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Introduction - Name Problems

A taxon may have many names

 Names are what most people use to refer to different types of organisms. We use names, both formal scientific names as well as common names to make reference to both general groups (such as "fish" or "Perciformes") as well as more specific biological units ("bluefish" or "Pomatomus saltatrix").

Names change for a number of reasons. New evolutionary insights may cause an expert to move a species to a different genus, resulting in a new bionomial name combination. For example, Hughes in 1893 described a new bacterial species, Streptococcus melitensis. Later in the same year Bruce moved it to a different genus to create Microcossus melitensis, and in 1920 Meyer and Shaw moved it to Brucella to create Brucella melitensis.

Experts may determine that two species once thought to be different are really the same. Today, for example, the bacterium Brucella canis Carmichel & Bruner 1968 is considered to be indistinguishable from Brucella melitensis (Hughes 1893) and the older name is now considered invalid. This sort of movement results in approximately 1% of scientific names become invalid per decade (Froese, Capuli, et. al). The trouble, from an information retrieval standpoint, is that all of these names still remain attached to content.

The use of names as search metadata, especially in natural science digitization initiatives with their longer historical perspective, has been impeded by the instability of names. The difficulties are further compounded by a widespread reliance on vernacular names for which no codes of nomenclature exist to prevent duplication and ambiguity. The possibility of search and indexing exercises giving false negative returns on name-based queries is very high and increases with the age of the source material. The results can be that expensive and well-crafted information delivery systems are rendered ineffective due to the lack of a contemporary context to a name or a simple mismatch between two different but legitimate name strings. This problem can be overcome if services can emulate taxonomists by mapping alternative names and organizational structures against each other.


Agosti, D. Johnson, NF 2002. Taxonomists need better access to published data. Nature 417, 222

Euzeby, List of Prokaryotic Names with Standing in Nomenclature, []

Froese, R., E. Capuli and M.C. Rañola. 2000. Challenges to taxonomic information management: how to deal with changes in scientific names. p. 3-10 In Hideyuki Shimizu (ed.) Global environmental researches on biological and ecological aspects. Center for Global Environmental Research, Tsukuba, Japan, 84 p.

Godfray CHJ. 2002. Challenges for taxonomy Nature 417, 17 – 19

Stein L. 2002. Creating a bioinformatics nation. Nature, 417: 119-120.

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