Social networking for taxonomists

Despite our best attempts to remove species from the face of the Earth, there is still quite a bit of life out there and it is still quite diverse. Also, there are still quite a few people who want to document, describe and make the rest of us aware of the magnitude and diversity of life. In the time-honored tradition of natural history they take the tools of their trade to the field to sample, collect, identify, tag, photograph, film, mount and otherwise understand and advertise Nature’s progeny.  There are probably thousands of web sites dedicated to taxonomy of families, genuses genera and species. Trouble is, they are all “out there”, and require quite a bit of searching to find those that are of interest to you. And what if you just want to browse, the Internet equivalent of going through a natural history museum?

Museums were historically the place where natural historians brought their findings from far away places to be studied and displayed (if lucky) or simply archived. If the finding was still alive, it would go to the zoo or the botanical garden.  And people would go to the museum, zoo or garden to see the  latest wonders of life.

(From Life Through a Lens: the Natural History museum (of London) 1880-1950)

Virtually every biology lab with some taxonomic interest in  a given species, genus or family would have such a site. That’s a lot of taxonomic information , but is not very accessible or organized! What if all these sites could be rounded up together, connected in some contextual fashion, some semblance of standardization? Then we could have an online Natural History museum, where the displays accumulate, are constantly updated, and we can walk through virtual halls looking for the plant or animal of our fancy.

Scratchpads is a cool way of getting to that online Natural History museum. Actually, it is hosted in the great-grandaddy of brick-and-mortar natural history museums, the one in London.

Scratchpads are an easy to use, social networking application that enable communities of researchers to manage, share and publish taxonomic data online. Sites are hosted at the Natural History Museum London, and offered free to any scientist that completes an online registration form. Key features of the Scratchpads include tools to manage:

Taxonomy Classifications Phylogeny Phylogenies
Literature Bibliographies Documents Documents
Images Image galleries Custom Data Custom data
Specimens Specimen records Simple Maps Maps

Users control who has access to content, which is published on the site under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa) license.

Data added to a Scratchpad are automatically classified and grouped around a taxonomy that is supplied by the users or imported from EOL. This is optionally supplemented with information from high quality web accessible databases, to automatic construct content rich web pages about any documented taxon. Currently these sources include Genbank, GBIF, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Yahoo! Images, flickr, Google Scholar and Wikipedia.

When you start a Scratchpad site, you are given a template on which you can build your taxonomy site. the template includes a tree-building widget, space for image galleries, a blog area, a bibliography area etc. You insert the content, and your site links back to the scratchpad mother site.  The Scratchpads linked from the mother site are in various stages of construction, which is actually pretty cool as you can see a village of taxonomy sites being constructed. Some are fairly complete and interesting to browse through, like the Scratchpad about freeloader flies or the one about nanofossils.

Time will tell if Scratchpads will catch on with taxonomists. I certainly hope it does. It seems  quite a bit of thought has gone into balancing standardization with creativity, and making scratchpading easy and manageabe. The authors have chosen templates based on the Drupal content management system, which has a very gentle learning curve. I am waiting on my own scratchpad account, where I intend to… well, you’ll see it on this blog eventually, I hope.

So if you are involved in taxonomy in some way, consider getting your own Scratchpad. This could make for a great student project, by the way.  If you know someone who is a taxonomist, pass this information on to them.

Smith VS, Rycroft SD, Harman KT, Scott B, & Roberts D (2009). Scratchpads: a data-publishing framework to build, share and manage information on the diversity of life. BMC bioinformatics, 10 Suppl 14 PMID: 19900302

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2 Responses to “Social networking for taxonomists”

  1. Nice post. I hate being a spelling nazi, but I believe “genuses” is properly referred to as “genera”.