My name is Jaap Winius, I was born in 1963 in the United States and have lived in the Netherlands since 1976. I'm an IT consultant (systems administration) with a passion for Linux and Open Source software, but my main contributions have not been in that area.
I'm something of an amateur herpetologist with an interest in snakes. I used to collect and breed snakes, but that was a long time ago; now I just like to write about them and continue to acquire many books on the subject for reference material. I guess I'm responsible for creating/writing several hundred articles here at Wikipedia, almost all on this same subject. Most of these are in Category:Viperidae, with the best examples being Bitis arietans, Bitis gabonica, Daboia, Vipera ammodytes, Vipera berus and Agkistrodon piscivorus. There are many more in various states of completion. I've also worked hard to organize all of the articles that we have regarding the other snake families. The two exceptions would be the Colubridae and Elapidae, but that's mostly because Dr. Roy McDiarmid's next installment, Snake Species of the World, Vol. 2, a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, has yet to be published.
Since I started writing these articles, certain issues have become very important to me:
- Never assume anything. Don't just write what you want because it's probably correct, but research the subject properly and quote (without plagiarizing) from a reputable source.
- Cite your references. At least one reference should be cited (using the footnote system) for every bit of information in the article. Readers should be able to tell where the information came from, or else why should anyone trust it? If there are no references it also decreases an article's research value. Obviously, this means no original research, or else you can't cite any references.
Follow a single taxonomy. If you don't, you'll eventually run into conflicts and your synonymy won't work either. For vipers and other snakes, I use McDiarmid, Campbell and Toure's 1999 checklist together with the ITIS online database. Still a work in progress, this is widely considered to be the most authoritative taxonomy available for those of us interested in snakes.(See this debate).
- Use scientific names instead of common names for article titles to avoid confusion. This is against official policy, but I choose to ignore that because I believe it prevents me from improving the collection of articles I work on. See below for further information on this (unfortunately) divisive issue.
Not all natural history editors at Wikipedia support the idea of maintaining articles for subspecies. One argument against it is that there is so much less that can be said about any particular subspecies. Another is that it needlessly increases the number of articles that need to be maintained. However, I am in favor of creating articles for all subspecies as a concrete rule, mainly for practical reasons:
- There is more to say and more room to say it. While most of our subspecies articles on snakes have so far been relatively short, it's possible to say a lot more about them than most people think. Without separate articles to accommodate such growth, I don't see that happening very quickly, if at all. For example, in Gloyd & Conant (1990), their complete description of Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma (western cottonmouth) is over 14 pages long, so I would guess that there is plenty of information available on most subspecies if you know where to find it.
- Easier to find information. If all of the information on each subspecies is concentrated in a single article, it becomes harder to spot. For example, with nine subspecies, Crotalus durissus (South American rattlesnake) would be a case in point: some of these have very different appearances and live in very different habitats. It would be more confusing to lump all that information together. Similarly, it's more accurate to link more specific names to more specific information: if a reader fills in the name of a subspecies, one of its synonyms, or a common name associated with it (all of which should have redirects), I can only imagine that it would be somewhat disappointing to end up in a general article for the species. In particular, there is the danger that the first things they would see in such a general article would not have anything to do specifically with the subspecies they were looking for.
- Name separation. When you consider the sheer numbers of taxonomic synonyms and common names that can often apply to a single subspecies, that becomes another reason to associate them with separate articles. This makes it much easier to show which names apply to which subspecies.
- Image separation. Again, Crotalus durissus is a good example. If we have several images for each of the six subspecies, it's easier to spread them out over six articles than to include them all in one article, which could become "image heavy" as a consequence. Yes, you could dump many of them in a gallery section, but I'd consider that something of a compromise.
- Less controversy. If all of the information on all of the subspecies is to be found in a single article, which subspecies is to be featured in the taxobox? Which names are to be mentioned first in the lead section? Which subspecies is to be described first? With some people even arguing that no subspecies are any more representative of the species than the next (which disagrees with our own article on Subspecies), these decisions would become completely arbitrary and thus subject to individual preference. At Wikipedia, that sort of thing has often led to controversy and edit wars. I believe that the formula applied to this series of articles works to prevent that.
Finally, some editors advocate a grow and split approach: if an article like Crotalus durissus becomes too long, only then do you split off a number of subspecies articles. In my view, however, that represents more work and less certainty. For example, how should articles be organized before a potential split? What should they look like afterwards? When do you split? If you split, should all of the subspecies be split off, or just some of them? This all involves too much uncertainly for my taste. I would much rather work systematically and according to clearly definable rules. Actually, I would prefer that the species articles be fleshed out properly before any subspecies articles are created, but in cases in which a subspecies is well known and many images are already available it, in my view it is not worth it to avoid creating a separate article for it at an earlier point. Besides, if you know that an article is eventually going to split anyway, postponing the inevitable is only going to mean more work in total for the sake of temporary appearance.
A number of people have pointed out to me that the species/subspecies article structure outlined above does not reflect current scientific thinking. First, it seems to give the nominate subspecies a special status, even though it has none. The nominate subspecies is no more representative of the species than any other subspecies and is, in fact, really only an artifact of nomenclature -- an indication that this form was described first. It says nothing about which subspecies is the principal form, which is most differentiated, or which is derived from which.
Second, current taxonomic thinking is sceptical about the concept of subspecies and its usefulness. Nowadays, most taxonomists look for evidence whether sets of populations are on an independent evolutionary trajectory or not. If so, the population is treated as species, or else they are not give taxonomic recognition.
Third, a very large number of recognized subspecies are either sets of populations recognized on the basis of some superficial feature of color pattern and scalation, which do not withstand analysis with more comprehensive datasets, or they are entities that would under many currently applicable criteria be considered as separate species. Every phylogeographic or in-depth morphological analysis seems to result in various subspecies being relegated to synonymy, or else being elevated to full species -- a trend is continuing apace.
With special thanks to Caissaca for supplying a detailed explanation.
My view is that, if this is the case then the current article structure is a better reflection of past trends in taxonomic thinking no matter how well it works. Of course, the challenge would be to come up with a new and equally well organized article structure that would not place so much emphasis on subspecies, but at the moment I don't see how that would be possible.
Alternative lead section
In the summer of 2006, I developed and began to apply a new lead section format that lists one or more common names separately above the introduction. For example, see Vipera berus. I'm aware that this is a departure from WP:LEAD, but it is meant as an improvement; a solution to a number of problems. I started out following WP:LEAD, but so many snake species have so many common names that this often results in a confusing introductory mess of common names and bold type face. In addition, this alternative format addresses the concern that some people have with using scientific names for article titles: that common names cannot be found quickly enough if they must be searched for in the introduction -- whether bold type face is used or not. This new format, which has been dubbed "snakeskin", is an attempt to address both of these issues. It also has several other advantages: it avoids elevating one common name over any others as much as possible, something that tends to invite senseless debates about which name is more important, and it keeps the introduction more to the point. Finally, this approach has been quite successful. Despite being different, it's no longer considered to be that radical and six such articles have so far been given GA status: Agkistrodon piscivorus, Bitis arietans, Bitis gabonica, Daboia, Vipera ammodytes and Vipera berus.
Scientific names vs. Common names
When I first became acquainted with Wikipedia's approach to organizing its natural history articles, I was immediately disappointed. Even though latinized names and scientific classification (taxonomy) have been used successfully for 250 years to ensure uniqueness, organize the tree of life and show how individual and groups of organisms are related, Wikipedia's general advice on this topic (WP:TOL) is still as follows:
"In cases where there is a formal common name ..., or when common names are well-known and reasonably unique, they should be used for article titles, ... Scientific names should be used otherwise."
I find this advice very unfortunate, because even though Wikipedia hopes to become an encyclopedia for all human knowledge -- and by extension to describe the entire tree of life (an very ambitious undertaking) -- it encourages people to create natural history articles in an ad-hoc manner that invites duplication and ignores taxonomic classification. By and large, the evidence for this failure is overwhelming. But how can we expect these articles to become organized if we do not even attempt to point editors in the right direction?
Nevertheless, the usual argument in favor of using common name article titles is one of presentation. This is understandable, but especially in light of the scale of our undertaking it is obvious for many reasons that this approach is far too problematic:
- Common names are often not unique, and even when they actually are, there is no regulating body to ensure that this remains the case. However, since all Wikipedia articles titles have to be unique, this frequently leads to conflicts and compromises, not to mention an inconsistent set of names.
- Not all species have (unique) common names. Therefore, when scientific names are used in their absence, the result is an inconsistent collection that is perpetually difficult to organize.
- Common names invite conflicts when one name applies to more than one species. In such cases, one article gets the "good" name and the others have to be, um, different. Disambiguation pages are arrived at indirectly. How is all this good for presentation?
- Common names also lead to conflicts when more than one name applies to the same species. This leads to heated debates between editors; ones such as Siberian Tiger vs. Amur Tiger and Puma vs. Cougar are sadly all too common. Part of the reason for this is that there's nothing scientific about selecting one common name over any others based on which one gets more hits in a Google search; that's completely arbitrary. A Google search can only be seen an indication -- not the truth -- and should be regarded as own research.
- Selecting one common name for a species over any alternatives may give people a false impression that it is more important or more official, though this is almost never the case. One notable exception is the AOU, which regulates the common names for birds, but AFAIK they only do this for North American species.
- Common names make category overviews rather useless. For instance, compare Category:Viperinae with Category:Oceanic dolphins. With the latter, you can't see which species are related (belong to the same genus); you only know that they are all oceanic dolphins.
- If Wikipedia is a teaching tool, then common names only cater to people's ignorance. At best they reflect poorly our current understanding of the relationships between organisms and do not inspire questions of this nature.
- Common names are often localized; people in one (English speaking) country may not be familiar with the common names used in another. If a redirect to it does not exist for the correct scientific name, the reader may not find the article.
- Common names are folk taxonomy. They can be misleading due to their lack of agreement with scientific findings. They have have no understanding of evolutionary relationships and give undue weight to conspicuous rather than informative traits.
- Because they are not guaranteed unique, common names are a poor choice for promoting continuity when linking with other articles inside and outside of Wikipedia, or even between the various language wikis.
- Readers add articles to their watchlists -- rarely redirects. So if someone creates a set of new common name articles and starts changing the scientific name redirects, the odds are that fewer people will notice.
On the other hand, in my opinion there are a number of excellent reasons why scientific names are better suited to Wikipedia's needs:
- Scientific names are guaranteed to be unique by two international regulating bodies: the ICZN for animals and the ICBN for plants. They therefore prevent both conflicts and duplication.
- Because they are unique, scientific names are perfectly suited for organizing Wikipedia's myriad articles: relatively small categories of articles with valid scientific names, supplemented by larger categories with redirects and disambiguation pages for common names and for taxonomic synonyms. For example:
- In this way, scientific names allows for a total separation between these three categories. This makes the entire collection much easier to maintain.
- Scientific names offer the only naming standard for natural history articles that is both consistent and complete.
- Scientific names allow informed debate to replace the kind of pointless disputes that we have so often come to associate with the naming of articles when common names are involved.
- The binomial naming system is an excellent teaching tool. Carl Linnaeus designed it to show how species are related and it inspires questions. For the past 250 years it has proved to be of immeasurable value to science, e.g. without it Charles Darwin may not have come up with his theory of evolution.
- Scientific names are international: no matter what language is spoken by the reader, if they know the scientific name, they will find the article.
- Because they are unique, scientific names are best suited to promoting continuity when linking with other articles inside and outside of Wikipedia.
- Readers add articles to their watchlists -- rarely redirects. So if the articles go by their valid scientific names and someone tries to make changes to the taxonomy, the odds are that this will not go unnoticed.
- A naming convention (or policy) is about scale and whatever method is used it needs to be consistent across the majority of incidences. If Wikipedia's aim is to make freely available "the sum of all human knowledge", then that means describing a hell of a lot of taxa, so obviously we can't afford to settle for a system that is anything less than optimized for the task.
- In mid-2006, WP:NC (flora) was created and scientific names became the default for the titles of all of our plant articles, currently estimated to number more than 30,000. Since this project has been running smoothly ever since, there is every reason to believe that an overall default of scientific names for all natural history articles would do just as well.
- Vandals seem to find articles with binomial titles to be much less attractive targets. For example, Anaconda requires protection, but the article for the species usually associated with this name, Eunectes murinus, does not.
I'll end this section by quoting a fellow editor:
- "... Although I see the philosophical point of making things easier for readers than for editors, redirects are cheap, and they remove most of the inconvenience for readers, but, more important, readers are not a limiting factor for Wikipedia. Editors are. If an editor's work can be made easier at only a small, often only hypothetical, cost to readers, I see that as a good thing, both as an editor and as a reader of Wikipedia."
- -- Curtis Clark, 31 December 2008
If at one point we at the English language wiki decide to adopt scientific names as our default for all natural history articles, we will not be the first wiki to do so, nor even the second, for the Spanish and the Italians have already beaten us to it!! How many more wikis will do this before we come to our senses and follow suite? It would certainly make inter-wiki linking a lot more predictable.
On a smaller scale, our own naming standard for plant articles, WP:NC (flora), already uses scientific names as its default, which has been doing fine for 30,000+ articles since mid-2006. Apparently, the French botany project has also adopted scientific names as their standard for article titles.
There is also the question of how this unfortunate situation got started. For an answer, take a look at the first version of WP:NC from 2001. It speaks only of the need to use the most commonly used names for articles on persons for the following reasons:
- "We want to maximize the likelihood of being listed in other search engines, thereby attracting more people to Wikipedia. ..."
- "We want to maximize the incidence of accidental links."
- "Using full formal names requires, if one wants to link directly to the article, both that people know the full formal name and that they type it out, both of which are a royal pain. If one links to a redirection page, there's the messy "redirected from" announcement at the top of the page."
It looks to me like this is the brush with which everything else got painted over as well. However, if we had known back then that Wikipedia would soon become a such a success, I'm sure we would have been more careful with this policy. Clearly, with Google giving Wikipedia a search preference nowadays, it isn't necessary for us to maximize "the likelihood of being listed", or "the incidence of accidental links." The last item of the three above only means a little more work for editors and at worst results in a minor cosmetic problem. Obviously, we've reached a point now at which we can afford to have more precise naming conventions: holding on to the current default naming standard for all of our natural history articles is just holding back Wikipedia.
Regarding long-term and large-scale maintainability
To be honest, sure, it would be possible for me to work with common name titles and organize everything properly. For example, if I were to put in a gargantuan effort, basically devoting the rest of my life to completing 2,900+ properly organized articles on snake species -- using common names -- then I would be the only one who would know that the underlying taxonomy was actually in order (totally consistent and with no errors or duplication). That's simply because I organized them and any changes show up on my watchlist. However, when I eventually bow out and somebody else -- let's say that's you -- eventually comes along and wants to take my place, then how easy would it be for you to tell whether everything really was properly organized or not? (Mind you, you don't want to assume anything).
The answer is that it would be very difficult for you to tell. That's because, ultimately, all that matters is where the scientific names point to -- they are the key in this zoological database. Any database administrator can tell you how important that is and there's no point in denying that Wikipedia is a database. However, with common name titles, the scientific names are only loosely linked to the articles as redirects. You can't know that they point to the correct articles unless you follow each and every one to verify that the article it redirects to does indeed contain a description of the corresponding species. For all you know, the redirects may not even exist. Even worse, if you plan to maintain the collection, you'd have to add all of the scientific-name redirects to your watchlist in addition to the articles. That's a lot of work!!
In fact, it's so much work that I'm afraid you would not bother to check everything. It's even possible that no one else would ever again bother to maintain the entire collection. Thus, much of my work will have been for nothing. Sure, a few corrections would be made every once in a while, but in this environment the number of errors creeping into the collection would far outnumber them and within a few years I believe it would all degrade into a typical incoherent mess, full of duplicate articles and errors.
On the other hand, if all of the articles were to have scientific name titles, you would have a much easier task. It would be safe for you to assume that, in the articles for the higher taxa (genera, families) and in the main category overviews, the scientific names were all direct links to the articles. Therefore, to verify that the names were all valid you'd only have to check the various lists against the 3rd party taxonomic database that they're all supposed to be following. To maintain the lot, you'd only have to add the articles to your watchlist -- not all of the redirects as well.
IMHO, this may be the main reason why scientific name article titles are so important at Wikipedia in particular. Somehow, we must see to it that they are inextricably linked to the articles. I would not be opposed to using the DISPLAYTITLE magic word to give such articles common name titles, but apparently this solution is deemed to be too confusing. Well, if our technical options are so limited, then as far as I'm concerned we'll have no other choice but to rename "Lion" to "Panthera leo". It's a question of long-term and large-scale maintainability. The folks at WikiProject Plants have already figured this out; now it's up to the zoology people. The longer we take to come up with a solution for this problem, the longer it will take us to recover from the inevitable mess.
Would such a change be legal?
The question has been raised whether it would be illegal to use scientific names for article titles based on a conflict with Wikipedia's overall naming policy, WP:NC. The answer is *no*, based on WP:NC's main guideline:
Generally, article naming should prefer what the greatest number of English speakers would most easily recognize, with a reasonable minimum of ambiguity, while at the same time making linking to those articles easy and second nature.
The highlighted section is what's called an escape clause that was obviously added to prevent us from trying to hammer round pegs into square holes. In fact, we already have a convenient precedent that makes use of it: WP:NC (flora). In mid-2006, our botanists argued successfully that the level of ambiguity involved in the application of common names to our thousands of plant articles went beyond that reasonable minimum. The naming guideline was created as a result. Over time it has stood up well, so there's no reason to fear that an overall standard of scientific names for all of our natural history articles would be rejected on the basis of illegality.