, it was available. That is the ideal that we should be striving towards again.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar: A study in fortitude and rigor
2 days ago in The Curious Wavefunction