Electronic access to collections

Fri May 20 11:07:01 CDT 1994

A few months ago on the Mollusca list processor at Berkeley, I started a
discussion about electronic access to malacology collections [mollusca@
ucmp1.berkeley.edu, archive item #113].  That discussion centered on
commercial vs academic access to the databases, rather than on further
endangering the endangered, but the ideas are related.  Here is a slightly
edited version of my posting:

     At a staff meeting in October 1993 at the Academy of Natural Sciences
of Philadelphia, our president, Keith Thomson, raised the issue of rights
of access to data in museum databases.  The consensus here favors academic
(not-for-profit) access to our databases, but restricted commercial access.
Some of our curators want to make their entire collection database
available via gopher on Internet, but this provides no way to restrict
commercial access.  Some want to make only type catalogues available by
gopher.  Others feel that only subsets of databases should be available by
gopher, for example, giving states or countries but not specific localities
for species.  Academic users who found items of potential interest would
then request access to the full database, and be issued a password allowing
them to dial into the system, perhaps after signing a form stating that
results of their work would not be used for commercial purposes.

     Staff members in our division of environmental research have
pointed out that some of the data they gather have been contracted for by
private companies (e.g. stream surveys and water quality monitoring for
chemical companies), and cannot be freely released.

     We have received NSF funding to help computerize collections, and some
might argue that the collections data should therefore be available without
restrictions.  However, that the Academy has been around since 1812, and
our investment in the collections is much greater than the support from NSF
in recent years.  [One respondent to my posting noted that you have to pay
to receive information available under the Freedom of Information Act.]

     As a curator, I worry that allowing unrestricted access to databases
will allow the data therein to become an endpoint for research, rather than
a starting point.  One can't assume that specimens have been identified
correctly--one shouldn't download info from ten collections and then plot
distribution maps.  Queries of databases over the network should help
researchers decide what specimens to request on loan, if it is worthwhile
to visit an institution, or (someday) if they want to us to pop the
specimen under a video camera and beam them an image.

Extracts from some of the replies I received:

Rich_Palmer at mts.ucs.ualberta.ca

     "I think that the more accessible things are the more likely people
     are to do creative things."

     "As for fears about abuse by users for 'commercial' purposes, I agree
     this could be a potential problem.  Your suggestion that only summary
     or subsets of data be put on-line, and that people wishing access to
     more detailed records would have to request them formally, would seem
     like a nice compromise (easy access to what is available, more
     difficult access to the data itself)."

aedwards at zookeeper.zoo.uga.edu (archive item 119):

     "Much of the information in our data bases are not covered by
     copyright (i.e. not type materials) and we have had to consider how
     this information will be presented very carefully.  We wish to retain
     control of the information and how it is used, but at the same time
     provide enough information to potential users to let them determine if
     they want to contact us for more information."

     "Our answer to the issue of internet rights to information is an
     extension of our general policies concerning access rights to our
     data.  We are a state agency with a policy of providing information to
     other state and federal agencies and the general public.  We do not
     provide commercial firms or non-profit groups with free information,
     which they in turn can sell."

     "What we have done is to begin an experiment.  We will provide some
     information but not all the information.  We hope we will be providing
     enough information for someone to ask for more, but not so much
     information that it is used without our help.  I expect we will change
     what we provide to the internet based on who uses the information and
     how it is used.  I also expect that there will be some abuse of the
     information, but I hope the use of the information will out-weight the

Gary Rosenberg
Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia
rosenberg at say.acnatsci.org

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