Letter re GLOVAP from ASPT Leadership to Society

Dear ASPT members, colleagues and friends: 

 In February of this year, a controversial, self-published and apparently non-peer reviewed manuscript appeared online, proposing an unprecedented number of taxonomic changes for vascular plants (3286 new combinations, 415 new species names, and 4 species and 2 genera new to science). This publication, The Global Flora Special Edition, GLOVAP Nomenclature Part 1: Vol. 4 (hereafter abbreviated GLOVAP), published by Plant Gateway Ltd., has resulted in a lot of conversation – via email, Facebook, twitter, and even old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face encounters – from members of the global community of plant systematists and taxonomists, many of you included. The overarching concern is that GLOVAP is a fundamental deviation from the way that we as a scientific community conduct our research, collaborate and respect each other as colleagues, and publish our results through a peer-review process. This in turn reflects a potential shift in how we provide the foundation for communication about biodiversity, embodied in taxonomic names and classification.

As the ASPT leadership, we aim here to summarize concerns raised by our scientific community and reiterate accepted norms of taxonomic practice. We hope that such an effort will help raise awareness of the existing integrity and collaborative spirit of our research field, and support efforts to ensure that these are promoted and maintained through future research-based taxonomic publications – from this team of authors and from others. This event has given us the opportunity to affirm, clarify, and uphold our values as individual researchers and as a scientific society with a mission to enhance collaboration and promote excellence. We encourage you, as ASPT members and/or researchers in this field, to join the debate and provide your valued insights.

The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) formalizes the steps to be taken to make a nomenclatural innovation valid for use by the global scientific community. However, just as important, our research community has a social code - to some extent unwritten - that guides ethical research practices.  There are several precepts regarding taxonomic practice in particular that we feel are of critical importance:  

  1. Taxonomy is research. Although taxonomists do have opinions about nomenclature, those opinions are tested as hypotheses before they are codified with new names. Scientific advances, not untested opinions, should lead to codification of scientific names.  This is required to maintain our standing as a valid and vibrant scientific discipline.
  2. Taxonomic science can be slow and it can give ambiguous results, yet nomenclatural changes require a strong preponderance of evidence. Many groups, even after years of study, remain in a state of phylogenetic uncertainty due to common issues like limited taxon sampling or insufficient data. Proposed taxonomic changes that are based upon poorly supported or conflicting phylogenetic results are potentially wrong; therefore, experts continue their work until a high degree of confidence is achieved, through additional data collection or analysis, prior to altering nomenclature and classification. This is why authors of phylogenetic studies often refrain from proposing nomenclatural changes until corroborating evidence is obtained. This level of rigor is required to ensure scientific merit and provide taxonomic stability, enhancing the “buy in” from the consumers of taxonomy, including industry and governmental agencies.
  3. The botanical community is close-knit and collegial; it is easy to be aware of which taxonomic groups are under study, and by whom, and which are in need of revision.  We converse with colleagues and identify areas where students can best showcase their efforts. Though competition can be healthy for advancing taxonomic research, we strive to minimize overlap, competition, and ‘stealing thunder’ from our mentees, junior colleagues, and colleagues with poorer access to infrastructure.  As such, inter-institutional collaboration, not competition, is the norm in our community.  We avoid initiating projects in areas where we know there is ongoing work that is nearing completion, recognizing that good science and especially long-lasting, stable taxonomy takes time to do correctly. This is important for the continued growth of our community, and to ensure that taxonomic changes are the outcome of a well-supported scientific study.
  4. We publish results that provide the basis for taxonomic changes, and these are reviewed by peers.  Though the ICN does not require nomenclatural innovations to be made in a peer-reviewed journal, ideally the science that underlies these changes should be peer-reviewed. In addition, nomenclatural changes are made in collaboration with, if not directly by, researchers doing the peer-reviewed science, especially with increased accessibility to specimens and literature through digitization. This is important to ensure a link between nomenclatural changes and rigorous scientific research.
  5. We actively and enthusiastically train the next generation of researchers. We make sure that credit is given where credit is due for the contributions of students and junior scientists and protect them from opportunistic ‘collaborators’ and predatory journals. This is important to grow our discipline, build our community of future collaborators, and demonstrate the importance of our research and training to our institutions.
  6. Massive renaming following a ‘mechanical approach’ (as opposed to one based on new data and new results with a scholarly integration of all available evidence) breeds skepticism. By ‘mechanical approach’ we mean skimming the recent phylogenetic literature for suggestive results and translating them en masse into new names or combinations. This approach can result in chaos, especially when the data do not strongly support the revised taxonomy, and it can result in credit and recognition being appropriated from those who have generated the data and performed and interpreted the underlying analyses. 

With these principles stated, we can ask how any particular publication, in this case the GLOVAP effort, measures up. 

The current ICN (Melbourne Code 2012) allows, for the first time, online-only publication of new taxonomic names. Importantly, the ICN does not require that the science supporting the new nomenclature be subject to peer review. As we all know, peer review provides feedback, corrections, and suggestions for improvement from experts in the field prior to publication. The GLOVAP authors themselves have been involved in significant peer-reviewed publications. The GLOVAP article, however, was apparently published without peer-review by the for-profit company Plant Gateway Ltd, a botanical consultancy owned by two of the authors. It takes advantage of less rigorous publishing standards than many would accept for scientific articles. Many errors and omissions, inadvertent or not, are often caught during the peer review of taxonomic treatments to be published in journals, books, or similar works. The rigor of peer review is responsible, in part, not only for the pace of scientific progress, but the confidence that society places in science. It has been the norm for many years in the taxonomic community to take advantage of our peers’ expertise to ensure that our work is rigorous and justified. 

The publication of thousands of new names, mostly involving new combinations placing existing species into different genera, is indicative of the authors’ desire to quickly make botanical names available for use in a global checklist. They appear to realize that many of these names may quickly become redundant or obsolete (Page 1, “We apologize for discrepancies and unintentional superfluous names…”). While their circumscription of genera need not be followed by the taxonomic community, every new name published must be enumerated in subsequent publications, even if erroneous or treated as a synonym, and publication of new names should therefore be limited to necessary ones. Many in our community have had to contend with similar large-scale nomenclatural changes that have led to confusion and months of work to remediate taxonomic tangles, resulting in a lack of clarity when attempting to communicate about the history of the impacted lineages. Due to its scale and the use of secondary rather than primary data for nomenclatural decisions, the effort by GLOVAP has the potential to introduce discrepancies that will require fixing, a task that will ultimately fall to the specialists.

There are serious allegations from many sources that the work of a number of researchers has been “scooped” in the GLOVAP publication. The flurry of resulting communications includes examples from a number of taxonomic groups for which researchers, ranging from graduate students or other young investigators to long-term specialists, are actively in the process of compiling the detailed evidence needed to evaluate taxonomic changes.  If indeed specialists were not contacted by the GLOVAP authors to invite collaboration, or at least made aware of the impending publication to provide critical commentary, this would be contrary to accepted practice in our community.  Because the legitimacy of names is based on the principle of priority, authorship of the new names now belongs to the GLOVAP authors and not to the taxonomic specialists on whose research the changes were based, and whose opportunities for proposing revised nomenclature and publishing taxonomic decisions have now been curtailed.  

The GLOVAP nomenclature impacts many taxonomic groups of vascular plants. The GLOVAP authors have expertise for some of the groups treated; for others, they invited co-authors (five are listed). Yet for many of the included taxonomic groups we have heard complaints that experts with active research in these areas were completely unaware of this publication before it appeared online.  Notwithstanding the behavior of a very few exceptions throughout history, the botanical community has long maintained the ethical position that scientists do not publish new nomenclature based on the work of others without due diligence to work collaboratively. This is a norm of ethical conduct practiced across scientific disciplines, though it is not required by the ICN.  As part of the botanical research community we often feel pride over the collaborative spirit and helpfulness we promote and see in action across borders, continents, taxonomic groups, and age and gender differences. We share the concerns of our community that GLOVAP represents neither good scientific practice, nor respect for taxonomic expertise and efforts by colleagues in the field of plant taxonomy. 
  
The online GLOVAP publication additionally highlights the risks associated with the manifold efforts in recent years to dramatically improve access to biological data, increase the diversity of the scientific community, and level the scientific playing field for developing and developed nations. Digitization and electronic portals to scientific collections have made herbaria and other collections interactive and accessible to people from any part of the world, fostering a dramatic increase in the diversity and effectiveness of taxonomic research.  But this new frontier in accessibility creates a vulnerability by enabling massive nomenclatural efforts by one or a few researchers, capitalizing on the work of many dozens of others who were excluded from the publication or from ultimately publishing the nomenclatural changes they had worked hard to define. The alleged lack of advance communication to researchers actively working on taxa included in the GLOVAP publication and the heavy reliance on digitized resources for nomenclatural changes, rather than primary data for taxonomic study, have caused concern among a community that has vociferously supported open access and global inclusivity, with the expectation that new, valued tools will be used ethically to positively influence the ways in which we collaborate, communicate and ultimately ask and answer scientific questions. 

Finally, GLOVAP is problematic beyond the community of taxonomists because of the potential impact on the names of well-known and economically important species (e.g. the apple, Malus domesticus). Widely used names, particularly for model or crop organisms, are only reluctantly changed in order to maintain continuity across scientific fields and between science and policy. For groups in which changing the nomenclature would result in alterations to massive numbers of literature entries, databases, and/or policy-based doctrines and documents, new combinations have been avoided (e.g. Drosophila melanogaster) or made only with considerable discussion across large communities of researchers. When action is taken by a few, without rigor and discussion (e.g. Aedes and mosquito taxonomy), the community is forced to debate validity of the nomenclature and redirect taxonomic progress rather than addressing important and innovative scientific initiatives. Such a demonstrable lack of solidarity among taxonomists can result in loss of confidence and unfortunate negative perceptions from those outside our field.

Anyone with expertise in nomenclature can fulfill the requirements of the ICN to provide new nomenclatural combinations for literally every named species of plant. Even if species were randomly assigned to genera, by chance a few would be supported by future research and would pre-empt the nomenclatural work of active and future plant taxonomists. Of course, GLOVAP was not produced randomly; it was based on interpretations of a wide body of scientific evidence. However, GLOVAP was not produced in the spirit of collaborative science cherished by our community. Reflecting on the history of our field, efforts of comparable scope to “fix” the nomenclature of massive numbers of species in diverse clades are generally viewed unfavorably by the taxonomic community for the reasons we have outlined above. Our community standards prescribe the ways in which new taxonomy is published, not the ICN. Our standards have long supported collaborative, open research and fostered the recruitment and professional development of skilled taxonomists.  We urge the community to redouble its efforts to maintain these standards. 
 

Chelsea Specht, President
Mark Fishbein, President-Elect
Jeff Doyle, Past President
Lena Struwe, Chair, Publications Committee

Co-signees: 

Harvey Ballard, Program Director
Shawn Krosnick, ASPT Council
Kavid Keil, Editor-in-Chief, Systematic Botany Monographs
George Yatskievych, ASPT Council
Austin Mast, Treasurer
Craig Barrett, Chair, Promotional Materials Committee
Thomas Stoughton, Communications Coordinator
Stefanie Ickert-Bond, ASPT Council
Ingrid Jordan-Thaden, Chair, Environmental and Public Policy Committee
James Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Systematic Botany
Chris Martine, Chair, Public Relations Committee
Barbara Thiers, Chair, Systematics Collection Committee

 

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