Group Launches Species Database

A group of academic and non-profit institutions—including Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the MacArthur Foundation—will announce the launch of a major online peer-reviewed database of species today.

The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), a project long supported by Harvard’s Pellegrino University Professor Edward O. Wilson, aims to compile information on over 1.8 million species and make it universally accessible free of charge, according to Laura Cinnamon, a spokeswoman for the project.

Harvard has already promised over $5 million, which will go towards education, outreach, and the creation of a digital anthology of taxonomic literature, said James Hanken, a Harvard professor of biology and a member of the EOL Steering Committee.

James L. Edwards, executive director for the EOL starting June 1, said the Encyclopedia plans to “go live” in the second quarter of 2008, though a press release from the EOL estimates it will take 10 years to complete the database.

“By the end of 2008, we expect to have somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 species pages. By the end of five years, we expect to have between 700,000 and 1 million pages available,” Edwards said.

The concept behind the EOL resembles that of WikiSpecies, an existing taxonomy database administered by the Wikimedia Foundation, which also runs the open-source database Wikipedia. However, unlike WikiSpecies, the new encyclopedia will be peer-reviewed by experts, according to a draft description of the EOL.

According to Edwards, specially designed software will aggregate information from existing Web sites and databases to create a new draft species entry. Scientists will review those entries before they are posted on the EOL website, but they will not be paid for the service.

“The best payment for scientists is actually the credit they get from their peers for publishing peer-reviewed articles, so the people who do the reviewing will have their names on those Web pages. That’s how scientists get their kicks, so they’ll be paid in that way,” Edwards said.

Both Edwards and Hanken said that, in addition to Harvard, the three other current “cornerstone institutions” of the project—the Smithsonian, the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago—would raise $5 million each over the next five years towards the EOL. Several other institutions have expressed an interest in becoming cornerstone institutions with a commeasurate financial responsibility, Hanken added.

According to Hanken, each cornerstone institution would take on a different part of the project, and Harvard’s tasks—including creating the “Biodiversity Heritage Library”—would be among the pricier ones.

“The digitization of the science literature alone could cost up to $30-$35 million or more,” he said.

Yesterday’s press release lists a $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and $2.5 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the draft description estimates EOL’s five-year operating budget at $40 million. However, according to Edwards, eventual expenses for the EOL will be far higher.

“We expect it will take between 70 and 100 million dollars to do the full Encyclopedia of Life,” he said.

Wilson declined comment for this story.

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu —Staff writer Nicholas K. Tabor can be reached at ntabor@fas.harvard.edu.