The PaleoNet Forum: An Irregular Electronic
November, 1996: Volume 2, Issue 6
A GLOBAL PALEONTOLOGY BASIC DATA SOURCE - THE
Chief Paleontologist, Geological Survey of Canada, Calgary, Canada, poulton@gsc.NRCan.gc.ca
A number of factors come together now, that require us to consider further
electronic possibilities for paleontology:
- 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.
- 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.
- Global electronic communication techniques are now available to overcome
geographic barriers to information access.
- 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:
- Overcoming attitudinal barriers confining us to traditional techniques.
- Finding resources to digitize huge quantities of information.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.