Monday, November 11, 2013

Names and nomenclators: just do it already!

Quick notes on taxonomic names (again). It's a continuing source of bafflement that the biodiversity community is making a dog's breakfast of names. It seems we are forever making it more complicated than it needs to be, forever minting new acronyms that pollute the landscape without actually contributing anything useful, and forever promising shiny new tools and services without every actually delivering them. Meanwhile people and projects that build upon names are left to deal with a mess.

It seems to me that it would be nice if we had a single place to go to get definitive information on a name, and that place would give us a unique identifier that we could use in our own databases as a way to clean up and reconcile our data. For example, if we have a bibliographic database we can map citations to DOIs and then use those to identify the articles. If we have a list of journal names, we can map those to ISSNs and clean up our data. Likewise, if we have a classification such as GBIF or NCBI, we should be able to map the names in those classifications onto standard identifiers for taxonomic names.

The frustrating thing is we already have standard identifiers for taxonomic names. Since around 2005 we have been serving LSIDs for plant and animal names. We have Index Fungorum, IPNI, ION, and ZooBank, all serving LSIDs, all serving RDF, all using the same TDWG vocabulary.

The nomenclators vary in size and scope, but we have the three major, multicellular eukaryotes covered (circles proportional to number of names in each database):

There is some duplication, both within nomenclators (IPNI and ION I'm looking at you) and between nomenclators (ION and ZooBank have the same scope, although ZooBank is dwarfed by ION, anyone care to explain why we have both...?). All four databases are actively growing, partly through direct registration of new taxonomic names.

So, we're basically done, right? Surely all we need to do is harvest the LSIDs for all these names, put them into a single triple store, and wrap some basic services around them? If the nomenclators provide a list of recent changes (e.g., as an RSS feed) then we could continuously update the store with new names. Then any database or classification could reconcile it's names with those in the nomenclators. They could also then augment their own records by making use of additional data the nomenclators have, such as objective synonomies and links to original descriptions. In other words, we could have a model like this:
Classifications represent a view of how taxa are related, the names associated with those taxa are stored in nomenclators. This means that classification databases like GBIF and NCBI are not in the business of managing names, they simply link to the nomenclators (in the same way that a bibliographic database can link to DOI, ISSNs, and author ids such as ORCID and VIAF).

We have almost all of this infrastructure in place already. In one of the unsung triumphs of TDWG we have all the nomenclators serving data in the same format using the same technology. And yet we have singly failed to do anything useful with this extraordinary resource! Instead we seem more interested in contributing more projects to the acronym soup of biodiversity informatics. All around us projects to assign and link identifiers for publications (CrossRef), data (DataCite), and people (ORCID) are taking off. The infrastructure for taxonomic names has been in place since 2005, we could be doing the same sort of things CrossRef, DataCite and ORCID are doing in their domains. Why aren't we?