29 July 2011

Taxonomists as science survivalists

ResearchBlogging.orgJust over a week ago, a vote by botanists at the International Botanical Congress decided to allow species names to be considered valid if they are published only electronically. Nature talks about this in this editorial. (Not only were botanists wedded to paper publication, but having species descriptions in Latin. Latin? I had no idea.)

Zoologists, from what I’ve read so far, think that botanists made a bad decision.

Because zoologists are bitter about their floppy disks.

Okay, perhaps not floppies specifically, but many people arguing against electronic publication have some variation of, “I used to have stuff on this kind of electronic media, and now it’s unreadable.” (One person went back to punch cards.)

This is a valid concern. I wrote about the importance of stable archiving less than a year ago. But there is a huge difference between personal archiving and institutional archiving. No, you may not be able to get information on your old floppy disks. But why would you want to?

I have floppy disks sitting within arm’s reach of my right now. I haven’t need them in years because I’ve transferred the files over. For instance, I have a quote file with favourite quotes. I’ve had it running since the mid-1980s, which is a pretty decent track record for longevity. And it’s surprising how many things that I once thought to be inaccessible to me forever more have returned, in some cases better than ever. Video games. Movies and television (seeing some movies restored is a revelation). Arguably, moving to digital will give us more fidelity over time, not less.

If we understand that archiving is important, we will plan for updating to new formats as we go. The commitment to archiving is what matters, not the archival medium. To say something counts as factual knowledge because it’s on paper in a building someplace is to give too much weight to the medium.

A complete insistence on paper is an academic version of survivalism: “Yeah, but what do we do when the zombie apocalypse hits? What if civilization collapses and we have to rebuild society with no modern infrastructure and power? We need to stockpile supplies and ammo. It could happen. When there’s no more Internet and the electrical grid has collapsed, then we’ll be really glad we put all this important stuff on paper in libraries.”

To play devil’s advocate, what has paper done for name stability, really?

I’ve been writing up a sand crab project the last couple of weeks, and have been consulting a monograph on the group (Boyko 2002) frequently. One obscure genus in this family is Stemonopa. Yet it has also been identified in the peer-reviewed scientific literature as Stemenopa, Stemenops, and Stomonopa, leading Boyko to comment:

Given the limited number of times this genus has been cited in the literature, it is remarkable that three incorrect spellings have been given.

Then we have Albunea symmysta, whose species name has also been listed in the literature as symnista, gymnista, lymnista, Symniste, symnysta, symnestra, and symmista.

The counter-argument is that because all of that is on paper, people can still go back and check all those original records. And that’s fair. The concern over stability is valid. But I think there is far too much trepidation about moving into the millennium by taxonomists.

As it is, they’re already a day late and dollar short.

Additional: Speaking of archiving, the man who created the Internet Archive wants to create an archive of one copy of every book ever printed. Ambitious, to say the least.

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Anonymous. 2011. Origin of species. Nature 475(7357): 424. DOI: 10.1038/475424a

Boyko CB. 2002. A worldwide revision of the recent and fossil sand crabs of the Albuneidae Stimpson and Blepharipodidae, new family (Crustacea, Decapoda, Anomura, Hippoidea). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 272(1): 1-396. http://dx.doi.org/10.1206/0003-0090(2002)272<0001:AWROTR>2.0.CO;2

Photo by DJOtaku on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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