Sunday, June 18, 2017

To publish or not to publish (locality information for rare species)

This week our journal club discussed Lindenmayer & Scheele, Do not publish (Science 356(6340): 800-801). While acknowledging the trade-offs involved, the paper argues for researchers, journals and data providers to self-censor locality information for rare species to keep them safe.

The problem, in short, is that some rare species are highly valued by professional poachers and private collectors, and they may in short order wipe out a rare species if they know where to find it. The article itself mentions a rare Chinese gecko; participants in our discussion provided other astonishing examples from various parts of the planet. It did not surprise me to learn that there are people digging up cycads to sell them to wealthy home-owners who want to adorn their front gardens, but I was definitely surprised to learn that rare beetles are traded for hundreds of dollars apiece by a demented subculture of beetle enthusiasts.

Nobody really disagreed with the sentiment of the article per se, but obviously people immediately raised scenarios where making the data available actually helped conservation. A particular concern is that it has to be known that a rare species exists in a spot when there is a development proposal; what is the use of keeping the information safe from poachers only to have an open-cut mine wipe out the species?

A comparison was made with medical data. While biodiversity researchers are used to having all data openly available, the medical research community has long had strict procedures for keeping safe medical information of individual people, but they still manage to do research. In other words, biodiversity science should not suffer from more restricted access to locality information if the right procedures are adopted. That being said, some raised the concern that this would simply add another layer of bureaucracy to a field already burdened with often unreasonable procedures around collecting permits and specimen exchange.

What the article and our discussion were mostly about are specimen data typed off the specimen labels and made available through databases such as GBIF or Australia's ALA. The idea would then be to have those data providers make the locality descriptions and GPS coordinates just fuzzy enough that nobody can find the exact spot where a species was seen or collected, while still providing that information to legitimate and trusted researchers. What should not be overlooked, however, is that currently a major push is underway to photograph the actual specimens and make those photos available online. Has anybody thought about systematically blurring out such locality information for rare species on the photographed labels? Not sure I have ever heard that discussed before.

Finally, there was some agreement that it would be good to have a global policy recommendation on this instead of leaving it up to individuals to self-censor without guidelines. Given that there are working groups agreeing on data formats etc. it should surely be possible to find agreement on this problem.

An off-topic excurs on hobgoblins

In this context it was interesting that somebody said, "consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds", a phrase that I have run into before. Of course, the idea here was that while a rule or recommendation is nice to have, people will still have to weigh trade-offs, and even if the recommendation would be to generally blur the data one may in some cases need to publish it (see a few paragraphs earlier).

And yes, I see where that is coming from. The fundamentalist wants a clear rule and apply it blindly, whether it makes sense or not; the intellectually mature realise that rules were introduced to achieve a good, and if applying the rule hurts that very same good then one should not apply the rule.

But still throwing a phrase like that around makes me a bit uncomfortable. In most cases consistency is important. When we are talking rules it should be clear that consistency is usually just another word for fairness. People who want to apply rules inconsistently would have to provide a very good reason for why they should not simply be seen as trying to get away with something that they would not let others get away with.

When we are talking argumentation, discussion and logic, intellectual consistency is the very first hurdle somebody has to clear to be taken seriously, and only then is it worth the investment to look into whether they have evidence on their side or not. People who are proud of being inconsistent in this sense (because it makes them Not Small Minds, you see) would have to explain carefully how they are not simply somewhere on the spectrum from slightly confused to totally insane, or alternatively on the spectrum from obfuscating the issue to gaslighting their conversation partner.


  1. Actually I said "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds"... I think the "foolish" qualifier is of paramount importance, because like you say in most cases consistency IS important.

    Going off on a tangent, I didn't realise before today that the quote is from Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance". A couple of years ago I tried to read Emerson's memoir "Walden", and found the book so frustratingly pretentious I nearly through it out the window in the style of "Silver Linings Playbook".

    1. Well, the reason I wrote this is that the only time I have seen that one used before was to defend an illogical stance; as I wrote, the context you used it in is one in which it actually makes sense!