Electronic publishing is inevitable and even the ICZN is beginning to accept it

October 1, 2009

After a completely barren 2008, this year is turning out to be a good one for me in terms of publications.  Today sees the publication of Taylor (2009b), entitled Electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable, and will be accepted by the taxonomic community with or without the endorsement of the code — one of those papers where, if you’ve read the title, you can skip the rest of the paper.   (Although on that score, my effort is knocked into a cocked hat by Hulke 1880.)

The message of the paper will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the Shiny Digital Future thread on this site; as indeed will parts of the text, as the paper is basically a more carefully worked and cohesive form of an argument that I’d previously spread across half a dozen blog posts, a similar number of emails on the ICZN mailing list and any number of comments on other people’s blogs.  The sequence of section headings in the paper tells its own story:

Background: the availability of the name Darwinius masillae
The Code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance
Paper journals are going away
The time to act is now
Electronic documents are different from electronic media
We must come to terms with the ubiquity of PDF
The current rules are too hard to get right
Background: the availability of the name Darwinius masillae
The Code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance
Paper journals are going away
The time to act is now
Electronic documents are different from electronic media
We must come to terms with the ubiquity of PDF
The current rules are too hard to get right

And that conclusion reads as follows:

While we were looking the other way, the digital revolution has happened: everyone but the ICZN now accepts electronic publication. The Code is afforded legitimacy by workers and journals only because it serves them; if we allow it to become anachronistic then they will desert it – or, at best, pick and choose, following only those provisions of the Code that suit them. Facing this reality, the Code has no realistic option but to change – to recognise electronic publishing as valid.

I have no detailed recommendations to make regarding the recently proposed amendments to the Code (ICZN, 2008). Instead I ask only this simple question: will the Code step up to the plate and regulate electronic publications as well as printed publications? Because this is the only question that remains open. Simply rejecting electronic publication is no longer a valid option.

Which I’m sure is familiar rhetoric to long-time SDF advocates, but which I hope will rattle a few cages in the more conservative ranks of specialist taxonomists.  I think it’s a very promising sign that BZN, the official journal of the ICZN, is prepared to publish this kind of advocacy — they didn’t even ask me to tone down the language.  I hope it indicates that in high places, they are sensing which way the wind is blowing.

Here’s a reminder of why electronic publishing is so desirable: figure 3 from Sereno et al.’s (2007) paper on the bizarre skull of the rebbachisaurid Nigersaurus:

Sereno et al. (2007:fig. 3): Nigersaurus taqueti, including photographs of cervical, dorsal and caudal vertebrae in left lateral view.

Sereno et al. (2007:fig. 3): Nigersaurus taqueti, including photographs of cervical, dorsal and caudal vertebrae in left lateral view.

Let me remind you that this was a paper about skulls — vertebrae were not even on the agenda.  Yet click through the image (go on, you have to) and you will see them each presented in glorious high-resolution detail.  That paper was of course published in the PLoS ONE — a journal that, because it is online only, can provide this quality of figure reproduction, which shames even the very best of printed journals.  To see printed-on-paper figures this detailed and informative, you have to right back to Osborn and Mook (1921).

Which is why I recently decided to put my open-access money where my electronic-only mouth is, and submit the forthcoming Archbishop description to a PLoS journal.  In response to a challenge from Andy Farke, I rather precipitately made a public commitment to do my level best to get that paper submitted this calendar year; and while that may not actually happen, having that goal out there can only help.  Seeing that gorgeous quarry photo of Spinophorosaurus was what tipped me over the edge into wanting to use PLoS.  My plan is to describe the living crap out of that bad boy, photograph every element from every direction and put the whole lot in the paper — make the paper as close as possible as a surrogate for the specimen itself.  Only PLoS (to my knowledge) can do this.

(Of course, once you start wanting to include other kinds of information in your publications — videos, 3d models, etc. — then an electronic-only venue is literally your only option.)

I leave you with two photos of “Cervical P” of the Archbishop; commentary by Matt.  These images are copyright the NHM since it’s their specimen.


Unnamed brachiosaurid NHM R5937, "The Archbishop", Cervical P in right lateral view.


Unnamed brachiosaurid NHM R5937, "The Archbishop", Cervical P in left lateral view.


17 Responses to “Electronic publishing is inevitable and even the ICZN is beginning to accept it”

  1. Mike – for the benefit of others who might wish to present their results in the fullest possible detail – PLoS ONE allow authors to publish papers of *any* length (provided the content justifies the length); they can contain any number of full color images; and they can contain any number of supplementary supporting files (e.g. excel sheets, video etc).

    The resulting paper is then available for anyone, anywhere in the world, to read and download entirely for free.

    And the icing on the cake? Detailed information on the online usage, citations, social bookmarks, blog coverage etc is transparently provided for you to see exactly how much impact you have made in the world (see: http://article-level-metrics.plos.org )

    Pete Binfield (Managing Editor, PLoS ONE)

  2. […] Engineering the shiny digital future October 1, 2009 Matt Wedel Leave a comment Go to comments This is slightly off-topic, but only slightly. Today ODP co-founder Mike Taylor had a paper published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature on the inevitability of electronic publication. You can read the paper here and some of Mike’s thoughts on it here. […]

  3. Tor Bertin Says:

    The level of detail in that _Nigersaurus_ image is astounding. One of so many reasons that I fully support electronic publications.

    Though I have to admit that I also enjoy printing them off and reading them in paper form outside. ;-)

  4. William Miller Says:

    Electronic publication: the ability to attach Excel data sheets, videos, 3D animations (rotating vertebrae to show all sides?), etc. will be major. And it will allow for free distribution without the cost of printing etc.

    I have no problem with it replacing journals, but I hope ebooks don’t replace paper books…

  5. William Miller Says:

    And isn’t today SV-POW’s second birthday?

  6. Dear Michael P. Taylor,

    Congratulation for your brilliant, excellent and twice-overdue article!

    See also our article in the “I. Contribution to the discussion on Electronic Publication”:

    Click to access BZN%2066(1)%20Contributions%20to%20the%20discussion%20on%20electronic%20publication.pdf

    and our open letter to ICZN:


    Ad last a big excuse for the statement by F. Welter-Schultes and his “only” 39 signatories given in the same edition of the BZN. This has nothing to do with the mainstream of German taxonomists, nothing! Far from it!

    It is only the opinion of a splitter group, stick-in-the-muds, not more. German taxonomists don’t live and exist in the stone age. Never!

    Only diehards or romantics still convince themselves that “availability” and “safekeeping” of a taxonomic work has something to do with a commitment to a specific data medium for future generations: be the printed medium of a Johannes Gutenberg (indeed a German too) or current storage media – like a CD or DVD or the Internet:
    Neither the „acid content” of paper nor the „half-life” of a CD-ROM should figure anywhere on the agenda, rather the core issue is: How can it be ensured that data can be passed quickly, comfortably, confidently, error-free, cost-efficiently and globally to the next generation of data carrier? And the answer should not be given from the perspective of the last centuries (or by J. Gutenberg).

    I hope that the “International Commission of…” will see this in the same way. It’s quite plain to us long ago that not only the reputation of the Commission is at risk but also the Code is in danger of becoming an irrelevance! This is the central issue. We don’t understand that those who – anachronistic (!) – oppose the recognition of electronic publishing for nomenclatural purposes, don’t consider this aspect. Are they interested in a system of “dual/triple publications” when we publish our first descriptions: as ICZN-version AND as INTERNET-version OR/AND as – and this is very realistic and inevitable – an INTERACTIVE version?
    With other words: The attempt to compress the content of a modern digital medium, for example an interactive CD or DVD of the present day (with more than 3000 scroll pictures, overlays, microphotography, and computer tomography or videos), into a book would be comparable to the attempt of a Stone Age person to record the content of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae on stone slabs.’
    The digital revolution has happened – that’s all!

    Peter Stüben

  7. I agree that electronic publication is the way we’re headed, ignore it or not. But I can also see problems form the ICZN’s point of view. What, exactly, will qualify as electronic publication? Can I name a new taxon on my blog? On the DML? Only in PLoS One? Only in JVP Online? Will there be some sort of accreditation process for online “journals”?

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Matt M., these are all good and valid concerns, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on them — and everyone else’s. I deliberately didn’t discuss any of this in the BZN article because I wanted to keep it tightly focussed, but I agree these these are elephants in the room.

  9. […] Published October 29, 2009 Practical Palaeontology Leave a Comment My colleagues Mike Taylor and Andy Farke among others have done an admirable job of promoting the concept of open access in […]

  10. […] Taylor also some excellent commentary that I nearly entirely agree with on SV-POW! and also published an official comment on the […]

  11. Andrea Cau Says:

    Can the name of new tetanurine published yesterday in the “forthcoming papers” section of the Acta Palaeontologica Polonica (http://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/20090083.html) be cited, or is it better to wait for the “ufficial” publication? I’m a bit confused.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Andrea, that would be a “no” — officially, at least. But of course everyone will talk about it, anyway.

  13. […] in light of the fact that even the notoriously slow-moving ICZN seems now to be recognising that electronic publishing is inevitable; it would be pretty horrible if by the time the Phylocode is finally implemented, the ICZN has […]

  14. […] have to deal with it. And the problem is only going to get worse in the shiny digital future as electronic publication removes the already minor inconvenience associated with “publishing” acts of taxonomy. […]

  15. […] available. All of the content is available now, and the paper doesn’t include any of those pesky nomenclatural acts, and so, as with the prosauropod pneumaticity paper, I don’t see any reason to pretend it […]

  16. […] I’ve argued before — in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, no less — that electronic publication of nomenclatural acts is inevitable, and will be accepted by the taxonomic co…: the botanical Code’s whole-hearted endorsement of this reality is further evidence that the […]

  17. […] to just scan everything and make sure that copies are widely distributed; as Mike has pointed out, PDFs are not going away. The amount of scientific literature that has been produced in the last four or five centuries is […]

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