The Commission of this world, does not.
This is an important distinction, and lies at the heart of the matter I want to discuss. The Commission does not police names, it is solely an arbitrator of disputes. If the taxonomy of a particular paper is bad science, yet the names are otherwise available under The Code, it is not the place of the Commissioners to act upon it. That is, as things are now.
In the latest edition of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Commissioners Yanega and Harvey published a Call for Comments about "Taxonomic Practice and the Code". Before I dive into that, let's look at why we're talking about it in the first place.
Taxonomy has a history of people with an itch, an itch to name things. And not just a need to name things, but to have one's own name be associated with those things forever. It comes from the formal practice of writing the name of the author and the date of the publication after a scientific name. The term "mihi-itch" is sometimes used to describe this affliction, as mihi is Latin for "mine; of me" (see Neal Evenhuis 2008 paper for a full history of the term). And they will often let the ends justify the means (including bad taxonomy).
This is not new (cf. the bone wars of the 19th century for an extreme example), yet the recent explosion of journals and other easy routes of publication have enabled those with this "disorder". Furthermore, there's no requirement in The Code for science of any kind. The Code is "theory-free", it makes no comments on how to do taxonomy. In the introduction of the Fourth Edition, the late W.D.L. Ride writes, "The Code refrains from infringing upon taxonomic judgement, which must not be made subject to regulation or restraint." Nor is there a requirement in The Code that nomenclatural acts be peer reviewed, a relatively new academic invention. This hands-off attitude is important because, as arbitrators, the Commissioners must remain neutral in the cases they are hearing. The Code of Ethics in Appendix A states: '7. The observation of these principles is a matter for the proper feelings and conscience of individual zoologists, and the Commission is not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches of them.' All of this means that those with the mihi-itch do unwanted things that are outside the ability of the Commission to arbitrate upon.
The impetus for this particular discussion is a case submitted by Ramond Hoser of Australia. Hoser is a herpetologist who has become infamous in taxonomy for what Darren Naish calls "taxonomic vandalism", and what I have heard others call "taxonomic inflation", or even hyperbolize as "taxonomic terrorism". The method is simple: Produce publications with a large number of nomina nova in the hope that some of them will pay out and actually be valid. In his recent paper "The Taxon Filter", Hinrich Kaiser writes,
"...Hoser uses the Code as a ‘name-laundering scheme’: his mass-produced names go in and ‘clean’ names come out. The more names that are put through the system, the greater is the likelihood that some will by coincidence stand if science eventually produces supporting facts. None of these names have a rigorous scientific foundation..."
So, the overall quality of work is poor. However, as long as the new names follow the letter of the Code, the names are still available. And if a few of the names which satisfy availability end up being new to science, they're valid. In which case occurred when he happened to raise cobra (Najas) subgenera in a scoop of other taxonomists in his own self edited journal. In particular, his genus Spracklandus was valid, and not just as a potential classification scheme, but in the exact manner these other taxonomists were working to publish as subgenera. Needless to say, Wallach, Wüster, and Broadly were not please, and published their own revision of the subgenera later that year. The three authors named the subgenus Afronaja, and claimed the Hoser publication was not available under the code because it was not properly published. They write,
"Although Hoser claims the existence of a printed version of his journal, we have found evidence of only one single copy, deposited in the Australian National Library (ANL). [...] On 9 May 2009, one of us (VW) recieved printed copies of all the issues of the Australasian Journal of Herpetology. Unlike the ANL copy of Issue 7, all these issues are printed on one side only, and give the appearance of having been printed on demand at the same time: all have a pair of longitudinal white lines along the midline of the entire page: issue 1 has the lines spaced about 2 mm apart but all the other issues have the lines spaced 5 mm apart, suggesting that they were printed at the same time. These lines are not present in the ANL copy of Issue 7. All the issues received by us are bound by a single large staple in the upper, left hand corner. We conclude that the Australasian Journal of Herpetology is an online publication that fails to fulfill the requirements of Articles 8.1.3 and 8.6, any printed copies are printed on demand and therefore do not constitute published work under the provisions of Article 9.7, and the electronic versions available from Hoser's website are not published under the provisions of Article 9.8."
To make the rest of the story short, Hoser claimed the authors were frauds, saying, "the men chose not to look in the one place that the Zoological Rules said hard copies should be sent to, namely Zoological Record". (Which makes it seem like he isn't as familiar as he considers himself, since there is no provision in The Code requiring copies to be sent to the publication Zoological Record, only a recommendation.) People are now confused about which revision to use, and cobras are, as you might guess, medically important snakes. If the journal was published hardcopy, Spracklandus is available, and Afronaja is a junior objective synonym, and invalid. If the journal was not published hardcopy, "Spracklandus" is unavailable, and Afronaja is the valid name. All of this is the subject of Case 3601 Spracklandus Hoser, 2009.
And whatever decision comes out of that case is irrelevant to me. Before Mr. Hoser or any of his friends descend upon my blog like locusts to grain, I work on insects, not snakes, I have no stake in this. I don't care if the subgenus is named Afronaja or Spracklandus. Whatever the Commissioners decide is fine by me. I do find Hoser's journal atrocious and taxonomic methods (or lack thereof) appalling, but my opinion on that matter is powerless. Please leave me alone, I'm just a poor grad student.
What is relevant to me is that this case has prompted a Call for Comments by Commissioners Harvey and Yanega. This is a request for opinions from the greater community of taxonomists. The Commission receives open comments on all their cases, but this is a more general call; not about the Spracklandus case in particular, but about the historic and continued neutrality towards ethics and unwillingness to police the taxonomic community. They write,
"The question has been put before us, however, as to whether the desires of the community can compel a re-evaluation of the policy of neutrality; specifically, whether taxonomic freedom requires us to remain blind to ethical considerations, including a failure to adhere to proper standards of scientific conduct. Therefore, we seek guidance from the taxonomic community as to whether there is a perceived need for change, and we wish to solicit comments in order to ascertain a clearer picture of public opinion. We are, ultimately, at the service of the community, and if there is a consensus indicating that the community feels neutrality does not serve their needs, then we wish to be clear about it.
[...] Basically, what we seek to know is whether the taxonomic community wants to continue dealing with these issues at their own discretion, or whether they want the Commission to be empowered to do so (or something in between); we will not do so on our own initiative."
I love that, a perfect exposition of neutrality, and the unwillingness to wield power unless asked. The antithesis of politicians. They're asking us how they may best serve all of us. Go over and read all of it, it's short and sweet.
So. As stated above in the bold text, I'm just a lowly grad student. They're asking for comments, but I'm not confident enough to submit my opinion to the Commission on this matter. But if I were to submit a comment, maybe it would go something like this.
The long standing neutrality of the Commission is an important part of remaining above conflicts within the taxonomic community. A reduction in the sort of neutrality described in the Code of Ethics will mean the Commission has the possibility of becoming a 'political tool' rather than a body for impartial arbitration of conflicts. It will set a precedent in a system which is supposed to avoid making precedents. The Commissioners should continue to arbitrate only on cases brought to them, and only on conflicts covered under the Code, and should not seek out problems for which to "apply justice". Instead, taxonomists should band together in rejection of those who fail to uphold scientific ethics and good taxonomy.
I am a student, and I have little power. But, if I am worthy, I would hope someday to be selected to serve this community. If I am honored with that task, I would like be the sort of arbitrator described illustrated in the Call for Comments: impartial, restrained, and dedicated.