The name game

    After several years of wrangling, zoologists can now name new species online only.

    With access to the Internet, the (official) world of animals and plants will soon be at your fingertips. In a landmark ruling, zoologists last week agreed that newly identified species can be named in online-only publications. Previously, the first official description of anything that crawled, flew, wriggled, walked or swam across Earth needed to be formally written up and recorded in print, where it would remain in perpetuity for future scientists to reference.

    That made sense when Henry Fairfield Osborn described Tyrannosaurus rex in 1905; less so when Rob Gay named a new theropod, Kayentavenator elysiae, in 2010, which helps to explain why Gay broke with convention and claimed the first description of the species in a self-published print-on-demand book.

    As technology blurred the distinction between what is published and what is not, some predicted online anarchy, with 'taxonomic vandals' taking to the Internet to self-publish reports of new species. An obvious solution to the problem would have been to extend the rules from print to cover online scientific journals, and to draw the line there. But there were concerns about whether online journals would endure. In a messy compromise, online journals that published descriptions of new species printed and bound several dozen copies of the paper — in case a twenty-second-century palaeontologist should call. In an even messier compromise, some scientists printed papers from journal websites and posted them to libraries themselves.

    No more. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which sets the rules for the naming of new species, announced on 4 September that it was relaxing its code to encompass publication in online-only publications. The change, which followed a vote of 23 in favour to 3 against, with one abstention, comes into force at the start of next year. The amendment allows for descriptions of new species in “widely accessible electronic copies with fixed content and layout”. New animal species will also need to be registered with ZooBank.org, the official registry of the ICZN.

    It is a sensible move, and one that most in the field should welcome. It comes a year after the International Botanical Congress endorsed online-only publication for new types of plant. In an Editorial at the time (Nature 475, 424; 2011), which called on zoologists to follow suit, Nature said: “At this point, it seems that there is little reason to continue to demand paper on a shelf to make a species name official.”

    On hearing the news from the ICZN, one member of Nature's staff quipped: “Now to name a dinosaur you don't have to behave like one.” But that is a little unfair. Proper taxonomy and a robust archive are crucial to science, and the zoologists were right to consider with care the possible negative aspects of such a change, as well as listening to the clamour to embrace the new. True, the change has been a long time coming. It is overdue, even. Still, when you have been dead and waiting for a name since the Mesozoic era, what are a few extra years?

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    The name game. Nature 489, 178 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/489178a

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