Does Darwinius Exist?

View Images

Darwinius has achieved the ultimate triumph of pop-culture consciousness, having become for the moment the background image on the main Google search page. But some of the commenters in my post yesterday on the head-slapping hype around this fossil pointed out something I thought deserving of its own post: Darwinius may not actually exist.

By this I mean that the name Darwinius may not be valid officially published. I first became aware of this from Nature editor Henry Gee’s twitterings. The problem has to do with the fact that the journal where Darwinius was pubished, PLOS One, is only online.

Today Martin Brazeau laid out some details here at the Loom, citing the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature, which sets the rules for naming new species:

 …it isn’t named yet. This is starting to pop up in various comments now, surprisingly slowly, however.

According to ICZN:

Article 8.6 Works produced after 1999 by a method that does not employ printing on paper. For a work produced after 1999 by a method other than printing on paper to be accepted as published within the meaning of the Code, it must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself.

If, in fact, these conditions have not been met by this electronic publication, then “Darwinius” has not officially been published…

Larry Witmer of Miami Ohio University chimed in…

You’re absolutely right, Martin. Henry Gee (Nature) also has pointed to Article 8.6 (in a Facebook entry) and posted the link to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, for those that want to check out the rules: http://www.iczn.org/iczn/index.jsp. Article 8.6 is in Chapter 3.

The Code has a copyright of 1999, so one has to wonder how they’ll rule on online-only names, such as Darwinius. And Darwinius is only one of a growing number of cases. I’m sure the Commission is looking at the whole issue. In fact, maybe one benefit that may come from the unprecedented over-the-top attention given to “Ida” is that it may bring this whole taxonomic issue to the fore.

I’m part of a group that had been looking at PLoS ONE as a potential venue for our manuscript (mostly because of the ability to include more graphics and movies), but we decided against it for precisely this reason. Would the new name be valid?

While these rules may seem a bit esoteric to most people, taxonomists take them as seriously as a heart attack. I’ll be curious to see how this story develops. How strange would it be for the most famous fossil of the day to be rendered nameless.

Update: I asked John Hawks, the editor of the paper, and he deferred to the PLOS office. I’ve dropped an email with Michael Eisen, too. In the meantime, Hawks pointed me to this blog post, which may clear things up…or not.

Update #2: Michael Eisen, a co-founder of PLOS and a member of the board of directors, kindly left this comment:

In the past, PLoS has gone to great lengths to ensure that taxanomic papers published in PLoS One meet the ICZN standards. Last year PLoS One published a paper describing a revision of several ant genera.

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001787

Cognizant of the ICZN standards, PLoS One ensured that print copies of the article were deposited in appropriate libraries. This was described explicitly in the paper.

In accordance with section 8.6 of the ICZN’s International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, we have deposited copies of this article at the following five publicly accessible libraries: Natural History Museum, London, UK; American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA; Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France; Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia; Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. The three new species names established herein have been prospectively registered in ZooBank [6]–[8], the official online registration system for the ICZN. The ZooBank publication LSID (Life Science Identifier) for the new species described herein can be viewed through any standard web browser by appending the LSID to the prefix “http://zoobank.org/”.

As various people have pointed out, this language not appear in the Darwinius paper. I’m no expert on ICZN standards, and have to say that I think the print requirement is out of date, but it would appear that the omission of this language alone would disqualify the paper as an official taxonomic description.

I don’t know whether this was an oversight, or whether efforts were simply not made by the authors to conform to ICZN standards. I’ll let you know what the people at PLoS say about whether copies were deposited.

Update #3: I just got a new comment from Peter Binfield, the managing editor of PLOS One

PLoS is aware of the problem with the ICZN not recognizing species names that are announced in online only journals. The issue specifically relates to us being online-only (which more and more journals will become in the future) and therefore not conforming to Sect 8.6 of their code (http://www.iczn.org/iczn/index.jsp?article=8&nfv=true ) which states:

“8.6.  Works produced after 1999 by a method that does not employ printing on paper. For a work produced after 1999 by a method other than printing on paper to be accepted as published within the meaning of the Code, it must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself.”

The issue comes down to what is meant by “the form in which is it published” for an online-only title and therefore whether or not there is any point to including the statement about 5 libraries until the ICZN has made a determination on the topic.

There has been a lot of debate at ICZN on this topic (specifically how any online only journal can meet their code) but to date there has been no resolution. As the largest online-only journal in the world, this is obviously important to us and so we have been in active discussion with the ICZN (for some time) as to how we can conform.

It is worth noting that all our content is archived in several industry standard locations – PubMedCentral and LOCKSS (http://www.lockss.org/lockss/Home – which deposits an archive copy of every paper in hundreds of libraries worldwide, all named at: http://www.lockss.org/lockss/Libraries ) are two important examples, and we are in the process of being archived at the Royal Dutch Library (as well as being stored on the hard drives of millions of readers, due to our Open Access nature).

We make it clear to authors that publishing in any online only journal (of which PLoS ONE is just one example) is a problem as regards the ICZN recognition of a new taxonomic descriptions. The authors of this paper were aware of this problem but chose to publish the paper with us regardless (as have the authors of several other taxonomic papers published by PLOS ONE). We have also advised the authors to register their name at Zoobank.

Obviously we hope that this issue will be resolved sooner rather than later and that all these names will be recognized retrospectively. In order to make this happen we are actively investigating potential solutions with the ICZN (and have been for many months). Once ICZN has made a determination then we will correct the paper to reflect the approved practice and wording.

Peter Binfield

I’ve put in a few emails to officials at ICZN for comment. I’ll get back with a response from them as soon as I get one.

Update #4: Ugh! Over at Why Evolution Is True, Greg Mayer rightly points out that Darwinius has been published in paper form already: in the newspapers that ran stories before the PLOS One paper was published. As early as May 10, the Daily Mail had a piece. I’m wondering if this has ever happened before, and have newspapers ended up being cited as the original publication for other species names?

Update #5: The ICZN Executive Secretary has given me the official word. Read here for the details.