EO Wilson's impact on the access to descriptions of new ant species in 2003. antbase.org (supported by a grant from Smithsonian's Atherton-Seidall Foundation to scan publications) allows direct access to allmost all the descriptions of the over 12,000 ant species except those copyrighted. Most of the copyrighted descriptions are those of Wilson's Pheidole revision.
In today's Nature (May 10, 2007) is a correspondence by Wheeler and Krell requiring changes in the Codes of Zoological and Botanical Nomenclature to assure that any new described species are immediately known to the universe. For that they require
- First, require such registration before a name is formally available for use.
- Second, require full text descriptions of species to be deposited by publishers or authors in a central, publicly open ‘bank’, free of charge, such as will be provided by ZooBank for zoological names (A. Polaszek et al. Bull. Zool. Nom. 62, 210–220; 2005).
- Third, require electronic publications to include a ‘hot’ link to these banks of names and descriptions. This will ensure precision in reference to names.
The call for open access to systematic literature is not new, but coincides this time with the annoucement of the Encylopedia of Life, which is building very strongly on the published record. Within the Biodiversity Heritage Library component, they plan to scan in the legacy publications. However, there is a limitation to it: Only publications out of what they consider copyright (75 years after the publication which should be in my view 75 years after the death of the author).
That does not give access the way Wheeler and Krell ask for, even if the EOL/BHL team will negotiate with individual publishers to get access, nor does it build on the open access movement green or gold road to open access. Self archiving, increasingly required by research funding bodies (such as the Swiss Science Foundation. Wellcome Trust, etc.) who singed the Berlin Declaration is just one way to go.
It is especially sad to see, that EO Wilson, the figure head of EOL, with all his star power (e.g. as spokesperson for EOL) still supports this main barrier to access to our knowledge by supporting copyright of his own recent work, even though he announced in Nature 424: (2003) "that the publisher is now putting the book online. ", which is still not the case.
- We need to rethink our own behavior. We should change the Codes, that open access to the publication is mandated, and with that that the species descriptions can be discovered online. We need at least to self archive our publications, not signing contracts with publishers which do not allow that.
- We need to convince the publishers that they enter taxonomic specific xml elements marking up the names and the boundaries of descriptions at least (using for example taxonx schema)
- We need to rethink the function of taxonomic publications: The future of systematics will be in data matrices and other databases, from which data can be extracted directly. Currently we need painfully extract information from the legacy publications. This can be avoided if publications would be instruments to control the input into these growing databases as well as to announce in a human readable form that there are new additons to the databases and matrices. It would already be sufficient, if we at least would allow mark up in the current publications so a machine readable xml version could be published at the same time the pdf comes out. PLOS-ONE is such an example, although not yet for systematics.