Q&A with Fabio Cianferoni, the new boss at European Journal of Taxonomy

Here we are today with Fabio Cianferoni, entomologist and researcher at the Italian National Research Council (CNR), Research Institute on Terrestrial Ecosystems (IRET), Florence, Italy.

Fabio is the new Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Taxonomy, taking the place of Koen Martens, from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, who led EJT for almost ten years.

Di Francesca Graziani - Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92954996

What are your expectations and plans for the following years?

First of all, let me say it's a great honour to be appointed as Editor in Chief at EJT. Under Koen's direction, the journal gained popularity and awareness thanks to the quality of the contents proposed. It has been a progressive growth. He and the team did a very great job! We will try to add new Topical and Section Editors. I believe we need new forces in order to manage such a large, international journal. We publish more than a hundred articles and thousands of pages per year – which means an incredible job.

Surely the pandemic also had an impact on taxonomic research. Can you explain how?

The pandemic affected the world, and our field of study was no exception. In particular, restrictions to travels affected the research on the field, but also access to the natural sciences collections around the world. But taxonomists didn't remain inoperative. Even by themselves, they kept on doing what they are used to doing: giving an essential contribution to the knowledge of biodiversity. Ours is a race against time, before a region after the other will be destroyed by human activities and many species become extinct before being known. This is a real problem. 

What are the consequences of losing habitat, so biodiversity?

This is a huge problem. Losing biodiversity means losing the function of ecosystems and balance of cycles, losing richness in terms of life. And we don't even know how hard the consequences can be. We should try to really stop this destruction before it's too late. Without biodiversity to make the ecosystem services work, it's humankind to risk its own existence.

Is digitisation an eventual help?

There's no doubt,digitisation is the future. It will help the taxonomists to carry out a large part of the work even without being in museums. The completedigitisation of the types (the specimens selected to serve as a reference point when an organism is first named) will be an essential challenge for the next years. Also, thedigitisation of scientific literature, which is now at a much more advanced stage, is a great help for taxonomists, and not only. It means to be able to read scientific articles and books without having to go in person to the libraries. This makes the work much easier, you can access an enormous amount of information faster, without moving from your desk.

Unfortunately we cannot say the profession of taxonomist is that popular...

Not at all, it's an endangered species! It's an old problem, none really pushed to fix. In some countries, they tried to invest a little more money in the formation, but still, this is a profession with scarce recognition by other sciences, which is absurd because taxonomy is the basis of almost all natural sciences...

We can say Taxonomy is the “alphabet” to the other natural sciences?

We can, it's a good comparison. It's as essential as the alphabet.

So, what are the problems?

Lack of professional outcomes, so lack of jobs. Scarce recognition by other scientists. And a lot of obstacles during the professional career, due to a well-known problem with the publications.

Can you please explain better?

All evaluation of scientific research is based on the number of citations and the so-called impact factor. In short, this approach is more quantitative than qualitative, which inevitably prejudices more sectoral, niche studies, such as taxonomic ones. Sometimes a study may be of direct interest to, and therefore be cited by, only a handful of people worldwide, but this does not make it any less valuable, quite the contrary! It is probably a unique study, very important precisely because it has no equal elsewhere. Yet its citations will be much lower than that of a study on a more popular topic, which will probably be cited thousands of times. It would be necessary to introduce an evaluation criterion linked to the real quality of the research, but this is very difficult because it would require a more direct human evaluation than a calculation that can be left to machines. In short, as things stand at present... It looks a bit like a competition of likes! And that's not the only problem...

What else is there?

Access to publications are getting more and more expensive. Both for those who publish and for those who consult. There are many journals, even prestigious ones, that charge very high fees to publish.

Do scientists pay to publish?

Yes, unfortunately they do, and more and more are doing so, and the amounts demanded are increasing. This practice makes it almost impossible for many other scientists, especially from the less wealthy parts of the world, to succeed in publishing a study, even if it is of interest and quality, in certain journals. This is a huge loss of scientific wealth. But there is also the issue of consultation: those who want to read articles from certain journals are faced with ever-higher paywalls, which limit access to information. This system as a whole is not at all good. You know how it is, if you pay hundreds or thousands of euros to publish, the doubt that some journals may be more interested in accepting a study arises... I'm not saying that these journals are necessarily badly made (even if there are), but there is certainly a somewhat distorted selection mechanism. EJT, thanks to the support of European natural history institutes which fully fund the publication costs, is free for both authors and readers.

So not all submitted studies end up published on EJT.

Not at all, we discard almost half of them. In many cases, this is not a lack of quality, but simply to respect our editorial line. It would be nice if more realities worked this way, but I understand that economic sustainability is important... Yet I am sorry that, instead of reacting, we (in some cases me too) end up adapting to this payment system. The loser is the sharing of knowledge.

A little question about you... How was the young Fabio? How the passion for taxonomy has started?

Since I was a child I have always been interested in nature, and animals in particular. As a boy, I was having fun inserting animals’ names in a general classification I found in a book. So I started classifying pretty soon, even if I met the profession of taxonomist only later, at University. Well, I never stopped since then, later as an entomologist and now also as Editor in Chief of EJT.

Well, we all think the young Fabio who classified animals for playing must be very proud of this 2022 Fabio. Thank you for the chat, and good luck!

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