Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The launch of the Encyclopedia of Life

Yesterday the Encyclopedia of Life has been launched. No doubt, we need this infrastructure in one way or the other.

The question though will be, do we need content they think is the right one, or do we need the potential underlying infrastructure which assembles all the relevant information for us. Google's algorithms are asked, not again the old authorities. Not talk is asked, but deliverables, and that means what is on the Web, an in a scientific context, what can be cited and thus is open accessible. And once things can be cited, we now what the community considers important.

Unfortunately, EOL is already tied to one single man, EO Wilson. Though he wrote the now widely cited article in TREE in 2003, the EOL was not his idea but came out of a meeting including Smithsonian scientists, and thus it would be better to tie EOL to the community then to one single man, especially with Wilson's track record of advocate of copyright for descriptive work, where even after five years his Pheidole revision is still copyrighted. He also never joined the movement to make taxonomic descriptions open access similar to the what happened to the gene sequences and subsequently turned out a huge scientific success.

The last two paragraphs in the New York Times coverage of the EOL just shows the problematic, authoritarian position of EOL and his founders: "... he and other ant experts will be meeting at Harvard to plan how they can take advantage of the Encyclopedia of Life." There are enough tools out to measure what's relevant in our science, we do not need to refer to the old pre-open access and pre-e-publication period, where other opinions just could be suppressed by not citing.

So, why then should Harvard with a dismal track record on the Web, and furthermore being the anachronistic champion of producing copyrighted and non-open access material be given the lead by EOL to produce authoritative content on ants? Since 2003, Wilson's Pheidole which made it even into Nature online because of its copyright issues, nor the new Bolton Catalogue is online, whilst there is a huge community out there using the existing Internet based resources on ants. is just the last one, which already provides access to well over 3,500 descriptions of ants, and for the first time provides a platform for any one to get a first glimpse and entry to what is known about a species, as much as it shows the power of using LSIDs and other standards to link to external databases. There are also most of the ant systematics literature online (>4,000 pdfs) on some of it paid for by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution. There are 184,479 records of ant specimens available through GBIF, but none from Harvard.

But there is also a huge growing community of ant taxonomists in the South. More then 300 people, among them many taxonomists, attended last November's Simpósio de Mirmecologia in São Paulo - but nobody from Harvard. There publication on Neotropical ants are online, and they are working on a new electronic catalogue of the ants of the world. There is a growing community in Asia (ANeT) with their bi-annual meeting just held in India. All this hardly mentioned in Wards recent summary on ant taxonomy in Zootaxa (Ward being closely allied to Harvard):
"The literature on ant taxonomy is highly dispersed, however, and sometimes difficult to locate. Bolton’s (2003) monograph on ant classification provides an excellent entrée into this literature, including identification guides and keys. Ant identification resources are becoming increasingly available online, through sites such as AntWeb (, Antbase (, Australian Ants Online (, Ants of Costa Rica ( and Japanese Ant Image Database ( Several technological developments hold the promise of facilitating ant species-level taxonomy. These include improvements in imaging (e.g., Automontage system), specimen measurement, distribution mapping, and electronic organization of data. ."

What we need are resources, especially funding to help to image all types, open up all the literature and provide platforms like Scratchpads that allow to assemble our systematics information. If this is well done, including underlying mark up, LSIDs then this can be a source for EOL, acknowledging that we systematists deliver only a fraction of what is know about a species.

We need co-operation not building further divides into a highly fractured community. EOL should provide the tools, not politics, and those tools should decide what is relevant and what not, who has something to say and who not.


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