Thursday, February 23, 2012

How many specimens does GBIF really have?

GbifDuplicate records are the bane of any project that aggregates data from multiple sources. Mendeley, for example, has numerous copies of the same article, as documented by Duncan Hull (How many unique papers are there in Mendeley?). In their defence, Mendeley is aggregating data from lots of personal reference libraries and hence they will often encounter the same article with slightly differing metadata (we all have our own quirks when we store bibliographic details of papers). It's a challenging problem to identify and merge records which are not identical, but which are clearly the same thing.

What I'm finding rather more alarming is that GBIF has duplicate records for the same specimen from the same data provider. For example, the specimen USNM 547844 is present twice:

As far as I can tell this is the same specimen, but the catalogue numbers differ (547844 versus 547844.6544573). Apart from this the only difference is when the two records were indexed. The source for 547844 was last indexed August 9, 2009, the source for 547844.6544573 was first indexed August 22, 2010. So it would appear that some time between these two dates the US National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) changed the catalogue codes (by appending another number), so GBIF has treated them as two distinct specimens. Browsing other GBIF records from the NMNH shows the same pattern. I've not quantified the extent of this problem, but it's probably a safe bet that every NMNH herp specimen occurs twice in GBIF.

Then there are the records from Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology that are duplicates, such as and (both for specimen MCZ A-4092, in this case the collectionCode is either "Herp" or "HERPAMPH"). These are records that have been loaded at different times, and because the metadata has changed GBIF hasn't recognised that these are the same thing.

At the root of this problem is the lack of globally unique identifiers for specimens, or even identifiers that are unique and stable within a dataset. The Darwin Core wiki lists a field for occurrenceID for which it states:

The occurrenceID is supposed to (globally) uniquely identify an occurrence record, whether it is a specimen-based occurrence, a one-time observation of a species at a location, or one of many occurrences of an individual who is being tracked, monitored, or recaptured. Making it globally unique is quite a trick, one for which we don't really have good solutions in place yet, but one which ontologists insist is essential.

Well, now we see the side effect of not tackling this problem - our flagship aggregator of biodiversity data has duplicate records. Note that this has nothing to do with "ontologists" (whatever they are), it's simple data management. Assign a unique id (a primary key in a database will do fine) that can be used to track the identity of an object even as its metadata changes. Otherwise you are reduced to matching based on metadata, and if that is changeable then you have a problem.

Now, just imagine the potential chaos if we start changing institution and collection codes to conform to the Darwin Core triplet. In the absence of unique identifiers (again, these can be local to the data set) GBIF is going to be faced with a massive data reconciliation task to try and match old and new specimen records.

The other problem, of course, is that my plan to use GBIF occurrence URLs as globally unique identifiers for specimens is looking pretty shaky because they are unique (the same specimen can have more than one) and if GBIF cleans up the duplicates a number of these URLs will disappear. Bugger.