Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What has taxonomy ever done for us?

"If taxonomy and systematics have a range of educational benefits, why have they been squeezed from university curricula in many countries, including the UK? Thirty years ago, most first year biology undergraduates would have been able to identify a range of common animals and plants, skills which their degree courses would expand on. Nowadays this is typically no longer the case, many courses failing to develop identification skills, despite their continued requirement in a range of professions, including environmental consultancy. Some of the reason behind this shift is the fact that fewer staff with a research interest in systematic biology have been recruited to university positions in recent decades, something which at least partly results from the increased use of citation metrics such as journal impact factors to evaluate science quality. Since impact factors reflect the number of workers citing a paper, they are much higher in fields with large numbers of active researchers. With such a scheme a ‘top’ taxonomic journal, of the kind which actually includes species descriptions, might have an impact factor of 3, whilst in cell biology, for example, a similarly prestigious journal may have to score 10 or above. Since impact factors form a key component of exercises to assess university research, such as the UK Research Excellence Framework, they inevitably influence hiring and funding decisions. Taxonomy loses out in this process, and indeed the citation index has been identified as an impediment to the description of the world’s biodiversity. A simple step towards a solution, which makes use of citation metrics, is obvious here – and that is whenever a species name is used in the scientific literature, the author(s) of that name are included, and reference made to the work in which the name was first published. Taxa are hypotheses, after all, and in what other branch of scholarship would one fail to cite the originator of an idea? Bad referencing is something we frequently bemoan of our students, so perhaps it is time for the rest of us to tighten up?"

David Bilton What have taxonomy and systematics ever done for us? Journal of Biological Education 48(3) 17 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/00219266.2014.926653

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