This work package has three key aims, based on the three words in the title. Most easily explained in reverse order, they are:
Revisions: to provide the means (tools and resources) to make it easier for taxonomists to produce revisions. more
Web: to make those revisionary work accessible through the world wide web. more
Unifying: to facilitate a taxonomic community's formulation of the best currently available classification for their group. more
For the sake of clarity, by “revision” here we mean a work that takes a synoptic view of some taxonomic group, possibly within a defined geographical region, examines each of the taxa involved and lays out a statement of their relationships. There is no implication of scale (number of taxa covered) or scope (range of coverage) in the term 'revision' as used here. A classification is the arrangement of taxa into an hierarchical organisation, these days most commonly based on phylogentic (evolutionary) principles.
The work package is working to a general plan in conjunction with the development of the cyber-platform by work package 5 and is being shaped by a core group of developers (The People). Taxonomists and users of taxonomic services are invited to contribute to this project by contributing to the forum on this site to build a wish-list of features that web taxonomy should offer. Those who wish to be more closely involved are invited to join the developers' group [link].
Scratchpads are web sites that are available to any taxonomic community. EDIT will support the site and provide a variety of tools, but its design and content are to be managed by the taxonomic community itself. The level of IT skills necessary to achieve this has been minimised as far as possible, so no specific skills in, for example, HTML are needed. Domain names will be chosen by each community.
Taxonomy has developed from Linneaus' synoptic treatments of all life through a series of ever larger works that became multi-authored encyclopedias (e.g. Bronn's Tierreich), monographic treatments of major groups to monographic treatments of ever smaller taxonomic assemblages. As the number of taxa has risen, these monographs have had to restrict their scope but even so would take years to write. Today the scientific environment, and particularly career development, demands regular publications which mitigates against the old monographic concept. Primary publications on small numbers of taxa continue to be produced, but they are increasingly inaccessible to those who need taxonomic services, such as for biodiversity, conservation or ecological studies.
EDIT is therefore seeking to make the process of gathering the basic information necessary to prepare a monograph more efficient and to use the internet to make collaboration between taxonomists easier, so that monographs can increase in scope. This means that EDIT wishes to encourage and support communities of taxonomists specialising in a taxonomic group, and will offer such groups infrastructural support., e.g. hosting web sites, providing mailing list and forum facilities etc. [link]
The first step in this process is to define what data fields are first, essential and second, desirable to build a revision. Contributions to this debate are welcome on the forum [link]. In order to generate content with which to work and explore these issues, we will take revisionary taxonomic studies as submitted for traditional publication and mark up the file with XML tags to facilitate data mining of the file. EDIT will not make these manuscripts available directly on the web, but will abstract data from them in response to queries.
There is little doubt that most scientists turn to the web as a primary information source these days. A great deal of the information necessary to undertake a revision can be found this way, but it is often dispersed and not easy to find. Traditional publication on paper remains a requirement for nomenclatural acts under both the Botanical and Zoological codes of nomenclature, so remains the dominant output vehicle for revisionary work. Most taxonomic groups have a monographic standard work which acts as a foundation for subsequent contribution to the group. Some groups, though, have successfully summarised these revisions on web pages which have become the default standard work and, importantly, are dynamically updated by the taxonomic community itself. This seems to be a good model and EDIT exists to facilitate the creation of such sites through the support of web tools for taxonomic communities [link].
An additional benefit to this fusion of effort is that taxonomy moves away from being an individual pursuit and becomes a community activity, much more in line with modern grant-giving practice. It is questionable whether taxonomy can compete for funding against the team-based sciences, and if it cannot, whether it can survive as a discipline.
EDIT seeks to be a vehicle through which taxonomic communities can develop the systematics of their group as a community, and who can, therefore, present the current view of the group classification to the rest of the world while still being able to develop and debate ideas within the community itself. To this end, EDIT is offering communities a 'scratchpad' as a developmental environment. This is essentially a blank web page provided with a set of tools to assist collaborative working [link]. We consider is to be important that users of taxonomy should be able to access the community view of current taxonomy as well as being able to access conflicting opinions.