Describing a species: The “Best Practices” debate.

Southern New Guinea Stream Turtle. Photo by Arthur Georges.

Southern New Guinea Stream Turtle. Photo by Arthur Georges.

I have recently described my 6th turtle species which is pictured here. It is the Southern Stream Turtle, Elseya rhodini, from Southern New Guinea. This species was described in the journal Zootaxa, and its types have been placed in the Papua New Guinea National Museum in Port Moresby. It has been a while since I made a post this is largely because I have been traveling alot and had to do significant editing to complete the paper at the same time.

In any-case in recent years there has been considerable debate about the “Best Practices” for describing new species. In a previous post I discussed taxonomic vandalism and in short the presence of taxonomic vandalism has fueled the debate over this issue. In herpetology the big issue is not how many names someone produces, but how they are done. I myself do not care at all how many species a person does or has described. What matters is that the science of this has the necessary checkpoints to ensure accuracy, integrity and that the conclusions of the examination is within accepted (at the time) scientific theory and practices. Generally it is believed in science that the best way to do this is through peer review.

Peer review and editorial review are two completely different steps in this process. The editor of an article should never be the author of that article, if for no other reason than we tend to be blind to our own mistakes. We know what we mean so that’s what we see. In a large body of text you will miss your own typos and grammar issues. Getting all this right and the formatting is the editors job. Anyone with a good command of the language of publication can in theory edit an article. Peer review though means that the article’s science is checked by people who do know that field of science. The two peer reviewers of my recent description were both scientists who have themselves published new species papers, reviews of genera etc in the past. They know the science and what would be expected and I had little say in who did that, they were chosen by the editor. Hence the editor should not be an author.

The idea in the best practices debate is that because the ICZN rules do not dictate that Peer Review is a requirement that a best practice should be adopted to ensure this happens. The problem of course; who is the judge and jury on this? who decides if an article meets the standard? these are questions that are difficult to answer. One option that has been developed for a while now is the List of Predatory Standalone Journals, this list includes journals with no standing at a scholarly level and it is highly recommended that no nomenclatural acts should be published in them. This at least provides something people can use when deciding which journal to publish in. Another option is to look to where the most taxonomic works are being published these days and that would be the journal Zootaxa that I mentioned earlier. Certainly at present it would be the journal of choice for taxonomic works.

The upside of this debate is that if people wishing to describe taxa do follow this best practice a number of highly dubious issues can be avoided. First is ethics. Science has always assumed a code of ethics among practicing scientists and for the most part all have followed it for the last 150 years or so. There have and always will be exceptions. The ICZN code was written on the assumption that this generally accepted code of ethics would be largely followed. Unfortunately this has proven to be wrong. We now have published articles that make horrific accusations against people, we have academic theft and what is genuine narcissism  overriding any common sense. Peer review should be able to get rid of this. The next is that the science is done well and in an acceptable fashion so that the work is useful. Nothing worse than nomenclatural acts that instead of clarifying an issue actually make it worse. I have discussed some of these in the past (for example Emydura). The third of course is simply the polarizing effect of such poor quality work being published. This causes issues between those that will follow the ICZN code to the letter, vs those that want a bit of decent science in it also.

The best practice debate goes beyond fringe writers trying to force their views down the majority of scientists throats, ie their on a soapbox. Another issue in this is lack of supportive data for nomenclatural acts. You cannot look at the relationships of species without examining all the known species in a group. This includes both the living and the fossil species and requires comprehensive multidisciplinary datasets. Basically what this is saying is that it is fine to present a molecular phylogeny, but without inclusion of a morphological dataset, morphometrics and the extinct taxa if there are any, nomenclatural acts should never be made. There are too many cases in recent years now where changes to the nomenclature made just on Molecular grounds have proven to be incorrect once more data is added. These are other examples of best practices, and should be done.

Rapid and unnecessary change to the nomenclature is annoying, particularly to non taxonomists. Many people who are not taxonomists want stability, unfortunately they also do not know what that actually is. They think stability includes the combination, ie the genus + species, it does not. It actually means that the species name should remain stable because of the Principal of Priority, or the Genus name.  But there is no requirement for species to be kept in the same genus as much as possible. However, too much change causes management problems. So here again the peer review process can step in as a check point. Are the changes in an article justifiable, ie is there enough data to put everyone through the annoyance of the change. With the change though it is possible to be too conservative as well as too free with changes. Ultra conservatism in nomenclature is quite frankly a cause of extinction, because if species are not recognized, they are not protected. For evidence of this go through the criteria of listing in the IUCN Redlist, one very important consideration is high endemism. Conversely ultra freedom in nomenclature wastes conservation funding. A balance between the two must be achieved. Yet another opportunity for peer review to be a checkpoint.

In the end taxonomy is a multidisciplinary science, and unlike most others its acts cannot be undone. Hence it should never be done inadequately. It is a science that needs a checkpoint process such as peer review.

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