Sunday, April 2, 2017

The taxonomic impediment as illustrated by journals' criteria for the acceptance of manuscripts

About two weeks ago I learned from a co-author, who in that case is the corresponding author, that a certain systematic botany journal would consider our manuscript unacceptable no matter how much we improved it simply because it was out of scope. You see, our work was only "revisionary", as in dealing with species delimitation, and it would have to be a phylogenetic study to be acceptable. A few thoughts:

I do understand why higher-profile systematics journals do not accept descriptions of taxonomic novelties that take a qualitative approach like "hey, that looks different to that other species", or papers that merely validate taxonomic changes based on evidence presented elsewhere. But I completely fail to understand what the problem is with papers that, as in our case, use integrative, quantitative analyses of morphological, genetic and environmental data to resolve difficult species complexes. I would love to understand how a phylogenetic study is more serious than that. The conservation impact is, for example, much higher in studies finding a previously unrecognised, rare species than in those that only change the circumscription of a genus.

The journal in question is TAXON. Think about it: a journal literally called "taxon" has decided to accept no more taxonomic studies going forward. No word on when Evolution will stop accepting studies dealing with evolutionary biology, or when Heredity will reject all manuscripts dealing with genetics.

Note also that TAXON is still the go-to journal for nomenclatural suggestions in botany. In the latest issue as of writing, for example, we find Brownsey & Perrie, "Proposal to conserve the name Asplenium richardii with a conserved type" and Dorr & Gulledge, "Request for a binding decision on whether Briquetastrum Robyns & Lebrun (Lamiaceae) and Briquetiastrum Bovini (Malvaceae) are sufficiently alike to be confused". Those papers are important and need a forum, and it is good that TAXON is that forum. But the same is true for revisionary studies, and I cannot help but feel that in terms of editorial policy accepting nomenclatural suggestions like these but not evidence-based revisionary studies is the equivalent of saying, "we don't serve alcohol to minors, but we make an exception if you are under six months old."

The general problem is that there are quite a few systematics journals that have made the same decision over the last few years. I have thought about what journals there are in my field, and I cannot at the moment think of one with an impact factor of more than approximately one that would still accept revisionary studies. Most of the options are local journals published by university or state herbaria, usually named after a 19th century taxonomist or a plant genus, that either do not have an IF or one that is around 0.3-0.7. As valuable as those outlets are for publishing new species or smaller taxonomic revisions they just do not seem to be the right venue and have the right audience for a two-year study using complex analyses of genomic data. Surely if we have molecular phylogenetics journals with IFs of 2 to 5 it should be possible to have journals in that range that publish what might be called molecular taxonomy? If not, why not?

If we do not have journals like that, if the only option for a researcher doing species delimitation with cutting edge, expensive methods is to publish in journals that a job or promotion committee might consider to be a liability to publish in, then it is no wonder that fewer and fewer people will be willing to figure out how many and what species there are on our planet, and that those who are willing to do it will find it hard to get a job in academia. That is known as the taxonomic impediment: There are still many species to be discovered before we are even in a position to know what we need to conserve, but the number of people, institutions and resources assigned to that task is dwindling.

Which brings me to the final point. A year and a half ago I wrote about a study published in Systematic Biology that claimed to have disproved (!) the citation impediment to taxonomy. The authors actually mentioned the non-acceptance of taxonomic papers by high impact journals as one of the arguments underlying the citation impediment, but then argued the latter does not exist. As I wrote at the time, my interpretation of their paper is that they reached their conclusion based on defining phylogenetic studies that happen to include a taxonomic act as taxonomic papers, and then comparing them against phylogenetic studies that do not include a taxonomic act. For example, they had the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society in their data, which at that moment had officially stopped accepting taxonomic papers for several years. In other words, the study's approach seems to have been the equivalent of examining discrimination against women by comparing men who grow a beard with men who do not grow a beard.

In the light of my recent experience, that paper now seems even more upsetting.

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