Monday, February 27, 2012

Linking GBIF and the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Following on from exploring links between GBIF and GenBank here I'm going to look at links between GBIF and the primary literature, in this case articles scanned by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). The OCR text in BHL can be mined for a variety of entities. BHL itself has used uBio's tools to identity taxonomic names in the OCR text, and in my BioStor project I've extracted article-level metadata and geographic co-ordinates. Given that many articles in BioStor list museum specimens I wrote some code to extract these (see Extracting museum specimen codes from text) and applied this to the OCR text for those articles.

Having a list of specimens is nice, but in this digital age I want to be able to find out more about these specimens. An obvious solution is try and match these specimen codes to the specimen records held by GBIF. Linking to GBIF is complicated by the fact that museum codes are not unique. For example, "FMNH 147942" could refer to a bird, an amphibian, or a mammal. To tackle the non uniqueness I use the taxonomic names extracted from each page by BHL to work out what taxon an article is mainly "about". To do this I use the Catalogue of Life classification to get "paths" for each name (i.e., the lineage of each taxon down to the root of the classification) and then find the majority-rule path. You can see these paths in the "Taxonomic classification" displayed on a page for a BioStor article. If there are multiple GBIF specimens for the same code I test whether the taxon or rank "class" in the GBIF record is in the majority-rule path for the article. If so, I accept that specimen as the match to the code.

There are also issues where the specimen codes in GBIF have been modified during input (e.g., USNM 730715 has become USNM 730715.457409). There are also the inevitable OCR errors that may cause museum codes to be missed or otherwise corrupted. Bearing all this in mind, BioStor now has specimen pages (these are still being generated as I write this). For example, the page for FMNH 147942 lists the three articles in BioStor that cite this specimen code:


All three specimens have been mapped on to GBIF occurrence When BioStor displays the articles it now lists the specimen codes that have been extracted from the article, together with the GBIF logo if the specimen has been matched to a GBIF record. For example, here is a screenshot from Deep-water octopods (Mollusca: Cephalopoda) of the northeastern Pacific:

The map has been extracted from the OCR text (an obvious next step would be to add localities associated with the specimen records). Below the map are the specimen codes. The lack of some USNM specimens is probably due to misinterpreted specimen codes, whereas the CAS specimens don't seem to be online (the California Academy of Sciences has some of its collections in GBIF, but not its molluscs).

Where next?
Once these links between BioStor (and hence, BHL) and GBIF are created then we can do some interesting things. If you visit BioStor and want to learn more about a specimen you can click on the link an view the record in GBIF. We could also envisage doing the reverse. GBIF could augment the information it displays about a specimen by displaying a link to the content in BioStor (e.g., "this specimen is cited by these articles"). Those articles may contain further information about that specimen (for example, the habitat it was collected from, how secure is its identification, and so on).

We could also start to compute the "impact" of different museum collections based on the number of citations of specimens from their collections (this idea is explored further in this paper:, free preprint available here: hdl:10101/npre.2008.1760.1).

All of this works because we are linking objects (in this case articles and specimens) via their identifiers. Consequently, the links are as stable as their identifiers, which is why I've been pursuing the issue of specimen identifiers recently (see here, here, and here). If GBIF maintains the URLs for the specimens I've linked to, then links I've created could persist. If these URLs are likely to change (e.g., because the metadata from the host institution has changed) then the links (and any associated value we get from them) disappear. This is why I want globally unique, resolvable, persistent identifiers for specimens.