Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2013
Authors:Harvey, MS, Yanega, DA
Journal:Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature
Start Page:216
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 The Commission’s primary ‘punitive’ power - to declare names as unavailable or works as unpublished – is one we are very reluctant to employ without clear, objective criteria defining the conditions under which such action is necessary.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

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



Submitted by John Longino (not verified) on

I am in favor of allowing Commission to have "punitive" power to censor publications in cases of scientific misconduct.

Submitted by Daniel L. Rabosky (not verified) on

Dear ICZN:

I strongly believe that the code is at a most important junction and that the time has come to recognize that the Code should be amended to deal with blatant violations of scientific practice. Taxonomy has evolved considerably since its inception, and in ways that the original drafters of the Code could not have envisioned. We live in a world where we require taxonomy to be grounded in the best possible science: this is fundamental not only for the systematics community, but for the stability of a vast range of other disciplines that rely on a scientifically valid and rigorous practice of taxonomy. This includes fields from medicine, public health, and governmental policy of any form as it relates to biological diversity.

It is of the utmost importance that we hold taxonomy to rigorous scientific standards. The practice of taxonomy, for most groups of organisms, takes place in peer-reviewed scientific publications. There is nothing in the Code that provides for such peer-review, but this is fundamental to the practice of modern science. In my opinion, taxonomic decisions that are made with the intention of circumventing or otherwise avoiding the normal practice of science - namely, evaluation of taxonomic decisions by one's scientific peers/colleagues ("peer review") - constitutes an explicit violation of scientific ethics.

As such, I believe that the ICZN should not refrain from passing judgments on ethical and other issues as they arise. By exercising such power, I do not believe that taxonomic freedom is impaired. Already, the vast majority of biodiversity scientists practice their science within a community of peer-reviewed science. To the extent that freedom is limited, such limitation already occurs for the more ethical practitioners of taxonomy.

If the ICZN allows blatant disregard for the norms of ethical scientific practice in the name of taxonomic freedom, then much will have been sacrificed. As it stands, the Code has no provisions for dealing with the unethical behavior of a small number of individuals who continue to exploit the neutrality of the Code for personal gain, at considerable cost to all parties with an interest in biological diversity and the stability of zoological nomenclature.

The cost to biodiversity science is too great to allow this to continue. I enthusiastically endorse amending the code such that the ICZN has greater authority in dealing with ethical considerations.


Daniel L Rabosky
Professor and Curator
Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan USA 48109

Submitted by Alexis Park (not verified) on

My initial reaction is that involvement of the Commission and the Code in the enforcement of scientific merit and integrity will simply result in additional problems. This is because the criteria for what constitutes scientific merit will need to be specifically delineated for the Commission to remain impartial in any judgments or be open to criticism for subjectivity. It is unreasonable to assume that any vanity publisher who would go to the trouble to create his/her own journal in order to name spurious species would then not go the extra mile to meet whatever bare minimum is required to be considered "scientific" in the eyes of the revised Code. The additional problems arise when the vanity publisher is then validated by meeting the Code's stipulations. Combating this issue would require more rigid strictures that would only hinder legitimate taxonomists in their work.

Submitted by Mark Costello (not verified) on

This seems another reason why mandatory registration of new species scientific names is a good idea. Such a register might also consider old names no longer in use. Such a register could include all names but indicate which are not accepted for whatever reason, or at least which are open to debate.

Submitted by U.S. Prof (not verified) on

[Comment deleted by ICZN Secretariat on Monday, 28 March 2016 at 0922 hrs, GMT +8. Comments are in contravention of ICZN website use Terms and Conditions set out here:]
Submitted by Kai Heller on

I am against a general change of the code with respect to "taxonomic vandalism". The scientific community is able to decide on its own, whether certain names, publications or even all publications of specific authors will be accepted or not. Problematic individuals only have a restricted life span. The future generations of taxonomists will do as they have always done: accept, synonymize, reject, ignore or simply forget doubtful names.
The Commission is already now empowered to invalidate works or names. If the majority of the Commissioners will vote to make use of this power, the scientific community will most probably accept and not put in question such a decision.

Submitted by Joseph Furnish (not verified) on

I wish to express my full support for ICZN standards and the criticisms of Hoser’s work expressed by Kaiser et al. (2013). While all who practice science would like for those who review manuscripts to adhere to ICZN standards and believe that the peer review process is the correct mechanism for ensuring adherence to good taxonomic practices, we must recognize that this is not always practiced by reviewers and there is really no way that publications not adhering to standard taxonomical practices can be prevented from appearing.

I believe that the mechanisms are in place to adequately manage the problem of those who attempt to publish while ignoring ICZN standard taxonomic rules. There are two mechanisms in play: first and foremost, reviewers and referees must exert their responsibility and insist that authors follow ICZN rules, which is unfortunately not always practiced, and second, the scientific community will continue to and should ignore taxonomic names that do not conform to ICZN standards, such as those erected by Raymond Hoser.


Kaiser et al. 2013. Best Practices: In the 21st Century, taxonomic decisions in herpetology are acceptable only when supported by a body of evidence and published via peer-review. Herpetological Review 44:8–23.

Submitted by John Dooley (not verified) on

I feel that a general change of the code would be counter-productive . The scientific community should continue dealing with these issues at their own discretion, even at the expense of taxonomic vandalism. Being a traditional taxonimist, I feel that the commission would be better served by letting the community decide, not a commission or small group of individuals. Eventually vandals are exposed and fade into obscurity.

Submitted by knelistonie (not verified) on

My advice is to leave the thought that ONE set of terms should prevail.

Make it two. Named after its school of thought.
Or three.

Crossreference where possible.

Submitted by Allen G Collins (not verified) on

The commission should remain neutral regarding matters of taxonomic opinion, practice, or ethics. To do otherwise, is to open up a can of worms. The actions of Hoser appear to be regrettable, but time and the scientific process will have to sort out the damage.

Submitted by Gina Allnatt (not verified) on

If a name is invalid, it will eventually go down in history as a taxonomic blip. I see no reason to change the process when the process has worked for hundreds of years.

Submitted by Luca Bartolozzi (not verified) on

To decide if a name is just a synonym it is not necessary to change the Code...

Submitted by Jonathan Armbruster (not verified) on

Perhaps the easiest method would be to have a panel that rejects certain journals per solicitation from the community. A journal that continuously publishes names of questionable validity and of questionable ethics, can be rejected in the entirety. This can either be for future publications, or include those from the past as well.

Submitted by David Lazarus (not verified) on

Although the current system of publication is much too easy to abuse, I am not happy with giving a small committee authority to ban works, except under the most exceptional circumstances. There are tools - slow and tedious they may be - to overwrite poor prior published taxonomy. Synonyms, or even declaring a name as nomen dubium, when the meaning is hopelessly unclear (usually very bad publications from the 19th century): it can be done. Perhaps a better discussion would be on how to improve the standards for primary publication, so that bad taxonomy, and the effort needed to remove it, does not get published in the first place. Define a much more restricted set of journals where names can be published??

Submitted by David Campbell (not verified) on

There are several complex issues here, with no easy solution. In particular, determining where to draw the line is a challenge. Although the Code clearly states that any legally-proposed name is available, the frequent practice of ignoring works of particular authors creates confusion. To take a less current example, the "Nouvelle 'Ecole" of the mid-1800's to early 1900's, centered on Bourguignat, named new genera and species of mollusks if they could tell the specimens apart. Contemporary and subsequent workers have largely ignored the names, but molecular data suggests that many supposedly wide-ranging, highly variable species are in fact polytypic. In some cases, the Nouvelle Ecole named the forms first. We also need to be cautious about excessive suppression. Isaac Lea dominated the freshwater mollusk scene in the 1800's, especially in North America. He tried to suppress almost all non-Lea names, particularly those of Rafinesque. Rafinesque's descriptions and figures are often unsatisfactory, but more are recognizable than Lea allowed.

Submitted by Norman E Woodley (not verified) on

I am very much against the idea that the ICZN police taxonomic practice regarding ethics or any other aspect of the science of taxonomic practice. This has been the position of ICZN and I think it functions very well in its current purview. There are always going to be instances where a dispute arises, but these are best settled by the taxonomic community. Some of these instances are more about personal conflicts than science itself. I don't think that the ICZN should be involved in these issues.

Also, when considering ethics and other taxonomic practices, if the ICZN were to get involved, there would be a morass of gray areas that would be extremely difficult to decide. This is best left up to the scientific community.

In short, I think the ICZN should do what it does now, govern zoological nomenclature and arbitrate difficult cases in respect to the ICZN Code. The ICZN should not become the police court for scientific disputes and conflicts.

Submitted by O? (not verified) on

My earlier comment has not been received well, in this thread, so it seems.

Please refrain then from askling for comments, would you not?

Submitted by Stuart Longhorn (not verified) on

For me it is useful to have a expert body such as the ICZN able and willing to provide arbitration when dissonance reaches some threshold within a given community of researchers. Here, such a threshold seems clearly surpassed, whereby multiple tenured authors felt the need to publish a lengthy discourse/rebuttal against repeated works deemed as shoddy, rather than devote their valuable time to advancing gathering and evaluation of additional data. For me a valid/available taxon name is a proposal, and is already up to the local community of researchers (who are well-versed in that lineage or lineages) to determine the quality of the underlying paper post-publication (and ideally pre-publication in thorough review), but also make their own evaluations on the ethics behind how/why usage a newly proposed nomenclature might be preferred or not. I am not a herpetologist nor aim to be, but i can clearly see a strong discrepancy in the numbers, ethics and degree of professionalism on the two sides of this given issue. The divide is clearly not amateurs versus academics, and the majority view appears to include many informed amateurs and non-academics in agreement with the mainstream academics of Kaiser et al. This agreement proposes that the many of the Hoser works/nomenclatural proposals are substandard, etc. Certain names proposed by Hoser etc are not valid/available, and those are matters already dealt with in the existing ICZN framework. For those newly named taxa that do adhere to nomenclatural guidelines as valid/available but are being vocally contested, it seems logical to follow from precedence in the ICZN to vote on and even suppress older names deemed against the good of stability, for example to suppress senior names in obscure minor usage. It seems quite suitable that the Commission remains largely neutral on taxonomic opinion, practice, or ethics, the standards of which I suggest should be (and seemingly are) largely decided on by the local community, pushing towards 'higher and desirable standards' and 'good ethical practices' which are largely defined and policed by those own given communities. Standard already vary among taxonomic groups, those taxa for example with a high degree of precision in their taxonomy such as mammals necessarily having higher expected publication standers that other extremely neglected lineages. Rogue names by 'taxonomic vandals' which comply as 'senior names' can and should be tolerably ignored by those communities, which over time would lead to these senior names being judged as in obscure minor usage. To me the need for discussion of whether the ICZN should "maintain neutrality" is rather moot, because the Commission already applies 'punitive' power on such minor usage names, just that currently it appears to be applied many years after the debate has happened. The solution might be simply to extend that existing 'punitive' power into more active issues, when there is an earlier outcry from a vast majority in a taxonomic community against a certain author/s with allegedly shoddy standards and dismaying ethics. [whose poorly founded names already are arguably already destined to become obscure minor usage names]. In these modern times of crowdsourcing and social networking, it seems astoundingly easy to conduct online petitions and such to determine whether or not there is a large body of interested parties supported a proposal on an issue of substandard work/ethical issue, or whether dismay is just a lone crackpot howling at the wind. Similarly, to determine whether the problem is just an initial paper from an unskilled person embarking study of an unfamiliar taxonomic group, or a problematic repeat offender who is a continuing bugbear to the remaining overwhelming majority. In closing, I argue for the local community working with the taxonomy of their organisms to continue to judge what is substandard and/or unethical, and for the ICZN to simply extend its existing 'punitive' powers to arbitrate while the debate is still fresh and both sides can actively contribute. I say let's weed out the dissident opinion of egotistical crackpots while they're still around to be told in no uncertain terms that they're crackpots, and let's remove their destabilising influence. If the alleged crackpot returns with stronger founded results to argue their case, such new and improved datasets accepted into a high-impact mainstream peer reviewed journal, then it will be obvious that higher standards have been reached and stability more likely. If not, their choice, i'd say good riddance.

Submitted by Peter Jaeger (not verified) on

In the past there have always been individuals more or less heavily ignoring good ethics. Redundant and useless names have been synonymised then. This is more workload for the comunity of a particular taxon, but cannot be avoided by the CODE nor by the commission. Therefore, I would support a solution without changing the CODE and commission's power.
[in Arachnology we had also one similar case: what we did apart from telling the particular colleague the truth and our opinion is that we kept all types in order to solve all taxonomic questions in the future. This period will come soon to a natural end....]

Submitted by David Campbell (not verified) on

I would be in favor of allowing the Commission to rule that particular works are not valid due to ethical violations. At the same time, the standards should be strict to avoid abuse. The problem with the status quo is that names that are nomenclaturally legal get ignored by some workers due to perceived illegitimacy, yet according to the rules they are valid and must be dealt with.

There are several types of possible ethical violation. Many, though deplorable, have relatively little effect on nomenclature. Others, though having an effect, are not directly matters for the ICZN. Although misrepresenting previous work and doing shoddy work in order to lump species can have long-term negative effect on the taxonomic understanding of a group, it falls under systematics rather than nomenclature and thus is outside the ICZN's purview. What has major impact and relates to the ICZN's mandate is the practice of churning out names that are nomenclaturally valid but of such poor quality as to pose major challenges to the honest researcher who seeks to evaluate them. Some workers are apparently under the delusion that any perceived difference between specimens merits a new name, but if they provide detailed illustrations, descriptions, locality data, etc. and good type specimens, their taxa can be easily assessed. On the other hand, fabricated information, poor material, inadequate data, and inaccessible publications require extensive sleuthing, possibly to end up with a verdict of nomen dubium. As future developments might possibly lead to identification (e.g., development of DNA analysis of lousy material, finding an overlooked character still present on a partial specimen), nomena dubia must continually be revisited.

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith