CONABIO and biological collections databases

Hesiquio Benitez Diaz hbd at HP.FCIENCIAS.UNAM.MX
Tue Jun 27 21:34:41 CDT 1995

 On Mexico's Comision Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la

          Ideas about database information interchange.


CONABIO is an agency of the Mexican Government with the
mission of creating the national inventory of biodiversity.
This  long-term task must begin with a compilation of the
information that is held in museums and herbaria. In the past
three years, CONABIO has been allocating resources to support
the computarization of mexican collections and to the capture
of the information located in foreign museums.

Currently, CONABIO houses more than 80 databases of
georeferenced label data. The information covers vertebrates,
plants and invertebrates.=20

Our largest database, the Bird Database, compiled over a
number of years by Adolfo Navarro and Hesiquio Ben=A1tez, was
the cause of the present discussion. Presently the database
consists of about 200,000 georeferenced records of mexican
birds, coming from more than 40 mexican, american, canadian
and european museums. CONABIO intends to use the information
to support both academic and research activities and to advise
government agencies and NGOs in regards to monitoring,
ecological planning, restoration activities, evaluation of
environmental impact assesments, etc. To do this, most of the
data held in our banks should be made available to the public and
this requires an agreed set of policies from the suppliers of the
information regarding access, copyright, costs, acknoledgements,
updating the information, etc.

In our view, these policies should derive from the recognition of=20
a number of points:

1) The basic information on the typical label of the specimen has
always been essential to the work of taxonomists and
biogeographers.  However, the current capabilities for handling
very large databases (in the order of hundreds of Megabytes and
even Gigabytes) in open network environments like Internet, coupled
to GPS and GIS technology, opens new avenues for science.

2) Besides, this information has become absolutely essential to
public-interest tasks like monitoring, ecological ordination,
environmental impact assessment including its supervision, etc.=20
Moreover, in many countries, the law protects by name certain
species and in practice this has been a very powerful tool for
protecting areas (Endangered Species Act, Ley General del
Equilibrio Ecol=A2gico), but also it is now doubly important to be
able to access as much scientific information as possible, to avoid
erring in any direction.

3) This information is technical in nature and is produced and
updated by professionals and, in certain cases, experienced
amateurs. Only trained experts should be able to modify it and
therefore authority over the information should reside at its
source, namely, the museum, herbarium or private collection.


1) The positive implications of an open access to professionally-maintained=
 comprehensive databases of label information are huge.=20
Not only to scientists, but also to government agencies,
conservation groups and consulting agencies.  Even the general
public may benefit from part of the information.

2)   The negative implications are related essentially to:
      i)  Misuse by irresponsible collectors
     ii)  Misuse by "competing" or non-ethical taxonomists.
    iii)  Mistakes originated by poor or unstable taxonomy.
     iv)   Non-acceptable profiting by consultants


1) CONABIO is perfectly willing to recognize explicitly that source
institutions of parts of, or a whole database, are entitled to:
     1.1) full credit about the origin of the information.
     1.2) Regular reports on the amount of use of their
     1.3) Authority on possible updates or changes in their
     1.4) Authority about restricting some records or fields.
     1.5) Being refered to as sources and therefore authorities
on the  information.

2) Some institutions are copyrighting or intend to copyright
databases of label information.  Both Mexican and American law
allow this, but from our point of view this is useless (see also
Copyright, on the ASC Guidelines) and may be undesirable.=20
Copyrighting the information in fact induces the creation of a
bureaucracy to its enforcement and, in an electronic network
environment, enforcement becomes a nightmare.  In a sense copyright
and networks are opposed to each other.

We believe that academic institutions are (or ought to be)
intersted more in their information being used than in the
opposite.  It is feasible to track usage if each record has
associated information about its source, and any queries using the
record or part of it can increase the counter of utilization  of
that information, to produce reports for the source institutions.=20
However, "shuffling" the information by complicated queries may
confuse the pointers to the sources.  This is a technical problem
that is not trivial to solve. =20

Clearly, we prefer not to deal with copyrighted material, but this
is one the most difficult issues and we expect some lively
discussion about it. Currently there is a very sizeable amount of
label material in the internet (i.e, Cornell Muse server, or the
Australian  ERIN, to name just two) which is displayed as
copyrighted and seem to be freely accesible. Perhaps we can
evaluate this experience to see if it applies to the bird data.

3) We fully agree on the need to protect certain parts of the
information and it is feasible to do that simply by keeping
restricted information out of the servers or the network.=20
Inquiries about such restricted fields or records may be redirected
to the sources or to an appointed committee .


We believe that the benefits of networking high quality,
georeferenced and professionally maintained information about
specimens are too important to restrict its general use by modern
electronic methods.  The existing experience (the Australian ERIN,
for example) more than supports this belief.  The taxonomy
community has now a unique opportunity to prove to the society at
large that the work they have been performing over centuries is not
only essential to the existence of the biological sciences, but has
become an indispensable tool for the conservation and correct use
of what natural richness remains in our planet.

Dr. Jorge Soberon Mainero
Executive Secretary of CONABIO

Hesiquio Benitez Diaz                  * (525) 6-22-48-32               *
Museo de Zoologia "Alfonso L. Herrera" * (525) 5-54-43-32 CONABIO       *
Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico* (525) 6-76-09-47 HOME          *
Facultad de Ciencias, A.P. 70-399      * e-mail hbd at*
Mexico D.F. 04510                      *                                *

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