Born Digital, Born Free? Taxonomic publishing comes of the digital age The iczn amendment

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Embargoed: 7:00 GMT Tuesday 4 September 2012

Born Digital, Born Free? Taxonomic publishing comes of the digital age
The ICZN amendment

Following four years of highly charged debate the rules for publication of scientific names of animals have been changed to allow electronic publications to meet the requirements of the stringent International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. In a landmark decision, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has passed an amendment to its rules that will accept an electronic-only publication as ‘legitimate’ if it meets criteria of archiving and the publication is registered on the ICZN’s official online registry, ZooBank.

Some have hailed this change as an increase in democratisation of science, with modernisation of the politics and economics of access to information. Others have decried the move as a dangerous destabilisation of biodiversity information, just when we need it to serve most robustly.
An enormous challenge linking past and growing future information

The decision has been contentious because the rules of the ICZN are considered, and intended, to be among the most rigorous for scientific publication. The task of keeping information straight on animal names is immense and critical, as almost all information on the living world is linked through organismal names. Animals comprise the vast majority of multicellular species recognised (currently around 1.9 million, growing at a rate of about 20,000/year) and for each of these taxa, there are as many as 2–10 legitimately published names due to past debate and poor information exchange. Estimates of the total of living animal biodiversity are 4–20 times this number (8–50 million species), with fossils adding many more, so when the task of cataloguing biodiversity approaches completion, this vast amount of information will be linked through names. For the past 250 years the simple, consistent system proposed by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 has allowed worldwide communication about animals. Keeping names sensible and stable is a key task for our ability to understand and communicate about the living world.

Decreasing the taxonomic impediment, or increased risk?

The change in ICZN publication rules is intended to speed the process of publishing biodiversity information, to improve access to this information, and to help reduce the ‘taxonomic impediment’ that hinders our cataloguing of the living world. However, the move is seen by some as a risky experiment in unmooring a previously well-anchored system of linking publications, names and taxonomic concepts. Criticisms have been levelled at the decision both for being too demanding for archiving requirements, and for not being demanding enough. Libraries have been effective at preserving paper for hundreds of years, but it is not clear that electronic documents will remain accessible for that long, at least without some form of regulation. Although some works printed on paper are rare, the number of instances in which no copies are known to survive is vanishingly small, so it certainly has been possible to reliably archive paper copies. Will we be able to say the same for electronic works 100 years from now? Can we have both rapid and effectively permanent access to publications and the information they contain? The requirement that electronic-only publications are registered in a central repository run by the ICZN, ZooBank, is also viewed as potentially a difficult sociological transition for zoologists. It is also feared that the new rules will allow increased ‘taxonomic vandalism’, or unethical publication of unjustified scientific assertions by people who do not adhere to the common ethical principle of supporting science with robust, peer-reviewed data. However, the ICZN ruling is explicit that while the publication can exist in an electronic-only format, it still must be published through a journal or book that has an ISSN or ISBN (International Standard Serial Number or International Standard Book Number) and should indicate that it will be archived for long term access. Purely web options such as blog posts, forums, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Scratchpads and other potentially ephemeral, unarchived web-only sources still do not qualify as legitimate publications under the new ICZN rules. The number of scientific journals containing new nomenclatural acts on scientific names of animals numbers is currently estimated to be over 3000, thus this change will be relevant to a large number of journals.

Type specimens—the gold standard:

Biologists’ interpretation of how the diversity in the living world is structured into species is made solid through physical standards called type specimens, one or more for each species. A type specimen nails down the correct use of a name to a standard example of a species to make it indisputable. Taxonomy, in contrast to nomenclature, is the science that interprets biological data to test hypotheses of what makes up a taxon (such as a species or genus) and to determine its boundaries. Although fierce debate may surround the range of organisms correctly included within any single species, nomenclature governed by the ICZN ensures that a single correct name is available each species. Intentionally, nomenclature is as rigorously distinct from the fluid swirl of taxonomic interpretation as is possible.

Museums are the main repositories of type specimens, with a key role of providing the archives of types that keep biological information anchored to organisms. To do their work properly, taxonomists need to refer to the pre-existing type specimens and to the oldest published literature when they revise the taxa in a group of organisms. This requires access to information on the types, as well as access to all the previous taxonomic publications on their animals. Good taxonomic work requires reference to museum collections and libraries.
Case study—the drama of Darwinius or how ‘Ida’ almost didn’t make it

In 2009 a fossil discovery was announced that was supposed to change our views on human evolution profoundly. The 47 million year old Darwinius masillae, nicknamed ‘Ida’, was published in PLoS One, a journal that normally is issued only as an electronic copy. The publishers had an 11th hour realisation that this publication would not be legitimate under ICZN rules, and any unscrupulous author could republish the animal under their own name, scooping the original work. Rapid contact with the ICZN provided the publishers with a work-around, in that they issued a ‘special hard copy issue’ of the paper so that the nomenclature remained legitimate and the discoverers did not lose their rightful authorship of the name. This work-around has remained in use for a number of other high profile publications in journals that currently have predominantly only electronic copy but has been the source of friction for both publishers and users.

Facilitation of a true web taxonomy

Will opening the door to electronic publication facilitate a truly web-based taxonomy, and will that remove shackles on publishing about biodiversity? The next few years will be interesting times for scientific publishing as the answers become clear.

Notes to editors

The official amendment and brief discussion are available from:

Zootaxa :


Published input and the 2008 draft amendment:
For more information, images or interviews, please contact

Dr Ellinor Michel, Executive Secretary, ICZN

Tel: +44-207-942-5653 or mobile +44-750-607-1547

Claire Gilby, Head of Media Relations, Natural History Museum

Tel: +44-207-942-5654 or mobile +44-779-969-0151

Email: press

  • The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature is an international body of experts on scientific nomenclature who act as the arbiter on scientific names of animals. The Commission’s job is to ensure names of animals are stable and universal by applying the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, or occasionally by overriding the rules of the Code to better serve stability.

  • The Natural History Museum is a world-leading science research centre and also winner of Visit London’s 2010 Evening Standard’s Peoples Choice Best London for Free Experience Award and Best Family Fun Award. Through its collections and scientific expertise the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in more than 70 countries.

  • Ensuring that species names mean what people think they mean is critical for reliable science, and normally the first example of a species that is described is the type specimen. A core role of natural history museums is to house and preserve type specimens, anchoring our information on biodiversity. The Natural History Museum in London has the largest collection of type specimens in the world.

Prof. Gary Rosenberg, Chair of the ICZN Editorial Committee (coordinating author for the amendment and the 5th Edition of the ICZN Code)

Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Drexel University


Dr Richard Pyle (main architect of ZooBank)

Bishop Musuem

Honolulu, HI 96817

Ph: +11-(808)848-4115

Dr Jan van Tol (President of ICZN)

National Museum of Natural History Naturalis

Leiden, The Netherlands

Telephone +31 71 568 7606


1. Most of the world’s described taxa are animals (see the graphic below), this work of the ICZN is of global importance for communicating about the living world.

2. The Commission is a body of 28 international specialists (who give their service voluntarily), and a small secretariat, housed in the Natural History Museum, London, who work towards a common, stable language of scientific names which can be used worldwide, and an open system of problem-resolution in cases of uncertainty or dispute. The ICZN publishes a code of rules so that most problems can be solved by taxonomists directly. In exceptional circumstances researchers can apply to the ICZN to override the rules, the equivalent of taking an issue to court. Cases of this sort go through a process similar to a legal trial, with a formal presentation of the case, a period of public input similar to open testimony, and judgment by the ICZN.

In a more simplified perspective, the ICZN is tasked with keeping order in the complicated and sometimes fractious world of zoological taxonomy. Scientists often disagree about what a species should be called, and sometimes get into disputes which need to be resolved by a higher authority. The ICZN is that higher authority.

3. The Commission is considering challenges to names and type specimens for iconic taxa such as Testudo gigantea, the giant Aldabra tortoise, and Maculinea, the large blue butterfly of wide conservation concern in Europe, and recently ruled on the correct name for the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the birds of paradise Paradisaea and the type specimen for Archaeopteryx.
4. ZooBank is the official ICZN online registry for scientific names of animals, an authority for zoological nomenclature, and an information hub, or backbone, providing a dynamic web nomenclature for all other web-bioinformatics systems ( ;

5. Different Codes, similar objectives

The rules of nomenclature are similar, but ruled by separate codes, for zoology, botany and bacteria. The botanical code (now renamed the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN)) changed its rules on publication earlier this year as well, allowing e-publication without any additional requirements for archiving or registration. Under the ICB, legitimate publication of new plant names requires only generation of a PDF document published in a journal with ISSN or a book with ISBN. The date allowing this transition was 1 January, 2012, which is now, with the current ruling, matched by the amendment to the zoological code. The scale of the nomenclatural challenge is considerably smaller for plants, however, as to date only about 260,000 plant and 100,000 fungi species have been described.

The bacterial code (International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (ICNB)) has very different requirements, as all new nomenclatural acts need to be published in one of two journals, tightly linked to their Code. Moreover, the bacteriologists decided to essentially amputate the historical legacy of research with most work before 1980 being deemed unrecoverable. Only about 9260 bacterial and archaebacterial names are regulated by the ICNB, as there is also a requirement that named taxa have a type culture. Much of bacterial diversity is not known to be culturable, thus can not have a type culture, thus is outside of the bacterial nomenclatural system.

Work is now on-going to bring together the different nomenclatural codes, primarily through development of tools in common. The development of ZooBank and a registration system for fungi, which will become mandatory in January 2013, has happened in tandem, using the same web architecture, with tight collaboration of the prime authors. This, and other projects to unify the codes in practice, is being helped by an International Committee on Bionomenclature (ICB).

6. Sir Robert M. May, ex-President of the Royal Society, wrote:

Setting all the reservations and biases aside, the total number of living organisms that have received Latin binomial names is currently around 1.5 million or so. Amazingly, there is as yet no centralized computer index of these recorded species. It says a lot about intellectual fashions, and about our values, that we have a computerized catalogue entry, along with many details, for each of several million books in the Library of Congress but no such catalogue for the living species we share our world with. Such a catalogue, with appropriately coded information about the habitat, geographical distribution, and characteristic abundance of the species in question (no matter how rough or impressionistic), would cost orders of magnitude less money than sequencing the human genome; I do not believe such a project is orders of magnitude less important. Without such a factual catalogue, it is hard to unravel the patterns and processes that determine the biotic diversity of our planet.”

Amazingly, Sir Bob May wrote this in 1988 (in a paper entitled How many species are there on Earth? in the journal Science) and despite the intervening decades we still don’t have a complete catalogue of names or taxa. This is a feasible and core task for managing our knowledge about biodiversity. ICZN provides quality control for animal nomenclature and ZooBank will provide this as the ICZN’s authoritative, online source for scientific names of animals.

7. Further quotes from E.O. Wilson (Patron of the ICZN):

‘…the beginning of science is the description and naming of phenomena’ (The future of life, 2002: xvii)

The ICZN has been ensuring the stability of systematic names of animals. Through a secretariat based in the Natural History Museum, the small but dedicated staff of ICZN and the Commissioners (who giving their service voluntarily), have worked towards a common, stable language of scientific names which can be used worldwide, and an open system of problem-resolution in cases of uncertainty or dispute. Despite the importance of this work, ICZN currently receives no funds from the U.K. government, research councils or international biodiversity organizations. It funding in the past has come through donations from professional taxonomic organizations.

7. Further quotes on ZooBank by E.O.Wilson and Georgina Mace:

"This accomplishment is a first major step towards completing the Linnaean enterprise, which is essential for mapping Earth's still poorly known fauna. With the firm foundation ZooBank aims to provide, the rest of biology will be immensely strengthened, and humanity correspondingly benefited"
Edward O. Wilson, Harvard Professor, and the leading authority on biodiversity.

"This is a hugely significant step for animal conservation. With ZooBank in place we will all have access to a single reference list of animal names, and so discussions about priority species and habitats can proceed with greater clarity and speed."
Georgina Mace OBE, Director of Science, Zoological Society of London.

8. Sir David Attenborough and E. O Wilson are both patrons of the ICZN. A talk in support of the ICZN was presented by Sir David Attenborough and Prof Richard Fortey and is available online here:

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