Taxonomic vandalism: Discovering new species is hard, but only if you’re a decent scientist
Taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms, is plagued by those who would ignore evidence to leave a legacy.
According to his website, Raymond Hoser is the world’s leading authority on reptiles. It’s a bold claim, but he certainly has a long list of achievements. Between January 2000 and September 2012, Hoser came up with 76% of new names for snake genera and subgenera.
Few biologists name even one taxon. How has Hoser, an amateur herpetologist, managed to achieve such an impressive feat 800 times?
Well, there’s a caveat — it’s only an impressive feat if you have scientific integrity.
The rules of taxonomy
Scientific nomenclature used to be an unstandardized mess. Not only were names unwieldly (take the common ground cherry, once known as Physalis amno ramosissime ramis angulosis glabris foliis dentoserratis), but multiple names often existed for the same thing. One man’s Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina was another man’s Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro.
In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus introduced a system of classification that was eventually adopted as a universal code. We sort species into a hierarchy of groupings, ranging from the kingdom (e.g. Animalia) down to the species (e.g. Felis catus, the domestic cat). Species are named according to binomial nomenclature— genus name, then specific name. We’re Homo sapiens, and our deceased cousins were Homo neanderthalensis.
To come up with new scientific names for animals, you need to follow the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). The ICZN lays out six principles. Predictably, we have the principle of binomial nomenclature and the principle of homonymy, which states that all names must be unique.
For reasons we’ll see later, the most troublesome rule is the principle of priority. The first name to appear in a publication wins.
Publication is meant to be the barrier that filters out dodgy taxa. You can’t group together a random set of animals or cleave a genus in two on a whim. You need solid evidence for your decisions, and you need to present your findings in an article worthy of publication in a scientific journal.
At least, that’s what the ICZN intends to say.
Raymond Hoser, the man who has named more species than Linnaeus himself, publishes his work in the Australasian Journal of Herpetology. It’s frowned upon to judge a book by its cover, but if this one gets no judgement from you, that’s a problem too.
Cunningly, Hoser has worked out that if you self-publish, you can make whatever claims you fancy, regardless of the quality of your evidence.
The ICZN makes no distinction between self-published and traditionally published work. It only states that numerous identical and durable copies of the publication must be made. The code was last updated in 1999, before self-publishing was a common practice.
“The AJH is not a journal in the scientific sense,” write Hinrich Kaiser and colleagues in Herpetological Review. “It is instead personally distributed by Hoser for unscientific purposes, and should therefore perhaps be best classified as advertising.”
Hoser claims the AJH’s articles are subject to “vigorous peer review”. However, I’ve skimmed his articles (yes, they’re all written by him, and him alone), and it’s hard to imagine how any of them could get past the infamously brutal peer review process. Approximately 40% of manuscripts are rejected following peer review. 21% don’t even make it to that stage.
Hoser’s papers aren’t written like any other scientific articles I’ve seen. Methodology sections are absent. Private emails are cited. He frequently diverges into incendiary attacks on his critics, or as he prefers to call them, “truth haters”. A group of scientists who failed to support his naming choices is referred to as a “gang of thieves”. A paper criticising his research appears in his reference list as follows:
Kaiser, H. 2012b. Point of view. Hate article sent as attachment with SPAM email sent out on 5 June 2012
In the eyes of the ICZN, it doesn’t matter whether the AJH is peer-reviewed. The code says as much about peer review as it does self-publishing.
The ICZN is, to some extent, lenient by design. Peer review isn’t always feasible for smaller journals, which nevertheless can and do publish excellent work. But peer review is valued for a reason. It safeguards the quality of the literature against work lacking in scientific rigour.
Speaking of work lacking in scientific rigour, let’s take a closer look at Hoser’s research methods.
Top five easiest ways to “discover” a taxon
In almost every case, the taxa Hoser identifies are not distinct, are not based on sufficient evidence or are simply not worthy of being named.
Here are some of Hoser’s favourite low-effort methods of finding new taxa to name:
Interpret minor differences as species divisions
In 2012, Hoser described the subspecies Pseudonaja textilis cliveevatti. He claimed P. t. cliveevatti could be distinguished from other Psuedonaja textilis by the darker tips on its dorsal scales — a superficial difference in colouring that does not warrant the designation of a subspecies.
Similarly, in 1998, Hoser claimed to have identified a new species of death adder called Acanthophis barnetti. A. barnetti, he said, could be distinguished from A. laevis due the absence of raised scales above the eye. But the difference he observed was merely an artifact of preservation. Hoser did not identify the difference between one species and another — he identified the difference between a dead snake and a living one.
Recycle your discoveries
In 2012, Hoser discovered a subspecies of python he named Leiopython albertisi barkerorum. Twelve years earlier, he had referred to the same python as L. a. barkeri. Meanwhile, Oxyuranus scutellatus andrewwilsoni, which Hoser apparently discovered in 2009, is identical to a snake he described in 2002, O. s. barringeri.
Steal other people’s work
This is a big one. According to Denzer and colleagues, up to 80% of Hoser’s diagnoses and other text might be copied word-for-word from other sources. The authors found that in some places, as much as half a page of text was copied in full. On several occasions, the original sources were uncited.
Hoser’s work wouldn’t get through a plagiarism check in high school, never mind a peer review.
A clade is a group of organisms that represents all descendants of an evolutionary ancestor. In a practice known as clade harvesting, an author simply slaps a name on someone else’s published clade without generating their own data.
Often, the reason nobody has bothered to name the clade before is that there’s simply no use in doing so. But people like Hoser don’t care whether this is the case — they simply see low-hanging fruit waiting to be picked. Take Hoser’s division of Natrix (Eurasian grass snakes) into Natrix, Jackyhosernatrix, and Guystebbinsus, based on a phylogenetic study by Pyron and colleagues.
Just make things up
Sometimes, Hoser simply fabricates scientific evidence. Let’s look at Oxyuranus scutellatus adelynhoserae. In taxonomy, a “holotype” is a specimen that a researcher chooses to represent a species. In Hoser’s description of O. s. adelynhoserae, the snake’s body colour is based on a holotype that’s just a head.
Are Hoser’s names valid?
In the 1990s, herpetologists suspected there were at least twice as many death adders than had been recognised. Ken Aplin, a museum curator, had been collecting data for years to prove this supposition. However, before Aplin’s findings could be published, Hoser swooped in and described five new species of death adder.
Despite Aplin’s diligent research and the fact that Hoser’s work was published in a hobbyist magazine Hoser himself edited, those five names took precedence due to the principle of priority.
Taxonomy can be messy. Scientists will always disagree about where to draw lines between different taxa. (Ask two paleoanthropologists how many hominids there are, I dare you.) But Hoser’s work adds nothing but noise to such debates. Hoser has no interest in advancing our understanding of reptiles. The sole aim of his research is to game the ICZN as much as possible.
Although most herpetologists— for good reason — prefer to ignore Hoser’s names, by the rules of the ICZN, his names are very much official.
“The commission does not like to get involved in subjective taxonomy,” says Andrew Polaszek, an executive secretary for the ICZN. In the event of a dispute, the commission will only assess whether a scientific name is code-compliant.
The code doesn’t question whether taxa are named according to due scientific process. It considers little but the principle of priority. The ICZN is the primary school teacher you fetch when a classmate claims your misplaced belongings, who shrugs and says, “Finders, keepers.”
However, Hoser’s critics have pointed out that some of his descriptions may not have been code-compliant after all.
The genus name Spracklandus was originally published in the seventh issue of the AJH. Hoser claims that “numerous identical and durable copies” were produced, as per the ICZN. But his nemesis Hinrich Kaiser makes a compelling case for the seventh issue having been printed out at home and hand-stapled.
Hoser isn’t the only name-hoarder out there. He isn’t even the only name-hoarder among Australian herpetologists.
Richard Wells was editor of his very own AJH — the Australian Journal of Herpetology — in the 1980s. In one article titled “A Synopsis of the Class Reptilia in Australia”, Wells and his collaborator Cliff Ross Wellington established 214 reptile species. They accomplished this by either elevating subspecies to species, or by resurrecting synonyms. Two more articles of a similar nature were published.
David Williams and colleagues write:
Strong arguments for the suppression of all three papers were published broadly by a total of at least 91 authors, with the usual professional decorum being notable by its absence in some of the attacks upon Wells and Wellington.
As an example of this lapse in professional decorum, Philippe Bouchet and colleagues wondered if Wells and Wellington ought to be “physically eliminated using an ice pick”.
As with Hoser, the Wells and Wellington names were perfectly valid under the ICZN, despite the strength of the taxonomic arguments against them. And as with Hoser, the ICZN declined to rule on the case.
Since “the Wells and Wellington affair”, herpetologists have desperately tried to fix the pair’s damage. In 1999, Glenn Shea and Ross Sadlier synonymised 60 of the proposed species.
In the world of entomology, we have Dewanand Makhan, who set up the journal (Calodema) in 2006. While Hoser, Wells and Wellington at least know a fair bit about reptiles, Makhan mistakes worker ants for queens. His photographs of new ant species are either too grainy to be useful, or depict ants that have already been described.
When challenged on the quality of his work, Makhan responded with a defence that makes Hoser’s polemics look civil:
It seems that a lot of you are simply jealous that Dr Makhan didn’t name any new species after yourselves. Science is a really dirty evil set up controlled by people who took their lessons from Adolf and Joseph. Calodema is a journal which will “keep the bastards honest” because there is so much dishonesty and corruption in science, most of it coming from the USA and Germany.
The obsession with naming species is a well-known and long-standing phenomenon. It’s gone by many names over the years: mihi itch, nominomania and — my personal favourite — nomenclatural nihilism. But the most popular term nowadays is taxonomic vandalism.
What drives people to commit taxonomic vandalism? The same thing that keeps Name a star! companies in business. We love to feel important.
See if you can spot the subtle theme in some of Hoser’s names:
While you’re allowed to name a species after yourself, it’s considered gauche, and few biologists have the audacity. Even the ICZN’s FAQ section warns that it may be a sign of vanity. Hoser isn’t above simply calling a python Leiopython hoserae, but when he’s feeling modest, he opts to name taxa after family members instead. Shared surname included, of course.
Regardless of your stance on taxonomic etiquette, Hoser’s names are exceptionally clunky. Try saying Katrinahosertyphlopini at a conference with a straight face.
Ego has blighted taxonomy since at least the Victorian era. In 1862, entomologist Ernst Gustav Kraatz wrote:
[Are we fulfilling a duty towards science, [a subject] that [Mr von Motschulsky] abuses for the satisfaction of his unlimited author vanity and ego addiction, if we conscientiously pick the few grains out of the chaff that is M.’s [taxonomic] work, interpret his species and genera, only to then be abused by him for doing so, or do we fulfil a duty towards ourselves by letting him print in his Etudes whatever he wants for his private pleasure, and keep the entomological society journals free of his works, because we have recognized their true value?]
The problem with taxonomic vandalism
Taxonomic vandals create clutter for more honourable scientists to sweep up. Fabricating a species in your self-published journal is easy. Getting an evidence-based rebuttal into a peer-reviewed publication is tougher.
We don’t name species to immortalise scientists. We name species for the same reason we name anything — to establish clear communication. The whole point of scientific names, of calling a creature Mus musculus instead of a mouse, is to create a universal labelling system.
Flooding taxonomy with dubious labels makes it harder to retrieve information, complicates the creation of biodiversity checklists and generally spoils the field’s reputation.
Furthermore, if you know clade harvesters are circling you like vultures, you’ll be less inclined to publish your phylogenies in fear of having your descriptions scooped. It’s a loss for your career and a loss for science.
Taxonomic vandals frustrate the progress of scientific knowledge in service of self-aggrandizement. But the core problem isn’t with unscrupulous individuals like Raymond Hoser or Richard Wells — the problem is with the system.
The ICZN is long overdue for a revision. There are more important principles to abide by than the principle of priority. The code was written for a different time, where self-publication wasn’t so easy, and a different world, where names aren’t mistaken for trophies.