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A Few Bad Scientists Are Threatening To Topple Taxonomy (smithsonianmag.com) 79

From a report: To study life on Earth, you need a system. Ours is Linnaean taxonomy, the model started by Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus in 1735. Linnaeus's two-part species names, often Latin-based, consist of both a genus name and a species name, i.e. Homo sapiens. Like a library's Dewey Decimal system for books, this biological classification system has allowed scientists around the world to study organisms without confusion or overlap for nearly 300 years. But, like any library, taxonomy is only as good as its librarians -- and now a few rogue taxonomists are threatening to expose the flaws within the system. Taxonomic vandals, as they're referred to within the field, are those who name scores of new taxa without presenting sufficient evidence for their finds. Like plagiarists trying to pass off others' work as their own, these glory-seeking scientists use others' original research in order to justify their so-called "discoveries." "It's unethical name creation based on other people's work," says Mark Scherz, a herpetologist who recently named a new species of fish-scaled gecko. "It's that lack of ethical sensibility that creates that problem." The goal of taxonomic vandalism is often self-aggrandizement. Even in such an unglamorous field, there is prestige and reward -- and with them, the temptation to misbehave. "If you name a new species, there's some notoriety to it," Thomson says. "You get these people that decide that they just want to name everything, so they can go down in history as having named hundreds and hundreds of species." The problem may be getting worse, thanks to the advent of online publishing and loopholes in the species naming code. With vandals at large, some researchers are less inclined to publish or present their work publicly for fear of being scooped, taxonomists told me. "Now there's a hesitation to present our data publically, and that's how scientists communicate," Thomson says. "The problem that causes is that you don't know who is working on what, and then the scientists start stepping on each other's toes."
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A Few Bad Scientists Are Threatening To Topple Taxonomy

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  • by El Cubano ( 631386 ) on Friday September 08, 2017 @12:27PM (#55159967)
    I know blockchain is a bit tired at this point, but this sounds like the right sort of application for it. In order to successfully publish you would have to get enough people to accept your contribution. Because, as has been shown time and again, peer-review publications are not acting as the gatekeepers they make themselves out to be.
    • Currently, editors usually solicit 3 (or so) reviews. If one of them finds serious flaws and the other two say it's a great paper, the editor thinks mean things about those two posers and avoids inviting them to review again. How does your block-chain idea handle this? The most ingenious ideas are rarely popular at first. About the last thing we ever want to do is make publication into a popularity contest. Only fools compute average ratings when evaluating scientific papers.
    • The invocation of "blockchain woo" in IT seems to be developing in the same way as "quantum woo" in physics.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      >Because, as has been shown time and again, peer-review publications are not acting as the gatekeepers they make themselves out to be.

      That's not really the issue here, because the names in question aren't even peer reviewed! They are published in self-published "journals" but the ICZN doesn't actually require peer review for a name to be valid. So you can essentially just churn out thousands of "species" using your basement-printed "journal" with no underlying backing and hope some stick.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    http://www.horg.com/

  • One is brown with black and red spots, while the other is brown with red and black spots.

    Totally different!

  • by LeftCoastThinker ( 4697521 ) on Friday September 08, 2017 @01:07PM (#55160241)

    The best solution is to have a professional society that elects boards to review submissions for official taxonomical names. If it is true that there are just a few bad actors, they can be blacklisted and their names circulated to the media at large, preventing them from claiming the right to name a new "discovery" that they are attempting to hijack from another researcher or group. The society could also publish clear rules about naming and who has the right to name. Once it is clearly delineated, violators can be rightly blacklisted from ever making official, new names.

    I suspect, though it is not spelled out in the article that this is likely not much of a problem in the US or Europe, but in other regions of the world where there is less funding and more pressure on scientists to produce results, and less penalty for stealing other people's research.

    • by te11 ( 5067727 )
      Opt opt
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Professional societies have a history of doing the opposite as well. High ranking or otherwise popular figures stealing the work of others has been a tradition in science for centuries.

      Worse, having a group of elect that new scientists need to kowtow to in order to be deemed worthy of the field breeds orthodox dogma. Scientific progress stagnates.

    • The best solution is to have a professional society that elects boards to review submissions for official taxonomical names. If it is true that there are just a few bad actors, they can be blacklisted and their names circulated to the media at large, preventing them from claiming the right to name a new "discovery" that they are attempting to hijack from another researcher or group. The society could also publish clear rules about naming and who has the right to name. Once it is clearly delineated, violators can be rightly blacklisted from ever making official, new names.

      I suspect, though it is not spelled out in the article that this is likely not much of a problem in the US or Europe, but in other regions of the world where there is less funding and more pressure on scientists to produce results, and less penalty for stealing other people's research.

      Actually, this conflict of taxonomical naming has been going on for a quite a while already. There is something that TFA doesn't point out and it seems to be quite a red flag to me.

      From TFA:

      According to the official record of species names, governed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the snake belongs to the genus Spracklandus. What you don’t know is that almost no taxonomists use that name. Instead, most researchers use the unofficial name that pops up in Wikipedia and most scientific journal articles: Afronaja.

      I have searched the word "Spracklandus" related to snake and I found this Conference Paper - January 2015 [researchgate.net]. One interesting point is that the paper is attacking the person who was pushing the word "Spracklandus" to become an official snake genus. Now who is doing the real vandalism??? I don't know...

    • I suspect, though it is not spelled out in the article that this is likely not much of a problem in the US or Europe, but in other regions of the world where there is less funding and more pressure on scientists to produce results, and less penalty for stealing other people's research.

      You suspect it is Chinese scientists, in other words. But the article itself is specifically pointing at a couple Australian gentlemen.

      • AC put it pretty well:

        "If your definition of "not Europe or the United States" is China, then yes. When you have to go out and work to interpret things in a particular way to find offense, it should be time to re-evaluate your life. But, then, if you're that kind of person, introspection is probably not your strong suit."

    • by e r ( 2847683 )

      The best solution is to have a professional society that elects boards to review submissions for official taxonomical names.

      Your solution to the problem of corruption in the scientific community is to add money to the equation?

      • Professional societies are typically run by volunteers with few if any paid positions, very often in the case of science and academia so you can put that activity on your CV... not sure where you are seeing money, not that it is inherently a problem. I am assuming you get money to do your job properly and that works out OK?

  • by Provocateur ( 133110 ) <shediedNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday September 08, 2017 @01:10PM (#55160261) Homepage

    Know when to use i.e. and when to use e.g.

    e.g.=exempli gratia="For example"
    i.e.=id est="that is"

    A bad browser e.g. internet explorer

    But this crowd can tolerate such things better than this grammar nazi can.

    • by theendlessnow ( 516149 ) * on Friday September 08, 2017 @01:41PM (#55160439)
      I believe it is also correct to say:

      A bad browser i.e. internet explorer

      Perhaps another example would be better:

      Another example e.g. A bad president i.e. Donald Trump

      Or a clear example e.g. A good farmer e.i.e.i.o. Old MacDonald
    • Know when to use i.e. and when to use e.g.

      e.g.=exempli gratia="For example"
      i.e.=id est="that is"

      A bad browser e.g. internet explorer

      But this crowd can tolerate such things better than this grammar nazi can.

      "e.g." more closely translates to "example given" or "free example". Neither fits in grammatically with how it's used (i.e., "e.g., whatever"). You'd likely want a colon or perhaps a hyphen instead of the meager comma (which you yourself have omitted). (And fuck your style guide that likes to ignore and collapse punctuation.)

      Beyond that, how can you call yourself a Grammar Nazi? Your post is riddled with flaws such as a lack of punctuation and a lack of proper casing.

  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Friday September 08, 2017 @01:13PM (#55160279)

    For example, the six types of Rinos:

    1. White [wikipedia.org]
    2. Black [wikipedia.org]
    3. Indian [wikipedia.org]
    4. Javan [wikipedia.org]
    5. Sumatran [wikipedia.org]
    6. Republican [wikipedia.org]
  • by Uncle_Meataxe ( 702474 ) on Friday September 08, 2017 @01:15PM (#55160289)

    This is an odd post for the Slashdot crowd as systematics is a somewhat esoteric field even among biologists. The truth is that there have always been wars between the "splitters" and the "lumpers," the former happily naming lots of new species while the latter arguing against such foolishness. The thing is that the only people who care about such nuances are the systematists themselves and maybe ecologists who are trying to use their naming system to classify ecosystems, etc. What I've found maddening is that systematists often seemed to care little about the definition of "species." If you have a continuum of organisms with slightly varying morphology, where do you draw species lines? Can they interbreed? Lots of basic biology ignored in the mad dash to name everything. It's a hard problem.

    • by halivar ( 535827 )

      Splitters!!!! *spit*

    • I mean, we've got a "fish-scaled gecko" in the summary. Is it a fish? Is it a reptile? Is it an amphibian? How do we even get to the "gecko" part if it has fish scales?
      Then of course there's the platypus.

      Taxonomy is like Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The rules are made up and the points don't matter.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Speaking as a biologist, this issue isn't about lumpers or splitters. Instead, this is about people who self publish massive numbers of frivolous names in their own journals. The issue isn't that they are splitters (though they generally are) it's that they clog up the nomenclature with lots of names that lack proper backing, and then if the backing does appear _they_ claim they did the naming because the official name is the first one.

  • by Beerdood ( 1451859 ) on Friday September 08, 2017 @01:26PM (#55160355)
    I'm not trying to downplay the importance of taxonomy in biology, but this is a really incredulous scenario in the first few paragraphs of this article. Was this the best "real-life" scenario the author could come up with where taxonomy somehow results in a potential life-or-death situation?

    Before you go rushing to the hospital in search of antivenin, you’re going to want to look up exactly what kind of snake you’re dealing with. But the results are confusing. According to the official record of species names, governed by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), the snake belongs to the genus Spracklandus. What you don’t know is that almost no taxonomists use that name. Instead, most researchers use the unofficial name that pops up in Wikipedia and most scientific journal articles: Afronaja. ...This might sound like semantics. But for you, it could mean the difference between life and death.

    Seriously, who the hell would walk into a hospital and simply mention the genus of the snake that bit them? Someone mauled by a bear arriving at a hospital wouldn't say a member of the Ursus genus mauled me. Assuming they had enough time to wiki-search the snake while they're rushed to the hospital, they'd barge in with a picture of the snake that bit them and ask for an antidote. If for some reason, the bitten victim is in some sort of delirious Hodor-like state and is unable to communicate any words other than "Spracklandus, Spracklandus , Spracklandus !!", then we'd also have to assume the doctor is unable to research this and gets the wrong snake. And then we'd have to assume that the confirmed snake that bit the patient is visually close enough for the confirmation to be technically the wrong snake, but somehow the anti-venom that's administered is too different to be effective from the actual snake, and the patient dies. And then if this did happen, it would happen once as a freak accident, and policy would change to avoid this scenario from happening in the future.

    There's so many levels of unbelievably stupid with this possible scenario. If this is the best worst scenario they can come up with to reassure the readers of the importance of taxonomy - well this leads me to believe it's far less important than I originally assumed.

    • There's so many levels of unbelievably stupid with this possible scenario. If this is the best worst scenario they can come up with to reassure the readers of the importance of taxonomy - well this leads me to believe it's far less important than I originally assumed.

      The lady doth protest too much.

  • ... maybe some kind if computer system where an original author could plant a flag claiming IP?

    Just a thought.

  • One bad taxonomist don't spoil the whole bunch, girl.

  • Hu? Am I the only one who considers him self a memeber of Homo Genius? Or would that be Genii?

  • by LordHighExecutioner ( 4245243 ) on Friday September 08, 2017 @04:14PM (#55161339)
    Here [xkcd.com] and there [xkcd.com].
  • When you survey all the groundhogs in a given area, inevitably you will note a series of normal distributions in the observable characteristics of the species. You might observe that on that hilltop over there, the groundhogs have slightly longer ears than their fellows on the adjacent flat ground. As this article points out, a biologist will be irresistibly tempted to proclaim a new subspecies, Joseph Blow's Long-Eared Groundhog. When Dr. Blow submits his paper, he modestly hopes that the name he bestows,

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