Accidental Robot Taxonomy

Here’s a find that will disturb any self-respecting taxonomist:


This book is not a book. It’s an unpublished student thesis from the University of Texas at El Paso.

Apparently Bibliogov, a publishing company that scrapes state websites and repackages content to sell to unsuspecting buyers, has picked up the deposited thesis and is printing it on demand. The research was not completed to the point of submission to a peer-reviewed journal, and neither the student nor her adviser intended to publish the work. At least, not in the current form. The thesis was merely filed as a requirement for the student to graduate.

This sort of robo-publishing would not normally be a problem but for the legalistic nature of how taxonomic names are regulated. Publishing is a formal act that makes taxonomic names available. Third party printing potentially legitimizes taxonomic proposals never intended for release. Not good. Taxonomy already has enough chaos without robots jumping the gun.

Should the practice of scraping and publishing theses become common, either the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature will have to adopt a set of rules suppressing involuntary publication, or students of taxonomy should be uniquely exempt from filing dissertations with unpublished results.

(via James Trager)

[update: to clarify, these robo-books don’t automatically make a name available under ICZN rules. A couple other conditions about the timing and deposition of the content must be met that may or may not be the case.]

10 thoughts on “Accidental Robot Taxonomy”

  1. It’s good to see you raise this issue. I was going to run to Phil’s office and talk about this if it wasn’t for the fact that the FB thread indicated that this particular thesis was pulled. Regardless of the outcome of this particular case, the potential for bots to “publish” theses is somewhat disturbing, on a couple of levels, from The Code to The Plagiarism. (Is it right for a company to make money off of incomplete, unfinished, un-peer-reviewed work that has been more-or-less stolen? Is it right for a company to make $65.55 off a thesis on the sly?)

  2. I am confused. Doesn’t the student or university have copyright on this ? Can’t the student simply notify Amazon that the ‘book’ is stolen property and request a takedown ?

    The entry is still active, by the way. I have left a ‘review’ indicating the nature of the issue.

  3. Pingback: Anonymous

  4. Alfred Buschinger

    Of course, this is disgusting. But similar things do happen since years.
    See here:
    “This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923”
    The original article appeared 1986 in “Psyche”. And I was born in 1940.

    In the forum which is now closed I wrote a post in 2011:,8452.msg23304.html#msg23304

    Nevertheless you may buy our “book” at

  5. So ProQuest – a company which makes available dissertations and where most universities in the US require their students to deposit dissertations – will ask students if they want to make their dissertation available via third parties (which includes Amazon). See as an example. So it is not just scrapers, but students who are making decisions to sell work on a site like Amazon. I suppose here it is more clearly labeled as a dissertation. Does that help alleviate your concern, Alex? (I should say that I also manage the ‘publishing’ part of the thesis and dissertation process at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so have particular interest in this topic!)

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The trouble is how the formalities of taxonomy intersect with publishing. As the nomenclatural codes do not distinguish works labelled as dissertations from other published works, then the extra label won’t make a difference. Presumably students of taxonomy will have received the training to know how to properly publish taxonomic changes, and will format appropriately for ProQuest to avoid unintended results.

  6. Without knowing a lot about the scientific side, I’m going to guess you’re going to have more luck just changing the rules rather than trying to keep spambots from spamming.

  7. This particular dissertation should not be published formally, not as it is. I’ve read it through and it requires not just peer review but careful review by experienced taxonomists more familiar than the student with the animals in question, and some major revision following their comments before it will be ready for publication. It makes some good taxonomic suggestions, I think, but others are more than a little hard to accept.
    (Oh yeah and, parts of it contradict other parts in the same document, and it’s full of typos.)

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