[Taxacom] EOL announces call for 'research wishes'

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Thu Aug 23 15:41:42 CDT 2012

>makes it imperative to have competent review of taxonomic data sets<

I agree, but I would also add that it is even more imperative that such a review is done in such a way as to make the information verifiable *by the user*. Otherwise, databases can claim to have "expert reviewed" data when in fact they do not, or are poorly so ...
From: David Campbell <pleuronaia at gmail.com>
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu 
Sent: Friday, 24 August 2012 4:05 AM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] EOL announces call for 'research wishes'

> The bottom line is that there isn't enough money for biodiversity.
> Almost by definition, each one of us will be more or less unsatisfied
> with where some of that limited amount goes.

Also, it's hardly surprising that almost every project promises to
provide more than it ends up actually doing.  On the other hand, there
is a real problem in that major database projects are widely perceived
among taxonomists as taking large amounts of taxonomic funding to
produce unreliable, not very useful products.  In turn, these
unreliable products are being relied upon for broad studies with
sweeping conclusions.

The perception of unreliability is not always fair.  Discrepancies
catch our attention; things that look right don't, so perceived error
levels will tend to be high unless actual tallies are kept.  Also, the
average taxonomist isn't looking up standard, common species but
rather obscure taxa, and so is more likely to come across errors.

Nevertheless, the amount of poor-quality data is quite large.  The
combination of possible misidentifications, errors, or illegibility in
existing labels and catalogs, along with the high likelihood of some
taxonomic changes since specimens were last labeled, makes it
imperative to have competent review of taxonomic data sets.  Even a
relatively automated system incorporating only new specimens can mess
up.  I have not searched to figure out how extensive the problem might
be, but I found a case where the wrong specimen photo was paired with
BOLD data and found it difficult to flag for attention (both "where
can I send the notice?" and "which of all these alphanumeric strings
is the identifier they want?").  Not knowing how the data were
entered, I don't know if this is likely to be a single swap or a large
chunk of mispairings.    But anyone with a basic knowledge of
pulmonate gastropods could tell that the photo and name didn't match
(DNA matched the name).

The only way to fix this problem of data quality is to support
taxonomists to work on the problem.  But currently the usual business
model is that taxonomists will do this for free in their spare time, a
approach that tends to generate more cynicism than productive

Dr. David Campbell
Visiting Professor
Department of Natural Sciences
Gardner-Webb University
Boiling Springs NC 28017


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