Tuesday, January 15, 2013

iDigBio: You are putting identifiers on the wrong thing

LogoThe Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio) project aims to advance digitising US biodiversity collections. They recently published a GUID Guide for Data Providers. In the PDF document I read this:
It has been agreed by the iDigBio community that the identifier represents the digital record (database record) of the specimen not the specimen itself. Unlike the barcode that would be on the physical specimen, for instance, the GUID uniquely represents the digital record only. (emphasis added)

My heart sank. There's nothing wrong with having identifiers for metadata (apart from inviting the death spiral that is metadata about metadata), but surely the key to integrating specimens with other biodiversity data is to have globally unique identifiers for the specimens.

Now, identifiers for metadata can be useful. For example, there is a specimen of Parathemisto japonica in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution with the label "USNM 100988". The NMNH web site has a picture of the index card for this specimen:

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This is an image of the metadata, not the specimen itself. We could link the metadata to this image, but of course we also want to link it to the actual specimen.

Specimens are the things we collect, preserve, dissect, measure, sequence, photograph, and so on. I want to link a specimen to the sequences that have been obtains from that specimen, I want to list the publications that cite that specimen, I want to be able to aggregate data on a specimen from multiple sources, I want to be able to add annotations including misidentifications, simple typos, or missing georeferencing.

Key to this is having identifiers for specimens. Identifiers for metadata about those specimens is not good enough. By analogy with bibliographic citation, one of the important decisions CrossRef made was that DOIs for articles identify the article, not the metadata about the article, or any of the different formats (HTML, PDF, print) and article may occur in. This means we can build databases about things and relationships (this article cites that one, these articles were authored by this person, etc.).

As it stands, if we don't have identifiers for specimens then we can't link data together. For example, the frog specimen "USNM 195785" is depicted in the image below (from EOL):

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It is also listed in various papers in BioStor. In the absence of a globally unique identifier for this specimen how do I make these links? "USNM 195785" won't do because there are at least four specimens in the USNM with the catalogue number "195785". The GBIF occurrence id for this specimen (http://data.gbif.org/occurrences/244405570) would be an obvious candidate, were it not for the fact that GBIF has no concept of stable identifiers and its occurrence ids regularly change.

I confess I'm flabbergasted that iDigBio has avoid tackling the issue of specimen identifiers. If any museum wants to discover how its collection is being used to support science it will want to find the citations of its specimens in scientific papers and databases. This requires identifiers for specimens.