Natural history plans to chart life on earth, yet the discipline risks
being buried under a landslide of painstakingly collected data that
isn’t always used. Now researchers at London’s Natural History Museum
have created a social networking tool called ‘Scratchpads’ where
natural historians can get together and share their data.
A paper on this new platform features in a supplement on biodiversity informatics published in the open access journal, BMC Bioinformatics.
Vincent Smith, Simon Rycroft, David Roberts and colleagues created
the data-publishing framework for groups of people to create their own
natural history-based social networks. Users create a virtual workbench
to study aspects of an organism much as Darwin did during his lifetime,
and anyone can get involved. To date the system serves over 1100
registered users across 100 sites, spanning academic, amateur and
citizen-science audiences. Users have generated over 130,000 content
nodes in the first two years.
The Scratchpads article is among nine articles chosen for
publication in the BMC Bioinformatics supplement that highlight a range
of recent advancements from general biodiversity information management
to DNA Barcoding. "Scratchpads is emblematic of the kinds of
biodiversity informatics approaches that are being developed to help
better meet the timeless and ever-growing challenges of biological data
curation," says Neil Sarkar (editor of the BMC Bioinformatics
biodiversity informatics supplement and Assistant Professor and
Director of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Vermont in the
The Scratchpads infrastructure combines databases, network protocols
and computational services to bring people, information and
computational tools together to perform and publish natural history.
Specialist sites on fish, amphibians, trees and so on do exist. But
natural history is known for its diverse approaches and researchers
with widely differing views and contexts. Electronic data systems tend
to offer just one way to represent data, which can alienate many
potential contributors. In Scratchpads, the user-created workbenches
mean that natural historians can gather, organise and share their data
themselves, for example picking their own biological classification
systems and incorporating data from other platforms such as
Encyclopaedia of Life.
"Our goal was to build a system that could motivate individual
researchers in the generation, management and dissemination of their
own data for their own needs, while empowering a wider constituent of
potential users who are free to repurpose this information for other
uses," says Vincent Smith.
The researchers hope Scratchpads will prevent natural history data
from being marginalized in the "electronic ghetto" of publishers’
websites, or worse still never being published at all. Making better
connections between these data also stands to boost natural history’s
image in the wider scientific community. The service may also provide a
template for use in other disciplines too.
Source : BioMed Central