Friday, September 4, 2015

No citation impediment in taxonomy?

(Two little edits made 5 Sept 2015.)

Recently a colleague placed on our tea room table a copy of Steiner et al, A Falsification of the Citation Impediment in the Taxonomic Literature, available in advance access in the journal Systematic Biology.

I am among those who believe that yes, there is a citation impediment in taxonomy, so this is interesting. Unfortunately, I am not entirely convinced that this study shows what the title claims it shows, or at least that it addresses the real issues.

As mentioned, the title of the paper states that the citation impediment has been "falsified". However, this is a complex issue. The authors themselves summarise the claims in question as follows:

1. Although papers effectively refer to a taxonomic hypothesis whenever a taxon is mentioned, they are not required to cite the publication where that thypothesis was formulated.

2. "Taxonomy is a slow field." This is also true for e.g. mathematics, but I would add another observation. In most other fields of research, people build on others work, and are often especially keen on pushing on with a really hot topic that many others are currently publishing on. In taxonomy, it is pretty much the opposite. Once somebody has taxonomically monographed a genus, that genus is "done" for the next circa 50 years and nobody will touch it.

3. High impact journals do not accept taxonomic publications.

4. Taxonomic papers have a small audience. I actually disagree with this claim - lots of people use identification keys produced by taxonomists, only they rarely cite them.

5. Journals that accept taxonomic papers suffer from lower impact factors as a consequence.

6. Many taxonomic journals are not ranked in Web of Science and thus don't have an impact factor in the first place, and thus taxonomists get little credit for the relevant publications.

Now maybe I am missing something, but although they introduce all these claims Steiner et al do not actually appear to address #1, #2, #3, and #6 at all in their analyses. They compare what they consider taxonomic publications and non-taxonomic publications on five different groups of organisms in the same groups of journals and conclude that they can disprove #5 and thus also #4.

Well, one could say that that is an interesting finding in itself, but even here is another problem. I can't judge the animal groups so much, and I haven't seen the underlying data as such, but their table shows that for the plant groups they count as 'taxonomic' publications in some journals that officially do not accept purely taxonomic papers (e.g. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society). So it is quite possible that the study is essentially comparing molecular phylogenetic papers against molecular phylogenetic papers that happen to include a taxonomic act. But was that the question?

At least to me, it wasn't. The problem is that purely taxonomic papers, such as "three new species of tree ferns from Indonesia", do not get cited and recognised as much as they should, and for the reasons mentioned above.

And then there are all the other problems that the paper doesn't seem to address. In their conclusions, the authors encourage editors of high ranking journals to advertise for more submissions of 'taxonomic' papers, and they encourage taxonomists to submit to Web of Science ranked journals.

Okay. But how exactly will that help a taxonomist who contributes to, say, the Flora of South Australia? By definition, such a work is either a whole book series or a website, not a twelve page paper in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. And a book or website don't get into Web of Science. How exactly does the advice relate to publications like the taxonomic revision I did as part of my PhD? It came in at 74 pages and was published in a monograph series that isn't Web of Science ranked - because of course no high impact journal would have accepted such a long paper even if they were open to taxonomic revisions. And that was not even a particularly big genus.

So as far as I can see the problem remains, and it is unclear to me how the taxonomic impediment has been "falsified" unless the claim is merely that it is the taxonomists' own fault for doing the kind of work that, well, just happens to characterise taxonomy. The type of work, ironically, that may actually be most useful to the largest number of end users, for example those who consult floras or field guides to identify plants.

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