Electronic taxon data and publications

Karen Wilson Karen_Wilson at RBGSYD.GOV.AU
Sun Oct 29 11:48:27 CST 1995

Nick Lander, Jim Beach and others have been writing about electronic
publication of taxa names and data on them. Jim suggested a 'clssification
browser, a piece of software that allowed one to visualize in 2-D or 3-D
all taxonomic classifications and all of the taxa/nodes within them. From
this tree, essentially all networked information about biological taxa
could be hung. Jim goes on to ask: 'If this were accessible in real-time on
standard desktop windowing systems, could taxonomists modify their many
practices, work protocols, rules of nomenclature, and taxon abstracting
services to manage, query and link to classifications and taxon data in a
completely electronic environment?  Besides the need to be connected to the
net, what would be the major constraints for using such a system as the
single authoritative index of taxonomic data?'

There's obviously no short answer to these remarks! However, I would
offer a few comments.

As to problems to be faced in greater accessiblity and usage of
electronic equipment and data by stematists, there are obviously many,
particularly in developing countries. However, I believe that a lot are
short-term problems that will become non-problems in 15-30 years,
thanks to factors such as diminishing cost of access to electronic
equipment, advances in computer technology, and greater familiarity of
younger workers with the electronic world. The last factor is often
forgotten but it seems to me to be most important, and to be encouraged
in this era of ever greater pressure on systematists to provide data
basic to biodiversity research and conservation, the great catchwords
of the end of this century.

Coming back to here and now: there are various groups addressing different
aspects of making taxon information available electronically.  Some have been
mentioned already; others include:

- IOPI - the International Organization for Plant Information - which is
developing an authoritative databased Global Plant Checklist of the
world's plants (vascular plants initially), as a co-operative effort
amongst the world's botanists (with input also from computer specialists).
A comprehensive data model and project plan have been developed but
progress has been held up very frustratingly because of lack of funding.
However, recent meetings in Madrid came up with a way of getting the
project off the ground that requires very little extra funding, so the
first data in the Checklist will be available via the IOPI Home Page in
about 6 months.  Besides the Global Plant Checklist, IOPI is also now
working on a World Flora, the Species Plantarum project, which will be
available in hard copy and electronically. (So will the Checklist
initially - I have yet to meet anyone who believes that books will
disappear completely in the next 50 years, and there are currently many
people with no or limited access to computers.) The World Flora will be
the first additional set of data linked to the Checklist of plant names
but, as Jim points out, it will be possible to access any linked set of
data once a basic list of names is got together. Similar initiatives are
underway for various animal groups but the problems are obviously much
greater for invertebrate groups with their enormous numbers of species
still undescribed. Any such project needs input from relevant specialists
around the world to be accepted as an authoritative source. Biologists and
nature being what they are, there will never be complete agreement on the
classification to be followed in any database. In this respect, the IOPI
data model (accessible, BTW, via the IOPI Home Page at
http://iopi.csu.edu.au/iopi) is good in that it allows alternative
taxonomic classifications to be implemented.

- Species 2000 - this new initiative is broader than just botany - the
aim as I understand it (and someone on its Steering Committee may care to
elaborate or to correct me) is to promote the production of taxon
databases on a worldwide basis, with the producers as active members of
Species 2000. Species 2000 would act as an 'umbrella' to provide users
with a common access point to members' databases and to encourage
production of these databases by seeking funding and providing other
development assistance. If Species 2000 can bring together the many
existing projects to better utilise limited resources (especially the
time of current systematists), it will be doing a great service to

- Committees considering the various Codes of Nomenclature such as the IAPT
Special Committee on Electronic Publishing and Databasing: I chair this
group, which was set up at the last International Botanical Congress to
report to the next IBC on how the International Code of Botanical
Nomenclature should be altered to cope with electronic publication. In both
botany and zoology, there are proposals for registration of names in
future, and discussions are continuing on mechanisms for this. The unified
'Code of Bionomenclature' proposed by Hawksworth et al. also addresses
these questions.

Well, that's enough for a Sunday morning! I look forward to reading
responses from others on these matters. BTW, email me direct for contact
addresses (email, Home Pages, snail mail, etc.) for above-mentioned

Karen Wilson

     Karen L. Wilson
     Royal Botanic Gardens               E-mail: karen at rbgsyd.gov.au
     Mrs Macquaries Road                 Fax: 61-2-251.7231
     SYDNEY  NSW 2000,  AUSTRALIA        Phone: 61-2-231.8137

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