ASAP awards – Interview with Mark Costello

ASAP Finalist Announcement 600x600Mark Costello, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Science and Leigh Marine Laboratory (University of Auckland in New Zealand) was nominated for his work with WoRMS of which he was founding chair. The site provides a database of scientific names for all marine species. Species are sometimes described with different scientific names, and the site helps disambiguate these names and also provides or links to information about each species.

Q: How did the project come about

M.Costello
Courtesy of ASAP awards

MC: When I was in Ireland 1990’s I was involved in workshops developing policies for biodiversity – the main barrier was lack of coordination of species names. This meant we couldn’t merge datasets easily enough. In 1996 I put in a proposal to create an inventory of science species names which was funded by the European Commission. Since 2004, the Flemish Government has funded the hosting of the database. Once the infrastructure was secure and professionally managed, then getting the info into it became possible. People were motivated because this was a permanent website with permanent support from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ). It started as a clean-up exercise.

Q: What is special about the site?

MC: By providing naming information about species, it helps people navigate the scientific literature where alternative names may be used, but it also links to information about the species.

Q: What did you learn from working on WoRMS?

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Courtesy of Mark Costello

MC: There were unexpected patterns that were discovered from the data. We discovered that the number of species being described over time has been increasing at a linear rate. When you look at the authors there are now about 3-5 times more people discovering species than ever before – so taxonomists are not really disappearing as many people have said. The number of species discovered per author is, however, declining. That it is taking more people to discover species than it did before suggests that we have discovered most species on Earth (at least half, perhaps 2/3), not only a small fraction as some have speculated. We found also that science is doing better, conservation is working.

Q: What was people’s response?

MC: Word of mouth helped – there was an element of trust. We only know the people we know – but when you look globally you start to get a different picture than when you look at your own community. The taxonomy is curated by specialists, and people are now more trusting about online collaboration than when we started. But it was important to have a long – term commitment to supporting these databases to make the system sustainable so that the databases are shareable.

According to their stats page, In 2007 the site had received 37,221 unique visitors and by 2012 this number had risen to 817,335 unique visitors and 30,423,583 page views. The material is provided under a CC-BY, although permission needs to be sought for the re-distribution of the entire database, and it seems too to download the entire database too. I asked Mark about that.

MC: I don’t think that the CC-BY is a hindrance for sharing the data or reusing. We provide a clear citation for the data. We want the source to be cited because we consider it a scholarly publication. And users concerned about quality assurance of their sources can then cite it as an ‘authoritative’ rather than anonymous resource. When you combine the data into a new set, people that want to use this new group or want to replicate need to know where the original data came from. Otherwise they would be having to start from scratch. The citation solves this problem.

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Courtesy of Mark Costello

MC: The request was put there originally because databases change over time and we were worried that there would be multiple copies which could create confusion as to what is the best source. It also was a way of not having to deal with data flow issues if too many people were downloading the entire database at the same time. We also needed safeguarding from attacks of sending constant queries to the database. But it is also a good way of knowing and tracking who your users are, so we can provide the list of organisations that use the database when we are out looking for funding and support.

Q: What would you like to see next?

MC: I would love to have all species on Earth in a quality approved database and see what we could then discover about the species. We learned a lot from querying this database, and we could learn a lot more if we had all species in there.

Even if you are not interested in digging into the data, the site is a great place to get to know our underwater neighbours. I encourage you to visit the site.



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