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.


Moth Workshop Weekend , Malaysia – 11 to 13 Nov

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Learn how to observe, document and conserve moths! This workshop will introduce participants to the magical world of mothing in one of the world’s most exotic and easy to access tropical moth recording locations, in the heart of montane forest just 100km from Kuala Lumpur. Moths are a critical component of the food web and provide key ecosystem services for humans, as well as being the major component one of the megadiverse insect orders (Lepidoptera).

The workshop introduces moth ecology, how to observe, photograph and record moths, and will guide you through the major South-east Asian moth families. Field sessions (weather permitting) will allow participants to get hands on practical experience and give the opportunity to put skills to the test. Whilst no collecting of specimens is allowed during this workshop, there will be thought given to this issue.

Workshop Registration Cost: 500 MYR (payable in advance to ReallyWild Place).

Email for booking and payment. ONLY 15 places available


More info on the workshop:

17th Young Systematists’ Forum – 20 Nov 2015, London

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Friday, 20 November 2015, 9:30 am
Venue: Flett Lecture Theatre, Natural History Museum, London, UK

The annual Young Systematists’ Forum represents an exciting setting for Masters, PhD and young postdoctoral researchers to present their data, often for the first time, to a scientific audience interested in taxonomy, systematics and phylogenetics. This well-established event provides an important opportunity for budding systematists to discuss their research in front of their peers within a supportive environment. Supervisors and other established systematists are also encouraged to attend.

Registration is FREE.
Send applications by e-mail to, supplying your name, academic or contact address, stage of your career (MSc student, PhD student, postdoc) and stating whether or not you wish to give an oral or poster presentation. Space will be allocated subject to availability and for a balanced programme of animal, plant, algal, microbial, molecular and other research. Non-presenting attendees are also very welcome – please register as above.

Again the YSF will be held the day after the Molluscan Forum also at the Natural History Museum. Separate registeration required for both meetings. There will also be a meeting on Natural History Collections and Climate Change Research on the 17th (details to be announced shortly). Come for a full week.

Abstracts must be submitted by e-mail in English no later than Friday 23 October 2015. The body text should not exceed 150 words in length. If the presentation is co-authored, the actual speaker (oral) or presenter (poster) must be clearly indicated in BOLD text.

All registered attendants will receive further information about the meeting, including abstracts, by e-mail one week in advance. This information will also be displayed on the Systematics Association website.

DEST Basics of Taxonomy Course – 5 to 16 Oct 2015, Sweden

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This course by the Distributed European School of Taxonomy will be held at the Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences, Kristineberg, Sweden

Taught by renowned experts in their field, the course topics are:
– Digital drawing
– Scientific illustration
– Scientific writing and communication
– Scratchpads, a tool to build, publish and share information on the web

Target audience: MSc students, PhD students, early career researchers
Course credits: 5 ECTS

Thanks to funding of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, this 2-weeks course is offered at a discounted rate of 550 EUR. The fee includes accommodation and meals.

More info:

Taxonomy Training programs from DEST, Europe

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The Distributed European School of Taxonomy (DEST) just launched it’s new website in October, and you can check out their training programs for the next year:
Modern Taxonomy, with courses such as Phylogenetic systematics, Quantitative cladistics and Geometric morphometrics in R:

Experts in Training courses e.g. Tropical field botany in BelizeEntomological research in protected areas and Training programme in Crustacean systematics with specialisation in Cyclopidae (Copepoda):