[Taxacom] The economics of biodiversity database initiatives

Roderic Page r.page at bio.gla.ac.uk
Mon Oct 28 05:52:20 CDT 2013

Unusually, perhaps, I find myself agreeing with Stephen, at least as far as "understanding/making sense of what is going on".

I think there are some tensions in the biodiversity world, perhaps because many of the people providing data (either directly or indirectly) are not the targeted users of the aggregated data. Many taxonomy databases aren't really for taxonomists, they are intended for other people to use (e.g., people doing large-scale biodiversity studies). 

Databases don't appear to offer much offer in return in terms of helping a taxonomist do their own research. The claimed benefits are often rather abstract, rather than tangible things that help taxonomic research. In particular, databases rarely offer serendipity, the ability to discover things that a specialist didn't already know. If a database doesn't tell you anything new, there's really not a lot of point (from an individual's perspective).

Compare this, say, to GenBank. If you work with DNA sequences, GenBank is integral to your research. You may find sequences there for your organisms that you had no idea existed (e.g., they might be collected for an entirely unrelated study in a different discipline). You can discover new information, partly because almost all genomic data goes there, and partly because it is easily computable. As an illustration, the phylogenies in BioNames (obtained from http://phylota.net ) such as http://bionames.org/trees/phylota/ti106220_cl0_db184 are built on sequences from a range of taxonomic, systematic, ecological, and coevolutionary studies. Not only is the tree a synthesis of data from different sources, but if you look at the papers contributing those sequences you have a way into a diverse literature about those organisms (as an aside, I suspect GenBank may become the single most important biodiversity database we have, but that's another story).

So, one challenge might be to figure out how aggregators can provide tangible value to those providing the data. 



Roderic Page
Professor of Taxonomy
Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine
College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences
Graham Kerr Building
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

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