The PaleoNet Forum: An Irregular Electronic Journal
November, 1996: Volume 2, Issue 6


Terry Poulton

Chief Paleontologist, Geological Survey of Canada, Calgary, Canada,

A number of factors come together now, that require us to consider further electronic possibilities for paleontology:

  1. With significant reductions due to unreplaced retirements and other reductions in industry, governments, museums and universities, paleontology globally needs to find more effective ways to deliver. Fewer individuals are expected to produce more in shorter time and with great reliability.
  2. To a great degree we are slowed down by the slow speed of physically accessing the global literature of the past 200 years, literature which is accumulating at astonishing rates in mainstream and obscure publications. Better access to the literature is required.
  3. Global electronic communication techniques are now available to overcome geographic barriers to information access.
  4. Electronic data techniques are now available to manage the huge quantity of information available.

The main challenges to be overcome to realize our potential are:

  1. Overcoming attitudinal barriers confining us to traditional techniques.
  2. Finding resources to digitize huge quantities of information.
  3. Establishing venues where this information is stored.

Imagine being able to access globally and in seconds, not only the Treatise volumes in a variety of searchable ways including characteristics of specimens that need identification. Imagine being able to click on a genus and view a screenful of illustrations and geography of all the species that have been published. Imagine even a more humble goal - being able to retrieve a list of publications that deal with a particular taxon. Some of these working tools have been developed for particular taxonomic groups. Some are available commercially, others by subscription, others are freely accessible. But paleontology as a whole is still poorly served by existing facilities. Individuals who are increasingly expected to deal with a variety of fossil groups at a non-specialist level still face huge barriers. A recent discussion regarding the feasibility of producing a revision of the Treatise for a particular fossil group called into question the availability of expertise and resources, so that no overall treatment to the genus level for this particular fossil group at least may never again be produced.

I propose that a working group with international representation be established, to consider these matters:

  1. A central venue be established for data storage, such as the GSA-U. Kansas coalition was done for Treatise purposes. It might be the same combination again, or some other agency with a long-term and reliable mandate for paleontology such as PRI, NHM, USNM, SEPM or even something entirely new. Adequate computer facilities and ongoing support would be essential.
  2. Publishing scientists be encouraged to submit a basic "mini-manuscript" to this storage unit, a data base including the taxonomic, geographic, stratigraphic data and essential images, parallel to their submission to a traditional journal. Some journals might cooperate by making this a condition for publication. This would be little different from providing essential information together with type specimens to a suitable repository as we currently do. To a certain degree this information could be self-submitted, and may not require a great deal of ongoing manpower. Thus a database would be built up with relatively little trouble and expense as years of research progress. This would not (perhaps) be comprehensive, would not contain much backlog, and would not be reviewed by a single specialist for consistency, etc., but unfortunately it may be the best we can reasonably expect these days. It would be a start, and for many would be an invaluable tool in spite of its defects. A gateway would be required so th at new ideas could not be submitted without other valid publication to back it up, ensuring that the data base would not become too much of a free-for-all. Manpower would be required at an early stage to create a basic taxonomic and biostratigraphic framework into which submitting individuals could fit their new data.
  3. Depending on funding success and priorities, individuals might be hired from time to time to undertake digitization of the previous literature. Quick success might be achieved by accumulating those data bases that already exist at the appropriate level of data detail.

Would there be interest among enough large organizations, including industry and governments(?) to provide sufficient funding? The first stage is discussion. PaleoNet is a suitable forum. But if there are serious benefits to this proposal, a dedicated working group needs to tackle these matters.