On this page...

Why do scientists place such a premium on scientific publication? Science editor Shane McEvey reveals the inner workings of biological science and its critical role in recognising biodiversity.

Why publish?

Making the Australian Museum’s science journals available online is a major breakthrough for Australian natural history.

The Museum’s journals – Records of the Australian Museum, Supplements, Memoirs and Technical Reports – are where so many species were first described, and these descriptions are now readily available to anyone who needs them.

You won’t find these publications on any best-seller list or magazine stand. So, you may ask, why are they important? What do scientists at Australia’s leading natural history museum do, and what kind of work do they publish?

The short answer is that Museum biologists assemble and classify collections, and then publish their discoveries. This work is fundamental for understanding the natural world – biodiversity, environmental science, agriculture, fisheries and more.

Objects that cannot be identified by name are unknown and outside our collective consciousness. We can’t talk about things if we don’t know them. We can’t read about them if we can’t look up an index. What use is Google without words to search for? We know things when we name them, and we name things by holding up examples and attributing unique labels – ‘that is a tree and this is an apple’, said Newton!

Naming things is also how a concept acquires practical utility. One metre long – how long is that? The answer lies (or used to lie) in a carefully preserved museum object, the standard one-metre metal bar: only now can we accurately measure length, recognise one metre elsewhere in our environment and discuss it. That rod of finely polished metal, physically unchanging through time, has become an important reference or standard – it is the holotype specimen of one metre in length. The concept of length is intrinsically linked to the object, and the object effectively becomes irreplaceable and priceless as an ultimate reference point.

The fly’s tale

And so it is with animal specimens. Let’s take a fly collected during a field trip and attached to a pin by a Museum scientist. It has a label with a collection number (say, K118208) and details about its collection (date, place, etc.). It is safely stored in a Museum specimen box, protected from bleaching sunlight and predation.

After some time, perhaps years, an entomologist familiar with flies closely examines the specimen and concludes, ‘This insect is a fly, but of a kind unknown to science – it is a fly with no name’. Our pinned fly is in a row with two other pinned flies. The specialist notices that they have sequential accession numbers K118209 and K118210 and the same data labels. And they all look similar to K118208.

There is emerging here a need for a special name, a specific name that somehow embraces the idea that the three insect-objects are of the same kind. A name for a kind of thing is very different to the name of an individual thing. The names ‘Flipper’ and ‘dolphin’ are two such examples; there is a kind or a class of animals called dolphins. But there is only one individual dolphin whose name is Flipper.

Names for classes of things lead to the word classification, and the science of classification is called taxonomy – the most fundamental of biological sciences, at the very heart of our knowing the natural world.

The fly specialist is qualified to conclude that the three pinned flies are a kind hitherto unknown and unnamed. A name is invented for the group of flies, notes are made describing them, pictures are drawn, and slight variations in size and morphology are teased out by microscopic examination of all three insects. K118210 is the biggest but it is also the only female. K118208 is in pristine condition, but K118209 has a broken wing and a damaged antenna.

A manuscript with all these data is submitted to a scholarly journal like Records of the Australian Museum for publication. The invented name is formally linked in the publication to one of the three specimens – K118208 is the lucky one. Our pinned fly K118208 is to become the holotype; the other specimens are to become paratypes.

Once the manuscript has been reviewed by two anonymous independent experts and accepted by the editor, the article is published. Suddenly that flick of a fly suddenly soars in value as the ‘metal rod standard’ for the invented name of a species.

So publication is how the essence of a thing is made tangible for many people, for readers who are alive now and readers who are not yet born.

Underpinning knowledge

Every scientific name for an organism (except one – Homo sapiens) has its holotype and is based on a single specimen. This is fundamental in the science of taxonomy. A museum or herbarium holds many holotypes, the priceless reference points for all the associated scientific names. Lose the reference point – the holotype – and you lose certainty about application of the name to that kind of animal or plant.

So the value of museum specimens and artefacts increases when a specimen becomes a ‘type’ specimen and when a specimen – animal, plant, mineral or cultural artefact – becomes the object of scholarly discourse and is referred to in print.

Museums collect, assemble, classify and look after the things – the metal rods and holotypes, the standards and reference points – that underpin the words in our language for things in Nature. They are where names for new species are introduced through publication. So natural history museums are much more important in society than one might first think. Their relevance, unlike other kinds of museums, ought to be judged not just on how many people attend exhibitions. Rather, they should be well endowed by society to continue collecting and classifying, naming the nameless and expanding our awareness, opening the way for all other environmental sciences.

Ultimately museums like the Australian Museum hold the key to our knowledge – our knowing – of the natural and cultural worlds in which we live.

Dr Shane McEvey is an entomologist and editor of the Museum’s scientific journals.

First published in Explore 31(4).