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Botanists shred paperwork in taxonomy reforms

Descriptions of new plant species can now be published electronically.

The requirement for new plant species to be described in print may soon be lifted. Credit:

Botanists will soon be able to name new plant species without ever physically printing a paper, as the code governing botanical taxonomy undergoes a major shake-up.

At the ongoing International Botanical Congress (IBC) in Melbourne, Australia, researchers have agreed to drop the requirement for hard copies of papers describing new species. Also vanishing from the code is a requirement that species must come with a Latin description.

Although the amendments voted through today by the IBC's nomenclature section will have to be ratified by the full congress on 30 July, this is expected to be a formality. The changes are likely to come into effect from 1 January next year, when the new International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) is likely to come into force.

"I would not necessarily describe the decision as a move away from hard copy except in so far as all scientific publication is moving away from hard copy," says John McNeill, a researcher at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, UK, in an e-mail to Nature. McNeill is attending the Melbourne meeting.

"It is simply a recognition that electronic publication is now an important component of scientific communication and that that communication should include the publication of the names of new taxa (species etc.) and of other taxonomic and nomenclatural actions and changes."

Under the existing ICBN, any description of a new species must be declared by "distribution of printed matter". This has long been a controversial issue, but an attempt to change the code at the last congress in Vienna six years ago floundered, mainly because of concerns that archiving of electronic documents would not necessarily be permanent.

Although the use of an 'archival standard' PDF for electronic publication is not mandatory in the proposed code, progress in journal archiving has reduced concerns over the permanence issue, says McNeill.

Short cut to a shake-up

Last year, Sandra Knapp of London's Natural History Museum came up with a way around the existing rule on printed matter. She published descriptions of four new species in a paper in the online-only journal PLoS ONE and sent printouts to ten libraries around the world (see 'Linnaeus meets the Internet').

Mark Watson, also at Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden and secretary of the IBC special committee on electronic publication, says that Knapp's efforts really focused the community on the issue. If other botanists had followed suit, libraries might have ended up with many individual taxonomic papers to be archived. That might not have been the best result, but is well within the rules, he notes.

Of the new rules, Watson says, "It will be far easier and quicker to publish things. It will also make a huge difference in availability of those things."

The move away from Latin is also causing a buzz in the community. Species will still need a Latin name, but the requirement for a short description in Latin has now been dropped.

"About time too," says Watson, who points out that translation into Latin is not necessarily easy for researchers in countries such as Nepal and China, where he does much of his work.

Playing catch-up

Now the pressure is on zoologists to catch up with their botanical brethren. Their equivalent of the ICBN — the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) — still demands paper publications. Proposals to amend the code were published in 2008 and have been widely discussed, but no firm action has been taken.

Mike Taylor, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, UK, says that the ICZN code is hugely valuable and acknowledges that amending it is a difficult process.

But, he notes, "The credibility of the whole code at the moment is called into question because people are ignoring [this rule]. The way it looks to me is the world has moved on and left the code behind."


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Sandra Knapp, Andrew Polaszek and Mark Watson make the case for electronic publication of scientific names.

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Cressey, D. Botanists shred paperwork in taxonomy reforms. Nature (2011).

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