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In Praise of the Encyclopedia of Life

EOL screen capture

I'm in the middle of researching and writing my next book, which means that I use the Encyclopedia of Life  all day, every day.  Lately it's been sporting a newly updated and simplified interface, and I realized that it was high time to sing its praises.

EOL is a mega-database cataloging all known species (of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, protozoa) known to exist on the planet.  It's compiled by a consortium of authoritative organizations–just take a look at the credentials of these people— and pulls the latest taxonomic information directly from the governing bodies in the science world that determine these sorts of things.  (The World Register of Marine Species, Integrated Taxonomic Information system, groups like that.)

So how do I use EOL?

EOL hops

First, I use it to check the species names of plants I'm writing about.  You'll see in the screen shot above that today's plant, hops, turns up in three different classifications systems.  I can check all three to make sure that it's not in the middle of being reclassified, in which case I simply yell at the screen, throw something out the window, and vow to never speak to another taxonomist again. (Or I write, "the classification of this plant is in some dispute…"– a line my editor will later cut on the grounds that nobody cares but me and a couple of taxonomists I'm not speaking to anyway.)

After that, I can take a look at some pictures of the plants (pictures that have been reliably verified to be actual pictures of the actual species–as opposed to a Google images search), see a distribution map that tells me where the plant grows in the world, and–get this–do a literature search with actual links to the actual literature.  Check this out:

EOL lit

That's right.  You're looking at 250 year-old articles on hops written in GERMAN, which I can simply click and read in scanned page format.  There is no end to my delight.  Well, there is an end to my delight–they don't have everything, because as you know, lots of scientific journals have not seen fit to share their scientific wonderfulness with the wide world.  (Dear Scientific Journals:  Please loosen up a little.  How about letting people read some small number of articles for free every month, and then charging a subscription fee after that?) 

But that's OK.  What they have is interesting enough, and guaranteed to be a better time-waster than Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, there is a feature called Community in which people can log in and talk about common issues of concern wrt some particular species.   I haven't seen much of that yet, so I don't have an example to show you, but it's a cool idea.

And last but not least–for every plant, you can find out what information is being fed into the EOL entry.  I appreciate the fact that EOL is egalitarian in its selection of sources–you'll see Wikipedia and Flickr here alongside more academic sources.  It's good to have all of that, with all the usual disclaimers.

EOL collections

So.  There you go.  EOL.  It's awesome, and it's run entirely on grants and donations.  I finally sent them a donation, after realizing that I practically can't get out of bed these days without consulting EOL first.  I spend a lot of time as a writer trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between the interesting, obscure, and complex work that scientists do–and the rest of us.  EOL's doing that too, and I love them for it.

Posted by on September 21, 2011 at 5:49 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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9 responses to “In Praise of the Encyclopedia of Life”

  1. tai haku says:

    I’ve contributed a number of my photos to EOL using the Flickr pool and you don’t need to caveat that – the process from getting into the pool to appearing as a verified photo on EOL is evidently quite involved.

    Whilst I like EOL now I have to say I think it will be much, much better in 5 years time than it is now.

  2. Gail says:

    Seems like a great website. Good thing we are going into the dormant season so I can spend time on this site instead of gardening.

  3. Gina Field says:

    This is awesome and I can’t wait to dig in. Thanks for sharing.

  4. John says:

    Please explain to your editor that some of us want to know when a plant’s scientific name has been changed, is about to be changed, or what it used to be and may sometimes still be called.

  5. Marte says:

    Interesting that the first two articles from 1761 are in NORWEGIAN. :) This is very very cool. Thanks for bringing this site to my attention.

  6. Marte says:

    Or, to be more precise, Danish, since that was Norway’s written language at the time. Still, comes from Trondheim.

  7. Bob Corrigan says:

    Thank you for the review.

    @tai – Five years? Give us one. :) But seriously, let us know what you want to see improved either by commenting on the EOL blog at http://blog.eol.org or by leaving a message for an EOL staff member on the site.

    @John – If you go to the Names tab on a taxon page, you’ll see related names, common names and synonyms. For example: http://eol.org/pages/595013/names

  8. John says:

    Bob – I meant for other publications. Amy said that her editor would remove such a reference and I’m saying that all that info is important.

  9. Bob Corrigan says:

    @John – understood. I can’t help myself, I like to tell people about our names capabilities.

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