Saturday, May 12, 2007

Looking at Encyclopedia of Life differently

There has been a lot of comments on the Encyclopedia of Life in the Wiki community lately. All of them miss the most important point. The point is made by the Encyclopedia of Life itself; it will provide "aggregation and will use mash-up technology and Wiki style editing and accumulation of content".

Key in all this is that the Encyclopedia of life is not only Wiki style editing, it also provides for aggregation and mash up technology. It is the one thing that Wikipedia and Citizendium alike are incapable of. With the functionality MediaWiki provides, you are restricted to copying data into the article and having done that, it loses the connection with its origin in a practical way. This reduces these projects to sources of information because of the functionality.

When you look at the examples on the Encyclopedia of Life website, you find that they have information from many sources and present them together. In this way they provide a composite view on the subject that is considered. The data can remain fresh because once data is changed in the sources it consists of, this can be reflected because of the methodology.

One of the exiting things they provide in their mash up is the connection to old literature. This literature is extremely relevant to taxonomy as the oldest name that described a taxon is the one to be used to describe it. The consequence is that many names that were valid once are not valid anymore. It is interesting to learn how they will manage the linking of old valid names to the newer names. This has other applications as well, when an old paper mentions aspects of a species, it may mean that there is no mapping. It is then of relevance to consider the mapping to a subspecies or a different species that is referred to in the old literature.

Mapping the historical names of taxons in time is a hell of a job but an important job because it opens up the understanding of the old literature. For plants, the IPNI resource is of immense value. If anything, I hope that IPNI will be or become part of the mash-up.

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