Illegal millipedes raise a thorny question: Should magazines have refused to publish an article about it?

A new millipede (reproduced with permission from the copyright holder) seduced taxonomists – but the samples had dark origins.

© MAGNOLIA PRESS; C. DOMÉNECH ET AL., ZOOTAXA, 4483 (3), 401 (2018)

By Yao-Hua lov

In 2018 a new species of millipede adorned the sides of the prominent taxonomy diary Zootaxa. More than 14 centimeters long with striking teal-colored legs, it lives in the montane and mossy forests of the Philippines. Now, however, the millipede is in a harsh light. The Philippine government says the Spanish neurologist and amateur biologist who described the species acquired his specimens illegally.

Neither the magazine’s editors nor its peer reviewers were allowed to lapse – and the magazine has no policy that requires documentation that samples have been collected with the correct permits. Some editors tell Science that should change. Others worry about hampering research when undescribed species disappear rapidly. And everyone agrees that magazines will struggle to enforce such rules given the wide variation in countries’ legal requirements. “There is simply no way for a journal to politicize this,” said Maarten Christenhusz, an independent botanist and editor-in-chief of Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Carles Doménech from the University of Alicante in Spain had contacted Filipino collectors after seeing pictures of the millipede online. One, Michael Andrew Cipat, captured wild millipedes and sold them – dead and alive – to Doménech in 2016 and 2017. Cipat tells Science he had collection permits and that a friend with export permits sent the samples. But the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources says it is illegal to sell samples to a foreign researcher who has not signed an agreement with DENR. “The Philippine government does not tolerate such illegal acts,” a representative wrote Science. Collectors could be imprisoned or fined under a Filipino law on the protection of wild animals.

Doménech says he did not know he needed permits to export the millipedes and called himself a “novice” who worked largely alone. After he sent his paper describing the new species that he named Scolopendra paradox, none of them Zootaxa neither of the five reviewers of his manuscript asked for permission, he says. “Now I know [was] a mistake, ”he wrote in an email. “Now I catch my copies and let no one do it for me without the corresponding legal permits.”

Zhi-Qiang Zhang, Editor-in-Chief of Zootaxa, who studies mites at Landcare Research in New Zealand, says that although the journal does not impose licensing requirements, individual editors may reject manuscripts that lack licenses. He says the magazine’s editors had previously discussed whether it should instruct authors to follow licensing requirements and could not agree. “Most editors had negative views about ‘permits’ or ‘legal requirements’ for samples,” Zhang said, citing statements that such rules restrict research and conservation of biodiversity.

A reviewer of Doménech’s manuscript, Carlos Martínez, a millennial taxonomist at the University of Turku Zoological Museum, says he was “really angry” at learning about the origins of the millipedes. “As reviewers, we have a right to know if the tests were obtained illegally,” he says. “We have the right to refuse to review the paper.” Martínez says he interviewed four of the five Filipino collectors mentioned in the newspaper and confirmed that the samples were illegal. But he says reviewers cannot be expected to routinely examine the legality of samples. “We reviewers should not be the police.”

Illegal tests in research have been exposed occasionally, but magazine editors disagree on the magnitude of the problem. An editor described it as “insignificant”; another said it is “impossible to know.” They also disagree on what to do about it. Louis Deharveng, Deputy Editor – in – Chief ZooKeys and an emeritus arthropod researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, says an editorial policy on permits “is important.”

But among five respected taxonomy journals, two are – the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society and Zootaxa—Do not ask authors to comply with sample collection laws. (Science will soon add such compliance with legal requirements to its editorial policy.)

Shaun Winterton, Editor-in-Chief of Systematic entomology and an entomologist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, says his journal asks authors to follow the law, but adds: “If we as editors suspect material was being collected illegally, it could be difficult for us to confirm. ” (He notes that he is speaking on behalf of the journal, not his employer.) The complex and varying legal conditions that countries impose on research are an obstacle.

A further complication is the International Nagoya Protocol, which aims to ensure “equitable and equitable distribution of benefits through the use of genetic resources.” The agreement may regulate the import of some specimens, but whether it applies to taxonomy tests is unclear. The Nagoya Protocol allows each signatory country to define what constitutes the use of genetic resources; Spain says EU law enforcing the Nagoya Protocol does not apply to taxonomic studies such as Doménechs.

Gonzalo Giribet, Editor-in-Chief of Invertebrate systematics and a zoologist at Harvard University adds that reviewers cannot take responsibility either. “They do this altruistically,” he says, making him very curious about adding legal concerns to their audit burden. “Journals must have clear statements about the origin of the biological materials and ethics and the ultimate responsibility [for legality] should lie with the authors. ”

Clear information on legal requirements will help reviewers, editors and researchers, says Caroline Fukushima, an arachnologist at the Finnish Museum of Natural History. In June 2020, i Conservation biology, she and colleagues recommended to create a platform for countries’ legal requirements for wildlife research. “We are facing habitat destruction, so we need to make life easier and faster for researchers,” she says.

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