Law in the Internet Society
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Developing an Information Commons for Biodiversity Knowledge

-- By LaizaMelena

A very extensive body of data and information has been accumulated about the world's biodiversity, but this information is not coherently organized or integrated, making it difficult for researchers and stakeholders to access and contribute to the information. Biodiversity research should evolve new means of organizing and disseminating information to meet existing environmental and economic challenges, and this evolution will inevitably involve using the internet as the medium of data access and exchange. This essay will argue that universal and open access to biodiversity information on the internet is a practical imperative for the international conservation community, and that this goal should be accomplished through the promotion and development of a sustainable Biodiversity Information Commons (BIC).

The Case for a Biodiversity Information Commons

There is a growing recognition that the conservation of biological diversity is "a common concern of humankind" and is an integral part of the global sustainable development process. The preservation of biological diversity has practical and economic value for a broad range of issues, including: the discovery of wild plant species adaptable for agriculture, the discovery of beneficial organisms for pharmaceuticals, to prevent the outbreak of pathogens, or to halt harmful invasive species. However, there is very little knowledge about the wealth and range of biological diversity and it is imperative to increase this knowledge before environmental disasters and economic development further reduce biodiversity.

There are severe obstacles to progress. First, there is an inequitable access and distribution of biological information in the biodiversity-rich but economically-poorer countries. Most of the existing biodiversity literary and specimen resources are concentrated in developed countries even though most biodiversity hotspots are in the developing world (see Many taxonomists in the developing world frequently lack access to the library facilities that enable them to navigate fully the fragmented taxonomy of a group (Wheeler et al., 2004; Carvalho et al., 2005). This has resulted in an “information gradient” that prevents most peoples in poorer countries from equitable, direct access to biodiversity information and prevents people from adding to biological knowledge. As a consequence, the people that may have the most knowledge of biological diversity are the least able to contribute to the field. Second, even conservation biologists in developed countries have limited access to resources because these are not coherently organized and integrated. Furthermore, accessing these resources can be a costly and inefficient (Godfray 2007; Minelli 2003), and researchers must travel far to spend most of their time standing in front of photocopy machines to collect information.

Building the Biodiversity Information Commons

A solution to the limited and fragmented biodiversity information and inequitable distribution of the existing information is a Biodiversity Information Commons (BIC), that is a network of biological information maintained in the public domain for common use (see A fundamental principle of the BIC is that all biodiversity information from its inception should be dedicated to free not-for-profit, research, education, and conservation uses, and should embrace the goal of free universal access. A BIC can be successful because it has the potential of reducing costs and increasing efficiency, while democratizing the access and contribution to biological knowledge.

A BIC can have negligible costs to the operator while providing free information to peoples around the world. A property of digital information is that it is an extensible resource. Once information and data is digitized and placed on a web platform, there is virtually zero transaction costs to enable a lot of users to access the information. This distinctive quality of digital information can enable a BIC to provide unrestricted access to biological information to all citizens of the world who have internet access at no additional cost for each incremental user. Take for example, the experience of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium of natural history libraries that have digitized over 47,000 titles and 35 million pages of biodiversity literature available for open access (see The Library worked with the Internet Archive to digitize their books at a low cost of 10 cents a page with funds provided by private foundations. The benefits have been immediate: the BHL is becoming a free, single-access library for users worldwide that need to consult and download biodiversity literature.

A BIC can increase the efficiency of contributing to biodiversity information, and consequently the quality of that information. One of the core goals of a BIC is that it should promote a dynamic knowledge ecology, that is foster the growth of knowledge through interactions between people, and improve decision-making and innovation through networks of collaboration. To accomplish this goal, a BIC should be designed to enable content to be continuously peer reviewed and updated with new information. One of the most successful examples of this is the Encyclopedia of Life (see, a global collaborative effort to document all 1.9 million named species on Earth and make that information freely accessible through the Internet. In the four years the EOL has been operating, users have collected and vetted information on 40 percent of the planet’s known species, and they expect to hold data on every known plant, animal, insect and microbe species by 2017. Undoubtedly, such a massive collection has been amassed so quickly because millions of users have contributed their knowledge. Users can add new information or request that existing information be updated or changed, and curators will review it. Even if the information is not changed, all comments and hypotheses are preserved on the website for anyone to review creating an unprecedented database of biological information and transparency. Furthermore, an integrated encyclopedia has the potential to detect worldwide patters and connections between different forms of life. For example, biologists are already looking for lifespan patterns or similarities in resistance or susceptibility to disease across a broad range of EOL species pages, aiming to find new species and genes to target in longevity studies, vaccine development and other medical research.

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r1 - 11 Nov 2011 - 05:03:23 - LaizaMelena
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