Ask any taxonomist, "Who's doing taxonomy nowadays?", and they'll tell you the same story: hardly anyone. Funding for taxonomy is drying up in favour of research that'll turn a quick buck or research that explains rather than describes, or, crucially, research that brings in big overhead funding to institutions.
Look in many university biology departments to see who's teaching taxonomy, and the answer is: nobody. If they have a systematist or two, most likely they'll be doing and teaching molecular phylogenetics. I'm not knocking molecular phylogenetics; it's critically important work, but there are very few people now cataloguing and describing species, providing identification tools, curating collections, and databasing biodiversity, nor is anyone teaching those skills.
Ask a recent graduate what they learned about biological identification, classification, diversity, and even phylogeny, and likely you'll get a blank look. Ask what the "C" in C. elegans or the "E" in E. coli stands for. What's the species name for the Drosophila or Arabidopsis they're experimenting with? Yet they'll use and misuse organisms' names throughout their careers to retrieve and organise knowledge and to describe their own research.
Sometimes, I don't think our biological colleagues do us any favours either. In private they might sneer at what we do: it's stamp collecting; only nerds read our papers; it's nit-picking name-changing. But it's what they do in public, or more accurately what they don't do, that really undermines this essential discipline of science.
What they don't do is cite taxonomists' work. This is perhaps largely unintentional, but it has a profound effect. There are a number of reasons.
1. Taxonomists, like other scientists, publish their research in peer-reviewed journals. New species have to be named—so other scientists can find and refer to information about them—and they have to be classified—so we can understand what they're related to. Peer review is a check (not always an effective one, as in any discipline) that the work has been done well. But the geneticist in the lab or the ecologist or conservationist in the field rarely reads these original papers. You'd need a whole library to cover the plants or animals of any field site. So they use the secondary literature: Floras, field guides and on-line resources like databases. And these are what they cite, if they refer at all to the taxonomic foundations of their research. Often, large chunks of those Floras, field guides, and databases have been simply copied from the primary literature; and their authors may happily take credit, along with the glory that comes with being cited a lot. But the original authors, the ones that did the primary research, may rarely be cited, and that affects their careers. (The plagiarism isn't the main issue that concerns me here, but it does concern me deeply; even when the original source is cited I still see substantial copying as plagiarism.)
I can illustrate this citation gap from my own publications. Only one has been hugely cited: Flora of New Zealand Vol. 4 (Webb et al. 1988). (And I must add, in relation to my comment above, that we took great pains—more pains than most readers will ever be aware of—to make sure the descriptions and keys in that book were all original and accurate for New Zealand material.) It's been cited over 660 times in the scholarly literature (Google Scholar), and tellingly, another 17,000 times in the literature that's not covered by Google Scholar. At the other extreme, a paper Bill Sykes and I wrote (Sykes & Garnock-Jones 1979) in which we reclassified the native Eugenia maire as a species of Syzygium has been cited just twice in the scholarly literature; you'd think it was a worthless piece of research if you believed the standard measures. Yet our findings have been used by other biologists; the name Syzygium maire has been used in 119 scholarly papers and in 12,000 other publications and on line. That reclassification places swamp maire more accurately among its relatives (including the clove); it's not trivial.
2. There's a convention in biological publishing, which most journals blindly (and perhaps ignorantly) insist their authors follow (Garnock-Jones & Webb, 1996). That is, when you use a biological name, you also must include the citation of the author who first used that name in that context (as if it were part of the name, which it isn't). For example, in most scientific journals the name Ranunculus altus must be extended by adding the abbreviation of the describing author's name, in this case me: Ranunculus altus Garn.-Jones. Why do it? Well, it's a short-hand bibliographic citation that was used by the early taxonomists like Linnaeus, Banks, de Candolle and others to refer to each other's work in the days before scientific journals. It doesn't have much meaning nowadays except for the rare circumstance where you need to distinguish between two plants that have the same name: Ranunculus altus Garn.-Jones is a different plant from Ranunculus altus (Julin) Ericsson. But nowadays when we scientists are supposed to cite all our sources in the reference list at the end of the paper, the old-fashioned author citation convention lets researchers off the hook of citing their taxonomic sources. And when the value of research work is (gu)estimated by the number of times it's cited in the scholarly literature, this puts taxonomists and taxonomy at a distinct disadvantage.
3. Sometimes our work gets taken for granted or not cited for other reasons. Maybe the names and classifications are just taken as a given that doesn't need to be referenced; maybe writers simply don't appreciate the research and expertise behind the names they're using. Maybe they just don't think it's important enough.
Sometimes the journals themselves restrict the number of references that can be cited, and taxonomy can suffer through this too. For example, a recent research paper in New Zealand used published phylogenetic taxonomy research as its raw data; the authors could not have done the study without it, but were any of those papers cited? No, not one, unless you count citation in the supplementary data, which of course doesn't get noticed for the citation indices and impact factors that govern scientists' careers and universities' hiring decisions. To be fair, those authors' hands were probably tied by the journal's reference limitation policy; it only allows a total of 12 cited references (a policy that might be deviation amplifying, to the advantage of high impact journals). But the authors presumably made the decision to cite their ecological colleagues in the "proper" references that count, and to relegate their taxonomic colleagues to the supplementary list that doesn't (I am not citing that paper here because it's unfair to single out just one.)
4. The worth of scientific journals is quantified using "impact factors". The impact factor of a journal in any year is the number of times it was cited divided by the number of papers it published. Because taxonomists' work doesn't get cited as often as it should (explained above), the journals that publish taxonomic research tend to have low impact factors. I've heard it said that some "top" journals are no longer publishing taxonomic papers, because taxonomy lowers their impact factors, but I haven't seen proper evidence for this. Publishing in low impact factor journals is the kiss of death to a research career. When academics review applications for positions, their judgement of applicants' worth is heavily slanted by the impact factors of the journals they publish in; and looking those statistics up is an easy alternative to the hard work of actually reading the applicants' papers. The same thing happens when researchers apply for funding. And there too, the funding body needs to demonstrate its relevance by funding researchers and topics that are likely to get published in high impact journals. Researchers that can't pull big grants and don't publish in top journals are dead in the water; worse, they're shark bait.
How does this translate into employment trends and funding decisions? The research success of academic departments and government research labs is increasingly judged by the quantity and quality of their researchers (in New Zealand the university research grading exercise is the PBRF and it's almost the only area of departmental funding that can go up or go down, now that income from student fees is capped) and by the external funding they can attract. Journal impact factors are hugely important in the PBRF assessment. PBRF scores directly affect the funding a department and a university will get, and in New Zealand, individual academics are graded, not the departments/disciplines as in the UK. So departments are caught in a trap. Even if they're wise enough to see the importance of taxonomy to their students' biological literacy, they simply can't afford to employ taxonomists any more; they're forced to go for a higher-profile discipline and maybe even drop their systematics courses. Even though the lion's share of university funding is still given for teaching students, the discipline breadth and quality of teaching and the employment success and quality of graduates are rarely measured or questioned with anything like the effort that currently goes into the PBRF.
As systematics researchers are a dwindling pool, there are fewer people to cite their papers, unless ecologists and other biologists change their habits.
Why does this matter? As the world's population grows and ecological relationships unravel under the stress, our understanding of the diversity of life on earth is becoming more and more critical. Many countries face increasing extinctions of wildlife, which we wouldn't even be able to document, let alone avoid or repair, without taxonomy. If that sounds like a bold claim, think about it for a while. Without taxonomic descriptions, catalogues, and classifications of all those plants, animals, fungi, protists, and microbes, who could possibly notice that some are going extinct; we wouldn't even have recognised extinction as a general phenomenon.
And then, where are the new foods and drugs going to come from? Who will identify the pests and diseases that threaten agriculture, horticulture, and public health everywhere? Who will recognise when a local species that's a canary for water quality or temperature rise is replaced by a similar-looking exotic pest with a wider tolerance? It's not only the world's climate that's close to crisis point.
After I wrote the bulk of this post, two very relevant articles were published.
One claims there are more taxonomists and fewer undescribed species than we have estimated. This would be good news if future estimates reach the same conclusions, but it does contradict what has been termed elsewhere a mass extinction of taxonomists. (I do note the authors include untrained taxonomists in their numbers; that's a different issue, but, briefly, if taxonomy is to be practiced as a science, it needs its practitioners to be trained in population genetics, evolution, statistics, comparative biology, and the scientific method, and working in institutions that can archive their specimens and records, and provide collections, lab, and library support. Many biologists' low opinion of taxonomy leads them to the opinion that anyone can do it without training and a thorough background in relevant science.)
The other article analyses the citation problem, giving reasoned and evidence-based support for much of what I'm saying here. (Commendably, for a paywalled journal, this opinion piece is freely available.)
So here's a challenge to other biologists: if you value the taxonomic system that enables you to describe and interpret your research, cite at least one taxonomic paper that underpins each paper you publish, and commit to never omitting any relevant ones. It's a small thing to do to support the discipline that supports your work.
References not hyperlinked in the text.
Garnock Jones PJ, Webb CJ. 1996. The requirement to cite authors of plant names in botanical journals. Taxon 45: 285-286.
Sykes, W. R.; Garnock Jones, P. J., 1979: A new combination in Syzygium for Eugenia maire (Myrtaceae) of New Zealand. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 60: 396-401