Illicit centipede raises thorny question: Should journals have refused to publish a paper about it?


In 2018, a new species of centipede graced the pages of the prominent taxonomy journal 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 centipede is in a harsh spotlight. The Philippine government says the Spanish neurologist and amateur biologist who described the species acquired his specimens illegally.

Neither the journal’s editors nor its peer reviewers caught the lapse—and the journal has no policy requiring documentation that specimens have been collected with proper permits. Some editors tell Science that should change. Others worry about hampering research when undescribed species are vanishing fast. And all agree that journals would struggle to enforce any such rules, given the wide variation in countries’ legal requirements. “There is simply no way for a journal to police this,” says Maarten Christenhusz, an independent botanist and editor-in-chief of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Carles Doménech of the University of Alicante in Spain had contacted Filipino collectors after seeing images of the centipede online. One, Michael Andrew Cipat, caught wild centipedes and sold them—dead and alive—to Doménech in 2016 and 2017. Cipat tells Science he had collecting permits and that a friend with export permits shipped the specimens. But the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources says it is illegal to sell specimens to a foreign researcher who has not signed an agreement with DENR. “The Philippine government does not tolerate such illegal acts,” a representative wrote to Science. The collectors could be imprisoned or fined under a Philippine wildlife protection law.

Doménech says he didn’t know he needed permits to export the centipedes, calling himself a “newbie” who worked largely alone. After he submitted his paper describing the new species, which he named Scolopendra paradoxa, neither Zootaxa nor any of the five reviewers of his manuscript asked about permits, he says. “Now I know it [was] a mistake,” he wrote in an email. “Now I capture my specimens and don’t let anybody 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 even though the journal does not impose permit requirements, individual editors may reject manuscripts that lack permits. He says the journal’s editors had previously discussed whether it should instruct authors to follow permit requirements and could not agree. “Most editors had negative views about ‘permits’ or ‘legal requirements’ for specimens,” Zhang says, citing opinions that such regulations curb biodiversity research and conservation.

One reviewer of Doménech’s manuscript, Carlos Martínez, a centipede taxonomist at the University of Turku’s Zoological Museum, says he was “really mad” to learn about the origins of the centipede specimens. “As reviewers, we have the right to know if the specimens were illegally obtained,” he says. “We have the right to refuse to review the paper.” Martínez says he interviewed four of the five Filipino collectors named in the paper and confirmed the specimens were illegal. But he says reviewers can’t be expected to routinely probe the legality of specimens. “We reviewers are not supposed to be the police.”

Illegal specimens in research have been exposed occasionally, but journal editors disagree about the magnitude of the problem. One 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 of ZooKeys and an emeritus arthropod researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, says an editorial policy on permits “is essential.”

But among five respected taxonomy journals, two—the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society and Zootaxa—do not instruct authors to abide by specimen-collecting 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 tells authors to follow the law, but adds, “If we as editors suspected that material was illegally collected, 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 one obstacle.

A further complication is the international Nagoya Protocol, which aims to ensure “fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.” The agreement may govern the import of some specimens, but whether it applies to taxonomy specimens is unclear. The Nagoya Protocol allows each signatory country to define what constitutes use of genetic resources; Spain says the EU legislation that enforces the Nagoya Protocol does not apply to taxonomic studies such as Doménech’s.

Gonzalo Giribet, editor-in-chief of Invertebrate Systematics and a zoologist at Harvard University, adds that reviewers can’t take on the responsibility either. “They are doing this altruistically,” he says, making him leery of adding legal concerns to their reviewing burden. “Journals should have clear statements about the origins of the biological materials and ethics, and the ultimate responsibility [for legality] should lie with the authors.”

Clear information about legal requirements would help reviewers, editors, and researchers, says Caroline Fukushima, an arachnologist at the Finnish Museum of Natural History. In June 2020, in Conservation Biology, she and colleagues recommended creating a platform for countries’ legal requirements for wildlife research. “We are facing habitat destruction, so we must make life easier and faster for scientists,” she says., 10 February 2021