This week, Nature published a short Correspondence from Giovanni Strona, a biologist “mainly interested in theoretical ecology”, with a positively shocking revelation: taxonomists are selling the naming rights to new species.
At risk of bringing Nature’s legal department crashing down upon my head, here’s Dr. Strona’s correspondence in its entirety (free, readable PDF here -> http://rdcu.be/dilx):
“One of zoology’s highest honours may now, it seems, be purchased on eBay (see go.nature.com/ziq152). For a few thousand dollars, you are offered the privilege of naming a ‘small, rare’ species. A species name will last forever, says the vendor — even as taxonomists themselves struggle to survive.
Taxonomists invest months confirming that a specimen is new to science. They sift through obscure literature — often in a different language and lamentably illustrated. More months are spent on the species’ description, which must be accurate enough to enable future taxonomists (should they survive the sixth mass extinction) to confirm that their ‘new’ species is different. Eventually, they publish their work in a systematics journal with an impact factor typically below 2 — even when the species is a previously undescribed mammal (the olinguito Bassaricyon neblina, pictured; see K. M. Helgen et al. ZooKeys 324, 1–83; 2013).
These low impact factors make it hard for taxonomists to land positions in academia, and job opportunities in museums are sparse. Selling perpetuity on eBay is starting to look like an attractive alternative.”
For such a short piece, Dr. Strona sure managed to cram a lot of condescension and indignation into it, along with some rather discouraging misunderstanding of taxonomy.
Now, this is hardly the first specific epithet to be sold to the highest bidder. In fact, the practice has been going on for probably about as long as taxonomists have been in need of funding (i.e. forever), and it’s a topic I’ve written about before. Since that original post, I can remember seeing maybe a half dozen species names up for grabs, whether as perks for crowdfunding, or in auctions similar to the one that drew Dr. Strona’s attention.
Suffice it to say this isn’t exactly a novel concept, which of course makes me wonder why it’s easier to get a letter in Nature decrying the process than an actual new species description, but I digress.
Let’s look at Dr. Strona’s article and see wherein the problem (?) lays.
The eBay auction in question is titled “NAME A NEW SPECIES! HONOR SOMEONE SPECIAL! WOW! A UNIQUE, RARE OPPORTUNITY-L@@K!“. OK, fair enough, and with an asking price of only $4,500, this appears to be a steal of a deal!
But, what is the species we’re trying to buy naming rights for, exactly?
“The NEW SPECIES will be a Small Animal!”
Well, that narrows it down. It appears that it is not a vegetable, nor a mineral, and is presumably smaller than a breadbox. I still have 19 questions remaining, most of which are about the 1990’s-era internet design for the seller’s page, but I’ll set those aside for now.
Anderobe’s Special Store, the seller, is apparently a purveyor of rare natural history curios and books, but they do offer a clue as to what this “Small Animal” is likely to be, and whom your bid will be funding. Near the bottom of the auction page, the seller lists “Previous Participants and Winners”:
A little Google Scholaring later, we find these are ectoparasitic flatworms (Phylum: Platyhelminthes, Class: Monogenea — remember this detail, it’ll make things interesting in a bit), and both species share a common author, Delane C. Kritsky. Who is this mysterious person dragging taxonomy’s good name through the mud with their outlandish desire to fund the naming of a new species?
Dr. Delane Kritsky is listed as Professor Emeritus at Idaho State University in the faculty of Health Education, and appears to have published at least 104 papers, primarily on the systematics & evolution of flatworms, in addition to describing 8 new genera and 74 new species of flatworms. Knowing very little about marine flatworms, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Dr. Kritsky is a world expert on flatworm taxonomy, and has a pretty solid basis from which to do his work. If he needs $4,500 to help him describe another new species (funds which I’d guess will go to defraying the expenses of visiting other institutions to examine specimens), I think that’s pretty reasonable, particularly for a retired taxonomist who is trying to share a career’s worth of accumulated knowledge before it disappears forever.
It’s also worth noting that the offending auction was last updated May 12, 2014, and isn’t even listed in Anderobe’s Special Store at the moment. I think it’s fair to say there haven’t been many takers on this particular offer, which is more sad than affronting.
Back to flatworms. Dr. Strona is a former post-doc whose work appears to mostly involve ecological modelling, including, but not restricted to, parasitic Monogenea flatworms. So, we have an early career scientist who depends on the natural history data and infrastructure provided by taxonomy, very publicly calling out a senior taxonomist who has probably provided a large chunk of the aforementioned natural history data & taxonomy, for trying to fund the very research that the junior scientist is building her career around.
Now that we have some context for our outrage, let’s revisit Dr. Strona’s letter!
“One of zoology’s highest honours may now, it seems, be purchased on eBay (see go.nature.com/ziq152).”
I agree; discovering, describing, and naming a species is one of zoology’s highest honours. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s for sale. What is for sale are the rights to suggest a specific epithet, which, while fun, isn’t something I’d associate with “honourable”. I’m going to assume Dr. Strona actually meant having a species named after you (what we call a patronym) is the highest honour, but honour is all about context, not just the perpetuity of taxonomy. Plenty of jerks have species named after them; most notably, Hitler.
“For a few thousand dollars, you are offered the privilege of naming a ‘small, rare’ species. A species name will last forever, says the vendor — even as taxonomists themselves struggle to survive.”
You’re right, taxonomists are struggling to survive, mostly because we don’t have jobs or even, you know, a few thousand dollars. I guess taxonomists are the new artists, expected to starve for the sake of their research and just be happy that we’re doing what we love. And God forbid we get creative when it comes to finding alternative funding sources. Definitely not acceptable.
Also, it’s not just the vendor that says species names will last forever, it’s also the governing body for animal taxonomy, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, assuming of course it meets all the requirements and rules.
“Taxonomists invest months confirming that a specimen is new to science.”
Right. “Months”. Fun fact: most new species take YEARS to reach publication. In fact, the average time from collection to description for a new species is 21 years, but sure, we’ll just round down to “months”, no big deal.
“They sift through obscure literature — often in a different language and lamentably illustrated. More months are spent on the species’ description, which must be accurate enough to enable future taxonomists (should they survive the sixth mass extinction) to confirm that their ‘new’ species is different.”
The most accurate & unobjectionable section of the entire letter (except for that tricky “months” thing). Full marks.
“Eventually, they publish their work in a systematics journal with an impact factor typically below 2 — even when the species is a previously undescribed mammal (the olinguito Bassaricyon neblina, pictured; see K. M. Helgen et al. ZooKeys 324, 1–83; 2013).”
Hey, thanks for reminding us that other biologists, including theoretical ecologists, have systemically neglected to cite the taxonomic literature, ultimately leading to that embarrassing impact factor you threw out there. Sorry we can’t all publish letters in Nature with its 42.351 impact factor (aside: why on earth are we calculating impact factors to the thousandth of an impact?). One way you could help alleviate this problem, besides publishing disparaging remarks about our work in your high impact journals, is to consistently and properly cite taxonomic names and literature: the olinguito’s proper name is Bassaricyon neblina Helgen, Pinto, Kays, Helgen, Tsuchiya, Quinn, Wilson & Maldonado, 2013. Remember kids: cite your sources, even when they’re lowly taxonomists.
Also, a minor-but-important point about how taxonomy works: by their very nature, new species are “previously undescribed”, otherwise they are considered junior synonyms and shouldn’t be published anywhere, regardless of impact factor. I would like to think that all biologists would understand this basic taxonomic rule, but then again:
“These low impact factors make it hard for taxonomists to land positions in academia, and job opportunities in museums are sparse.”
I may slag impact factors as much as the next taxonomist, but even I don’t believe they’re the reason we’re being excluded from academia. That blame I lay squarely on the shift by academic institutions away from whole organism biology towards the “sexy”, and strongly funded, worlds of molecular and cellular biology. Who cares that more and more biologists wouldn’t know where to look for their study organisms in the wild, or how to differentiate them from their taxonomic cousins; that’s what biological supply companies are for. Of course, E.O. Wilson pointed all of this out 40 years ago, and academia has done nothing to fix the issue since then, but I’m sure this letter is what everyone has been waiting for.
“Selling perpetuity on eBay is starting to look like an attractive alternative.”
Because living and working on the hope that someone will give you $4,500 is the definition of “attractive”, and all those other academics in their ivory towers with benefits, tenure, and salaries in the 5-6 figures are just jealous.
So, basically, we taxonomists should stop prostituting our research to the highest bidder, publish in higher impact journals, and resign ourselves to a future void of funding, respect, or job security.
Got it. Thanks Dr. Strona, it all makes perfect sense now.
Here’s a PDF of the eBay auction page in case it disappears.