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The new zoo

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Changes to the international zoological code are to be welcomed, despite continuing dissent.

The change last year that allowed zoologists to name new species in online-only academic journals was a long time coming, so it should come as no surprise that dissent continues to rumble. Publishers of journals, including this one, are keenly aware of the complexities of nomenclature, just as they are alive to the possibilities, problems and pitfalls that might have a bearing on nomenclature in a period of rapid change. The current flight from print to electronic media might (although it is too early to say) have an effect on the dissemination of information as profound as that caused by the invention of the printing press, so it is understandable that those wedded to more traditional modes of publication might experience feelings of anxiety.

Such anxiety seems to have prompted some taxonomists to air their concerns in print. In a paper in Zootaxa (A. Dubois et al. Zootaxa 3735, 1–94; 2013), a number of disgruntled scientists take issue with the recent change, made by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. On the surface, their argument concerns technicalities under which certain forms of publication might render nomenclatural acts ‘unavailable’ — that is, of no taxonomic validity. If this is indeed the case, the ICZN should take these concerns seriously with a view to amending the code to ensure that its provisions are transparent and free of contradiction. A new edition of the code is scheduled for 2018, so there is ample time for consideration.

That said, there might be more than a disinterested concern for scientific integrity at work here. A typical reader of the Zootaxa paper (not that there are typical readers of a 94-page work on the minutiae of nomenclature protocol) might reasonably conclude that the authors have axes to grind. Exhibits A–E: the high degree of autocitation in the Zootaxa paper; the admission that some of the authors were against the ICZN amendments; that they clearly feel that their opinions regarding the amendments have been disregarded; the ad hominem attacks on ‘wealthy’ publishers as opposed to straitened natural-history societies; and the use of emotive and occasionally intemperate language that one does not associate with the usually dry and legalistic tone of debate on this subject. (The online publisher BioMed Central, based in London, gets a particular pasting, to which it has responded; see go.nature.com/vglfig.)

One of many recommendations made in the diatribe is that journals should routinely have on their review boards those expert in the business of nomenclature — in other words, a cadre of people who are, unlike ordinary mortals, qualified to interpret the mystic strictures of the code. A typical reader is again entitled to ask whom, apart from themselves, the authors think might be suitable candidates.

Given the demands on their time, the ICZN members could probably do without a reprisal of the online versus print naming debate.

The naming of species is, of course, important. There was lengthy discussion of the question of permanence, and the almost-certain enduring nature of digital publishing, before the change to the code was made. Nature was in favour at the time and remains so today. Simply put, the positives outweigh the negatives. As we said in an editorial when the change was announced in September 2012: “It is a sensible move, and one that most in the field should welcome … 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.” (Nature 489, 178; 2012).

It is unfortunate that the row could overshadow more cheering news from the world of nomenclature this week. The National University of Singapore has agreed to fund the secretariat of the ICZN for the next three years. As well as administering the code, the 26 volunteer commissioners of the ICZN arbitrate on disputes between scientists over the naming of the 15,000 or so species described and named each year.

Given the demands on their time, the ICZN members could probably do without a reprisal of the online versus print naming debate — a debate, remember, that saw the farcical printing to paper of hard copies of online-only papers, which were then handed to libraries to fulfil the exact wording of the code. The Zootaxa authors seem unwilling, or unable, to move on. They have a semantic bee in their bonnet over the code’s requirement that species descriptions must be always “available”. When the online publishers they contacted explained that, no, they did not routinely supply paper versions of the files on the journal’s websites, the authors, rather uncharitably, deemed the information unavailable to them.

This year’s must-have Christmas present in the United Kingdom is a miniature statue of a friend or relative, produced while-you-wait by a 3D printer. The technology required to make “available” a PDF file is much simpler. But then the complainants know that perfectly well already.

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The name game 2012-Sep-12

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The new zoo. Nature 503, 311–312 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/503311b

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