The Rogue Taxonomist

Warning: long ranty post to follow.

Taxonomy is an unusual discipline in the balance it strikes between legal and scientific concepts. There's the obvious biology bit about discovering and defining taxa, but unlike any other science there's a backbone of legalistic code that regulates the dynamics of names. If you're the sort who really digs dry legal documents, you can read the zoological code here and the botanical code here. The codes are largely concerned with nomenclature, dealing with issues such as the proper hierarchy of ranks, and resolving conflict among competing names. For instance, the code decides what happens when two people independently describe the same biological species with different names. The short of it is that taxonomists, like courts, must deal with precedent. They are bound by the code to consider all relevant previous publications.

Because of the importance of precedent, taxonomy is uniquely vulnerable to crackpots. When such a person surfaces, the schlop he produces cannot just be dismissed as the rantings of some hare-brained loner.

Physicists can have a good laugh at the guy who disproved Einstein with his basement typewriter, but at the end of the day they just ignore him without consequence. Taxonomists can't do that. If the minimal requirements for establishing new taxon names are met (and they really are minimal- you only need to scrawl a few sentences of the appropriate kind, designate a type specimen, and distribute a few copies to libraries- there's no peer-review requirement in the code)- then anything that person does ends up in the permanent taxonomic record and has to be dealt with by every subsequent researcher. It wastes a lot of time.

I bring this up because a notoriously bad taxonomist has recently moved from beetles into ants. Mr. Dewanand Makhan's three opening papers on ants (here, here, and here) are a real tour-de-force of bad taxonomy. He commits too many errors to mention them all, but they include an ignorance of the vast existing literature, taxonomic descriptions so short as to be effectively useless (but long enough to probably count, so far as the code is concerned), and the odd notion that a taxonomic key is really just a numbered list.

Fortunately, Makhan's papers contain grainy photos of the beasts, and these allow us to more accurately assess the work. Where relevant traits are visible, his "new species" are not new at all, but existing species- usually common- that he's misidentified. We can also see that he mistakes a queen ant for a worker and places several ants in the wrong genus.

In spite of the errors, I hesitate to call Makhan himself a crackpot. He is not properly trained, and may just be in well over his head.

Instead, the crackpot title belongs to the editor of the small journal that published the papers. A reputable journal might wish to protect its reputation by looking into reports that it is producing sub-standard work. Not so with "Calodema", a non-reviewed Australian journal. The editor, when confronted with the problems, produced quite an intriguing defense. Here's an excerpt:

"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.

"So, Dr Makhan will continue to publish as I believe he has something to say and should be allowed to. The Calodema journal will succeed and will eventually be a force to be reckoned with, even though Zootaxa appears be threatened by Calodema, because Calodema is a faster journal than them and there is only one editor! . There will be many who dont like us or our researches, but 100-200 years down the line (if mankind does survive global warming) we will be proven correct.

I score that with a Crackpot Index of 167. In other words, better to not expect any reasonable scientific judgement to prevail.

I think it's time to add a peer-review requirement to the taxonomic codes. All the other sciences are comfortable with peer-review as a quality-control measure. Why not taxonomy?

More like this

Thanks for sharing this, Alex! I heard about the âMakhan problemâ before, but was unaware that he moved into ants. I would find all this very amusing if this wasnât about ants.

So what might be a solution for this? Somebody who took lessons from Adolf might recommend a âfinale Endlösungâ. But even though I am German I would never propose something like that.

I strongly support your call for peer-review in taxonomy but this will not stop Makhan and Hawkeswood doing what they do. It would be easy for Dr. Hawkeswood to add âpeer-reviewâ to his âjournalâ. Just think of all the family members which could act as reviewers.

Brown had his way of dealing with obscure species: He synonymized them with one sentence in a footnote.

I have followed the discussion and it is obvious to me that this "pseudo taxonomist" as its "pseudo editor" are charlatans whose the only merit is to bring a more general questions on taxonomy as you did here. I'm not a taxonomist but deal often with the paper of taxonomists and I think totally legitimate to organize a peer-review process.

However, for the moment, the more urgent to me seems to avoid or limit the activities of these two individuals. I hope that the information has circulated between the taxonomists. Also, I was asking me if it would have a possibility to create a kind of black-list for this kind of journal? Maybe based on a post-published peer-review process? I believe that in this situation the "Calomnia" journal would be quickly on this list. And at the same time would allow the honest non peer-review journals to continue their activities. This solution could be intermediate...

For those who think I am a crackpot put your publication record and citation lists against mine.

You should all put up or shut up! (And learn from the mistakes of history!)

Dr Trevor J. Hawkeswood

PS. At anytime I could be visiting your countries so be very careful what you say about me!

Oh and by the way, what you have all written up there about "black listing" etc. is typically what Adolf and Iosif would have done.

Be careful lest it will be you who will be limited, curtailed and "black listed"!!!

Dr Trevor J. Hawkeswood

"PS. At anytime I could be visiting your countries so be very careful what you say about me!"

Uh uh.... NOW I'm scared....

seriously just wet my pants here...

By Thiago Moreira (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink

Rant # 2:

I am a professional entomologist from Australia, however, (unsurprisingly) I only recently stumbled across Calodema and was shocked/annoyed at the pretence of it being a scientific journal. It was disturbing to see formal descriptions/reclassification of insects by people who obviously have little idea about entomology or taxonomy. In my opinion, the papers would not stand up to review by established experts. They wouldnât get past me, thatâs for sure.

Check out the (egotistical) link to the list of species/genera named after Hawkeswood; 9 altogether and largely from the other (few) contributing authors (including 2 genera and 2 species described/renamed by the famous Mr Makhan!!......can they be serious??). Hawkesowod thinks that reflects on his importance in entomology!!

I did think there was an unwritten rule that species should only be described in top international-standard taxonomy journals, to stop classifications becoming jumbled by crappy descriptions. Also, that they would generally be published in the country where they originate (if not an important enough advance to be in a top international journal) so that relevant reviewers are available.

Being a âyoungerâ entomologist working in real science, I have been largely unaware of the trials and tribulations of TJ Hawkeswood (certainly never seen him present data anywhere). However, the personal letters (usually complaints about others) he reprints in his âjournalâ, make it clear that many of the older senior entomologists long ago grew tired of his approach to science, disrespect of true entomologists and self-congratulations. It that light, it makes complete sense that he should now have taken on Mr Makhan, as they seem to be birds of a feather in terms of their lack of understanding of scientific process and estrangement from real science (and their love of naming things after each other). Their articles combined form the vast majority of published articles in Calodema (so much for independence).

It is rather embarrassing that this should originate from Australia. Not sure if thereâs a black list but the Federal Australian Government certainly has a code of practice for science and a means to lodge complaints about malpractice. Not sure if self-publishing crappy science is âbad enoughâ though. I will look into this.

I guess it highlights a problem with the internet and scientific data. By the way, Hawkeswoodâs PhD is from the internet tooâ¦ âhonorary Doctorateâ from the Cosmopolitan Universityâ¦.obviously they had trouble sorting the wheat from the chaff (no courses relating to biology either!). I was wondering why he left his PhD out of his website biography (but mentioned undergrad studies)â¦now I know why. This from someone who seems to think that entomology in Australia is one big fascist conspiracy aimed at suppressing his great knowledge. A little truth goes a long way, TJ!

Hawkeswood really seems to believe that he is a world renowned entomologist even though he has rarely published in even lowly ranked, peer reviewed journals such as Australian Journal of Entomology. I had never heard of him until trying to look up host plant data for a buprestid I collected. Yet, he keeps saying how good he is because he has published over 400 articlesâ¦.if I had published his articles, about 3 would make my publication list (the rest are just too minor and in lowly journalsâ¦..I wouldnât have bothered to attempt to published them in the first place). He just doesnât seem to realise that a few host records or observations of behaviour are of little scientific value and certainly donât make you a great entomologist. Iâve collected for years and if I published every unusual observation or host record, Iâd never do any significant science either!

I might do some renaming myselfâ¦..I hereby rename Calodema as the âWalter Mitty Quarterlyâ.

By Richard Glatz (not verified) on 24 Jan 2010 #permalink