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Origin of species

Zoologists should follow botanists in allowing online-only announcements of new species.

Ida had a difficult birth. This remarkably well preserved primate fossil was introduced to the world in May 2009, in a description in the online journal PLoS ONE. Arguments raged over the evolutionary importance of the unquestionably photogenic new species Darwinius masillae and the role of a television company in its unveiling; a more technical criticism came from taxonomy specialists. Under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, publication of species names must be in a 'durable medium' — that is, on paper or CD-ROM, which must be made available at specific libraries. The online-only naming of Ida as a new species was therefore illegitimate. The journal rushed out a correction stating that a “separate print-only edition is available” to fulfil the requirements and ensure that Ida really was D. masillae (J. L. Franzen et al. PLoS ONE 4, e5723; 2009). But the underlying problem remained: if zoologists and botanists wished to publish their findings in online journals, they would still have to physically distribute print copies to suitable repositories.

Last year, Sandra Knapp, a botanist at the Natural History Museum in London, got around the plant-science version of the same rules, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. She described four new plants, again in PLoS ONE (S. Knapp PLoS ONE 5, e10502; 2010), printed out hard copies of the online paper, and posted them to libraries.

At a meeting in Melbourne, Australia, last week, the International Botanical Congress took the first steps to end this situation and bring botany into the electronic age (see Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.428; 2011). The congress's nomenclature section, chaired by Knapp, voted to amend the code to allow purely electronic publication. They also agreed to abandon the need for a Latin description, although the names themselves must still be Latinized. The wider congress must endorse the changes before they can take effect, but it is expected to do so in time for the new rules to apply from January next year.

Now, zoologists should follow suit. More than ten years have passed since the first creatures — fossilized microorganisms called protists — were described in an electronic journal (D. B. Scott et al. Palaeontol. Electron. 3; 2000; see http://go.nature.com/pt1cmz), with physical copies sent to libraries to meet the criteria. Nature greeted the news at the time with a headline that now seems premature: 'Online naming of species opens digital age for taxonomy' (see Nature 408, 278; 2000).

Yet, despite much discussion in the scientific community and numerous articles published on the topic, both in print and online, the rules governing zoologists remain as strict as ever.

Researchers pushing for online publications to be given equal status insist that electronic copies can now be considered a permanent record. They say that widening the number of journals that can publish discoveries will benefit the field, and that online-only journals often publish faster than traditional print publications.

At this point, it seems that there is little reason to continue to demand paper on a shelf to make a species name official.

Sometimes, taxonomists — and scientific publishers — resist change and the adoption of new technology. There are often good reasons for this. Proper rules are important and taxonomic anarchy would ruin science. Slavishly embracing every new technology as it appeared would be a disaster, and a demonstrably robust archive is invaluable — just ask a historian.

But electronic publication has already altered the face of publishing, and it will continue to do so. Taxonomy and publishing are likely always to lag behind technological progress; in fact, both already have to run faster and faster just to keep up. Still, botanists are about to narrow the gap slightly, and zoologists should pick up the pace.

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Origin of species. Nature 475, 424 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/475424a

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