Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Plant List: nice data, shame it's not open

nd.large.pngThe Plant List ( has been released today, complete with glowing press releases. The list includes some 1,040,426 names. I eagerly looked for the Download button, but none is to be found. You can grab download individual search results (say, at family level), but not the whole data set.

OK, so that makes getting the complete data set a little tedious (there are 620 plant families in the data set), but we can still do it without too much hassle (in fact, I've grabbed the complete data set while writing this blog post). Then I see that the data is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND) license. Creative Commons is good, right? In this case, not so much. The CC BY-NC-ND license includes the clause:
You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.
So, you can look but not touch. You can't take this data (properly attributed, or course) and build your own list, for example with references linked to DOIs, or to the Biodiversity Heritage Library (which is, of course, exactly what I plan to do). That's a derivative work, and the creators of the Plant List don't want you to do that. Despite this, the Plant List want us to use the data:
Use of the content (such as the classification, synonymised species checklist, and scientific names) for publications and databases by individuals and organizations for not-for-profit usage is encouraged, on condition that full and precise credit is given to The Plant List and the conditions of the Creative Commons Licence are observed.
Great, but you've pretty much killed that by using BY-NC-ND. Then there's this:
If you wish to use the content on a public portal or webpage you are required to contact The Plant List editors at to request written permission and to ensure that credits are properly made.
Really? The whole point of Creative Commons is that the permissions are explicit in the license. So, actually I don't need your permission to use the data on a public portal, CC BY-NC-ND gives me permission (but with the crippling limitation that I can't make a derivative work).

So, instead of writing a post congratulating the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) for releasing this data, I'm left spluttering in disbelief that they would hamstring its use through such a poor choice of license. Kew and MOBOT could have made the Plant List available as open data using one of the licenses listed on the Open Definition web site, such as putting the data in the public domain (for example, or using a Creative Commons CC0 license). Instead, they've chosen a restrictive license which makes the data closed, effectively killing the possibility for people to build upon the effort they've put into creating the list. Why do biodiversity data providers seem determined to cling to data for dear life, rather than open it up and let people realise its potential?

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Some quick notes on OCR. Revisiting my DjVu viewer experiments it really struck me how "dirty" the OCR text is. It's readable, but if we were to display the OCR text rather than the images, it would be a little offputting. For example, in the paper A new fat little frog (Leptodactylidae: Eleutherodactylus) from lofty Andean grasslands of southern Ecuador ( there are 15 different variations of the frog genus Eleutherodactylus:

  • Eleutherodactylus
  • Eleutheroclactylus
  • Eleuthewdactyliis
  • Eleiitherodactylus
  • Eleuthewdactylus
  • Eleuthewdactylus
  • Eleutherodactyliis
  • Eleutherockictylus
  • Eleutlierodactylus
  • Eleuthewdactyhts
  • Eleiithewdactylus
  • Eleutherodactyhis
  • Eleiithemdactylus
  • Eleuthemdactylus
  • Eleuthewdactyhis

Of course, this is a recognised problem. Wei et al. Name Matters: Taxonomic Name Recognition (TNR) in Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) (hdl:2142/14919) found that 35% of names in BHL OCR contained at least one wrong character. They compared the performance of two taxonomic name finding tools on BHL OCR (uBio's taxonFinder and FAT), neither of which did terribly well. Wei et al. found that different page types can influence the success of these algorithms, and suggested that automatically classifying pages into different categories would improve performance.

Personally, it seems to me that this is not the way forward. It's pretty obvious looking at the versions of "Eleutherodactylus" above that there are recognisable patterns in the OCR errors (e.g., "u" becoming "ii", "ro" becoming "w", etc.). After reading Peter Norvig's elegant little essay How to Write a Spelling Corrector, I suspect the way to improve the finding of taxonomic names is to build a "spelling corrector" for names. Central to this would be building a probabilistic model of the different OCR errors (such as "u" → "ii"), and use that to create a set of candidate taxonomic names the OCR string might actually be (the equivalent of Google's "did you mean", which is the subject of Norvig's essay). I had hoped to avoid doing this by using an existing tool, such as Tony Rees' TAXAMATCH, but it's a website not a service, and it is just too slow.

I've started doing some background reading on the topic of spelling correction and OCR, and I've created a group on Mendeley called OCR - Optical Character Recognition to bring these papers together. I'm also fussing with some simple code to find misspellings of a given taxonomic names in BHL text, use the Needleman–Wunsch sequence alignment algorithm to align those misspellings to the correct name, and then extract the various OCR errors, building a matrix of the probabilities of the various transformations of the original text into OCR text.

One use for this spelling correction would be in an interactive BHL viewer. In addition to showing the taxonomic names that uBio's taxonFinder has located in the text, we could flag strings that could be misspelt taxonomic names (such as "Eleutherockictylus") and provide an easy way for the user to either accept or reject that name. If we are going to invite people to help clean up BHL text, it would be nice to provide hints as to what the correct answer might be.

Monday, December 20, 2010

BioStor one year on: has it been a success?

One year ago I released BioStor, which scratched my itch regarding finding articles in the Biodiversity Heritage Library. This anniversary seems to be a good time to think about where next with this project, but also to ask whether it's been successful. Of course, this rather hinges on what I mean by "success." I've certainly found BioStor to be useful, both the experience of developing it, and actually using it. But it's time to be a little more hard-headed and look at some stats. So I'm going to share the Google Analytics stats for BioStor. Below is the report for Dec 20, 2009 to Dec 19, 2010, as a PDF.


BioStor had 63,824 visits over the year, and 197,076 pageviews. After an initial flurry of visits on its launch the number of visitors dropped off, then slowly grew. Numbers dipped during the middle of the year, then started to climb again.

In order to discover whether these numbers are a little or a lot, it would be helpful to compare them with data from other biodiversity sites. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be making this information readily available. There is a slide in a BHL presentation that shows BHL having had more than 1 million visits since January 2008, and in March 2010 it was receiving around 3000 visits per day, which is an order of magnitude greater than the traffic BioStor is currently getting. For another comparison, I looked at Scratchpads, which currently comprise 193 sites. In November 2007 Scratchpads had 43,379 pageviews altogether, in November 2010 BioStor had 17,484 page views. For the period May-October 2009 Scratchpads had 74,109 visitors, for the equivalent period in 2010 BioStor had 28,110. So, BioStor is getting about a third of the traffic as the entire Scratchpad project.

Bounce rate

One of the more interesting charts is "Bounce rate", defined by Google as

Bounce rate is the percentage of single-page visits or visits in which the person left your site from the entrance (landing) page.
The bounce rate for BioStor is pretty constant at around 65%, except for two periods in March and June, when it plummeted to around 20%. This corresponds to when I set up a Wikisource installation for BioStor so that the OCR text from BHL could be corrected. Mark Holder ran a student project that used the BioStor wiki, so I'm assuming that the drop in bounce rate reflects Mark's students spending time on the wiki. BHL OCR text would benefit from cleaning, but I'm not sure Wikisources is the way to do it as it feels a little clunky. Ideally I'd like to build upon the interactive DjVu experiments to develop a user-friendly way to edit the underlying OCR text.

Is it just my itch?
Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch - Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Looking at traffic by city, Glasgow (where I'm based) is the single largest source of traffic. This is hardly surprising, given that I wrote BioStor to solve a problem I was interested in, and the bulk of its content has been added by me using various scripts. This raises the possibility that BioStor has an active user community of *cough* one. However, looking at traffic by country, the UK is prominent (due to traffic primarily from Glasgow and London), but more visits come from the US. It seems I didn't end up making this site just for me.

map.pngGoogle search
Another measure of success is Google search rankings, which I've used elsewhere to compare the impact of Wikipedia and EOL pages. As a quick experiment I Googled the top ten journals in BioStor and recorded where in the search results BioStor appeared. For all but the Biological Bulletin, BioStor appeared in the top ten (i.e., on the first page of results):

JournalGoogle rank of BioStor page
Biological Bulletin12
Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature6
Proceedings of the Entomological Society, Washington6
Proc. Linn. Soc. New South Wales3
Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden3
Tijdschr. Ent.2
Transactions of The Royal Entomological Society of London6
Ann. Mag. nat. Hist3
Notes from the Leyden Museum5
Proceedings of the United States National Museum4

This suggests that BioStor's content is a least findable.

Where next?
The sense I'm getting from these stats is that BioStor is being used, and it seems to be a reaosnably successful, small-scale project. It would be nice to play with the Google Analytics output a bit more, and also explore usage patterns more closely. For example, I invested some effort in adding the ability to create PDFs for BioStor articles, but I've no stats on how many PDFs have been downloaded. Metadata in BioStor is editable, and edits are logged, but I've not explored the extent to which the content is being edited. If a serious effort is going to be made to clean up BHL content using crowd sourcing, I'll need to think of ways to engage users. The wiki experiments were a step in this direction, but I suspect that building a network around this task might prove difficult. Perhaps a better way is to build the network elsewhere, then try to engage it with this task (OCR correction). This was one reason behind my adopting Mendeley's OAuth API to provide a sign in facility for BioStor (see Mendeley connect). Again, I've no stats on the extent to which this feature of BioStor has been used. Time to give some serious thought to what else I can learn about how BioStor is being used.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TreeBASE, again

My views on TreeBASE are pretty well known. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how to "fix" TreeBASE, or indeed, move beyond it. I've made a couple of baby steps in this direction.

The first step is that I've created a group for TreeBASE papers on Mendeley. I've uploaded all the studies in TreeBASE as of December 13 (2010). Having these in Mendeley makes it easier to tidy up the bibliographic metadata, add missing identifiers (such as DOIs and PubMed ids), and correct citations to non-existent papers (which can occur if at the time the authors uploaded their data the planned to submit their paper to one journal, but it ending up being accepted in another). If you've a Mendeley account, feel free to join the group. If you've contributed to TreeBASE, you should find your papers already there.

The second step is playing with CouchDB (this years new hotness), exploring ways to build a database of phylogenies that has nothing much to do with either a relational database or a triple store. CouchDB is a document store, and I'm playing with taking NeXML files from TreeBASE, converting them to something vaguely usable (i.e., JSON), and adding them to CouchDB. For fun, I'm using my NCBI to Wikipedia mapping to get images for taxa, so if TreeBASE has mapped a taxon to the NCBI taxonomy, and that taxon has a page in Wikipedia with an image, we get an image for that taxon. The reason for this is I'd really like a phylogeny database that was visually interesting. To give you some examples, here are trees from TreeBASE (displayed using SVG), together with thumbnails of images from Wikipedia:




Snapshot 2010-12-15 10-38-02.png

Everything (tree and images) is stored within a single document in CouchDB, making the display pretty trivial to construct. Obviously this isn't a proper interface, and there's things I'd need to do, such as order the images in such a way that they matched the placement of the taxa on the tree, but at a glance you can see what the tree is about. We could then envisage making the images clickable so you could find out more about that taxon (e.g., text from Wikipedia, lists of other trees in the database, etc.).

We could expand this further by extracting geographical information (say, from the sequences included in the study) and make a map, or eventually a phylogeny on Google Earth) (see David Kidd's recent "Geophylogenies and the Map of Life" for a manifesto doi:10.1093/sysbio/syq043).

One of the big things missing from databases like TreeBASE is a sense of "fun", or serendipity. It's hard to find stuff, hard to discover new things, make new connections, or put things in context. And that's tragic. Try a Google image search for treebase+phylogeny:


Call me crazy, but I looked at that and thought "Wow! This phylogeny stuff is cool!" Wouldn't it be great if that's the reaction people had when they looked at a database of evolutionary trees?

Monday, December 13, 2010

How do I know if an article is Open Access?

One of my pet projects is to build a "Universal Article Reader" for the iPad (or similar mobile device), so that a reader can seemlessly move between articles from different publishers, follow up citations, and get more information on entities mentioned in those articles (e.g., species, molecules, localities, etc.). I've made various toys towards this, the latest being a HTML5 clone of Nature's iPhone app.

One impediment to this is knowing whether an article is Open Access, and if so, what representations are available (i.e., PDF, HTML, XML). Ideally, the "Universal Article Reader" would be able to look at the web page for an article, determine whether it can extract and redisplay the text (i.e., is the article Open Access) and if so, can it, for example, grab the article in XML and reformat it.

Some journals are entirely Open Access, so for these journals the first problem (is it Open Access?) is trivial, but a large number of journals have a mixed publishing model, some articles are Open Access, some aren't. One thing publishers could do that would be helpful would be to specify the access status of an article in a consistent manner. Here's a quick survey at how things stand at the moment.

PLoSOneEmbedded RDF, e.g. <license rdf:resource="" />
Nature Communications<meta name="access" content="Yes" /> for open, <meta name="access" content="No" /> for close
Systematic Biology<meta name="citation_access" content="all" /> for open, this tag missing if closed
BioOneNothing for article, Open Access icon next to open access articles in table of contents
BMC Evolutionary Biology<meta name ="dc.rights" content="" />
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society<meta name="citation_access" content="all" /> for open access
Microbial EcologyNo metadata (links and images in HTML)
Human Genomics and Proteomics<meta name ="dc.rights" content="" />

A bit of a mess. Some publishers embed this information in <meta> tags (which is good), some (such as PLoS) embed RDF (good, if a little more hassle), some leaves us in the dark, or give vidual clues such as logos (which mean nothing to a computer). In some ways this parallels the variety of ways journals have implemented RSS feeds, which has lead to some explicit Recommendations on RSS Feeds for Scholarly Publishers. Perhaps the time is right to develop equivalent recommendations for article metadata, so that apps to read the scientific literature can correctly determine whether they can display an article or not.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Viewing scientific articles on the iPad: cloning the iPhone app using jQuery Mobile

Over the last few months I've been exploring different ways to view scientific articles on the iPad, summarised here. I've also made a few prototypes, either from scratch (such as my response to the PLoS iPad app) or using Sencha Touch (see Touching citations on the iPad).

Today, it's time for something a little different. The Sencha Touch framework I used earlier is huge and wasn't easy to get my head around. I was resigning myself to trying to get to grips with it when jQuery Mobile came along. Still in alpha, jQuery Mobile is very simple and elegant, and writing an app is basically a case of writing HTML (with a little Javascript here and there if needed). It has a few rough edges, but it's possible to create something usable very quickly. And, it's actually fun.

So, to learn a it more about how to use it, I decided to see if I could write a "clone" of's iPhone app (which I reviewed earlier). Nature's app is in many ways the most interesting iOS app for articles because it doesn't treat the article as a monolithic PDF, but rather it uses the ePub format. As a result, you can view figures, tables, and references separately.

The cloneYou can see the clone here.


I've tried to mimic the basic functionality of the app in terms of transitions between pages, display of figures, references, etc. In making this clone I've focussed on just the article display.

A web app is going to lack the speed and functionality of a native app, but is probably a lot faster to develop. It also works on a wider range of platforms. jQuery Mobile is committed to supporting a wide range of platforms, so this clone should work on platforms other than the iPad.

The app has a lot of additional functionality apart from just displaying articles, such as list the latest articles from journals, manage a user's bookmarks, and enable the user to buy subscriptions. Some of this functionality would be pretty easy to add to this clone, for example by consuming RSS feeds to get article lists. With a little effort one could have a simple, Web-based app to browse Nature content across a range of mobile devices.

Technical stuff

Nature's app uses the ePub format, but Nature's web site doesn't provide an option to download articles in ePub format. However, if you use a HTTP debugging proxy (such as Charles Proxy) when using Nature's app you can see the URLs needed to fetch the ePub file.

I grabbed a couple of ePub files for articles in Nature communications and unzipped them (.epub files are zip files). The iPad app is a single HTML file that uses some Ajax calls to populate the different views. One Ajax call takes the index.html that has the article text and replaces the internal and external links with calls to Javascript functions. An article's references, figure captions, and tables are stored in separate XML files, so I have some simple PHP scripts that read the XML and extract the relevant bits. Internal links (such as to figures and references) are handled by jQuery Mobile. External links are displayed within an iFrame.

There are some intellectual property issues to address. Nature isn't an Open Access journal, but some articles in Nature Communications are (under the Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License), so I've used two of these as examples. When it displays an article, Nature's app uses Droid fonts for the article heading. These fonts are supplied as an SVG file contained within the ePub file. Droid fonts are available under an Apache License as TrueType fonts as part of the Android SDK. I couldn't find SVG versions of the fonts in the Android SDK, so I use the TrueType fonts (see Jeffrey Zeldman's Web type news: iPhone and iPad now support TrueType font embedding. This is huge.). Oh, and I "borrowed" some of the CSS from the style.css file that comes with each ePub file.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

First thoughts on CiteBank and BHL-Europe

This week saw the release of two tools from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, CiteBank and the BHL-Europe portal. Both have actually been quietly around for a while, but were only publicly announced last week.

In developing a new tool there are several questions to ask. Does something already exist that meets my needs? If it doesn't exist, can I build it using an existing framework, or do I need to start from scratch? As a developer it's awfully tempting sometimes to build something from scratch (I'm certainly guilty of this). Sometimes a more sensible approach is to build on something that already exists, particularly if what you are building upon is well supported. This is one of the attractions of Drupal, which underlies CiteBank and Scratchpads. In my own work I've used Semantic Mediawiki to support editable, versioned databases, rather than roll my own. Perhaps the more difficult question for a developer is whether they need to build anything at all. What if there are tools already out there that, if not exacty what you want, are close enough (or most likely will be by the time you finish your own tool).

CiteBank is an open access platform to aggregate citations for biodiversity publications and deliver access to biodiversity related articles. CiteBank aggregates links to content from digital libraries, publishers, and other bibliographic systems in order to provide a single point of access to the world’s biodiversity literature, including content created by its community of users. CiteBank is a project of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

I have two reactions to CiteBank. Firstly, Drupal's bibliographic tools really suck, and secondly, why do we need this? As I've argued earlier (see Mendeley, BHL, and the "Bibliography of Life"), I can't see the rationale for having CiteBank separate from an existing bibliographic database such as Mendeley or Zotero. These tools are more mature, better supported, and address user needs beyond simply building lists of papers (e.g., citing papers when writing manuscripts).

For me, one of BHL's goals should be integrating the literature they have scanned into mainstream scientific literature, which means finding articles, assigning DOIs, and becoming in effect a digital publishing platform (like BioOne or JSTOR). Getting to this point will require managing and cleaning metadata for many thousands of articles and books. It seems to me that you want to gather this metadata from as many sources as possible, and expose it to as many eyes (and algorithms) as possible to help tidy it up. I think this is a clear case of it being better to use an existing tool (such as Mendeley), rather than build a new one. If a good fraction of the world's taxonomists shared their person bibliographies on Mendeley we'd pretty much have the world's taxonomic literature in one place, without really trying.

It's early days for BHL-Europe, and they've taken the "lets use an existing framework" approach, basing the BHL-Europe portal on DISMARC, the later being a EU-funded project to "encourage and support the interoperability of music related data".

BHL-Europe is the kind of web site only its developers could love. It's spectacularly ugly, and a classic example of what digital libraries came up with while Google was quietly eating their lunch. Here's the web site showing search results for "Zonosaurus":


Yuck! Why do these things have to be so ugly?. DISMARC was designed to store metadata about digital objects, specifically music. Look at commercial music interfaces such as iTunes, Spotify, and Or even academic projects such as mSpace.

To be useful BHL-Europe really needs to provide an interface that reflects what its users care about, for example taxonomic names, classification, and geography. It can't treat scientific literature as a bunch of lifeless metadata objects (but then again, DISMARC managed to do this for music).

Where next?
CiteBank and BHL-Europe seem further additions to the worthy but ultimately deeply unsatisfying attempts to improve access biodiversity literature. To date our field has failed to get to grips with aggregating metadata (outside of the library setting), creating social networks around that aggregation, and providing intuitive interfaces that enable users to search and browse productively. These are big challenges. I'd like to see the resources that we have put to better use, rather than being used to build tools where suitable alternatives already exist (CiteBank), or used to shoe horn data into generic tools that are unspeakably ugly (BHL-Europe portal) and not fit for purpose. Let's not reinvent the wheel, and let's not try and convince ourselves that squares make perfectly good wheels.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Linking taxonomic databases to the primary literature: BHL and the Australian Faunal Directory

Continuing my hobby horse of linking taxonomic databases to digitised literature, I've been working for the last couple of weeks on linking names in the Australian Faunal Directory (AFD) to articles in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). AFD is a list of all animals known to occur in Australia, and it provides much of the data for the recently released Atlas of Living Australia. The data is available as series of CSV files, and these contain quite detailed bibliographic references. My initial interest was in using these to populate BioStor with articles, but it seemed worthwhile to try and link the names and articles together. The Atlas of Living Australia links to BHL, but only via a name search showing BHL items that have a name string. This wastes valuable information. AFD has citations to individual books and articles that relate to the taxonomy of Australian animals — we should treat that as first class data.

So, I cobbled together the CSV files, some scripts to extract references, ran them through the BioStor and bioGUID OpenURL resolvers, and dumped the whole thing in a CouchDB database. You can see the results at Australian Faunal Directory on CouchDB.


The site is modelled on my earlier experiment with putting the Catalogue of Life on CouchDB. It's still rather crude, and there's a lot of stuff I need to work on, but it should illustrate the basic idea. You can browse the taxonomic hierarchy, view alternative names for each taxon, and see a list of publications related to those names. If a publication has been found in BioStor then the site displays a thumbnail of the first page, and if you click on the reference you see a simple article viewer I wrote in Javascript.


For PDFs I'm experimenting with using Google's PDF viewer (the inspiration for the viewer above):


How it was made
Although in principle linking AFD to BHL via BioStor was fairly straight forward, these are lots of little wrinkles, such as errors in bibliographic metadata, and failure to parse some reference strings. To help address this I created a public group on Mendeley where all the references I've extracted are stored. This makes it easy to correct errors, add identifiers such as DOIs and ISSNs, and upload PDFs. For each article a reference to the original record in AFD is maintained by storing the AFD identifier (a UUID) as a keyword.

The taxonomy and the mapping to literature is stored in a CouchDB database, which makes a lot of things (such as uploading new versions of documents) a breeze.

It's about the links
The underlying motivation is that we are awash in biodiversity data and digitisation projects, but these are rarely linked together. And it's more than just linking, it's bring the data together so that we can compute over it. That's when things will start to get interesting.