A taxonomic revolution? A Q&A with Sandy Knapp on the impact of e-publications

The often rather staid science of taxonomy was firmly shaken up six years ago when plant taxonomists voted at their International Botanical Congress to allow publications describing the naming of new species in online-only journals. This change (soon also implemented by animal taxonomists) was accompanied by a level of furious debate which may surprise outsiders. Six years on, as plant taxonomists meet in Shenzen, China for their 2017 Congress, we talk to Dr Sandra Knapp, a key advocate of these changes. She explains why the use of e-publications was so controversial and discusses her new research, recently published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, that examines the initial impact of this major change.

Dr Sandy Knapp is Head of the Plants Division at London’s Natural History Museum, specialising in the taxonomy of the nightshade family. She is also Vice president of the Council of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT), Editor of the journal Phytokeys, and a member of the Editorial Board of BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Can you briefly explain the changes that were made to the rules surrounding naming of new plant species at the 2011 IBC congress?

Every six years at International Botanical Congresses (IBC) a group of scientists who study algae, fungi and plants gather to review and change the rules for naming (nomenclature). The Nomenclature Section at the IBC in Melbourne six years ago made a big change to media allowed for publishing new nomenclatural acts (new names and the like) – previously if you wanted to describe a new species, for example, you would have to do it in a print journal (or book) and only once the journal was printed was the name available for others to use. In Melbourne, the assembled scientists voted to allow publication in journals and books that were only published electronically – no longer did we have to publish only in print media, or wait until the paper was printed on paper!

no longer did we have to publish only in print media, or wait until the paper was printed on paper!

Why were you personally so keen on seeing these changes made?

Taxonomy is often seen as a dusty, old-fashioned science, and clinging to print-on-paper as the publishing world itself was moving into the electronic realm only re-enforced that image. I personally felt there was a real danger that taxonomic publications would be relegated to fewer and fewer places, that were less and less accessible to most people. For me, accessibility was also important, many of the specialist publications are not available outside rich Western institutions, and taxonomy needs to be done everywhere!

Conversely, why were these changes seen by some taxonomists as so controversial?

Well, even though the publishing world was slowly (or quickly) going electronic, many people were concerned about the permanency of works that were produced only electronically. Taxonomy depends upon being able to access the literature of the past, and some felt that safeguards were not well-developed and that proper archives didn’t yet exist. There were also fears about unscrupulous folk going in and changing e-published works, and about the possible disenfranchisement of those with minimal access to the internet.

How long had these debates been going on in the taxonomic community? Was there a specific reason why the changes were finally passed at the 2011 congress?

The first proposals to allow e-publishing what was then called the Botanical Code (it’s now the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants) were made to the IBC in Vienna in 2005. Although there was some support for the change, the particular way in which it was proposed was voted down. A Special Committee was then set up to further refine the changes and bring them to the Melbourne Congress. They worked for six years to make the proposal that eventually was accepted by an over-whelming majority in Melbourne.

Based on your new research, what is your assessment of the early impact of these changes?

Well, contrary to our expectations, the changes have basically had little effect on the publishing behaviour of scientists working with naming of plants. Because e-publication is now permitted as just another instance of publishing (much like it is in the publishing industry itself) taxonomists just kept on publishing in the normal way, but had a wider range of places open to them. There were not huge numbers of “rogue” journals, but conversely, the rate of species description did not speed up either.

It is gratifying that today, e-publication is seen as publication…. not peculiar, not outlandish.

Six years on, do you feel that the taxonomic community has broadly come to accept these changes?

It is gratifying that today, e-publication is seen as publication…. not peculiar, not outlandish. There are teething problems for sure – date of publication not on the pdf copy, no page numbers (this upsets some), or uncertainty in some journals whether the e-version is actually the final Version of record (the one that doesn’t change). But overall, the number of taxonomists publishing electronically is going up and to me this says that it is now accepted by most of us. If we all work together as a community, publishers and publishes alike, these problems will be ironed out – hopefully long before the publishing world turns its back on print-on-paper forever.

View the latest posts on the BMC Series blog homepage