Almost 5 years ago, BioMed Central was alerted by entomologist and open access enthusiast Donat Agosti to the peculiar situation whereby, in order for a published description of an animal species to be definitive in terms of taxonomic naming, it needs to comply with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Unfortunately, the status of electronic publications within the Code was (and is) not clearly defined. At one point, the Code indicates that in order for a non-paper publication to "count" for taxonomic naming purposes, it must contain a statement listing five major publicly-accessible libraries
in which copies of the work have been deposited. However, this appears to be contradicted by a later statement in the Code that publication via the "World Wide Web" never counts as publication within the meaning of the Code.
Confusion reigns, and with online-only journals playing an increasingly central role in the communication of science, this situation is problematic to say the least. BMC Evolutionary Biology and Frontiers in Zoology are two examples of BioMed Central journals that are among the most highly-cited in their fields and which have to deal with this issue. More recently, PLoS One has also been affected.
The difficulties involved in publishing species descriptions in online open access journals are ironic, given that the closed-access traditional publishing model causes even more problems for taxonomists than for other researchers. Because species are defined by the articles which first describe them, taxonomic work often depends crucially on access to previously published articles, and copyright restrictions on use present a major problem for taxonomic databases, to which open access publication is the natural solution.
For the last several years, BioMed Central has sought to encourage the International Council of Zoological Nomenclature to review the Code and to update it to reflect current publication practices. It has taken a while , but excitingly, change does now seem to be afoot. A Statement on Validity
& Electronic Publication appeared earlier this month on the ICZN website, which acknowledges the need for change and notes that work is underway to prepare a suitable amendment to the Code.
" […] the Commission recognises that peer-reviewed, high-quality scientific
journals with electronic-only versions and digital archiving are
becoming increasingly common and desirable places to publish. We
are currently working on Code amendments to enable the validity of
nomenclatural acts published in such journals."
Good news for taxonomists and open access enthusiasts everywhere!