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Built in the 19th century, rebuilt for the 21st


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Keynote address to National Biodiversity Network conference 19 November 2015

Published in: Science
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Built in the 19th century, rebuilt for the 21st

  1. 1. @rdmpage
  2. 2. Digitisation
  3. 3.
  4. 4. 500+ million records
  5. 5. The Experimenter’s Museum GenBank, Natural History, and the Moral Economies of Biomedicine By Bruno J. Strasser* ABSTRACT Today, the production of knowledge in the experimental life sciences relies crucially on the use of biological data collections, such as DNA sequence databases. These collections, in both their creation and their current use, are embedded in the experimentalist tradition. At the same time, however, they exemplify the natural historical tradition, based on collecting and comparing natural facts. This essay focuses on the issues attending the establishment in 1982 of GenBank, the largest and most frequently accessed collection of experimental knowledge in the world. The debates leading to its creation—about the collection and distribution of data, the attribution of credit and authorship, and the proprietary nature of knowledge—illuminate the different moral economies at work in the life sciences in the late twentieth century. They offer perspective on the recent rise of public access publishing and data sharing in science. More broadly, this essay challenges the big picture according to which the rise of experimentalism led to the decline of natural history in the twentieth century. It argues that both traditions have been articulated into a new way of producing knowledge that has become a key practice in science at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  6. 6. Not everybody likes digitisation
  7. 7. Digitisation is uneven
  8. 8. 441,023 data points in Kenya…
  9. 9. None of the data about Kenya comes from Kenya
  10. 10. iNaturalist
  11. 11. EOL photos in Flickr
  12. 12. Not everything can be digitised
  13. 13. 45 million pages, all Open Access
  14. 14. 100,000 articles from (BHL) 1923 today
  15. 15.
  16. 16. Not everyone can access digital material
  17. 17. 4 million articles
  18. 18. 35 years in jail $US 1M fine
  19. 19. Information wants to be free Information wants to be expensive
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  21. 21. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work
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  23. 23. The Plant List 1.1 Use of Content in Derivative works is encouraged. We do however require prior written permission for any reposting, sub- licensing, reselling, or other forms of direct redistribution of Content in their original format, unless they amount to a Derivative work. If you wish to provide a service through which Content is otherwise made available for redistribution, please contact us directly at
  24. 24. Knowing what we know
  25. 25. • There are known knowns, things we know that we know • There are known unknowns, things we now know we don’t know • But there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don't know
  26. 26. known unknown
  27. 27. Mt Mabu on GBIF
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  29. 29. Actionable information
  30. 30. Think this way for a while, and you notice a key factor: old data usually isn’t very interesting. You’ll be much more interested in what your users are doing right now than what they were doing a year ago. Sure, spotting trends in historical data might be cool, but in all likelihood it isn’t actionable. Today’s data is.
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  32. 32. 500+ million records
  33. 33. • Digitisation and access • Knowing what we know • Actionable information