UBIO or is it TNS?

christian thompson cthompson at SEL.BARC.USDA.GOV
Tue Jul 9 10:52:51 CDT 2002

We should all be happy, should celebrate the wonderful success of Wood Hole Marine Laboratory*s grant of a half million to achieve what is truly need by all.

Congratulations are due to David Remsen for successfully convincing the Mellon foundation of the most critical need in Biology today.

But sorry, I must respond (as I am sorry to admit is typical of the Systematic Community) with some negative comments.

First and foremost, despite the write up in the United Press release, etc., UBIO will not solve the problem with a half million from the Mellon Foundation. David is a bright guy and has lots of new ideas. But when I look back on ITIS, Species2000, GBIF, ALL, and even my own experience of just a quarter of million fly names, I  remain dubious of the success of this new effort, especially at its funding level.

How many *Names* are there really out in the World today. We guess there is some 1.7 million described species; so there is many more *names,* given those of higher categories, the synonymy problem, multiple classifications, etc. Guess?? maybe 3 million or 6 million? And you are going to get all those into a computer with the appropriate links, etc., for half a million dollars?

Yes, David Remsen says he already has more than a million names? Where did these come from? I have, I believe, 215, 484 names in my BioSystematic Database of World Diptera online today. Many of these names also appear in ITIS, Species2000 and now in ALL Species-Tool kit. The last claims to have 1,124,189 names in it. A large number apparently taken from my BDWD, but as usual without permission, hence, in their translation they create even more errors than were in the original dataset! The bottomline, new funds for new computer projects just to re-shape the interface to the same old names isn*t really helping the users. We need to invest in the taxonomists to clean up these names, to complete the existing databases, etc.  

Second, there is a missing key component. That is, the endorsement and commitment of the systematics community. In the past few months, we have witnessed NATURE declaring that its prestige alone would solve the problem. Simply demand that authors deposit pre-prints with the Linnaean Society and you got the GenBank of taxonomy. Then ALL with its Species-Tool kit declare it had solved the problem. Add those to the past declarations by Species2000, ITIS, GBIF, and numerous taxon based efforts, one must wonder why UBIO can now simply do it all, where everyone else has apparently failed.

Sorry, but UBIO will just be another acronym added to the pile. Assuming that all the past efforts have failed in the sense of what is available TODAY on the WWW and so will UBIO for two simple reasons.

1) Unless the community is fully and completely enlisted in the effort, no effort that wants to be comprehensive will succeed.

Years ago we suggested to the Zoological community that the simple requirement that all publication containing new taxonomic names must be indexed by the Zoological Record would at least allow us to manage those names more effectively. The majority of community rejected such an idea as it would place an undue burden on their taxonomic freedom to publish what ever they wanted where ever they wanted and the responsibility to find and index those names was up to the users who needed them.

Today, I believe efforts at lower taxonomical levels, where full community support may be achieved, etc., is the only pragmatic solution. Obviously, if significant new funding is available so that most can get support, then perhaps comprehensive taxonomic coverage is possible. Lacking significant funding, most systematists will contribute to more limited taxonomical effort where their contributions directly repay them. So, for example, a fly worker may contribute to the BioSystematic Database of World Diptera as that is their domain, they won*t care much about more comprehensive effort unless there is direct $$$ in it for their research.

2) And there is a fundamental naivety among informatics workers who look at the systematics world. They love our classifications as they are nested hierarchies, how valid names should be unique keys, etc., all of which directly mapped to relational database schematics, etc. But they don*t understand the problems which we, systematists, ourselves know but ignore. The problems of identification, circumscription, homonymy, synonymy, multiple classifications, etc.

What we, systematists, want and need are better tools to help us serve the public. Like it or not, our science will never be some thing that users can do themselves directly. Like Medicine, users need the human interface we call doctors. We might know the common characters of something, but deciding whether we have a common cold or the flu or pneumonia really is the decision best left to a physician who truly understands all the characteristics and their variable nature.

Sure users think classifications are stable,  names are unique and constant identifiers, etc. That there is only one classification and that does not change over time. So, just give the user a scientific name and the characteristics for a taxon. That is all that they need, the rest is their science.

How many times have taxonomists identified a voucher, providing a name to a ecologist, who then simply completed their work and publish it. But later work reveals that what the ecologist thought was a SINGLE species (and the single voucher sent to the taxonomist may have been correctly identified) was really a couple of species? Or the worker who believe that they were working on the same species as their predecessors? Etc.

Yes, it is possible for users to become competent taxonomists. Look at the best of bird watchers: They do understand variation, etc., and are, therefore, capable of identifying birds. Unfortunately they, along with their professional colleagues, largely ignore scientific nomenclature (common names are better!) and are biased to classifications that increase the number of species they can check-off! But it is a long way from 9,000 birds to the guessimated 1.7 millions species!

Bottom line?

Welcome abroad, David. New ideas are always wanted, and new funds are desperately needed by all. 

For the rest of us, let*s remember that the apparent failure of all previous efforts, from ITIS & Species2000* to ALL and now UBIO, is not due to technology, but the failure to enlist and support our contributions. Funders need to remember that names, scientific names in Biology, are scattered across a 250 year old publication record. We need to remind them that we first must fund the Bill Eschmeyers of the World to dig out those names from that publication record. Only then can fancy computer programs work. 

oh, well ....

And to Mary, there may not be UPI press releases, but I do understand that new funds are being found for Species2000, that GBIF is alive and well, etc. 

And the trick that David refers to as how to find all the articles on the bluefish is merely enlarging one search list from the just valid name to include all the known synonyms and common names. ITIS has had this capability online for years (biobots) but apparently dropped it as no one was using it! 

But other aspect of his example, is sadly only one author out of 47 used the valid scientific name of the bluefish in their abstract/title!

F. Christian Thompson
Systematic Entomology Lab., ARS, USDA
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D. C. 20560-0169
(202) 382-1800 voice
(202) 786-9422 FAX
cthompso at sel.barc.usda.gov [NB: no terminal "n"]
visit our Diptera site at www.diptera.org

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