I guess it was inevitable that I would have to write on this subject. After all I am discussing reptile names and herpetology is one area that has suffered a history of what is generally called “taxonomic vandalism” sometimes “taxonomic terrorism” but whatever term you use, it is an unethical means of producing names solely for naming rights and self glorification.
I recently presented at a conference on this very topic and also have one paper published (Thomson, 2014) and another in press on this issue in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. This “vandalism” is an unfortunate area of nomenclature and taxonomy and one that is degrading to the science of Taxonomy, undermining the trust other branches of science may have in it. This is not unique to herpetology with various invertebrate groups and also fish suffering from the same problems.
First off lets look at why this is even an issue. In most science we can just ignore obvious bad science, although it can still do damage. The anti-vaccination debate is a prime example of this, not only was the original paper linking autism to vaccination bad science it was also false science, so scientists can ignore it, except that in this case it had already done considerable damage by creating an anti-vaccine movement who believed this original false paper to be true. In taxonomy however we have a problem and that is the Principal of Priority. This means that if a name is available and it is the oldest name for a particular valid taxon, then that is the name which must be used. Therefore if someone creates a group of names with no real idea if they really apply to valid taxa those that are eventually proved to do so, using good scientific methods, end up being used by sheer luck.
The Code was written under the premise that scientists always acted, for the most part, ethically, and a set of ethics are included in the code but only as an appendix, and therefore they are only recommendations. It did not occur to anyone back then that people would come along who would meet the Code at a bare minimum and would ignore the ethics of good science. People who would lie, steal the work of others and self publish for the sake of “naming rights”. Unfortunately such people do exist. In hindsight this shows a lack of foresight by the original authors of the code.
One case that has been completely dealt with was that of Wells and Wellington (1985). In their self-published paper they named some 600 taxa. These names were for Australian taxa only. They also did this in a time long before the internet and hence the damage was a little limited. However their actions did cause an uproar in Australia and the Australian Society of Herpetologists submitted a Case (No. 2531) to have this work, and another from 1983 by the same authors, declared unavailable for the purposes of nomenclature. Unfortunately the ASH correspondents stated that among their reasons for objecting was the taxonomic disruption the paper was causing and this led to the inevitable failure of the case. Both the proponents and those against Wells and Wellington had inadvertently agreed that this was a taxonomic issue. As I have mentioned in my previous posts the ICZN does not deal with taxonomic issues, only nomenclatural matters, so this left the ICZN little option but to refuse to rule on Case 2531 and leave it for taxonomists to sort out, as per their Opinion published in 1991. This also effectively declared the works as available publications, which meant the usage of each name had to be determined taxonomically, which has taken some 30 years to achieve.
One factor to consider with Richard Wells and Ross Wellington is that both are highly skilled herpetologists, particularly with snakes and lizards, and hence many of their taxonomic changes have proven to be correct, hence many of their names are in use.
The subject of my recent talk however was the journal Australasian Journal of Herpetology (AJH). This particular journal has a single author and editor and is privately published. It therefore goes against the best practices for taxonomy as recommended by a number of papers (eg. Kaiser et al, 2013; TTWG, 2007, and others). What these papers recommend, and most taxonomists abide by automatically, is that all papers making nomenclatural acts (naming species, re-combinations or synonymies) must be published through the legitimate recognised scientific peer-review process. This will reduce or prevent errors, ensure there is a good scientific underpinning to the changes and ensure they are accepted by all. It will also prevent offensive rhetoric being published in papers that should not do it.
The AJH has named some 730 (approx) taxa at various levels and most are highly contentious with many in the scientific community refusing to use them at all. The problem this causes is a dual nomenclature. Dual nomenclatures are very dangerous to science as it causes communication breakdown. In this particular case the author, although an experienced herpetoculturalist and natural history herpetologist of some repute with snakes, has moved beyond his own knowledge and started naming groups for which he has no demonstrated expertise, and he is using the published phylogenies of others and basically just names their clades. It is clear this is being done because some of the names closer to his expertise are probably accurate based on some personal knowledge, i.e. Australian snakes, but as he moves further afield: e.g. American and Asian turtles, crocodiles and American pit-vipers it is clear he has never examined these species because of the clear mistakes and errors in his papers. It is also clear he has never examined the types (name bearing specimens or species depending on level) and has not actually read all the pertinent literature. This is something I went to great lengths to explain is of importance in my earlier posts.
So what should be done about this? Well many years ago on Kingsnake.com I posted a statement. It was not original, I got it from turtle expert Peter Pritchard, and this is how it goes: “Refute or accept, there is no ignore in Taxonomy”. I still stand by that statement. There are names that I have refuted, and which have since overwritten. I declared a number of names unavailable for a variety of reasons under the Code and some of the taxa involved I have subsequently given names to, while others have also renamed species. In other words I refuted the availability of the names using the Code. This was presented in a paper by John Iverson, myself and Arthur Georges (2001). But its not so easy a task with the names in AJH as many of them are available for use, yet few people want to use them, hence the options proposed by Kaiser et al. (2013).
Most recently the stakes were raised by the author of AJH. He submitted a Case (No. 3601) to the ICZN regarding one of his generic names, Spracklandus. He hopes to have the generic name validated and with it the issue of AJH that contained the description, which by default could lead to the validation of the entire journal for nomenclatural acts. This clearly requires a response and a number of comments have been published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomeclature (BZN, the journal of the ICZN) while more forthcoming. It remains to be seen what will be done in this Case.
It is likely that no matter what happens the names in AJH will be ignored by the global herpetological community. This will lead to dual nomenclatures, and continued contention and confusion. It may in the end require the herpetologists of the world to come together to create what is known as a LAN (List of Available Names) under Article 79 of the Code. In this process a world recognised body can create a list of accepted names and submit it to the ICZN to be recognised. Under a LAN any unaccepted names can be thrown out and effectively made unavailable.
Whatever the solution as you can see, poor science is hard to ignore in Nomenclature. It is therefore imperative that you all understand the take home message of this post. Taxonomic works must go through the full peer-review in a high quality journals that specialise in taxonomy, for example Zootaxa.