Encyclopedia Of Life Is Born

    May 9, 2007

The Encyclopedia of Life, which intends “to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth,” was launched today.  And as fascinating as this story is from any standpoint, it may also lend some perspective on issues raised by sites like Wikipedia.

The Encyclopedia of Life won’t exactly be peer-edited, but neither will users be solely responsible for its content; instead, “the Encyclopedia will be developed by bringing together (‘mashing up’) content from a wide variety of sources,” reports the site’s FAQ section.  “This material will then be authenticated by scientists, so that users will have authoritative information.”

But there will also be “anecdotes from amateur naturalists (clearly separated from expert opinion),” reports the Boston Globe’s Colin Nickerson.  Then – again, this is pretty amazing stuff – “[e]ventually, the work will hold the equivalent of about 300 million pages of information.”

The Encyclopedia of Life is currently a long way off from this goal, however; the FAQ reveals that it may take ten years before a “full” version is available.  It may also take in excess of $12.5 million – that’s the amount that has already been donated by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

It’s conceivable that the Encyclopedia could eventually rely on advertisers’ dollars.  Even the private foundations mentioned above “want the Encyclopedia to develop longer-term plans for both revenues and expenses and models to stay in business.  Like biodiversity, the Encyclopedia needs to be sustainable.”

Still, in terms of content, the Encyclopedia of Life appears to have found an excellent balance between using a single group of editors, a larger organization of peers, and random people who follow Stephen Colbert’s advice about elephants.  But, given the energy, time, and money that the Encyclopedia will require, it’ll be interesting to see if that approach is widely adopted.