Taxonomic Vandals aren’t Scientists

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A Few Bad Scientists are Threatening to Topple Taxonomy by Benjamin Jones from the

“The goal of taxonomic vandalism is often self-aggrandizement. Even in such an unglamorous field, there is prestige and reward—and with them, the temptation to misbehave. “If you name a new species, there’s some notoriety to it,” Thomson says. “You get these people that decide that they just want to name everything, so they can go down in history as having named hundreds and hundreds of species.”

Taxonomic vandalism isn’t a new problem. “Decisions about how to partition life are as much a concern of politics and ethics as of biology,” two Australian biologists wrote in a June editorial in the journal Nature on how taxonomy’s lack of oversight threatens conservation. They argued that the field needs a new system, by which the rules that govern species names are legally enforceable: “We contend that the scientific community’s failure to govern taxonomy … damages the credibility of science and is expensive to society.”

How does this happen?

The rules for naming a new animal taxon are governed by the ICZN, while the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) governs plants. And while the ICZN requires that names be published, as defined by the commission’s official Code, “publishing” doesn’t actually require peer-review.

That definition leaves room for what few would call science: self-publishing. “You can print something in your basement and publish it and everyone in the world that follows the Code is bound to accept whatever it is you published, regardless of how you did so,” Doug Yanega, a Commissioner at the ICZN, told me. “No other field of science, other than taxonomy, is subject to allowing people to self-publish.”

Thomson agrees. “It’s just become too easy to publish,” he says.

Why not? When the Code was written, the technologies that allow for self-publishing simply didn’t exist. “The Code isn’t written under the assumption that people would deliberately try to deceive others,” Yanega says. But then came the advance of desktop computing and printing, and with it, the potential for deception.

Moreover, the ICZN has no actual legal recourse against those who generate names using illegitimate or unethical science. That’s because the Code, which was last updated in 1999, was written to maintain academic freedom, Yanega says. As the Code reads: “nomenclatural rules are tools that are designed to provide the maximum stability compatible with taxonomic freedom.”

Who cares?

.”..most branches of taxonomy aren’t impacted as heavily as herpetology, where many prominent vandals operate. That’s because herpetology is home to thousands of undescribed species, so there’s plenty of low hanging fruit for vandals to pick. Moreover, “herpetology maybe does attract more interesting characters than other branches of science,” says Wüster. “Reptiles are kind of pariahs of the animal world”—as are some of the people who study them, it would appear.”


Why should you care?

If you want to protect wildlife: “Confusion created by parallel nomenclature complicates any process that depends on unambiguous species names, such as assigning conservation statuses like “Endangered” or “Threatened.” As the authors write in the Nature editorial, how a species is classified by taxonomists influences how threatened it appears, and thus how much conservation funding it’s likely to receive. As the authors of the editorial write: “Vagueness is not compatible with conservation.”

But in particular:

“Imagine, if you will, getting bit by an African spitting cobra. These reptiles are bad news for several reasons: First, they spit, shooting a potent cocktail of nerve toxins directly into their victims’ eyes. But they also chomp down, using their fangs to deliver a nasty bite that can lead to respiratory failure, paralysis, and occasionally even death.

Before you go rushing to the hospital in search of antivenin, you’re going to want to look up exactly what kind of snake you’re dealing with. But the results are confusing. According to the official record of species names, governed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the snake belongs to the genus Spracklandus. What you don’t know is that almost no taxonomists use that name. Instead, most researchers use the unofficial name that pops up in Wikipedia and most scientific journal articles: Afronaja.

This might sound like semantics. But for you, it could mean the difference between life and death. “If you walk in [to the hospital] and say the snake that bit you is called Spracklandus, you might not get the right antivenin,” says Scott Thomson, a herpetologist and taxonomist at Brazil’s Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo. After all, “the doctor is not a herpetologist … he’s a medical person trying to save your life.”

Taxonomic vandalism can have disastrous consequences for wildlife conservation—but it could also impact human health. Shown here, an African spitting cobra poised to strike. (Greatstock / Alamy)

What does this have to do with Open Science?

Open Science / citizen science is meant to encourage individuals everywhere to learn about science, be part of scientific research, and share their results freely. Taxonomy vandals are not scientists and shouldn’t be seen as citizen scientists; their self-publications that aren’t peer reviewed do not promote critical thinking and furthering our understanding of the world.


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