CALL FOR COMMENTS: TAXONOMIC PRACTICE AND THE CODE

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2013
Authors:Harvey, MS, Yanega, DA
Journal:Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature
Volume:70
Issue:4
Start Page:216
Pagination:216-217
Date Published:12/2013
Type of Article:Article
Full Text

This issue of the BZN contains two papers, one by Raymond Hoser and one by Hinrich Kaiser, that reflect an ongoing controversy in herpetological taxonomy and nomenclature; in effect, the situation is one in which the works of a specific author are being ‘boycotted’ by a substantial number of taxonomists and cataloguers, in large part due to questions of scientific merit and integrity, rather than questions of compliance with the Code. It is clearly exceptional for the taxonomic community to treat names as unavailable when the Code appears to indicate they are available, but the controversy raised here reflects a more general phenomenon about which the Commission has been asked (at various times and in various ways) to issue rulings or position statements that might offer guidance to the taxonomic community.

It is, and long has been, the policy of the Commission to remain neutral regarding matters of taxonomic opinion, practice, or ethics. Of particular note is Appendix A of the Code (the ‘Code of Ethics’), which explicitly precludes the intervention of the Commission even if the Code of Ethics is violated: ‘ 7. The observation of these principles is a matter for the proper feelings and conscience of individual zoologists, and the Commission is not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches of them.’ It is not the duty of the Commission to engage in censorship; the freedom of taxonomic practice and opinion is a fundamental principle. The Commission’s primary duty is, however, to draft and interpret rules governing the creation and use of names in a manner compatible with the needs and desires of the taxonomic community, chief among these needs being resolution of conflict in a predictable manner so as to promote stability of nomenclature. We emphasise ‘predictable’ here to highlight the inherent problems with the adoption of subjective criteria, which admittedly can be incorporated into the Code, but only with great care and circumspection, and in exceptional need. The Commission’s primary ‘punitive’ power - to declare names as unavailable or works as unpublished – is one we are very reluctant to employ without clear, objective criteria defining the conditions under which such action is necessary.

The question has been put before us, however, as to whether the desires of the community can compel a re-evaluation of the policy of neutrality; specifically, whether taxonomic freedom requires us to remain blind to ethical considerations, including a failure to adhere to proper standards of scientific conduct. Therefore, we seek guidance from the taxonomic community as to whether there is a perceived need for change, and we wish to solicit comments in order to ascertain a clearer picture of public opinion. We are, ultimately, at the service of the community, and if there is a consensus indicating that the community feels neutrality does not serve their needs, then we wish to be clear about it.

We must stress that this is a very broad issue, which manifests in many ways, affects many disciplines, and has occurred throughout the history of taxonomy. We also recognize that the most prominent and timely concerns relate to issues such as plagiarism, falsification of data, criminal activities, and practices that subvert or circumvent the process of peer review (which is considered an essential element of all scientific practice, taxonomy included). This is, emphatically, not a referendum on professionals versus amateurs (or other cultural stereotypes), nor a referendum on the merits (or lack thereof) of peer review. Basically, what we seek to know is whether the taxonomic community wants to continue dealing with these issues at their own discretion, or whether they want the Commission to be empowered to do so (or something in between); we will not do so on our own initiative.

In keeping with this, we prefer, at this point, to receive comments discussing the general principles at issue here, rather than any specific cases or papers (i.e., not comments on Kaiser’s paper or his call to employ the mechanism of review proposed by Commissioner Yanega – though such comments are welcomed independently, as are comments on any other papers in the BZN). We will accept comments of any nature, however brief or lengthy, for purposes of assessing the diversity of opinion within the community, with the stipulation that comments intended for publication be clearly marked as such, and we reserve the right to exercise editorial review before publishing them. A special digital supplement (e-only) is planned, if the volume of responses warrants it. We further ask that comments, even if not intended for publication, address issues such as: whether there is a perceived problem; if so, what is its nature and scope; constructive suggestions for solutions (or, conversely, whether no solutions are desired); most importantly, whether any suggested solutions should or should not involve the Commission and the Code.

Note on online commenting

Commenting on this section is currently disabled because of a large number of comments, which we cannot presently moderate due to our limited resources. All the comments so far published have been archived to make sure that every voice is heard.

Please send  your comments by email to iczn@nhm.ac.uk

Please also note that this “Call for comments” is not a call for a public debate, but an attempt to find out whether the taxonomic community wants the Commission to be empowered to be involved in discussing standards and ethics in the practice of taxonomy and nomenclature.

Please email any questions on content, style and format of the comments to s.nikolaeva@nhm.ac.uk

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