Field of Science

Bitch and Moan, Moan and Bitch

I'd advise ignoring this post. It's just going to be me carping on about a few things that have come up lately that have been occupying my mind, but aren't really worth a post on their own, because, really, all it's going to be is bitching and moaning. I recommend you go read about wierd crustacean parasites, or cannibal algae, or bipedal adaptations in fossil artiodactyls, or something. They'll be better than this drek.

One of the big news items yesterday in the biology world was the release of the much-hyped Encyclopedia of Life (be warned that the link may have problems - the site is currently suffering from an overload of traffic as quite literally millions of people try to get access at once). One certainly can't fault the site for a lack of ambition - the EoL aims to be nothing less than a source of information for every single thing known about every single species of organism on the planet. So when I admit that I found my experience browsing through the first release of the site underwhelming, I have to add the caveat that it was probably doomed to be underwhelming to at least some degree. After all, the site itself estimates some 1.8 million named species, and new species continue to be published at the rate of hundreds per day. To a certain extent, we should be holding off on criticism now and seeing how the site develops over the next few years. Nevertheless, there are some notable quibbles - Rod Page covered a lot of them. The most significant quibble, of course, but the one to which my caveat applies the most, is that at the moment there just isn't that much info on most species pages. Lots of pretty pictures, but not very much actual info. This is something that can only be corrected over time, of course, but it does lead to my major problem with the site - how will that information be added? At the moment, EoL only presents information that has been authenticated by experts, and Carl Zimmer hits on the exact problem with this when he points out that there just aren't enough experts to authenticate information quickly enough. It has been exactly this problem that has hindered the Tree of Life project to some degree. Remember, for 1.8 million species, if a new species page was put up every day, it would take a little under 5000 years to get them all. I really feel that a Wikipedia type approach would be more appropriate in this case. True, Wikipedia can theoretically suffer from incorrect information being put up by uninformed editors, but in practice a lot of major errors are caught and corrected pretty early (and, of course, Wikipedia covers a lot more topics that EoL, and most of the real problems occur in politicised areas that EoL wouldn't cover). A recent article in Slate claims that the vast majority of significant edits in Wikipedia are actually made by only a small percentage of users - the Slate article felt that this was a problem for Wikipedia, but it would probably be exactly what EoL wants to meet its desired combination of authority and range of information. Allowing readers to edit directly would also mop up minor errors that I caught in browsing, like Cafeteria roenbergensis being abbreviated to C. Roenbergensis (that species name shouldn't be capitalised) and non-italicised genus names on the Chordata page.

The information for each species page is divided into sections such as "Overview" and "Description", and when the page is loaded only one section appears, along with a menu that allows you to click through to other sections. That's all well and good for species that have vast amounts of information available, because readers will not have to scroll through tons of information they may not be interested in to find what they want. It is, however, rather annoying when a species has very little information. Many of the pages may have only a sentence or two for each section and it takes some time to click through to see them all. Could there possibly be some way for all sections to appear at once when the total article length would not be very long? The layout of the text sections of the pages has some issues as well - the page is divided into three equal-sized columns - the navigation menu, the information section and a right-hand panel suggesting alternative pages to look at. The result is that the actual article appears cramped and crammed. Rod Page also mentioned the issue of no links in the article itself. If another taxon is mentioned in an article, it would be helpful if clicking on the name linked through to the appropriate page. This is particularly significant because, for instance, the page on the protist Cafeteria roenbergensis actually incorporates a lot of information on related taxa. Without a link from the pages for those taxa to Cafeteria, browsers may remain completely unaware that the information is even available.

The whole Aetogate thing is continuing to depress us all. A committee was called to review Lucas' behaviour in the whole thing, and decide if he's been a bad boy or not. So they get in two 'independent' researchers to look things over - who happen to be close associates of Lucas! What really makes things irritating, though, is that one of the 'independent advisors', Norman Silberling, actually writes a letter that gets reprinted in the local newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, in which he declares his total faith in Lucas' good conduct, and does so before the committee even meets! Seriously, what the fuck? I don't think there's much I can add to the situation that hasn't been said before by more competent people, so I'll direct you to what has been said by Janet Stemwedel, Rebecca Hunt, Brian Switek and Julia Heathcote. And, of course, you can keep an eye on the whole sad and ugly process via Mike Taylor.

There was more I was going to write about, but I've wasted enough of your and my time as it is. Sorry.

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Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS