48 years of Australian collecting trips in one data package

  • Pensoft Editorial Team
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  • July 30, 2021
  • While checking museum records, Dr Robert Mesibov found there were occasional errors in the dates and places for specimens he had collected many years before. He was not surprised.

    “It’s easy to make mistakes when entering data on a computer from paper specimen labels”, said Mesibov. “I also found specimen records that said I was the collector, but I know I wasn’t!”

    One solution to this problem was what librarians and others have long called an “authority file”.

    “It’s an authoritative reference, in this case with the correct details of where I collected and when”, he explained.

    “I kept records of almost all my collecting trips from 1973 until I retired from field work in 2020. The earliest records were on paper, but I began storing the key details in digital form in the 1990s.”

    The 48-year record has now been made publicly available via the Zenodo open-data repository after conversion to the Darwin Core data format, which is widely used for sharing biodiversity information. With this “authority file”, described in detail in the open-access, peer-reviewed Biodiversity Data Journal, future researchers will be able to rely on sound, interoperable and easy to access data, when using those museum specimens in their own studies, instead of repeating and further spreading unintentional errors.

    “There are 3829 collecting events in the authority file”, said Mesibov, “from six Australian states and territories. For each collecting event there are geospatial and date details, plus notes on the collection.”

    Mesibov hopes the authority file will be used by museums to correct errors in their catalogues.

    “It should also save museums a fair bit of work in future”, he explained. “No need to transcribe details on specimen labels into digital form in a database, because the details are already in digital form in the authority file.”

    Mesibov points out that in the 19th and 20th centuries, lists of collecting events were often included in the reports of major scientific expeditions.

    “Those lists were authority files, but in the pre-digital days it was probably just as easy to copy collection data from specimen labels.”

    “In the 21st century there’s a big push to digitise museum specimen collections”, he said. “Museum databases often have lookup tables with scientific names and the names of collectors. These lookup tables save data entry time and help to avoid errors in digitising.”

    “Authority files for collecting events are the next logical step,” said Mesibov. “They can be used as lookup tables for all the important details of individual collections: where, when, by whom and how.”

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    Research paper:

    Mesibov RE (2021) An Australian collector’s authority file, 1973–2020. Biodiversity Data Journal 9: e70463. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.9.e70463

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    Robert Mesibov’s webpage: https://www.datafix.com.au/mesibov.html

    Robert Mesibov’s ORCID page: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3466-5038

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