[Taxacom] What can Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) do for you?

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Sat Oct 19 18:40:24 CDT 2013

I suggest that instead of discussing these issues "in the abstract", we look at specific real examples of data ..

From: Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au>
To: Roderic Page <r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk> 
Cc: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu> 
Sent: Sunday, 20 October 2013 10:53 AM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] What can Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) do for you?

Hi, Rod.

'So, if the argument is that GBIF should be looking beyond museum collections then I completely agree...'

No, that's not the argument. Biodiversity data aren't like biodiversity books or papers, for which you can (in principle) generate a complete catalogue or index. Given such a catalogue or index, you can go further and digitise and make available on the Web all the content. Cool, yes? Anyone anywhere with access to the Web can view a biodiversity publication at the click of a mouse. This works because biodiversity publications are very well-defined objects which either exist or don't. BHL is hugely valuable and 'intrinsically' successful because the goal of digitising all biodiversity publications is achievable, in principle.

GBIF is intrinsically unsuccessful because it treats occurrence records as very well-defined objects, which they aren't. Each record is instead an entry point into an investigation (minimally) of the identity of the organism(s) observed, of the location of the observation, of the timing of the observation, of the observer and of the fate of any specimen(s) or images which are hard evidence for the observation. I say 'minimally' because the museum records that wind up in GBIF often have more than these basics in their 'pre-GBIF' form, and are sometimes only condensed versions of even more information available elsewhere. You don't get that from GBIF.

Records aren't open-ended, but some users will go much further with them than other users. GBIF best suits users who accept the data as-is and can find trivial purposes for which those untested, sparse data are 'fit'.

The argument that GBIF in fact suits everyone - because it lets everyone know where to find out more - fails because GBIF is a lousy index. It contains lots of errors, it's taxonomically, geographically, ecologically and 'literature-wise' grossly incomplete, and for many biodiversity studies (see Meier and Dikow) you're better off starting with your own plan of attack and chasing sources independently.

It would be possible to rebuild GBIF from scratch as the thing its title suggests (an information facility), namely a 'meta' resource that points to and introduces data sources, but I don't think that's going to happen, because it's too hard. GBIF has taken an easier approach and has been accumulating records as though they were coins, and measuring its usefulness by counting its 'wealth' of records, so that if it has twice as many records it must be twice as useful, right? Other people in this thread have pointed out how raw counts are meaningless for assessing usefulness. Here I just wanted to say that what works for BHL doesn't work for GBIF, because the items being made Web-available are inherently different. 

Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania
Home contact:
PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195

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