Solanum sanchez-vegae and three other new plant species have had their names published exclusively online. Credit: S. Knapp

Botany may finally be entering the electronic age, as four plants become a test case for naming species in purely electronic journals.

Their description in an online-only journal highlights the issues facing biologists as they attempt to reform the conventions that govern the naming of species, balancing issues including peer review, archiving and electronic publication. Paper publication has been the gold standard since Carl Linnaeus gave birth to modern taxonomy in the eighteenth century.

Rules set out by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) insist that new species be officially declared by the "distribution of printed matter" and not "solely by distribution electronically".

However, Sandra Knapp of London's Natural History Museum believes she has come up with a way around this rule. Her latest paper, published in the online-only, open-access journal PLoS One, describes four newly discovered plants1.

There is nothing very unusual about the plants themselves, which all belong to the Solanum genus — one of the largest genera of flowering plants. But it is the first time new plant names have been published in a purely electronic journal and still complied with ICBN rules. So the publication serves as a test case for changes being developed for the code.

The paper represents the culmination of a campaign to institute the electronic publication of scientific names, a case Knapp and others have made in journals including Nature2. Allowing electronic publication should make accessing information easier for scientists worldwide — especially those in developing countries who may not have access to fully stocked libraries. This, in turn, will aid conservation efforts, Knapp says.

"It allows people to know there's something to look for," she told Nature. "The only reason to name something is to allow people to study it further. By allowing electronic publication, this can become easier for people to get at."

Post the print-outs

To get around the ICBN (see Box 1), Knapp will print out copies of the article and post them to 10 libraries — including the International Plant Names Index, which is maintained by a partnership of the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, the Harvard University Herbaria in Massachusetts and the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra — to fulfil the stipulation of Article 29.

Box 1 | Click on the image for a larger version of Article 29, Section 1, of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

Click here for larger image

This should ensure that her descriptions of Solanum aspersum, Solanum luculentum, Solanum sanchez-vegae and Solanum sousae — all from Central and South America — are accepted. In addition, the Public Library of Sciences (PloS), publishers of PLoS One, has produced guidelines for authors who wish to follow Knapp's example.

"As online publications are an increasingly important part of scientific publication, it would be undesirable if online publications were totally excluded from publishing taxonomic novelties," says John McNeill, a researcher at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, UK, and chief rapporteur for the Nomenclature Section of the International Botanical Congress. "On the other hand, the plant taxonomic community is, justifiably I believe, still very concerned regarding the permanence and, perhaps even more, the immutability of electronic publications."

McNeill, who advised Knapp on her paper, adds, "A mechanism such as that outlined in the PLoS guidelines would seem a good compromise under the current rules."

Change the codes

In the longer term, Knapp and others hope that the naming code itself can be revised. The next opportunity for this to happen will be at the 2011 International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia, where Knapp will preside over the nomenclature committee.

A similar debate is raging in the world of zoological nomenclature. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which revises its rules differently from the botanical world, is currently considering proposed amendments that would allow electronic publication of new species names3.

And there are other, related issues. At present, there is no stipulation that publications must be peer reviewed for official naming. Although Knapp says she does not think it realistic to expect all naming publications to be peer reviewed, there may be a strong case for all online-only publications to be peer reviewed before new names are accepted.

Sketches of the flowers of the four new species: (from left to right) Solanum aspersum, S. luculentum, S. sanchez-vegae and S. sousae. Credit: S. Knapp

Werner Greuter, chairman of a previous iteration of the ICBN, is wary of requiring peer review, although he agrees that the rules need reforming. "It's much too easy to publish things without people being aware of them," he says. He adds that Knapp's new method is not revolutionary as "in this case electronic publication is just a nice extra. What counts are the paper copies."

But libraries are cutting back on buying print copies of journals and it is not clear whether naming papers that are published solely online will be available in future unless print copies are widely circulated too.

"We know about paper lasting for a couple of millennia at least. We don't know about our electronic systems — try reading an 8 inch floppy disk now," says Greuter. "Is it really so bad to have a paper copy stored in a number of places?"