[Taxacom] Encyclopedia of Life & Taxonomist Funding

Roderic Page r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk
Fri May 11 14:05:01 CDT 2007


I think Alex has a good point. The web is indeed "littered with  
largely content-free biodiversity sites", and the press release is  
mostly empty hype.

Some may have seen Mitch Leslie's piece in Science (http://dx.doi.org/ 
10.1126/science.316.5826.818) that starts:

"Hands up if you've heard this before: An ambitious new project  
promises to create an online compendium of all 1.8 million or so  
described species. It can already claim participation by premier  
institutions, a wad of start-up cash, and huzzahs from biodiversity  
guru Edward O. Wilson. Although some confess to a wary sense of déjà  
vu, taxonomists hope that the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) can provide  
the long-awaited comprehensive species catalog. Even enthusiasts  
agree that it faces some tall hurdles, however, such as signing up  
curators and getting permission to use copyrighted material."

So, the challenge is how to populate EoL. In one sense I more  
optimist than some on this list, because I think a substantial amount  
of content can be generated by harvesting the existing literature and  
databases. If done properly, this could populate EoL with useful  
information (see http://www.blogger.com/comment.g? 
blogID=18671685&postID=114279624660121438 for a simple example).

Regarding money, I suspect given the distributed nature of the  
project, the involvement of several institutions, and the overhead  
this imposes, a good chunk of the money will not make it's way to  
content creators (and I speak as one who will have airfares paid out  
of EoL -- I'm sure the money spent on flying me to the US to say "it  
sucks" could just as well be spent on generating content...).

I think there are several things to consider. The first is that  
taxonomy is but a part of EoL, and I suspect it won't be the major  
part -- for most biologists taxonomy is simply a tool for navigating  
and retrieving information. Most people probably care more about what  
an organism looks like, where it lives, what it eats, etc., than what  
to call it.

That said, as David Shorthouse points out on this list and his blog  
(http://ispiders.blogspot.com/), EoL could construct an environment  
that provides a compelling tool for taxonomists (and others) to work  
within.

EoL's success depends in large part on how it's implemented, and how  
much people ignore the hype and focus on delivering something useful.

Regards

Rod





On 11 May 2007, at 19:18, alexwild at email.arizona.edu wrote:

> I agree in broad part with Bjarte's comments that the EoL will  
> provide a highly
> useful standardized infrastructure for working taxonomists, and  
> that some of
> the criticisms of it miss the mark.  However, I do have a couple of  
> comments
> about the project.
>
> First, there are a number of existing projects that already form a  
> solid
> infrastructure for dissemination for systematics and natural history
> information.  These, like the EoL, rely on voluntary participation  
> on the part
> of taxonomic experts, and years later most of these are virtual  
> ghost towns.
> The internet is littered with largely content-free biodiversity  
> sites.  These
> sites are not infrastructure-limited but content-limited.  It isn't  
> clear how
> another project to fund more infrastructure but not content will  
> avoid their
> fate.   I'd love to be proven wrong on this point, but it seems to  
> me that the
> mentality of "If we build it they will come..." hasn't worked in  
> the past.
> What is needed is a different strategy, not to take the same old  
> hole and dig
> it deeper.
>
> Second, differences in opinion over the EoL are not necessarily a  
> divide between
> those younger folks who are familiar with database use and the  
> dinosaurs who
> aren't.  Rather, it seems to me a divide between those whose career  
> structure
> fits well with the EoL and those that don't.  Not everyone has the  
> luxury of a
> museum position that rewards participation in public biodiversity  
> outreach.
> Large swaths of the taxonomic expertise that cover the tree of life  
> is held by
> people whose desire to contribute is outweighed by the financial  
> needs of the
> families they have to support.
>
> If EoL has hope of covering even a fraction of what the press  
> releases claim it
> will, EoL needs to implement a funding body that supports content  
> contributors.
>  Ideally, this would be in the form of a grant program targeted at  
> experts whose
> day jobs don't ordinarily allow for participation in the EoL.   
> Otherwise the EoL
> will be like all the other biodiversity projects on the internet:  
> archipelagos
> of completed taxa floating in a great sea of emptiness.
>
> Alex Wild
> University of Arizona
> www.myrmecos.net
>
>
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> Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> http://mailman.nhm.ku.edu/mailman/listinfo/taxacom
>

----------------------------------------
Professor Roderic D. M. Page
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