The unique morphology of the spiny ant, uncovered with the use of an advanced form of 3D microscopy known as 3D X-ray microtomography, garnered this species a place this year among the Top 10 New Species of 2017. The Top 10 New Species list honors the legacy of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, known for his pioneering work on the hierarchical classification of plants and animals that developed beyond genus and species into modern taxonomy. The list is compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) working with a panel of international scientists as selection committee members.
PLOS spoke with Quentin Wheeler, founding director of IISE and president of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, on assessing research impact, the purpose and influence of this list and the impact of climate change on species diversity.
Policies and Purpose
Research reporting these new species is published in a variety of journal types, from subscription to Open Access. When asked if there are considerations of access to research when the members of the international selection committee evaluate nominations, Wheeler states that “the selection committee is encouraged to focus on the organisms rather than where they were published.” This de-emphasis on journal choice is a hallmark of the IISE selection process; work that is posted on a preprint server, rather than published in a peer-reviewed journal, may also be eligible for consideration. “What matters is compliance with the international codes of (botanical and zoological) nomenclature which requires publication that can now include electronic publication. So long as the requirements of the code were met during the previous calendar year, a species is eligible for consideration,” he says.
In an era of continued global extinction of animals, plants and microbes, Wheeler hopes the Top 10 New Species list brings research outcomes to the public to help convey the acute relevance of climate change. “Our goal is to increase awareness of the loss of species in the biodiversity crisis and the important roles played by taxonomy and natural history museums in biodiversity exploration and conservation. The wide media attention gained by the Top 10 [and this year’s PLOS ONE article] has hopefully played a role toward that goal,” he says. While he is not aware of specific policies shaped directly by the list, the hope is that it “keeps the importance of species exploration in the minds of those making such policies.”
Valuing Work, Not Impact Factor
Over the past 10 years of generating this list, one notable detail is that selected work is published in journals with impact factors ranging from less than one to greater than 20. When asked what this says to him and the scientific community about the value and relevance of evaluating a work based on its own merit, rather than on the journal in which it appears, Wheeler is quite direct.
“As a scientist and scholar, I like to think that science is a meritocracy of ideas and that their value derives from the quality of the work and its impact rather than the impact factor of the journal overall. Taxonomy is a very special case that is not at all served well by impact factors as they are today calculated.”
He explains this concept more fully. “First, the best taxonomic work is comprehensive and comparative in the form of lengthy taxonomic revisions and monographs. Such long works are not accepted by most journals with high impact factors. Second, even the best taxonomic work is rarely cited because once species are known they are typically identified by field biologists through secondary literature (field guides, etc.). Even the secondary literature is often omitted from citations by ecologists and others, and the primary literature is only rarely cited outside of other taxonomy papers.” Due to the long-term nature of taxonomy work, “we routinely consult papers from 1758 forward,” says Wheeler. “Thus the true impact of the work is measured over generations which is quite different from most experimental fields where papers are outdated in just a few years.”
Last year two species on the list made their debuts in PLOS ONE: the description of a new Galapagos giant tortoise species and a new genus, species and subfamily of isopod crustacean. Together with this year’s winner and the four PLOS ONE articles describing top species in 2014, this cohort of articles has collectively received over 290,000 views, 3,500 shares and broad media coverage since publication, indicating their influence and interest for taxonomists and the public at large.
Connectivity and Credit
As with other scientific disciplines, innovation and modernization are a must in taxonomy, and Wheeler is in favor of such policy shifts. First, he recommends mandating a “central deposition of all nomenclatural acts, including descriptions of new species” as it now takes several years to track down all new species named in any given year. He also believes “the actual technical description of species should be open access, even in journals that are not. The descriptive material should be intellectual property of humankind and available to everyone.”
Further modernization, according to Wheeler, would establish electronic connectivity between published work and the central repository. “That central repository, likely IPNI for botany and ZooBank for zoology,” he says, “ought to be connected via hyperlink to every scientific name published. Were this done it would be a service to editors by assuring the correct scientific name is being used and spelled correctly. Also by virtue of that link we could electronically track the usage of scientific names and give “impact” measure of the use of the names as credit to the taxonomists.”
PLOS encourages scientists making these discoveries to publish the entire research article, not just the technical data, in fully Open Access journals and repositories to ensure the work has maximum visibility and reach. ORCID iDs can help in linking taxonomy descriptions, datasets, published work and grants to individual researchers for maximum credit and recognition. Those interested in learning more about the biodiversity crisis can watch a brief interview with Quentin Wheeler and those interested in learning more about new species and biodiversity can browse this selection of PLOS articles.
Quentin Wheeler is founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration and president of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York. He was previously vice president and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, chair of entomology and director of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University, Head of Entomology at the Natural History Museum in London and Director of the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation.
Hero Image Credit: ESF