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Why Scientific Nomenclature is So Important: Q&A With ICZN Commissioner Frank Krell

Frank Krell, Ph.D.

Frank Krell, Ph.D., is senior curator of entomology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and a commissioner at the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. He describes the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature as “the grammar of our common language” about species. (Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature & Science)

By Josh Lancette

In 2015, the Entomological Society of America journals became compliant with the requirements of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (“the Code”), which is produced by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Being compliant means that the journals and articles follow rules that allow new nomenclatural acts to be considered scientifically available.

Josh Lancette

Josh Lancette

To answer some questions about the ICZN and the Code, I turned to Dr. Frank Krell, who has been an ICZN Commissioner since 2006. Krell currently is senior curator of entomology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and he was formerly a research entomologist at the Natural History Museum, London.

Krell was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview, where we discussed what the Code is, why it sometimes can be complicated, how the ICZN can better reach under-represented countries, and more. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Entomology Today: One of the main tasks of the ICZN is to create, publish, and, periodically, revise the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Can you describe the Code?

Krell: The Code is the rules or the grammar of our common language. Scientific names are our common language—that’s what all scientists worldwide use to communicate about organisms. So, the rules of the language have to be pretty clear and well thought-through, without much leeway for interpretation. If everyone names things according to their own idiosyncratic rules, then we would have chaos.

Why does the Code exist?

A language needs grammar; it needs rules. Otherwise it doesn’t work. ICZN provides the rules for zoological nomenclature. In the middle of the 18th century, the practicing taxonomists wanted to follow rules so that they would know what to do and everyone would understand them. It was a widely recognized need to establish such rules, and it still is. These rules need to be reasonable and agreeable, because we have no police force. If someone doesn’t follow the rules, we cannot just arrest this person. But, since the scientific community has agreed to voluntarily follow the Code, everybody would say that the names this person has introduced are unavailable and would not use those names.

What does it mean for a name to be unavailable?

Anyone could introduce a new scientific name, but it needs to follow the rules. Let’s say you introduce a new genus, but you don’t designate a type species—that new genus would be unavailable. You can’t just introduce a genus without anchoring it at a typical species, because this would allow everybody to interpret this genus differently. The genus name could not be used as a stable scientific name.

Or, if I describe a new species and, for example, I name it after my grandpa, say it occurs in my backyard, and it’s a butterfly of some genus, but I do not provide a diagnosis that makes this species recognizable, that name is unavailable for scientific use. These are simple and easily understandable rules. Some other rules, however, are more complex.

Why can the Code be rather complicated?

The rules have become pretty complicated because the Code came into existence way after the first naming was done. We had about 100 years of unregulated naming after Linnaeus before the first rules were proposed. More comprehensive and sophisticated rules were established in the 20th century only. The Code is now so complicated because it tries to accommodate what happened in the past. We didn’t want to make unavailable half the names because they didn’t follow the rules we established long after these names were introduced.

Will the next edition of the Code be less complex?

We need to have clear “legal” text as the basis, but we will restructure it. The idea is that we will have a short, concise part relating to species to be described from now on, and all the historical stuff, which makes things complicated, goes in a second more extensive part of the Code. Currently it is all interwoven and it’s hard to find a simple recipe on what is required to describe a new species. We can’t dumb down the Code, but we need it to be clear. Restructuring and adding examples and explanations would help to make the next edition of the Code more accessible. All the regulations aren’t to make life more difficult for taxonomists; they are to make life easier.

Why is the ICZN important for people who aren’t taxonomists or systematists?

Because they use scientific names, too. They probably don’t need to know all the rules, but they should be able to trust that the names that are used by their systematist colleagues are the correct names. If someone finds a scientific name for something in a paper or a book, they should be assured that this name can be used and is not just some name that somebody created following no rules.

As the ICZN, how do you reach out to some of the international systematics communities that are under-represented in the ICZN?

Having commissioners from these communities would be a good step forward. We also need to be more active in the communities, in public discussions, be more visible through social media, have an active webpage with the latest news—we just need to get our communication a little bit more into the 21st century. Making the Code available online was a major step years ago, because previously everyone needed to buy or borrow a book.

The old attitude—”The code is very clear. Just read it, and if you don’t understand it that’s your fault.”—doesn’t work anymore. If we do not make it accessible and understandable for the entire community, the community will not want to have us any more and will look for other ways to regulate their common language.

The ICZN requires electronic-only publications to be registered in Zoobank. Why is that?

Ever more papers are getting published electronically only, and electronic communication can be very unstable and can disappear very easily. But, it’s increasingly used, so we as the ICZN have to accommodate that. For paper publications, we have the library system, where we know that things are archived in a way that they are accessible in a hundred years’ time. This was a tested and proven system, and suddenly this electronic stuff came up. There were instances where electronic journals disappeared without a trace. If you publish a description of a new species or another nomenclatural act, that is a sort of a document, a certificate that something has happened that is relevant to our naming system, and this document has to be available for eternity.

At the beginning of the process to find ways to allow electronic publication, electronic publishing was much more unstable and less mainstream than it is now, so we thought we needed additional safeguards that this information will remain available for eternity. So, we have these special requirements that an online-only publication needs to be in an electronic archive that is different from the publisher, so that if the publisher goes out of business, the works are still available.

Another safeguard is that papers that contain new descriptions and are published electronically only must be registered in Zoobank, the Official Registry of Zoological Nomenclature. The works should be registered so that if something happens, we can always try to retrieve them, or we at least know what we lost. Since we require archiving, too, hopefully the loss will be minimal.

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Insect Systematics and Diversity

Josh Lancette is manager of publications at the Entomological Society of America.

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