[Taxacom] eol in nature

Donat Agosti agosti at amnh.org
Thu Sep 6 08:14:53 CDT 2007

One of the strength of EOL is the art of orchestrated PR, one bit in NYT
another at the same time in Nature

 (for those having access to Nature)

And here is a first comment I just got http://vsmith.info/EOLinNature

I would probably agree, that the expectations are now raised for delivery of
new content (not regurgitation of what is there somewhere else already),
that making it right for everybody and thus stepping beyond the scientific
world without confusing our 'scientific' message will be a tricky task.

The question is not answered yet, why a taxonomist wants to contribute to
this if he doesn't get anything out in return. For example, names are in
publications and might be able to recovered. But who can reconcile all these
names, that is, produce the link between the protonym and the new variant?
If the machine ought to do this, then there are a lot of errors and
specialists pages will remains the resort for the information eol wants to


NATURE|Vol 449|6 September 2007

Taxonomy: The Collector
Top of page

How Paddy Patterson, one of the architects of the Encyclopedia of Life,
hopes to present biodiversity to the world.

David 'Paddy' Patterson started his career off small, working on the
taxonomy of protists and protozoa and putting descriptions of them up on the
web in projects such as Micro*scope, Microbial Life and the International
Census of Marine Microbes. Now, the biologist, who works in Woods Hole,
Massachusetts, is going macro in a big way with the Encyclopedia of Life
(EOL), a project that intends to create a website for every known species on

So what is the proposed schedule for the EOL?

In February next year, hopefully, there will be a major release of the first
edition of the EOL. The expectation is that within a ten-year period we will
have relatively well-informed pages on all 1.8 million species.

How can you realistically hope to get that much done?

The EOL will act like a glue to join together the information that is
already out there on the Internet. We don't have to create 1.8 million
pages. What we need to do is know where the information is that's out there
on the species.

How do you put it together?

The usual solution is to try and find out what the correct name is for a
species and then try to get all the databases to apply the correct name. But
names are always changing as a result of taxonomic research.

We adopted a different solution, which we call reconciliation. What we do is
tap into the accumulated knowledge of taxonomists and draw together their
understanding of all the different names that have ever been used for an
organism, and extend this to cover typographical errors, vernacular names,
and any name that might appear in a document that is online or a database
that is online.

We've built the system so that you can have any browsing structure in place.
So if you want to change from the hierarchy provided by the Catalogue of
Life [an attempt to index all known species] to that provided by GenBank [a
database of all published DNA sequences], you just click on the alternative

How far should that flexibility extend? You previously mentioned making room
for an intelligent-design perspective on the EOL?

Many bits of the EOL still need to be resolved, but one of the features of
the EOL is that it has to be a highly flexible, very personalizable
environment. If the EOL is to fulfil the role that we think it should
fulfil, then students at high school should see something different from,
for example, what a research scientist sees. Similarly, people visiting from
Pakistan should be able to see the content in a language that suits them and
is not culturally offensive to them.

And the same thing is true, I think, of people who hold beliefs such as
intelligent design or the creationist argument. It would be, in my view, a
great failing if we created an environment that they found offensive and
were unwilling to enter. They are, after all, probably the community we
would most like to see develop a better understanding of biodiversity and
how biodiversity came about.

That sounds like a controversial approach?

It was. Plenty of people would have me hung up by my whatever-it-was for

    Plenty of people would have me hung up by my whatever-it-was for this.

My view is that by giving the stage to this community, what they're thinking
becomes open to wider scrutiny. Instead of talking in closed churches, now
the public can see the extent of their thinking. I see it as something that
should improve the knowledge environment in general.

You're obviously very keen on involving people in the project as widely as

Some of the features we're developing will be rather like wikis or the
social networking software out there. One of the things I would love to see
develop early on is a 'my schoolyard' function in which kids can go outside
with cell phones and take pictures of organisms and submit them to the EOL.
There, the pictures are sent off to experts who verify identification. And
when that is done, a little dot appears on Google Earth showing the presence
of, say, a daffodil in someone's backyard.

More information about the Taxacom mailing list