A new Encyclopedia of Life, which will attempt to catalog all 1.8 million named species, “available everywhere by single access on command” — I think that means free to read, at least – has been announced. Its two supporting foundations are going to be funding it to the tune of — wait for it — $100 million, over a period of 10 years, this Reuters article reports.
This is stunning news. With that amount of money, and the partners involved, it seems that chances are good that they’ll do excellent work. I can easily imagine the Citizendium Biology Workgroup — perhaps our most active — saying to themselves, “Well, what’s the point of our writing articles about species now?” It’s possible indeed that the EOL will do such a fantastic job that it will render all future of compendia of species useless. But this is, you have to admit, not very likely. Perhaps the first thing to notice is that we like to have multiple references, even if we have a truly excellent one in hand. We have not yet seen the perfect encyclopedia; there will always be room for other approaches. So to Citizendium’s biologists, I say: there will be a point, because there’s always an interest in and desire for alternative approaches.
Moreover, those of us with experience with business and publishing ventures of various kinds know that it is all too possible, even with a $100 million commitment, to fail to achieve the full vision — indeed, it is probable, since most business ventures fail. The EOL looks quite a bit like the Digital Universe, which has had an impressive vision, but little else, for quite some time now. It was Joe Firmage’s vision that attracted me to that project in the first place, and they have had something like over $14 million in funding in the last few years. But, sadly, there is relatively little to show for the time and money; just what you see on digitaluniverse.net and earthportal.net, and some more stuff going on behind the scenes. Nothing to sneeze at, perhaps — but not the vision.
But with the EOL, well, the bloom is still on the Rosa, and it looks much better thought-out than the Digital Universe, and also much better focused. The idea of an encyclopedia focused on all species is an excellent one if for no other reason than that it is both clear and appealing. The general look and feel of it is excellent as well, and the planned standard sections, such as images, charts, maps, videos, etc., are exciting to contemplate. The question is whether they will, with their impressive funding and personnel, actually be able to come together and create a new expert content production model that will actually populate those templates with data. I certainly hope so.
What the Citizendium has going for it is that we are following a model that is — well, I dare not say proven, but at least well supported and not particularly mysterious. How we might end up with millions of meaty, excellent articles, starting with (ahem) much less money than EOL is starting with, is not hard to understand. It’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll achieve that success, but we’re on our way.
If EOL achieves its own great success by borrowing the best of Wikipedia’s processes and attracting a lot of the world’s biologists to the table, they will have pioneered a method that can be used in every field. That is exciting and something to hope for, regardless of what it might mean for the Citizendium.