Taxonomy has historically been relegated to the back alleys of the publishing world. In-house museum journals, obscure regional or specialty publications and even more obscure foreign language academy reports have hidden many species descriptions, revisions and monographs from the eyes of interested biologists. Not to say this is the only reason for current crisis in taxonomy (see Rodman & Cody 2003), but it certainly contributes. The hard work and insurmountable dedication of the taxonomist to furthering their group of interest should be rewarded and not locked away for the other 5 people in the world working on that genus of organism. Ecologists rely on species descriptions to compare the fauna they find in their studies with the published literature. The imperative nature of correct identifications of species cannot be understated in the medical, infectious disease, and parasitology literature. Without a doubt, quality taxonomic research is invaluable, in high demand and highly underappreciated by funding agencies and other scientists, even those who rely on such work (PEET not withstanding)
The lack of visibility of taxonomic research and the failure to make systematics as a whole relevant to the everyday lives of people has been a burden on the community. Much of the work is tedious yet vital to biodiversity studies, medicine and biotechnology.
IrregardlessIrrespective of how one chooses to define a species, the species debate, the issue of perception is pervasive in this field. Many taxonomists are made to feel inferior to their colleagues doing experimental work who bring in much larger grants. The truth of the matter is that taxonomy is not a profitable venture for academic institutions why rely in part on the money they skim off of grants. It is a traditionally an inexpensive field, even with the use of molecular tools to aid in phylogenetic reconstructions. You can easily get by with a microscope, computer and digital camera. DNA extractions are relatively inexpensive and you can send the DNA product off to get analyzed elsewhere affordably, not needing to purchase expensive sequencing equipment.
Taxonomists need to improve the visibility and relevance of the field to ensure a continued, or at the least renewed, interest for the study of species, either from a theoretical, philosophical or practical framework. One way to contribute to increasing the visibility of taxonomic research is to publish in Open Access (OA). Several studies have shown there to be a citation advantage in OA papers (Eysenbach 2006). Zootaxa has taken the initiative in the taxonomy world by offering to publish any peer-reviewed taxonomic work free of charge for subscriber access and $20/page for OA. Other taxonomic "niche" journals exist with various financial differences, but have yet to attain the reputation of Zootaxa to my knowledge. But it is my own feeling that Zootaxa is only known well among other taxonomists, with the majority of other beneficiaries either unable to obtain articles because the bulk of the articles are locked behind the subscriber wall. This also has the effect of making less text available for search engines, such as Google Scholar.
"Authors have a responsibility to ensure that new scientific names, nomenclatural acts, and information likely to affect nomenclature are made widely known. This responsibility is most easily discharged by publication in appropriate scientific journals or well-known monographic series and by ensuring that new names proposed by them are entered into the Zoological Record."
Why would a taxonomist want to reach non-taxonomic areas of science? Citations are low in taxonomy. Species descriptions are read, the names are used in many publications, hopefully with author and year, but somehow the paper describing said species remains out of the list of references. This means indexing services like PubMed and Web of Science miss the uncited species descriptions in the tangled web of cross-reference. For example, Drosophila melanogaster Meigen, 1830, should be the most cited paper in recorded history due to the amount of work on this model organism. So what of biodiversity studies with hundreds of species? This does pose a problem. Nowadays, there is supplementary online material and the citations could be referred there so long as they are properly indexed and the gods who fiddle around with such productivity metrics recognize these citations.
Another argument to get your work widely read is that universities aren't appearing to hire people to do basic taxonomy anymore. They need another hook, perhaps molecular evolution or ecology. Even museums are tending to hire individuals with outside specialties. I'm not sure where the future of taxonomy may lie, but larger questions need to be addressed than just what is out there. Taxonomic research helps in many areas of biological science. The more people that know of your work, the more opportunities may be to collaborate on new projects with different directions, making you a more viable applicant. Besides who wants to invest so much into something only to see it hidden away forever?
Are there any barriers to publishing a species description with PLoS? Yes, Chapter 3 of the Code, Article 8.6 states:
"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."So species names published in an electronic format are only valid if depositions of the article in question are made at a minimum 5 public institutions. These can be public, university and museum libraries. This barrier is easily overcome if PLoS makes it easy on the authors by forging an agreement 5 institutions to deposit papers in their collections. I would recommend the Smithsonian, the Field Museum and any 3 universities in the U.S. The authors can even archive a paper in their own university's or museum's libraries. Conveniently, PLoS does offer itself in print version for those interested in deforestation.
Another barrier is the high cost of OA publishing. Currently, PLoS ONE charges $1250 for a research article, though they do offer fee waivers to authors who cannot the steep price. For the average working taxonomist, the price would need to drop to at most $600. This is a price I was quoted for a small american journal for a 20 something page description of a new shrimp with COI phylogeny. It was actually twice that, but I can some page charges waived for being a society member. My coauthor and I were shocked when we received the estimate. For almost the same price I could have published OA somewhere else. The costs are especially prohibitive to taxonomists from the developing world. Many of them have done a superb job and picked up the slack after north american taxonomy slipped away because of poor funding. Yet their funds are even less than ours in most cases.
In conclusion, OA publishing offers taxonomists higher visibility, potentially higher citations and a broader readership. The barriers to electronic publishing can be easily overcome with a little initial work. PLoS is the leader in OA publishing and has a strong reputation to maintain among the non-OA or hybrid journals that exist out there, thus the quality of research coming from PLoS journals is high. In particular PLoS ONE, offers several features attractive to taxonomists and idealistic scientists like myself. Their system allows any user to annotate, comment and respond to articles becoming a part of the permanent record of that article. This post-review system allows articles to become a conversation. If another taxonomist were to discover a new character 10 years after the publication of a species name, they could go that article and make an annotation or comment on that article that could then be considered by all other readers. Taxonomists have little to lose and everything to gain by publishing with PLoS and choosing OA.
Meigen, J.W. (1830) Systematische Beschreibung der bekannten europäischen zweiflügeligenInsekten, Bd. 6. F.W. Forstmann, Aachen.