Photo: robynejay via FlickrCheck out this article by Wade Roush writing for Xconomy. Interestingly enough, his thoughts parallel those expressed in two previous posts I’ve done on this topic. I’m happy to see that you can now use Flickr to upload your photographs to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) database. Huh, wonder where they got that idea?

Hopefully they will continue to take advice from the peanut gallery to help get this show on the road. They certainly seem to be moving in the right direction. Visit their “help us” page if you would like to know how you can contribute.

Roush:

… the organizers of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL for short) are going to have to throw out the old playbook in taxonomy — the slow and meticulous science of species classification … Specifically, they’re going to have to rely on thousands of amateur naturalists to collect and submit data for the encyclopedia … I don’t think EOL has taken the citizen scientist concept far enough. The only way for the encyclopedia to get big fast, I submit, is to take the full Web 2.0 plunge. This would mean opening up the site to direct involvement by amateur enthusiasts, Wikipedia-style …

Me:

They intend to borrow the Wiki model to let “scientists” fill out the pages. How bold would it be to open this project up to the ignorant, unwashed masses just like the real Wikipedia? … If every article in Wikipedia had to pass muster from an appointed expert on each subject, there would be no Wikipedia. The EOL will never see the success of Wikipedia with its present top-down, command-and-control structure … To make the progress needed to attract the public’s attention, at some point they will have to stop micromanaging the data input and let the millions of potential contributors get busy. The priesthood is going to have to open its doors.

Roush:

But “EOL must show some results and value quickly” if it is to be taken seriously by scientists, funders, and the public at large, as the project’s own planning documents acknowledge.

Even though they seem to recognize the need to move quickly, without firm deadlines, this will go on for decades. Ideally, they should complete this task as efficiently and fast as possible, but working oneself out of a job goes against the grain of human nature. There is an inherent conflict of interest built into the existing game plan. Maybe EOL needs to emulate the free market in some way to provide better incentives. Good intentions will only get you so far.

Me:

I don’t think there will be much to see on that site for decades, and therefore there will be very little public interest (or support) if they don’t get a little less anal about the initial purity of the data.

Roush:

It’s hard to see how the current plan, spelled out in the planning documents and the project’s FAQ page, will accomplish that. Each species page is to have a volunteer “curator,” a competent scientist responsible for authenticating information submitted by contributors before it’s published … Even if you spread that work around to other types of scientists, every curator would have dozens of pages to maintain–on top of their actual, paid jobs as university faculty or government scientists.

Me:

First, they will need to find these thousands of curators willing to volunteer inordinate amounts of time. Next, they will need to find millions of contributors willing to take the time to upload stuff without any assurance that it will ever be reviewed, edited, or displayed.

They may have at least a partial solution to the second of my concerns with the aforementioned Flickr group page.