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Are author names really necessary?

Although there are standards for abbreviation of author names (notably Brummitt in botany) these are not always followed and often embellished. Furthermore it is believed that the added nomenclatural precision author names add is not worth the cost of their inclusion. If author names were included then every variation of authority string would result in a new URI implying the existence of a new taxon. This would defeat the principle goal of speciesindex.org – to get people using the same URIs for the same things. Homonyms are rare it is even rarer that they cause problems outside of taxonomy and nomenclature.
Consider the following classification of confidence limits from International Panel on Climate Change (taken from here)
virtually certain – more than 99%
extremely likely – more than 95%
very likely – more than 90%
likely – more than 60%
more likely than not – more than 50%
unlikely – less than 33%
very unlikely – less than 10%
extremely unlikely – less than 5%
Now consider the estimate in Paton et al (2008) Taxon 57:602-611 that 4.1% of plant names have homonyms i.e. it is “extremely unlikely” that any one name is a homonym. Also consider the following list of kinds of homonyms:
Nomenclatural Artefacts These occur where the same taxon is published multiple times. Perhaps the same publication comes out in two languages or is published a second time with a slightly different title and set of authors. For all intent and purposes these do not matter as the names are intended to refer to the same taxon.
Competitive Publication New material is found. Two authors publish accounts based on it using the same names. The taxa are substantively the same.
Quickly Synonymised. An author publishes new species only for someone to quickly realise that this is a homonym and publish the fact. Subsequent publications place it in synonymy and it is never widely used. The name in circulation will almost always refer to the correct taxon but the homonym will be kept in circulation due to always being mentioned as being a homonym in monographs, floras and faunas. Modern indexing will exasperate this situation.
Back From The Dead Everyone is happy using a junior (or later) homonym without knowing it when a taxonomist finds a publication containing the senior (earlier) homonym and overturns the nomenclatural apple cart. The rules of nomenclature say that the taxon now needs a new name even if the senior homonym is not currently the name of an accepted taxon. There is a case for nomenclatural conservation of the junior homonym or rejecting the senior homonym. Either way the original usage of the name is the most common.
Problematic Homonyms The same name string is widely used for multiple taxon concepts. This is rarer in terms of nomenclatural homonyms (where different names have actually been published) than it is where authors have simply used the same name in different senses (taxon concepts and/or misapplied names). This is particularly common with European names being used for the “wrong” taxa in the New World. Author strings are of no help here as the nomenclature is correct only the usage incorrect. A full-blown taxon concept based approach is needed to handle these situations.
Speciesindex.org takes the premise that names specified to nomenclatural code, rank, spelling and, in the case of zoological names, year are “virtually certain” to be referring to the same general taxon.

It is customary for scientists to cite the author of a scientific name whenever that name is used. Indeed it is considered grossly amateurish in some circles to omit such details. This causes problems because, although there are standards for abbreviation of author names (notably Brummitt in botany), these are not always followed and often embellished. This means that the entire string of name characters is never guaranteed to be unique. To a machine every variation of authority string would results in a new combination of characters and implies the existence of a new taxon

What if we just stopped using author strings (other than in monographs) and ignore them when other people use them?

The added nomenclatural precision author names bring is not worth the cost of their inclusion. Homonyms, where two taxa have the same name string excluding the author string are rare especially if, in zoology, we still include the year of publication of the name.  It is even rarer that homonyms cause problems outside of taxonomy and nomenclature.

Consider the following classification of confidence limits from International Panel on Climate Change (taken from here)

  • virtually certain – more than 99%
  • extremely likely – more than 95%
  • very likely – more than 90%
  • likely – more than 60%
  • more likely than not – more than 50%
  • unlikely – less than 33%
  • very unlikely – less than 10%
  • extremely unlikely – less than 5%

Now consider the estimate in Paton et al (2008) – Taxon 57:602-611 – that 4.1% of plant names have homonyms i.e. it is “extremely unlikely” that any one name is a homonym. Also consider the following list of kinds of homonyms I just made up:

  • Nomenclatural Artefacts These occur where the same taxon is published multiple times. Perhaps the same publication comes out in two languages or is published a second time with a slightly different title and set of authors. For all intent and purposes these do not matter as the names are intended to refer to the same taxon.
  • Competitive Publication New material is found. Two authors publish accounts based on it using the same names. The taxa are substantively the same.
  • Quickly Synonymised. An author publishes new species only for someone to quickly realise that this is a homonym and publish the fact. Subsequent publications place it in synonymy and it is never widely used. The name in circulation will almost always refer to the correct taxon but the homonym will be kept in circulation due to always being mentioned as being a homonym in monographs, floras and faunas. Modern indexing will exasperate this situation.
  • Back From The Dead Everyone is happy using a junior (or later) homonym without knowing it when a taxonomist finds a publication containing the senior (earlier) homonym and overturns the nomenclatural apple cart. The rules of nomenclature say that the taxon now needs a new name even if the senior homonym is not currently the name of an accepted taxon. There is a case for nomenclatural conservation of the junior homonym or rejecting the senior homonym. Either way the original usage of the name is the most common.
  • Problematic Homonyms The same name string is widely used for multiple taxon concepts. This is rarer in terms of nomenclatural homonyms (where different names have actually been published) than it is where authors have simply used the same name in different senses (taxon concepts and/or misapplied names). This is particularly common with European names being used for the “wrong” taxa in the New World. Author strings are of no help here as the nomenclature is correct – only the usage incorrect. A full-blown taxon concept based approach is needed to handle these situations.

Why not take the premise that names specified to nomenclatural code, rank, spelling and, in the case of zoological names, year are “virtually certain” to be referring to the same taxon. It might make our lives a little simpler.

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