The imminent release of an embryonic Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) has journalists buzzing about an exciting new online resource. I wish I could share their enthusiasm.
EoL has announced 1.7 million species pages within a decade, providing biological information for all of the world’s described species. That’s a lofty goal, but their plan for getting the content for those pages goes something like this:
Let’s build a snappy website, and then the site’s awesomeness will spontaneously cause all the biologists in the world to shower us freely with their knowledge.
And maybe they’ll buy us a pony, too.
My perspective might seem cynical, but it is grounded in the experience of scores of existing online efforts. These earlier projects, like the EoL, rely on voluntary contributions by the relevant taxonomic experts. Precious few reach a level of completion to be broadly useful. The best of the existing projects, in my admittedly biased opinion, is the University of Arizona’s Tree of Life. The Tree of Life has lots of great, voluntarily-contributed material, but they are islands in an empty sea. Squirrels are done in great detail, for instance, but you’ll not find anything on fireflies, crows, or fir trees. Most users looking for information on a particular group will not find it. The same will happen to EoL. It won’t matter that EoL has the snazziest fish pages in town when a user wants information on Zebras.
Consider that it took 250 years and tens of thousands of taxonomists to achieve the current 1.7 million described species. We’re not going to build the encyclopedia in a mere decade by hoping that the world’s remaining (and already underemployed) taxonomists volunteer their time. I fear that the EoL has gravely over-promised what it can deliver. Something like the current effort will eventually take flight, perhaps even stemming from this particular project. But to do it right will require properly supporting the people on whose expertise we all rest.
***UPDATE*** The EoL site was officially launched this morning, but only lasted a few minutes until the servers buckled. Seems they miscalculated.