Scientists propose open-access reforms to democratise biodiversity knowledge and mobilise hidden troves of undiscovered plant diversity before it’s too late.
Botanists are raising the alarm over serious gaps in open access to data critical for identifying and protecting plant species worldwide. A new study published in Plants, People, Planet reveals that only 23% of new plant names published from 2012-2021 are freely available through open-access literature. Even more concerning, 41% of new names exist in publications that lack digital identifiers, making them virtually undiscoverable to researchers.
Naming of new taxa is an essential service, enabling us to interact with existing bodies of knowledge—as Linnaeus warned: ‘nomina si nescis, perit et cognitio rurem‘ (if you do not know the names, your knowledge gets lost) (Linnaeus, 1751). Accurate naming is also essential to develop our understanding of newly described organisms. We cannot protect what we have not named; legislative protection of species cannot proceed without a formal species description.
Nicolson et al. 2023
Each year, an estimated 2,000 vascular plant species are newly described, many with narrow ranges vulnerable to extinction. Conservation planning requires timely open access to occurrence data like geography and specimens.
The study combined data from the International Plant Names Index with the World Checklist of Vascular Plants. Results showed that fewer than one-quarter of species published recently are openly accessible. Regions like South America and Africa – with high diversity – harbour the greatest proportion of undiscoverable names in publications, while Europe and North America have the lowest.
Access issues extend to physical specimens like type material, which give reference for future taxonomic work. A type specimen is a particular physical sample of an organism that serves as the representative example or reference point for that species. When a new species is described and named by taxonomists, they designate a type specimen as the model that defines that species. The type specimen is usually preserved and deposited in a museum or herbarium collection. Future scientists can refer back to the original type specimen when trying to identify other specimens of that species or clarify the species’ defining characteristics.
Only 12% of taxa have digitised type specimens available from their native country. Mobilising specimens from low- and middle-income regions with the greatest diversity is urgently needed. The authors note the problems with digitisation.
A decade after electronic publication was adopted by the botanical community with the hope that it would make plant diversity information more openly and widely accessible, it is clear that despite initial uptake (Nicolson et al., 2017), it has still not made a real difference in the availability of this information in an open way.
Nicolson et al. 2023
Nicolson and coworkers recommend adopting policies that facilitate open-access publishing, especially for authors from the Global South. Clear communication of open access status and sharing type specimen details can also help democratise biodiversity knowledge. The authors make several proposals:
- Authors should deposit taxonomic data in open repositories and mobilise type citation data to GBIF. Include specimen identifiers like catalogue numbers when possible.
- Institutions should enable staff to self-archive in open repositories. Botanical journals should shift to open-access models.
- Nomenclature systems should add open access status flags and catalogue numbers for type specimens.
- Journals should assign DOIs to content and register with the Directory of Open Access Journals.
- Publishers should shorten embargoes on nomenclatural works and waive fees to enable open data.
- Funders and botanists should increase the digitisation of specimens, targeting herbaria in the Global South.
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Nicolson, N., Trekels, M., Groom, Q.J., Knapp, S. and Paton, A.J. (2023) “Global access to nomenclatural botanical resources: Evaluating open access availability,” Plants, People, Planet. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10438.