Variety is the spice of life and taxonomy is the science we use to understand that seasoning. Taxonomists describe and organize the billions of living things on this planet, creating vast collections of information that help us understand how all life on Earth is connected. Their work has been the basis of medical breakthroughs, lead to the great discoveries of ecology, and opened our eyes to the wonders of evolution. Taxonomy even plays a role in how you and I think about the things that live in our own backyards.

Trouble is, a lot of that information is hidden behind paywalls or scattered across random sources where the general public can't easily get to it.

That's where you come in.

The Encyclopedia of Life is hosting a challenge. The goal: bring information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria to the world. Readers are asked to research and write short descriptions of some of nature's most fascinating species. Those descriptions will be reviewed by curators for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Life — a crowd-created, open-source effort to make scientific information about the world we live in available to all the people who live in it. And here's the kicker: the best descriptions will earn their writers a place in history — a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is up for grabs.

Humans have probably been naming things and making lists since our earliest ancestors began to separate "Stuff That Tastes Good" from "Stuff That Killed That Other Guy That One Time". But taxonomy, as we know it today, really began in the 18th-century, when Carl Linnaeus started assigning Latin names to different plants and animals and organizing them into a hierarchy where humans (the obvious pinnacle of creation) lorded over the rest of of the Earth.

We think about species (and, really, taxonomy itself) very differently today. But we still use a lot of pieces left over from Linnaeus' organizational structure — grouping living things into kingdoms, phylums, classes, orders, families, genera, and species. Taken altogether, those different groups are called taxa. Primates are an order and a taxon. Hominids are a family, and a taxon. Homo is a genus, and also a taxon. Homo sapiens is a species ... and, yes, still a taxon.

For this project, your help describing different taxa is required.

What To Do

Readers pick the taxon they like the best (the Encyclopedia of Life has a list of suggested taxa that can help one get started). Then it's time to hunt down credible sources; a look around online or a visit to the local library may be in order. Either way, you'll use the information to write a short summary of what makes a taxon tick — where does it live, what does it look like, and what does it need to survive? — is the objective, using original language and a style that general readers would enjoy. Don't worry about writing the Great American Taxonomic Description; all the Encyclopedia needs is a paragraph or two. Somewhere between 300 and 500 words should do it. (Check out the entry form for guidelines and some great examples.)

All entries will have to have at least two sources. Wikipedia is a good place to start looking for sources, but its preferable not to be a primary source itself. For one thing, the temptation to cut-paste must be avoided. For another, it's best to find stuff that isn't already easily available ... and Wikipedia is kind of the definition of easily available.

Good sources: University websites or the personal websites of scientists who study that plant or animal; peer-reviewed journal articles; books; websites for zoos, aquariums, or conservation organizations; specialty encyclopedias, such as The New Encyclopedia of Mammals published by Oxford University Press; educational documentaries, like what you’d see on NOVA or the BBC; magazine articles (interviews with experts are especially helpful!).

Sources to avoid: Fan sites put together by people who aren’t experts; any information that, itself, isn’t sourced; message boards; publications more than 30 years old (the information may be inaccurate because it’s out of date); works of fiction or religious tracts.

The finished descriptions will be part of the Encyclopedia of Life. It's a lot like writing for Wikipedia, only more specialized. The Encyclopedia of Life will eventually become a place where anybody can find basic information about all the other forms of life that share our home planet. Nobody has to pay. Everything is Creative Commons licensed. By participating, you're helping to move information from places where it might be hard for the average person to find, to places where that same information can be freely and quickly accessed.

Who Can Enter

Anybody over the age of 13. Those younger than that, though, can still participate, they just need an adult co-author.

How To Enter

It's super-easy. Just visit the entry form site. Entries are sent directly through that form, and the site has a bunch of great resources and tips — including writing guidelines and examples of descriptions already published on the Encyclopedia of Life.

Readers have until May 20th to enter. And they can enter as many different descriptions as they want.

Score!

All of the entries will be judged by a team of science writers, scientists, and editors from the Encyclopedia of Life, who'll be making selections in three categories.

Best Sources: A mini-library of awesome, recently published science books, hand-picked by me and mailed to the recipient's door. Good at finding cool tidbits of information in unexpected places? The min-library could be yours. People who can bring information from books and other print resources to the web, and who show some serious dedication to making sure that their work is both accurate and intriguing. Citing Wikipedia won't help you. You've got to dig deeper than that.

Most Descriptions: An Apple Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard. If you have the time and inclination to turn out a bunch of well-written, well-researched entries, then you might stand a chance. Remember, we're looking for quality, not just quantity. This works with all Apple products (obviously), but it also works with Windows 7-powered PCs. Use it as part of your standing or walking desk work space, or just to make tablets a little less obnoxious.

Best Overall Description: A private, behind-the-scenes tour at the Smithsonian. One reader will get to go backstage at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, to meet scientists and see collections that aren't available to the public. If you can get to Washington DC on your own, the tour (led by an EOL staffer) can be in person. If not, there's a great virtual setup that will allow you to have a fantastic, live, personal experience from the comfort of your living room. To stand a chance, everything counts: the entry has to be well-researched. It needs to include a fact or two worthy of sharing with friends. And the writing needs to make us go, "Wow."

Got Questions? Want To Know More About Taxonomy?

Post questions in the comments.

Check out our weekly series on taxonomy and speciation:
• Part 1: Leeches are a hypothesis: Why it's so hard to say what a species really is

Read more about Science

Design and Layout: Rob Beschizza

46 Responses to “Be an armchair taxonomist! A challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life”

  1. GawainLavers says:

    I’d been debating turning my father loose on Wikipedia: he’s a local expert on various arthropod groups.  But I was concerned about how Wikipedia’s “relevance” rules would relate to extremely obscure flies and beetles.  Maybe I should direct him here instead?

      • GawainLavers says:

        They should hit up the BugGuide people generally.  An amazing resource in it’s own right.  Contrary to advertising, they cover pretty much everything arthropodae: used them recently to discover that the enormous but unmarked spiders I found in a cabin on the Russian River were actually a thing called the “<a href="http://bugguide.net/node/view/424372"Desert Recluse“.

        Unfortunately, after I photographed them right next to my hand for scale…

        • cydparr says:

          EOL has always found BugGuide to be a fantastic community and resource. We enthusiastically recommend it. Sharing info from BugGuide to EOL depends on willingness and CC licenses — keeping fingers crossed.  Meanwhile, we don’t have a lot on the Desert Recluse, Loxosceles desert (http://eol.org/pages/1182560/overview).  Care to write a brief summary?

    • Lane Rasberry says:

       The relevant project under the Wikimedia Umbrella is Wikispecies. For genera there are Wikipedia articles which give general information, but every species is to be represented on Wikispecies.

      Encyclopedia of Life allows people to apply non-free licenses. Wikimedia projects disallow this entirely. I am not sure which project is more advanced.

      • My understanding is that everything on Encyclopedia of Life is CC licensed. Or am I misunderstanding you? 

        • V. says:

          There’s some content  mirrored from other sites that isn’t CC, and they use multiple CC licenses. Direct contributors to EoL, though, are required to use CC-BY.

          • bobcorrigan says:

            @V., minor correction, CC-BY is the “default and preferred license”, but it’s not required.  See http://eol.org/info/eol_licensing_policy

      • V. says:

        Wikispecies is essentially only for taxonomy, but Wikipedia gets nearly as detailed where it has coverage.

    • V. says:

      Wikipedia may be a better fit. All species and other taxa are notable (I think that’s what you’re wondering about) for the purposes Wikipedia, and we love it when people write detailed articles on obscure species.

      This program only calls for writing very short articles fleshing out the bigger picture, that can’t get into the important details Wikipedia wants and most specialists want to write about. 500 words, the maximum, is essentially always much too short for a complete Wikipedia article. I expect these also need to be more accessible than Wikipedia articles, actually.

      • I think you’re misinterpreting this. EOL does want people to get into in-depth pieces. 500 words is what we’re telling folks for this challenge … as a way to get people who wouldn’t normally sit down and write long contributions to crowd-sourced encyclopedias to start participating. The hope is that they’ll get a taste and want to do more. 

        And, no, they don’t actually need to be more accessible than Wikipedia. We’d like them to be a lot better written than many science entries on Wikipedia, however. 

        • cydparr says:

          500 words is a guideline for a Brief Summary, just one of the many “chapters” we have on EOL.  Any longer than that and it is better to submit to multiple chapters so the  organization can be standardized.  We decided to focus on Brief Summaries for this contest, but we absolutely welcome more extensive submissions directly to EOL (or Wikipedia or any of our other partners).

  2. abeille says:

     Your father sounds like a perfect candidate for this task!  Definitely direct him here.

  3. bobcorrigan says:

    If your father has photos he can upload them to http://www.flickr.com/groups/encyclopedia_of_life/ and they will be integrated into EOL auto-magically.

  4. Sounds like fun. All of my favorites have already been documented, unfortunately.

    • bobcorrigan says:

      That’s OK – if you feel inspired to write a brief summary on something else, have at it.  Same rules apply re: sources, brevity, understand..ability.  

  5. V. says:

    This is very similar to what I do right now, writing dozens of Wikipedia articles. But the types of articles they want are shorter and less interesting, with a smaller audience. And the prizes could be more alluring.

    (Still, I’m interested!)

    • bobcorrigan says:

      Brief Summaries are meant to be a quick introduction to a taxon for people who don’t a) have time or b) don’t want to read more.  We put them on the “overview tab” of an EOL taxon page along with a bunch of other information to orient the user – if they want more, trust me, we got more.  

    • Again, you’re misunderstanding the point of this. Very, very few people are like you, already contributing long write-ups to crowd-sourced encyclopedias. This is meant to engage people who aren’t already involved and give them a relatively easy place to start … to show them they can do it and give them an interest in doing more. 

      If you’d like to write something much longer for this contest, you’re more than welcome. The word count suggested above is meant to not scare off people who are hesitant to write anything. 

      As for the prizes, well, if you don’t like ‘em, don’t enter. I can’t help you there. 

      • V. says:

        Fair enough, but in some ways it must be better to start on Wikipedia. Wikipedia encourages people to submit not quite finished work and get it substantially improved by others. Not entirely fairly to the quality on EoL (or the quality this will hopefully provide), Wikipedia will get a much larger audience.

        Now, I’m not very clear what the expectations are. If you want brief summaries, why isn’t there anything to ensure they all cover the essential bases?

        • We’ll be reviewing them. EOL has curators who make sure that information is accurate and bases are covered before an entry goes live. 

        • Ito Kagehisa says:

          Wikipedia encourages people to submit not quite finished work and get it substantially improved by others.

          Wikipedia can be a very unfriendly place at times.  I tried to write up Victor Singer, who calculated the parameters for the Mars Pathfinder mission’s (successful) airbag landing, and the article was declined as “insufficiently notable for Wikipedia”.  So I rewrote it with a list of Vic’s patents and accomplishments and it was declined because it “reads like hero worship” (which does NOT describe my relationship with Vic, believe me).  There was never any opportunity for others to improve the article, because it never saw the light of day.

          I wrote a lot for Wikipedia back in the day, before it became such an editoral snake pit.  Not much any more; I’ve had articles on farm machinery officially declined by New York theatre critics.  Totally not kidding!

          My
          father’s got a fairly encyclopedia knowledge of the US space program
          (gained by working on the Dyna-Soar, Mercury Redstone, Gemini, Apollo
          and Shuttle projects).  He tried contributing to Wikipedia a couple of
          times, before his Parkinson’s really kicked in, but they didn’t want his
          reminiscences because they are considered “original research”.  He was literally
          told to go make a blog so that it could be used as a reference when he
          wrote the same thing on Wikipedia, at which point he decided he’d rather
          spend his time helping other old folks do their tax returns (the IRS
          gained where Wikipedia lost, I guess).  So probably the only place his knowledge will be preserved is in the garbled memories of his children and grandchildren.

  6. David Rodriguez says:

    It would be very cool to be able to link species who have relationships such as:  insect (pollinator) – plant (host) – fungi (mycorrhizal association). This would create an ever growing living web of knowledge. You could pull on one string and see its effect throughout the web.

    • bobcorrigan says:

      @David, we’re working on that Right Now, it’s a big data challenge of the first degree and a sourcing challenge too.  Not to mention a visualization challenge.  Frankly, it’s challenging in every way.  But that’s what makes it fun.

    • Tracy Barbaro says:

      David, the EOL Learning and Education team has been working on an ecosystem visualization tool. Check it out here: http://fieldguides.eol.org/eco/

    • cydparr says:

      Also check out http://globalbioticinteractions.wordpress.com/ which is working with EOL data to enable these kinds of cool analyses and visualizations.  

  7. Luther Blissett says:

    Yay! Great!

    Just a little background: there are lengthy discussion about where to put your effort (EOL, Wikispecies, other projects) on several taxonomic mailing lists. Also, copyright issues and attributions are discussed over and over again. It is very difficult, even for trained biologists, to come to an conclusion after following that stuff. The discussions are often lengthy, and reasonably complicated – like, you know, in general in science. And, you know, like on the rest of teh interwebz, there are some who can dominate a discussion by the sheer amount of posts.
    If you want to have a look e.g. at Taxacom, and please don’t say I did not warn you.

    After >10 yrs. of reading those lists, I’m still not sure if the web is the right tool for taxonomy. But, so what: let’s put proper content in both, EoL and Wikispecies! Yay!

  8. Víktor Bautista i Roca says:

    I think it would be interesting to have a table showing similarities and diferencies between eol and wikipedia, because I don’t really understand the need to divert efforts.

    • bobcorrigan says:

      @Viktor, WP covers all of everything.  EOL covers biodiversity.   Focus is good, and diversity is good.  So the world is a better place with both WP and EOL in it.  QED.

    • Nathan Wilson says:

      Disclaimer: I manage the software and hardware team that supports the EOL.

      The comparison I like to make is between a public library (broad, relatively shallow content) and a natural history museum (focused, deeper content directly curated by scientists).  By way of comparison, Wikipedia has about 150,000 taxa with some content, EOL has about 1.3 million taxa with some content.  For some taxa, e.g. Panthera leo http://eol.org/pages/328672/overview, that includes hundreds of images, reams of text, videos, sounds etc.    Wikipedia consist of articles created through the Wikipedia interface that follow the Wikipedia guidelines, EOL aggregates biodiversity related content from a broad range of content partners and makes the individual pieces of information available through our website and through our API as ingredients for other websites (some examples available at http://eol.org/info/api_overview).  Both are important, but they serve different and complementary purposes that already support each other.  Wikipedia is one of the content partners for EOL and EOL provides curation feedback to Wikipedia.  This challenge is about creating smaller, distinct “brief summaries” of species than are easily available through Wikipedia that can be vetted by our curators and provided for broader reuse all over the web.

      • Another difference is that Wikipedia (as well as Wikimedia Commons, Wikispecies and most other Wikimedia sites) are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License 3.0, whereas EoL uses a mix of licenses that range from  non-open licenses (e.g. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0, which applies to large chunks of EoL content and prohibits certain kinds of reuses) to licenses that are even more open than Wikipedia (namely the Creative Commons Attribution License that also applies to contributions to the contest).

        This mix of licenses makes large-scale reuse very complicated.MediaWiki (and thus all Wikimedia projects) provides an API too: http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/API:Tutorial .

      • Ito Kagehisa says:

         The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia has a computerized molluscan taxonomic dictionary.  Have you asked them for a dump?

        • Jen Hammock says:

          Ah, you mean Malacolog? They are represented in the World Register of Marine Species, so their records reach EOL via our partnership with WoRMS. Thanks! If there’s another resource we should be aware of, please advise. Our strength lies in our partners.

          • Ito Kagehisa says:

            I guess I do mean Malacolog!  I didn’t name it that in the 80s when I wrote the first version for Art Bogan and Gary Rosenberg, but it appears to have evolved tremendously in the intervening years.

            Hmm, I see Gary’s got the Pilsbry chair in 2007;  nice to see that, he’s a good guy.

  9. Nathan Wilson says:

    I don’t want to get into an argument about what is or isn’t an open license.  Personally, I prefer a simple ‘by’ or ‘by-sa’ license and I support Wikipedia’s stance on this.  However, we’ve found that many of our content partners are unwilling to share content (particularly images) if we don’t allow the ‘NonCommercial’ clause.  Since our goal is to get the data out there, we decided to accept that.  All of the license information is available through the API so it’s not particularly hard to filter out the stuff that has Non-Commercial licenses.

    My point regarding the API is certainly not to imply that MediaWiki doesn’t have one, simply that the content is not broken down to the level of granularity EOL provides.

  10. DavidShorthouse says:

    Sources to avoid: “publications more than 30 years old”. You’re kidding, right? That suggestion rules out the Biodiversity Heritage Library, an Encyclopedia of Life partnering organization that practising taxonomists actually, you know, use. Why not encourage its exploration such that “Armchair Taxonomists” get a taste of what it’s like to execute exhaustive, taxonomic sleuthing.

    • V. says:

      Yeah, tha rules out many thousands of more obscure species, which have little or little free and useful sources published recently.

    • That’s not a hard rule, it’s a guideline. It’s meant to help people understand that 40-year-old information on a species might not be particularly accurate. If no newer information is available, it’s perfectly reasonable to use older stuff. There are definitely species that would apply to. 

    • bobcorrigan says:

      @DS, this contest is right up your alley.  Have at it!

      • DavidShorthouse says:

        Thanks for the offer, but crowd-sourcing activities like this http://www.notesfromnature.org/ are more appealing to me because the interface is lovely and I understand how the data will be used.

  11. Chris Blanar says:

    Would it be possible to submit entries after the May 20 deadline?

  12. David Ng says:

    Very cool.  How about a card game around taxonomy?  I have cards… (http://phylogame.org)

  13. Maria Sosa says:

    This is fantastic Molly. So little time to spread the word though, but I’ll give it my best shot!

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