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February 26, 2008

Encyclopedia of Life

The Encyclopedia of Life is a rather new project to create an online and every growing encyclopedia of the species of life on earth. This is just a narrow slice of what Wikipedia nominally covers (everything!), but its ambition highlights the fact that we should expect to see more and more specialized encyclopedias growing through user-contributed content (that is, Wikipedia cannot be a successful single source of knowledge).

The task: there are currently about 1.8 million known species; the relevant scientific community thinks there are about 18 million more to be discovered. And an encyclopedia does not merely name the speciies: it compiles a wide range of useful information (some of the current developed pages have 20 or more subheadings, multiple photographs, extensive bibliographies, even references to the species in literature; see, e.g., Eastern White Pine).

And what about the usual incentives problems: why contribute? what make the effort necessary for quality contributions? how to limit pollution? By focusing on a specialized and visible community of scientists, some of these problems may be smaller than in other settings. In particular, I expect that quality will be handled by a mix of contributors not wanting to look foolish to their colleagues, and other contributors delighting in showing how much better their knowledge is as they make quality-improving edits. The rewards are similar to the standard rewards of recognition and satisfaction with documenting and adding to knowledge that have kept academia moving for the past several hundred years.

Pollution and quality also will be managed, it appears, by having volunteer experts assigned as "curators", or moderators for each page. This is reminiscent of the method that seems to work well on Slashdot, for example.

But what about inducing contributions in the first place? The project's Executive Director, Prof. James Edwards, said

“We have not given enough thought to the people who provide the information on which the Encyclopedia of Life is built. “We are looking into ways to keep that community going.��?

(This quote and other material above from today's New York Times article on the EOL.)

Indeed, in a twist not often heard when talking about getting people to contribute to, say, Wikipedia, the founders are worried about the community dying off:

"The ranks of taxonomists — the scientists who describe species and revise old descriptions — have been shrinking steadily for decades. Dr. Wilson hopes the Encyclopedia of Life will foster the growth of that group."
(Carl Zimmer, NYT 26 Feb 2008.)

My student, Lian Jian, is currently working on a project to discover reasons why contributors "exit" (stop contributing to) Wikipedia. Here is a poster describing her preliminary work. As the many new and exciting user-contributed content projects mature, inducing a flow of new contributors to replace those who exit, and passing along the organizational memory and routines, will become important determinants of long-term success.

Posted by jmm at February 26, 2008 10:08 AM


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