The Future of Zoological Record as a Global Resource?

Tom Moritz tmoritz at AMNH.ORG
Mon Oct 20 11:45:52 CDT 2003


We are facing a complex set of challenges to the traditions governing the
creation
recording and preservation of scientific knowledge -- challenges that
involve law,
market, technology and cultural norms. It is important to recognize that
many  traditional assumptions about are being re-negotiated in the "digital
era".

We know that the recorded knowledge base of science has, for centuries,
been primarily in the custodianship of libraries -- libraries that are
an integral part of the scientific community -- most often imbedded in
scientific institutions.  We also know that, because the medium
of recorded knowledge since the 1600's has been printed paper journals
distributed (albeit inequitably) world-wide in hundreds or thousands of
copies -- the
fundamentally democratic and meritocratic nature of science has been
well protected.

The movement to digital media -- at least those controlled centrally
by private corporations (Elsevier seems to be -- fairly or not --
a popular exemplar of this trend) and held in perpetuity as corporate
"information assets"
-- that is, never actually acquired by libraries -- means that a part of our
scientific knowledge base has been captured and commodified
and that from here forward, libraries may no longer be the primary
custodians of that knowledge
-- a role we have played for hundreds of years.    Some major libraries
have already
agreed to stop acquiring paper copies and to accept year-to-year licensing
agreements for
digital access to scientific serials -- agreements which mean -- at least
as these agreements
are currently drawn -- that from here forward private corporations not
libraries will effectively
be the custodians of scientific knowledge -- at least for those parts of
the knowledge base published
in the for profit journals.  (Some preliminary analysis we have done at
AMNH Library suggests
that less than 20% of the material cited in the ZR database since 1978 is
actually in the commercial literature... But of course the many of the most
prestigious
journals are in the commercial asset portfolio...)

To observe this is not  to raise a facile objection ("innuendo") about "profit"
or "not-for-profit" organizations but to ask if the scientific community
is consciously and responsibly agreeing to this transformation...

(Though in this regard, a look at the 15-20 year history of increases in costs
to libraries of scientific serials -- hugely in excess of measures of
inflation
like the Consumer Price Index -- raises major questions...  SEE
http://www.arl.org/stats/arlstat/1999t2.html  ; AND
  http://archive.ala.org/alonline/archive/periodicals02/zoology.html )

Are private for profit  corporations in fact prepared to play the role of
custodians
of scientific knowledge in perpetuity?  Does the scientific community want
them to...?

I believe that the BIOSIS/ZR  "transaction"  is corollary to this primary
paradigm shift.

(ZR was for decades a community production -- scientists worldwide contributed
to the annual compilations of ZR -- and this is why (among other reasons) --
there used to be such a lag in publishing  the annual volumes...
And also why, inevitably, there are lacunae in the compilations
for some taxa for some periods...

And as Michael Dadd -- formerly of ZR in the U.K. was kind enough to inform
me --
the original ZR database was to a significant degree modelled on the work done
at the American Museum of Natural History in the late 60's  by Dr. James Atz
as he developed an electronic version of the Dean Bibliography of Fishes...

The watershed point in the history of ZR was more probably its original
acquisition by BIOSIS not the recent proposed changes...  Be-that-as-it-may,
Zoological Record remains -- for the global biodiversity and
biosystematics/ taxonomy
community -- a database of record -- at least for zoology. (It is worth
contrasting and comparing
the current situation zoology faces with the experience of botanical
systematics -- and the
path it has  followed in creating a record of its knowledge base.)

More recently, I personally have for several years been advocating the full
retrospective
conversion of the Zoological Record database and it's use as a backbone for the
international "Biodiversity Commons" -- an apt response to the needs most
clearly
expressed in the Convention on Biological Diversity and the many international
and national structures that have evolved since Rio - 1992 ( U.N.
Conference on Environment
and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992 )
(These initiatives include GEF, GBIF, IABIN, NABIN, and many many  national
and
private organizations and initiatives).

At AMNH we even took the experimental step of producing a national and full
retrospective
subset of ZR for the Congo -- extracting records back to 1864 from the
print volumes...  But the full effort
-- conversion of the whole ZR database -- proved to be too costly for our
single digital library initiative.

The ZR knowledge base is essential to the effort to preserve our global
biological diversity.
and is the legacy of decades of work by thousands of scientists world wide --
I believe It belongs in the public domain under community management and
control
for all to use and benefit from.

Having said this, the obvious dilemma is how to devise a plan for sustained
management
of such a resource.  To consider alternatives to for profit management is
not to assume
that "information is free" (or "wants to be")  -- we all know that there
are real costs associated
with the creation and recording of knowledge -- and we can not minimize the
problems
of sustained support  experienced by  BIOSIS -- but there are emerging
alternative models
for development and they should be fully explored -- we have in place
already,organizational
mechanisms that seem suitable to take on this obligation
(for example, GBIF(  http://www.gbif.org/  ) -- and national mechanisms as
well -- in the
U.S. for example --  the National Biological Information Infrastructure (
http://www.nbii.gov/  )  ).

Tom Moritz




Tom Moritz                                              212-769-5417
Boeschenstein Director, Library Services        212-769-5009 - FAX
American Museum of Natural History              tmoritz at amnh.org
79th St. @ Central Park West                    http://library.amnh.org/
New York, New York  10024                       (Time:  GMT -5)
USA

___________________________________________________________

"It is not observed... that librarians are wiser men than others..."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson "Spiritual Laws"

Tom Moritz                                              212-769-5417
Boeschenstein Director, Library Services        212-769-5009 - FAX
American Museum of Natural History              tmoritz at amnh.org
79th St. @ Central Park West                    http://library.amnh.org/
New York, New York  10024                       (Time:  GMT -5)
USA

___________________________________________________________

"It is not observed... that librarians are wiser men than others..."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson "Spiritual Laws"




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