Tuesday, May 10, 2016

State of open knowledge about the World's Plants

A1BHupvRKew has released a new report today, entitled the State of the World's Plants, complete with it's own web site https://stateoftheworldsplants.com. Its aim:

...by bringing the available information together into one document, we hope to raise the profile of plants among the global community and to highlight not only what we do know about threats, status and uses, but also what we don’t. This will help us to decide where more research effort and policy focus is required to preserve and enhance the essential role of plants in underpinning all aspects of human wellbeing.

This is, of course, a laudable goal, and a lot of work has gone into this report, and yet there are some things about the report that I find very frustrating.

  1. PDF but no ePub It's nice to have an interactive web site as well as a glossy PDF, but why restrict yourself to a PDF? Why not an ePub so people can view it and rescale fonts for their device, etc. Why not provide the original text in a form people can translate? The report states that much of the newly discovered plant biodiversity is found in Brazil and China, why not make it easier to support automatic translation into Portuguese and Chinese?
  2. Why no DOI for the report? If this is such an important document, why doesn't it have a DOI so it can be easily cited?
  3. Why no DOIs for cited literature? The report cites 219 references, very few of them are accompanied by a DOI, yet most of the references have them. Why not include the DOI so readers can click on that and go straight to the literature. Surely you want to encourage readers to engage with the subject by reading more? The whole point of having digital documents online is that they can link to other documents.
  4. No open access taxonomy Sadly the examples of exciting new plant species discovered are all in closed access publications, including The Gilbertiodendron species complex (Leguminosae: Caesalpinioideae), Central Africa DOI:10.1007/s12225-015-9579-4 published in Kew's own journal Kew Bulletin. This article costs $39.95 / €34.95 / £29.95 to read. Why do taxonomists continue to publish their research, often about taxa in the developing world, behind paywalls?
  5. Why is the data not open? Much of the section on "Describing the world’s plants" uses data from Kew's database IPNI. This database is not open, so how does the reader verify the numbers in the report? Or, more importantly, how does the reader explore the data further and ask questions not asked in the report?

These may seem like small issues given the subject of the report (the perilous state of much of the planet's biodiversity), but if we are to take seriously the goal of "help[ing] us to decide where more research effort and policy focus is required to preserve and enhance the essential role of plants in underpinning all aspects of human wellbeing" then I suggest that open access to knowledge about plant diversity is a key part of that goal.

Over a decade ago Tom Moritz wrote of the need for a "biodiversity commons": DOI:10.1045/june2002-moritz

Provision of free, universal access to biodiversity information is a practical imperative for the international conservation community — this goal should be accomplished by promotion of the Public Domain and by development of a sustainable Biodiversity Information Commons adapting emergent legal and technical mechanisms to provide a free, secure and persistent environment for access to and use of biodiversity information and data. - "Building the Biodiversity Commons" DOI:10.1045/june2002-moritz

The report itself alludes to the importance of "opening up of global datasets with long-time series (such as maps of forest loss)", and yet botany has been slow to do this for much of its data (see Why are botanists locking away their data in JSTOR Plant Science?). We need data on plant taxonomy, systematics, traits, sequences, and distribution to be open and freely available to all, not closed behind paywalls or limited access APIs. Indeed, Donat Agosti has equated copyright to biopiracy (Biodiversity data are out of local taxonomists' reach DOI:10.1038/439392a.

It would be nice to think that Kew, as well as leading the way in summarising the state of the world's plants, would also be leading the way in making that knowledge about those plants open to all.