Thursday, February 15, 2007

Douplicating efforts and other questions?

"Bolton’s Catalogue of the ants of the World“ Harvard University Press, has just been released.

This is another amazing product of Harvard University Press. It is a CD-ROM selling at USD49.95 which includes all world’s ants data, such as the original citation, subsequent usage of names, the description of female, worker, larvae, karyotype and the countries where they are found, plus an actual count of the number of the world’s known ant species – which is already short of more than 80 additions in a world with over 1,600 new ant species described during the last ten years.

It is amazing, since this product, a CD-Rom is completely copyrighted, and thus does not allow to copy or export any of its data, for example non of the many references can be exported into your own bibliographic database a typical scientists maintains these days.

It also does not provide any links to all the content outside in the Internet.

And this is the critical point. Since March 2002, there is already a complete catalogue of the ants of the world online accessible at in collaboration with the Hymenoptera Name Server: see eg Nature March 22, 2002), and not only that, it includes links to almost the entire primary literature (>4,000 publications) as pdfs and slowly growing as documents marked up in taxonx, as systematics literature specific mark up schema taxonX, which allows harvesting the specific bits of systematics publications, such as the names or the descriptions (=treatments) of individual species and to include them in mash-ups or other applications such as ispecies . Futhermore, this catalogue feeds into the global initiatives to produce lists of the world’s species (ie ITIS, Species2000 or GBIF).

In some sense, this is a redundant work. But there are two more points to it.

How can Harvard University Press as one branch of Harvard undermine with such a policy to publish copyrighted material the efforts of its Natural History libraries (Botany and Museum of Comparative Zoology) which are part of the Biodiversity Heritage Library Consortium ) whose goal is to digitize their entire holding and make it open access? Its success clearly depends upon the inclusion of the most recent literature, and catalogues are needed to organize all its information. The attitude of HUP is especially questionable, since EO.Wilson’s, one of the proponents of the Encyclopedia of Life idea to produce for each species a dedicated web page, HUP-published “Pheidole” is, despite a quote in Nature (August 28, 2003) announcing releasing this monograph to the public, still copyrighted.

There is also the question of acknowledgement. The extensive cataloguing of this CD-based catalogue was only possible because of an almost complete digital library with the respective links from the species exists (partially funded by Smithsonian Atherton-Seidall Foundation). Traditionally, the usage of libraries were a given in any research. However one might argue, that in a case where digital libraries are used to build up a competitive product, they ought be cited or acknowledged, especially since there is a creative commons attribution license attached to?

To be fair, Gary Alpert, one of the authors, handed me over a free preprint version of the database as thanks for enabling him to go through all the publications using the digital library at, and thus do all the checking and manual extraction of the names now included in this CD-Rom based database.