Entangled “her”stories – How to create an open multi-linked dynamic dataset of plant genera named for women

Which plant genera do you know that are named for women? Who were/are they?

Guest blog post by  Siobhan Leachman, Sabine von Mering, Heather Lindon & Carmen Ulloa Ulloa

How it all began

A post on social media asked about plant genera named for women and sparked a lively discussion with many contributors. This simple question was not as easily answered as initially thought. The resulting informal working group tackled this topic remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The team was motivated by the desire to amplify the contribution of women to botany through eponymy. The work of this team has so far resulted in a paper in Biodiversity Data Journal, presentations at several conferences, and a linked open dataset.

Prior to our international collaboration, no dataset was available to answer these simple questions and the required information was scattered in many different data sources. We set out to bring these data together and in doing so developed and refined our workflow. Our data paper documents this innovative workflow bringing together the various data elements needed to answer our research questions. Ultimately we created a Linked Open Data (LOD) dataset that amplified the names of women and female mythological beings celebrated through generic names of flowering plants.

Linking the Data

During our research process we focused on pulling data from a wide variety of sources while at the same time proactively sharing the data generated as widely as possible. This was done by adding and linking it to multiple public databases and sources (push-pull) including the International Plant Name Index (hereafter IPNI), Tropicos®, Wikidata, Bionomia and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (hereafter BHL).

Visualisation of our workflow to create a working list of flowering plant genera named for women. 

For our list of genera, each of the protologues were reviewed to confirm the etymology or eponymy. To find the generic prologues, we searched botanical databases such as IPNI and Tropicos, openly accessible providers of digital publications and other digital libraries and websites that provide free access to such publications. Here the BHL was invaluable as the majority of protologues and many other relevant publications were openly accessible through this digital library. Where no digital publication was available we accessed scientific literature through our affiliated institutions.

For the women, our starting point was the “Index of Eponymic Plant Names – Extended Edition” by Lotte Burkhardt (2018). We manually extracted all genera honouring women.  This dataset was supplemented with other sources including IPNI (2023), Mari Mut (2017-2021), a 2022 updated version of Burkhardt’s document (Burkhardt 2022), as well as suggestions received from colleagues and generated from our own research.

We collected the following information as structured data: information on the woman honoured, the genera named in honour of the woman, the year and place of the protologue or original publication (the nomenclatural reference), the author(s) of the genus name, and the link to the protologue or original publication if available online.

Wikidata

Wikidata was the central data repository and linking mechanism for this project as it provided structured data that can be read and edited by humans and machines and it acts as a hub for other identifiers. As such Wikidata played a central role in semantic linking and enriching of our data.

Wikidata items for the plant genera were created or enriched with information about the name, the author(s) of the genus and the year of publication. Those statements were referenced using the original publication. If the protologue was available on BHL, the BHL bibliographic or page number was added to that reference, thus creating a digital link improving access to the protologue. While undertaking this work we also collated a list of all those public domain publications that appeared to be absent from BHL. We passed on this list to BHL and requested these texts be scanned and added to BHL for the benefit of everyone.

We then added a named after statement to the Wikidata item for the appropriate plant genera linking that item to the Wikidata item for the woman honoured. Wikidata items for the women honoured were newly created or enriched. We researched each person and her contributions, plus information on mythological figures where necessary, and added this information to Wikidata items. Our work also included disambiguating the woman from other people with identical or similar names. 

To amplify the women’s contributions to science and to enrich the wider (biodiversity) data ecosystem, we linked to other Wikidata items and websites or databases by adding other relevant identifiers. For example if the women were botanists, botanical collectors or other naturalists, we used the author property to link the women to publications written by them. In addition, we added the women to Bionomia and attributed specimens collected or identified by them to their profiles.

Our work also included enriching Wikidata items of taxon authors. IPNI and Tropicos were searched for these author names, and websites such as BHL, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) or other specialist databases were consulted. Corrections or newly researched information on taxon authors was placed not just in Wikidata but was also sent together with the corresponding references to IPNI and Tropicos. This information was then used by those organizations to update these databases accordingly. 

As a result of our data being placed in Wikidata it is available to be queried via the Wikidata Query Service.  

Our Goal Achieved

As a result of our project, we published a dataset of 728 genera honouring women or female beings. This was a nearly twenty-fold increase in the number of genera linked to women in Wikidata. Our analysis paper on this data is forthcoming.

Notable Women 

Monsonia L.

All of us came away from this research with a favourite story. One that stood out was Ann Monson, for whom Linnaeus named Monsonia. Linnaeus wrote a delightful letter to her about their creating, platonically of course, a kind of plant love-child between them, in the form of this new genus.

Translated from Latin : “….Lock these [seeds] in a pot, and place them in the window of the chamber towards the sun, when it bursts forth in February, and in the first summer the sun blooms and lasts the most beautiful Alstromeria, which no one has seen in England, and you bring forth no flowers. If it should come to pass, as I wish, if you offer our flames, I would only wish to beget with you an only child, as a pledge of my love, little Monsonia, by which you may perpetuate the fame of Lady in the kingdom of Flora, who was the Queen of Women.”

Fittonia Coem.

Two eponymous women with an interesting story are Sarah Mary Fitton and her sister Elizabeth. They wrote Conversations on Botany in 1817 accompanied by colour engravings of flowers which popularised botany with women. The genus Fittonia was named in their honour.

Chanekia Lundell

Another woman honoured in a plant genus was Mercedes Chanek, a Mayan plant collector who worked in the 1930’s for Cyrus Longworth Lundell and collected for the University of Michigan in British Honduras, today Belize. Very little is known about her life and work. However, her collections are detailed in Tropicos and Bionomia, and you can see the genus named for her by Lundell in IPNI under Chanekia.

Medusa Lour. and other genera

Medusa (c. 1597), by Caravaggio

An example of a mythological female being honoured in several plant names is that of Medusa, who has the most genera named after her, six, more than any real woman!

We hope that our data paper inspires others to use the methodology and workflow described to create other linked open datasets, e.g. celebrating and amplifying the contributions of underrepresented or marginalised groups in science.

Data paper: 

von Mering S, Gardiner LM, Knapp S, Lindon H, Leachman S, Ulloa Ulloa C, Vincent S, Vorontsova MS (2023) Creating a multi-linked dynamic dataset: a case study of plant genera named for women. Biodiversity Data Journal 11: e114408. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.11.e114408