Monday, February 25, 2013

TOL, EOL and rove beetles

I have been rather sad to see the diminish of the Tree of Life (TOL) project. The TOL is still of course available on line, but to my knowledge no new pages have been added for a while (at least according to the growth monitor list). I was a somewhat regular contributor with ~16 pages of rove beetle genera and several other node pages.

What I really liked about the TOL: there was a classification structure to the pages. Perhaps it was not perfect, with sometimes genera missing, but there was a logical structure where you could navigate and find what you were looking for.

But people move on and eventually want to do other things. So the TOL project at some point did not have funds to hire more people and the site stopped growing.

The Encyclopedia of Life is a project that started with a lot of fanfare (hey, E. O. Wilson). I think the site is very successful on what it does (random deposition of biological data) but it is not TOL. A search for rove beetles produces this page:


Can we count how many things are wrong in this page?

1)"Staphylins" is not a common or scientific name for rove beetles, unless of course you are French.

2) Staphylinidae "found in 5 classifications", three of them being various iterations of the erroneous ITIS classication, another being the Paleobiology database and the last one being the Marine species database (seriously?). So, EOL uses five classifications, all of them problematic. How about using the one in TOL?

3) A picture of Tachinus as the first image on the website? Among all magnificent rove beetles, the best we can do is a Tachinus?

And do not get me started on the travesty of how EOL harvests content from the TOL. Compare e.g. the pages for Nordus in TOL and EOL.

Don't get me wrong, I see the value of EOL for the general public. But is the opening page for rove beetles much better than the Wikipedia page for the family? Honestly, I do not think so. So what is the value of EOL to me as a scientist, besides a statement on my NSF proposal regarding broader impacts? That's something I am struggling with since I do want to have meaningful broader impact contributions.  I am just a bit more skeptical now than I was five years ago regarding the longevity of all these projects, and the permanence of placing data online.