[Taxacom] encylopedia of life

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Mon May 14 23:41:52 CDT 2007

Note:  I started writing this when I got up this morning, but got
sidetracked for the whole day.  Now that I come back, I see there has been
much more discussion, so some of my points below have already been addressed
by others.  But here goes anyway...

My PhD is in classical taxonomic research (i.e., with an emphasis on field
work and alpha-level taxonomy). The reason it took me eleven years to
complete that degree is that I've had a full-time job that does not directly
support my taxonomic work (still true today). Most of my taxonomic research
(pre- and post-graduate) has been conducted on my own time and/or on
vacation time.  I have had some private support (mostly from documentary
film projects and other non-traditional venues such as Esquire Magazine) to
fund collecting in the field, but most of the expeditions (and almost all of
the post-collecting work) have been paid out of my own pocket; and almost
always on unsalaried time. I've submitted three major NSF proposals over the
past few years -- all of them have received a majority of "excellent"
ratings; none of them funded. Oh, and no, I am not personally wealthy -- my
wife and I both work full-time, and we still live from paycheck to paycheck.

Now, it may well be that I just suck as a taxonomist and/or grant writer
(I'll leave that to my colleagues and grant reviewers to judge), but the
point is that I think I'm in a better position than most to legitimately
whine about inadequate funding to support basic taxonomic research.

In that context, I would like to respectfully disagree with those who have
commented that the EoL initiative should fund basic taxonomic research.
Here's why:

Let's suppose EoL earmarked 50% of it's total projected budget ($25M)
towards raw taxonomic research.  We would increase taxonomic progress by
$2.5M/year over the projected ten-year span that budget encompasses. But
let's also suppose that halving the budget would also cut in half the extent
to which the envisioned EoL infrastructure would support taxonomists in
completing their work.

Now, let's also suppose that $50M will, indeed, yield the envisioned suite
of data access and content management tools over the next ten years. This
means that every taxonomist with access to the internet would have
essentially instant access to a VAST array of publications, images, specimen
data records, and other data content.  "Workbench" tools developed through
EoL would help organize all of this content in a way that best makes sense
to your own work habits and particular field of interest ("MyEoL"), and
allow seamless and instant sharing of data and images among collaborators
and colleagues. Just factoring time spent in the library and at the
photocopy machine alone would probably work out to 10-20 hours saved per
year for a typical active taxonomist.

Now add to that time spent hunting down specimen data from Museums around
the world (whose catalogs are rife with synonym identifications,
misspellings, etc.), plus time spent transcribing data from field notebooks,
publications and/or datasets of others into your own format, plus time spent
formatting manuscripts for publication, plus time spent building maps of
species distributions and/or geo-referencing specimens collected in the days
before GPS, plus a wide variety of time spent doing tasks that do not
capitalize directly on your expertise as a taxonomist, and for which ideas
have been proposed as EoL tools.  Let's say these collective "conveniences"
would save the average taxonomist 20-30 hours/year (conservatively).

Let's also assume an average salary of $10/hour for a professional
taxonomist's time (seems fair from my perspective, given what I am currently
paid to do taxonomy!). That's an average EoL savings of
$200-$300/year/taxonomist.  Let's further assume that 3/4 of the 20,000
estimated taxonomists have access to the internet, and can put EoL to work
for them.  Now we're looking at somewhere in the range of $3-4.5M/year
increase in taxonomic progress. Even if we cut this in half (assuming we
could achieve half of this benefit with $25M), we're still roughly on par
with a direct cash pay-out of $2.5M/year. But the thing is: whereas $25
would run out in 10 years, the increase to taxonomic productivity would
perpetuate forever.

And that's just the beginning.  Suppose, for example, EoL facilitated the
development of something along the lines of my concept of "TurboTaxonomy"
(http://mailman.nhm.ku.edu/pipermail/taxacom/2004-August/009274.html); this
might increase the number of active biologists who could function as
practicing taxonomists substantially (with corresponding increase in overall
annual taxonomic progress).  And then, of course, there is the public
awareness advantages, as well as various other things already touched on
earlier in this thread.

And I haven't even mentioned what I see as the single LARGEST impact to
supporting taxonomic research of all:  FINALLY getting some sense of
cohesion among the otherwise utterly disorganized and uncoordinated nature
of our collective community (see multiple TAXACOM threads on this issue).

Even if you find all of the above unpersuasive from a strictly economical
perspective, the argument is moot anyway.  The reason the money exists at
all is to build the infrastructure -- it's simply not on the table for
taxonomic research in the first place -- no matter how much we whine about

Finally...if EoL were to embark on this initiative with the intent of
creating 1.8 million "pages" of HTML-formatted species data, each
hand-crafted/authored by individual taxonomists one at a time...it would be
dead in the water (even if it involved Wikipedia-like editing and versioning
capabilities).  Much more likely, these species "pages" would be dynamically
assembled from vast indexes of biological datasets and electronic documents
(including scanned and OCR'd historical paper-based literature).  The
contributions to content by the world's taxonomists would not be in the form
of *costing* them time; but rather *gaining* them time by providing software
tools that allowed them to do the work they normally do (digitizing
datasets, indexing literature, formatting manuscripts, populating
bibliographies, building annotated synonymies, creating distribution maps,
etc.) with much greater efficiency, while simultaneously allowing them to
expose their new content to the EoL automatically (if they choose to do so).
The EoL content would thus emerge from the collective efforts already
undertaken by the world's biologists and biological data managers -- except,
of course, that those people would be doing their work more efficiently than
they do now.

There is no doubt in my mind that the key to EoL's success lies in its
ability provide necessary incentives to the right people to contribute
content.  It's just that I think direct cash payments to taxonomists in
exchange for their content is an exceptionally inefficient (and
insufficient) incentive mechanism.


P.S. Full disclosure:  I am an adviser (of sorts) to the EoL initiative, and
they did pay my travel expenses to attend a workshop to discuss the
technical side of its implementation. But if they offered me money to do
taxonomic work, I would send it back and ask instead that they use it to
make my job that much easier. My time is worth more money than they could
possibly offer.

Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org

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