A couple of emails and an article in the latest issue of Science have roused me to post on the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) website. The site is not functional yet but has a whiz-bang demo (completely fake) put together by a company called AvenueA|Razorfish that is well worth checking out.

However, that was the only thing that impressed me about the site. The article in Science just inflamed my skepticism:

Hands up if you’ve heard this before: An ambitious new project promises to create an online compendium of all 1.8 million or so described species.

If EOL sounds familiar, that’s because its brief overlaps with those of several efforts, notably the All Species Foundation, whose chair promised to deliver a Web site for every species. That project is defunct.

Researchers praise the EOL’s vision but fret about the execution. “The exercise is only worthwhile if it’s more accurate and better coordinated than what’s already available on the Internet,” says Frank Bisby.

Obtaining permission to use post-1923 literature is also an issue, says Donat Agosti, an American Museum of Natural History entomologist who works in Bern, Switzerland. Edwards says that EOL is negotiating with scientific societies and publishers. Although some deals are in the offing, none has yet been announced, he says.

As presently envisioned and organized, this project may turn out to be another dud. People who wear the label “scientist” are just people. Although many laypersons have the impression that scientists are striving to save the world (or in the case of evil ones, to destroy it), in reality they spend the majority of their waking hours seeking status like the rest of us. They are just as competitive, egotistical, contentious, and ambitious as the general populace (possibly more so). Ideas and thoughts are easy to walk off with, and great effort has to be expended to keep that from happening in the world of academia. Creativity just does not seem to be their strong suit. There may be reasons they are not out in the real world starting up entrepreneurial businesses. I offer as evidence the fact that the only thing on that site worth looking at is a donated piece of javascript from a free market profit-seeking company.

As far as I can discern, the organizers have no real intention of letting the unwashed and ignorant masses participate in the construction of this site, and that is why I think it will fail. The scientists should not be running this show. They should be supporting actors. E.O Wilson seems to want the public to participate somehow, but he isn’t the boss. Wilson, by the way, stands out in the scientific community specifically because of his creativity. His books and the ideas expressed in them are innovative, informative, interesting, integrative, and inspiring. From the FAQ:

What about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia inspired us. Wikipedia accumulated about 1.5 million entries in English in its first four years. That gave us confidence that our tasks are manageable with current technology and social behaviour, although the expert community in a lot of the subjects for pages in Encyclopedia of Life may be only a handful of people [my emphasis]. Wikipedia has also created some species pages, as have other groups. Encyclopedia of Life will, we hope, unite all such efforts and increase their value. The Wikimedia Foundation is a member of the Encyclopedia’s Institutional Council.

They are going to need more than just inspiration. 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? This is an example of why I think to pull this off, they need to hire someone outside the science community to run the show. In fact, I’d hire the Wikipedia staff. The amateur naturalists, birders, herpers, and other assorted nature enthusiasts could start filling the pages with less than perfect content and photos which would create something to work with until the poindexters find time to polish the work and then possibly lock the page, which they may never get around to doing. Darwin was not a professor in any university and was for the most part self-taught. Not to mention, it is far easier to clean up an article than to write one from scratch. Hint: this would motivate people to click on a donation link like the millions who have donated to the real Wikipedia.