James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

May 30, 2015

Species capitalization

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 11:19 am

How would you format the phrase “maize, sorghum, setaria, rice, and arabidopsis”?

If you don’t understand why this is a question that comes up in publishing scientific papers you can stop reading now, never come back, and go on to live a happy and fulfilling life without every revisiting this issue.

Sadly I am not one of those people. Here is the problem: sorghum, setaria, and arabidopsis are also genus names, which should be capitalized and ideally italicized. However, in this list the words are clearly being used as common names for individual species (ie sorghum refers to Sorghum bicolor, setaria  refers to Setaria italica*, and arabidopsis refers to Arabidopsis thaliana respectively).

My preferred solution is the one I’ve written above, since there’s a clear distinction between the common name usage of the words to refer to a single species and the scientific usage of the word to refer to an entire genus.

However I will, somewhat grumpily, also accept:

“maize, Sorghum, Setaria, rice, and Arabidopsis” or “”maize, Sorghum, Setaria, rice, and Arabidopsis” In the three cases were the genus name is also widely used as a common name among scientists, the name is capitalized. The argument here is just because a word starts being used a common name doesn’t make it stop being a genus name. I think this formatting style is unnecessarily complicated and confusing but it is also an intellectually consistent approach.

I will not accept:

“maize, sorghum, Setaria, rice, and Arabidopsis” <– The argument here is that the “official” common name of Sorghum bicolor is “sorghum” while the official common name of Setaria italica is “foxtail millet” and the official common name of Arabidopsis thaliana is “mouse ear cress.” The problem with this argument is that it hinges on the concept of “official” common names, when common names are, by definition, non-scientific names people use to refer to plants.

No, just no:

“maize, sorghum, setaria, rice, and Arabidopsis” <– I’m not sure what the intellectual argument is here.

The last appears quite commonly in papers written by people who started their training in the arabidopsis community, which is how I came to be writing this post in the first place.

* well or Setaria virdis but since these two are wildly interfertile one or the other is destined to be reduced to subspecies status at some point, but that’s a whole different can of worms.

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