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Anyone Can Say Anything About Any Organism: Exploring the Implications of Taxonomy's Move to the Semantic Web

Thu, September 5, 1:00 to 2:30pm, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, Floor: Eight, Endymion


The field of biological taxonomy has produced one of the longest-lived classification systems on earth: the over 300-year old system of biological nomenclature and description. Historically, this effort has been decidedly paper-based – and somewhat bureaucratic: taxonomists write descriptions in terse, semi-structured prose; publish them in journals or thick tomes; and oversee and arbitrate naming decisions via complex governing bodies such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

Over recent decades, however, taxonomists’ workflows have become increasingly computational, and their data, born digital; this has motivated the development of anatomical ontologies such as the Hymenoptera Anatomy Ontology and the Phenotype and Trait Ontology, which hold the promise of creating a machine-readable dataset describing life on earth. The adoption of semantic web technologies for this field, though, could pose massive challenges to taxonomy’s historic governing structure and publishing workflows. How must a rule- and paper-based discipline like taxonomy evolve in a linked data paradigm where Anyone can say Anything about Any organism? How might the adoption of semantic technologies by taxonomists open the field to new contributions and work arrangements – and how might they put this essential knowledgebase at risk for vandalism, misinformation, and other harm?

In this paper, we address these questions through research conducted as part of a long-term qualitative investigation of taxonomists’ data and work practices. We discuss the ramifications that linked data, “nanopublications” and other semantic technologies might have for this traditionally paper-based discipline, and the implications of our findings for other knowledge organization systems and infrastructures.