Wikipedia as an encyclopaedia of life
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In a 2003 essay E. O. Wilson outlined his vision for an “encyclopaedia of life” comprising “an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth”, each page containing “the scientific name of the species, a pictorial or genomic presentation of the primary type specimen on which its name is based, and a summary of its diagnostic traits.” Although biodiversity informatics has generated numerous online resources, including some directly inspired by Wilson’s essay (e.g., iSpecies and EOL), we are still some way from the goal of having available online all relevant information about a species, such as its taxonomy, evolutionary history, genomics, morphology, ecology, and behaviour. While the biodiversity community has been developing a plethora of databases, some with overlapping goals and duplicated content, Wikipedia has been slowly growing to the point where it now has over 100,000 pages on biological taxa. My goal in this essay is to explore the idea that, largely independent of the aims of biodiversity informatics and well-funded international efforts, Wikipedia has emerged as potentially the best platform for fulfilling E. O. Wilson’s vision.
KeywordsBiodiversity informatics Encyclopaedia of life Taxonomy Wikipedia
All analyses were performed on the June 18, 2009 dump of Wikipedia. Many of the ideas outlined here were first explored on my blog (http://iphylo.blogspot.com). I thank the numerous people who have provided feedback on those blog posts, as well as audiences at the Sloan Foundation and Sheffield University who have heard me talk about this topic. Alex Wild’s blog post (http://myrmecos.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/pyramica-vs-strumigenys-why-does-it-matter/) brought the edit war over Pyramica to my attention, and Tony Rees alerted me to the rather intemperate language being used in the debate over whether the proper name for the Sperm Whale is Physeter catodon or P. macrocephalus. I thank Rudolf Meier for inviting me to write this essay, and for his patience as deadlines began to slip.
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