My first thought was this joke, “WE! DO NOT! TALK ABOUT! THE ORANGUTAN!” Academics do have bitter fights, sometimes — they’re usually pretty polite, but I have seen a distinguished professor stand on his chair to point and scream at the speaker at a conference, who fired right back in kind. It was loads of fun.
But they’re also fighting over serious issues. This SciAm article is a good summary of ongoing battles among taxonomists. The core problems is that naming a species has a set of rules, and one of those rules is that the species has to be named in a published journal article…and online publishing has removed most of the barriers, and it’s become trivial to snag the preliminary work of a serious researcher and dump it to an online vanity “journal”, stealing credit and getting the privilege of naming it.
Vandals have zeroed in on the self-publishing loophole with great success. Yanega pointed to Trevor Hawkeswood, an Australia-based entomologist accused by some taxonomists of churning out species names that lack scientific merit. Hawkeswood publishes work in his own journal, Calodema, which he started in 2006 as editor and main contributor.
“He has his own journal with himself as the editor, publisher, and chief author,” Yanega says. “This is supposed to be science, but it’s a pile of publications that have no scientific merit.” (In response to questions about the legitimacy of his journal, Hawkeswood delivered a string of expletives directed towards his critics, and contended that Calodema has “heaps of merit.”)
Raymond Hoser also owns his own journal, the Australasian Journal of Herpetology (AJH). AJH has faced similar criticism since it was launched in 2009, despite claims by Hoser that the journal is peer-reviewed. “Although the AJH masquerades as a scientific journal, it is perhaps better described as a printed ‘blog’ because it lacks many of the hallmarks of formal scientific communication, and includes much irrelevant information,” wrote Hinrich Kaiser, a researcher at Victor Valley College in California, and colleagues in the peer-reviewed journal Herpetological Review.
They do propose a solution. The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which approves species names, is behind the times, so tear it down and replace it with a more modern institution.
…move the code under a different purview. Specifically, they suggest that the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS)—the biology branch of the International Council for Sciences—should “take decisive leadership” and start a taxonomic commission. The commission, they propose, would establish hardline rules for delineating new species and take charge in reviewing taxonomic papers for compliance. This process, they say, would result in the first ever standardized global species lists.
“In our view, many taxonomists would welcome such a governance structure,” the authors write. “Reducing the time spent dealing with different species concepts would probably make the task of describing and cataloguing biodiversity more efficient.”
It may be time to make such a radical change. Raymond Hoser has named over 800 taxa. I’ve seen the work involved in actually thoroughly characterizing a new species and justifying it’s difference from extant species, and I can assure you that Hoser has not done that work 800 times.