Sunday, 1 September 2013

Taxonomy can't just be a glorified hobby

One of my contributions to the pro-iBiosphere project is a report on the use of digital technology among taxonomists (Groom et al., 2013). In the preparation of this report I got to talk to many taxonomists about their work and their expectations for the future. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that all taxonomists are passionate and dedicated to what they do. Indeed, unlike most professions, if they weren't paid to do it they would do it for free. Many retired taxonomists continue their work unpaid and many employed taxonomists self-fund their own research.

Isn't this fantastic? We are told that there are literally millions of undescribed organisms and we have an enthusiastic group of people who don’t even need paying to do the work. Well of course there is a catch, people who are under-resourced, under-appreciated and expected to work based on their passion for the subject will do the work exactly in the way they want to. So it is not unusual  for a taxonomist to publish their magnum opus in an obscure publication, with a print run of less than 100 with no digitally accessible version. Indeed, it is a particular quirk of the international codes for biological nomenclature that anyone can publish names for organisms, anywhere and without peer review. This certainly contributes to a general disrespect among scientists for taxonomy.

Yet, with no funding there is no requirement on taxonomists to work on economically important species; nor is there a requirement to publish taxonomy digitally and make it accessible to the people who need it, in language they can read. Furthermore, taxonomists have no incentive to maintain a stable or complete taxonomy free from ambiguity.

Moreover, codes of biological nomenclature are decided upon democratically within the taxonomic community, but without consultation with the users of taxonomy. In them are many rules to ensure that taxonomists get credit for describing new taxa, but few to ensure that taxonomic names act as a unique stable identifier of taxa in a digital world.

If the beneficiaries of taxonomy want a stable and a usable system of names for the life on earth then these users will have to start demanding this and paying for it. And if taxonomists want funding for their work and respect for their profession they have to start asking what the users want and start providing it.

Groom, Q., Agosti, D., G√ľntsch, A., Hovenkamp, P., Eralt, E., Mietchen, D., Paton, A. & Sierra, S. (2013) The Use of e-Tools among Producers of Taxonomic Knowledge. Figshare. Retrieved 09:51, Sep 01, 2013 (GMT)

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This work by Quentin Groom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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