[Taxacom] (Fwd) Dichotomous key software

Kevin Thiele K.Thiele at cbit.uq.edu.au
Wed Aug 30 20:58:05 CDT 2006


>From Mike Sharley: I think that one of the most serious problems with
interactive keys, besides the fact that they are not easily transported into
the field, is that most are not anonymously reviewed, as are most published
keys.


This is a very important point Mike. But the problem is a social one, and
has some interesting dimensions. 

Let me give an example. In Australia we have a couple of fantastic
matrix-based keys/information systems published on CD - EUCLID (covering all
700+ species of eucalypts in Australia) and WATTLE (covering all 1200+ taxa
of Acacia). Both include matrix-based keys, full taxon pages for all taxa,
and informative introductory essays.

You could say that neither product is refereed in the classical sense,
simply because they're published on CD and not on paper in a journal - the
social system of refereeing maintained by the journals doesn't apply. But
they are entirely equivalent to books published by a reputable scientific
publishing house (in this case, by CSIRO Publishing which publishes both
scientific books and journals). The CDs are refereed in the same sense that
a book on Eucalyptus or Acacia would be if it were published by the same
publisher. Refereeing of journal articles is a special case, which I agree
works very well though should probably not be regarded as the gold standard.

The second, truly odd point, is that good computer-based key systems aim to
make their products highly accessible and easy to use - and this seems to
count against them! Euclid and WATTLE are good cases in point. They are
richly and wonderfully illustrated (an advantage of electronic publication),
written in an accessible style using a minimum of jargon, and easy to use.
All character states are illustrated, which helps make things clear without
needing to use difficult terminology. The thinking behind this is that such
a design means that the product can be used by the general public *as well
as* professionals - it's just as powerful a tool, just not as intimidating
and exclusive. But - for some reason, such products are often regarded as
being somehow "lightweight" and not "serious". The intellectual content in
these two products is massive, an enormous amount of rigorous taxonomy and
science has gone into them, and they represent the very latest summaries of
knowledge in their fields. They're also attractive and easy to use. This
should be seen as a wonderful synergy, but it often isn't. 

The fundamental issue is how does one know that a product (paper
publication, web site, CD) is authoritative, serious and based on sound
science. There's an unfortunate historical tendency to regard publications
that are highly graphical, beautifully designed and broadly accessible as a
bit suspect, and ones that are heavily text-based, inaccessibly written and
dense as more likely to be serious works. So it's more complex than simply
"refereed" or not.

Cheers - k






-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Michael J. Sharkey
Sent: Thursday, 31 August 2006 8:24 AM
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] (Fwd) Dichotomous key software

I think that one of the most serious problems with interactive keys, besides
the fact that they are not easily transported into the field, is that most
are not anonymously reviewed, as are most published keys. Reviewing for a
journal is considered to be a responsibility for members of the scientific
community, whereas asking a colleague to look at your key does necessarily
elicit a lot of enthusiasm.
   We, as a community, should do something about this, both to improve the
quality of web-based products and to give authors credit where it is due.

 Mike Sharkey

Michael Sharkey
Dept. of Entomology
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40546
msharkey at uky.edu
www.uky.edu/~mjshar0

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