Taxonomic practice and publications

Thanks to some reviews I have been writing, papers I’m working on, conversations with colleagues and a recent blog post, I’ve been thinking much about the practices of myself and my colleagues when it comes to taxonomy. Obviously I’ve written about the how-s and what-s to a degree in the past, but this is a little more specific.

The main point I’d make (as a referee / editor and recipient of referee reports) is one roughly in the line of Voltaire. I disagree with your taxonomy, but I defend your right to publish it.

Now obviously this has limits. You’re specimen must be genuinely diagnostic. You’ll have to use consistent characters. They must be well defined and not vary ontogenetically or be subject to excessive intraspecific variation (or be so massive as to not make this an issue). Or if you are trying to synonymise a bunch of taxa then you’ll need to show that other diagnoses were flawed or didn’t stick to these rules etc.

However, I may think you are overly splitting or lumping something, but I still think you should be allowed to publish (as indeed, so should I). There really are no hard or fast rules as to exactly what constitutes a genus or species. Exactly how many characters you need for one or the other, or whether some are better than others. Taxonomy really does work by consensus and the starting point of any discussion will be the publication of a new taxon / synonymy of an old one. Not allowing such a paper actively inhibits discussion / research.

A paper that on balance few people agree with will soon fall by the wayside. But it’s mere existence will allow a greater depth of discussion by getting people to examine and evaluate the characters at hand and compare them more thoroughly. So let these be published. The authors get a paper, the journal gets a paper, and the worst thing to happen is that a few people quibble about it, everyone gets some citations and we move on, but with a better understanding of the issues.

Here is something I wrote in a review of a paper that intended to name a new species (and has now been published):

I actually tend towards ‘splitting’ over ‘lumping’ myself, and I would not wish to prevent the author erecting a new taxon here if he feels it is necessary, but I would say that I do not think it is required and in the same position I would not erect one myself…. The author does effectively concede all of these points in his text, and clearly still feels the erection of a new taxon is necessary and appropriate and I am happy for him to make that call from a superior position of knowledge, but I do offer a contrary position.

This is a position I wish far more people would take. Make your points and give your opinion, but let the author make their decision and allow for the fact that they have been putting more time and effort into this that you have and know the material better.

On a similar note, I notice a tendency by some (admittedly often online rather than necessarily with respect to the literature, either published or at the review level) to second guess people working on specimens. Now for sure, people with detailed anatomical knowledge of specimens can see certain errors that others will miss (or that at least need to be verified more carefully) based on photos or drawings or descriptions alone. There is nothing wrong at all with making that clear. But I have seen people in the past second-guess authors based on things that haven’t seen. It is most frustrating to be told by someone 5 thousand miles away that you have got something wrong when you have the material in your hands and have been looking at it for months and all they have is a black and white photo of it. (And on that note, there’s a huge difference between asking someone to recheck and telling them it’s wrong. Ultimately the message is the same but the first is polite and the second isn’t. And of course you risk looking very foolish if you are wrong).

This is something raised by Larry Witmer in his excellent recent blog post about the tiny Tarbosaurus. His team commented extensively on the potential taxonomic issues of their work and explicitly which specimens / taxa this might effect and even how. But they also pointedly didn’t make any revisions. With none of them having looked in detail at any of the key specimens, they felt it unwise (and I would suggest, even impolite, impertinent, or maybe even unprofessional) to have done so. I wholeheartedly agree (as you probably guessed form the contents of those parentheses).

Yes there are exceptions to every rule, but as with the above point, I think you have to be careful before messing around with taxonomy and however much you disagree, respect the interpretations and work of your colleagues. If there are huge and obvious errors, then point them out do. But I’d avoid any kind of formal synonymy without having seen critical material first hand. There is, after all, nothing quite like seeing a fossil.

4 Responses to “Taxonomic practice and publications”

  1. 1 Michael 27/05/2011 at 1:03 am

    I’m a bit curious about your own experience:

    Was anybody critical about your making this piece of tyrannosaur a new genus and species (Zuchengtyrannus magnus)?

    • 2 David Hone 27/05/2011 at 10:02 am

      Well not that I am aware of. But I do know that others have (just look at Brontomerus) and to be honest I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t too happy about it. Not that many people would call it an especially robust defence, but Zt does have more characters going for it that other taxa I can think of that have never been criticised or synonymised.

      • 3 Michael 28/05/2011 at 10:49 pm

        Aha. I suppose a self-test could be: Do I think that my taxon will still be considered as valid after 50 or 100 years? If the answer is no, I should perhaps rather use open nomenclature. (But modesty is rarely honoured in this small world…)

      • 4 David Hone 29/05/2011 at 9:34 am

        That’s quite a nice idea. Though of course it’s very hard to predict what will and won’t be found in the future. It’s a good start to be confident it’s valid *now* which can’t always be said of new taxa….

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