Data checking for biodiversity collections and other biodiversity data compilers from Pensoft

Guest blog post by Dr Robert Mesibov

Proofreading the text of scientific papers isn’t hard, although it can be tedious. Are all the words spelled correctly? Is all the punctuation correct and in the right place? Is the writing clear and concise, with correct grammar? Are all the cited references listed in the References section, and vice-versa? Are the figure and table citations correct?

Proofreading of text is usually done first by the reviewers, and then finished by the editors and copy editors employed by scientific publishers. A similar kind of proofreading is also done with the small tables of data found in scientific papers, mainly by reviewers familiar with the management and analysis of the data concerned.

But what about proofreading the big volumes of data that are common in biodiversity informatics? Tables with tens or hundreds of thousands of rows and dozens of columns? Who does the proofreading?

Sadly, the answer is usually “No one”. Proofreading large amounts of data isn’t easy and requires special skills and digital tools. The people who compile biodiversity data often lack the skills, the software or the time to properly check what they’ve compiled.

The result is that a great deal of the data made available through biodiversity projects like GBIF is — to be charitable — “messy”. Biodiversity data often needs a lot of patient cleaning by end-users before it’s ready for analysis. To assist end-users, GBIF and other aggregators attach “flags” to each record in the database where an automated check has found a problem. These checks find the most obvious problems amongst the many possible data compilation errors. End-users often have much more work to do after the flags have been dealt with.

In 2017, Pensoft employed a data specialist to proofread the online datasets that are referenced in manuscripts submitted to Pensoft’s journals as data papers. The results of the data-checking are sent to the data paper’s authors, who then edit the datasets. This process has substantially improved many datasets (including those already made available through GBIF) and made them more suitable for digital re-use. At blog publication time, more than 200 datasets have been checked in this way.

Note that a Pensoft data audit does not check the accuracy of the data, for example, whether the authority for a species name is correct, or whether the latitude/longitude for a collecting locality agrees with the verbal description of that locality. For a more or less complete list of what does get checked, see the Data checklist at the bottom of this blog post. These checks are aimed at ensuring that datasets are correctly organised, consistently formatted and easy to move from one digital application to another. The next reader of a digital dataset is likely to be a computer program, not a human. It is essential that the data are structured and formatted, so that they are easily processed by that program and by other programs in the pipeline between the data compiler and the next human user of the data.

Pensoft’s data-checking workflow was previously offered only to authors of data paper manuscripts. It is now available to data compilers generally, with three levels of service:

  • Basic: the compiler gets a detailed report on what needs fixing
  • Standard: minor problems are fixed in the dataset and reported
  • Premium: all detected problems are fixed in collaboration with the data compiler and a report is provided

Because datasets vary so much in size and content, it is not possible to set a price in advance for basic, standard and premium data-checking. To get a quote for a dataset, send an email with a small sample of the data topublishing@pensoft.net.


Data checklist

Minor problems:

  • dataset not UTF-8 encoded
  • blank or broken records
  • characters other than letters, numbers, punctuation and plain whitespace
  • more than one version (the simplest or most correct one) for each character
  • unnecessary whitespace
  • Windows carriage returns (retained if required)
  • encoding errors (e.g. “Dum?ril” instead of “Duméril”)
  • missing data with a variety of representations (blank, “-“, “NA”, “?” etc)

Major problems:

  • unintended shifts of data items between fields
  • incorrect or inconsistent formatting of data items (e.g. dates)
  • different representations of the same data item (pseudo-duplication)
  • for Darwin Core datasets, incorrect use of Darwin Core fields
  • data items that are invalid or inappropriate for a field
  • data items that should be split between fields
  • data items referring to unexplained entities (e.g. “habitat is type A”)
  • truncated data items
  • disagreements between fields within a record
  • missing, but expected, data items
  • incorrectly associated data items (e.g. two country codes for the same country)
  • duplicate records, or partial duplicate records where not needed

For details of the methods used, see the author’s online resources:

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Find more for Pensoft’s data audit workflow provided for data papers submitted to Pensoft journals on Pensoft’s blog.

Novel research on African bats pilots new ways in sharing and linking published data

A colony of what is apparently a new species of the genus Hipposideros found in an abandoned gold mine in Western Kenya
Photo by B. D. Patterson / Field Museum

Newly published findings about the phylogenetics and systematics of some previously known, but also other yet to be identified species of Old World Leaf-nosed bats, provide the first contribution to a recently launched collection of research articles, whose task is to help scientists from across disciplines to better understand potential hosts and vectors of zoonotic diseases, such as the Coronavirus. Bats and pangolins are among the animals already identified to be particularly potent vehicles of life-threatening viruses, including the infamous SARS-CoV-2.

The article, publicly available in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal ZooKeys, also pilots a new generation of Linked Open Data (LOD) publishing practices, invented and implemented to facilitate ongoing scientific collaborations in times of urgency like those we experience today with the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging across over 230 countries around the globe.

In their study, an international team of scientists, led by Dr Bruce PattersonField Museum‘s MacArthur curator of mammals, point to the existence of numerous, yet to be described species of leaf-nosed bats inhabiting the biodiversity hotspots of East Africa and Southeast Asia. In order to expedite future discoveries about the identity, biology and ecology of those bats, they provide key insights into the genetics and relations within their higher groupings, as well as further information about their geographic distribution.

“Leaf-nosed bats carry coronaviruses–not the strain that’s affecting humans right now, but this is certainly not the last time a virus will be transmitted from a wild mammal to humans. If we have better knowledge of what these bats are, we’ll be better prepared if that happens,”

says Dr Terrence Demos, a post-doctoral researcher in Patterson’s lab and a principal author of the paper.
One of the possibly three new to science bat species, previously referred to as Hipposideros caffer or Sundevall’s leaf-nosed bat
Photo by B. D. Patterson / Field Museum

“With COVID-19, we have a virus that’s running amok in the human population. It originated in a horseshoe bat in China. There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives,”

comments Patterson.

In order to ensure that scientists from across disciplines, including biologists, but also virologists and epidemiologists, in addition to health and policy officials and decision-makers have the scientific data and evidence at hand, Patterson and his team supplemented their research publication with a particularly valuable appendix table. There, in a conveniently organized table format, everyone can access fundamental raw genetic data about each studied specimen, as well as its precise identification, origin and the natural history collection it is preserved. However, what makes those data particularly useful for researchers looking to make ground-breaking and potentially life-saving discoveries is that all that information is linked to other types of data stored at various databases and repositories contributed by scientists from anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, in this case, those linked and publicly available data or Linked Open Data (LOD) are published in specific code languages, so that they are “understandable” for computers. Thus, when a researcher seeks to access data associated with a particular specimen he/she finds in the table, he/she can immediately access additional data stored at external data repositories by means of a single algorithm. Alternatively, another researcher might want to retrieve all pathogens extracted from tissues from specimens of a specific animal species or from particular populations inhabiting a certain geographical range and so on.

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The data publication and dissemination approach piloted in this new study was elaborated by the science publisher and technology provider Pensoft and the digitisation company Plazi for the purposes of a special collection of research papers reporting on novel findings concerning the biology of bats and pangolins in the scholarly journal ZooKeys. By targeting the two most likely ‘culprits’ at the roots of the Coronavirus outbreak in 2020: bats and pangolins, the article collection aligns with the agenda of the COVID-19 Joint Task Force, a recent call for contributions made by the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), the Distributed System for Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) and the Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio).

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Original source:

Patterson BD, Webala PW, Lavery TH, Agwanda BR, Goodman SM, Kerbis Peterhans JC, Demos TC (2020) Evolutionary relationships and population genetics of the Afrotropical leaf-nosed bats (Chiroptera, Hipposideridae). ZooKeys 929: 117-161. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.929.50240

Data mining applied to scholarly publications to finally reveal Earth’s biodiversity

At a time when a million species are at risk of extinction, according to a recent UN report, ironically, we don’t know how many species there are on Earth, nor have we noted down all those that we have come to know on a single list. In fact, we don’t even know how many species we would have put on such a list.

The combined research including over 2,000 natural history institutions worldwide, produced an estimated ~500 million pages of scholarly publications and tens of millions of illustrations and species descriptions, comprising all we currently know about the diversity of life. However, most of it isn’t digitally accessible. Even if it were digital, our current publishing systems wouldn’t be able to keep up, given that there are about 50 species described as new to science every day, with all of these published in plain text and PDF format, where the data cannot be mined by machines, thereby requiring a human to extract them. Furthermore, those publications would often appear in subscription (closed access) journals.

The Biodiversity Literature Repository (BLR), a joint project ofPlaziPensoft and Zenodo at CERN, takes on the challenge to open up the access to the data trapped in scientific publications, and find out how many species we know so far, what are their most important characteristics (also referred to as descriptions or taxonomic treatments), and how they look on various images. To do so, BLR uses highly standardised formats and terminology, typical for scientific publications, to discover and extract data from text written primarily for human consumption.

By relying on state-of-the-art data mining algorithms, BLR allows for the detection, extraction and enrichment of data, including DNA sequences, specimen collecting data or related descriptions, as well as providing implicit links to their sources: collections, repositories etc. As a result, BLR is the world’s largest public domain database of taxonomic treatments, images and associated original publications.

Once the data are available, they are immediately distributed to global biodiversity platforms, such as GBIF–the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. As of now, there are about 42,000 species, whose original scientific descriptions are only accessible because of BLR.

The very basic principle in science to cite previous information allows us to trace back the history of a particular species, to understand how the knowledge about it grew over time, and even whether and how its name has changed through the years. As a result, this service is one avenue to uncover the catalogue of life by means of simple lookups.

So far, the lessons learned have led to the development of TaxPub, an extension of the United States National Library of Medicine Journal Tag Suite and its application in a new class of 26 scientific journals. As a result, the data associated with articles in these journals are machine-accessible from the beginning of the publishing process. Thus, as soon as the paper comes out, the data are automatically added to GBIF.

While BLR is expected to open up millions of scientific illustrations and descriptions, the system is unique in that it makes all the extracted data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR), as well as open to anybody, anywhere, at any time. Most of all, its purpose is to create a novel way to access scientific literature.

To date, BLR has extracted ~350,000 taxonomic treatments and ~200,000 figures from over 38,000 publications. This includes the descriptions of 55,800 new species, 3,744 new genera, and 28 new families. BLR has contributed to the discovery of over 30% of the ~17,000 species described annually.

Prof. Lyubomir Penev, founder and CEO of Pensoft says,

“It is such a great satisfaction to see how the development process of the TaxPub standard, started by Plazi some 15 years ago and implemented as a routine publishing workflow at Pensoft’s journals in 2010, has now resulted in an entire infrastructure that allows automated extraction and distribution of biodiversity data from various journals across the globe. With the recent announcement from the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF) that their European Journal of Taxonomy is joining the TaxPub club, we are even more confident that we are paving the right way to fully grasping the dimensions of the world’s biodiversity.”

Dr Donat Agosti, co-founder and president of Plazi, adds:

“Finally, information technology allows us to create a comprehensive, extended catalogue of life and bring to light this huge corpus of cultural and scientific heritage – the description of life on Earth – for everybody. The nature of taxonomic treatments as a network of citations and syntheses of what scientists have discovered about a species allows us to link distinct fields such as genomics and taxonomy to specimens in natural history museums.”

Dr Tim Smith, Head of Collaboration, Devices and Applications Group at CERN, comments:

“Moving the focus away from the papers, where concepts are communicated, to the concepts themselves is a hugely significant step. It enables BLR to offer a unique new interconnected view of the species of our world, where the taxonomic treatments, their provenance, histories and their illustrations are all linked, accessible and findable. This is inspirational for the digital liberation of other fields of study!”

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Additional information:

BLR is a joint project led by Plazi in partnership with Pensoft and Zenodo at CERN.

Currently, BLR is supported by a grant from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

Dispatch from the field II: Students describe an elusive spider while stationed in Borneo

A mystery has long shrouded the orb-weaving spider genus Opadometa, where males and females belonging to one and the same species look nothing alike. Furthermore, the males appear to be so elusive that scientists still doubt whether both sexes are correctly linked to each other even in the best-known species.

Such is the case for Opadometa sarawakensis – a species known only from female specimens. While remarkable with their striking red and blue colors and large size, the females could not give the slightest hint about the likely appearance of the male Opadometa sarawakensis.

The red and blue female Opadometa sarawakensis
The red and blue female Opadometa sarawakensis

Nevertheless, students taking part in a recent two-week tropical ecology field course organized by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Leiden University, and hosted by the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) on the island of Borneo, Malaysia, found a mature male spider hanging on the web of a red and blue female, later identified as Opadometa sarawakensis. Still quite striking, the male was colored in a blend of orange, gray, black, and silver.

At the brink of a long-awaited discovery and eager to describe the male, the students along with their lecturers and the field station scientific staff encountered a peril – with problematic species like the studied orb weaver they were in need for strong evidence to prove that it matched the female from the web. Furthermore, molecular DNA-based analysis was not an option at the time, since the necessary equipment was not available at DGFC.

On the other hand, being at the center of the action turned out to have advantages no less persuasive than DNA evidence. Having conducted thorough field surveys in the area, the team has concluded that the male’s observation on that particular female’s web in addition to the fact that no other Opadometa species were found in the area, was enough to prove they were indeed representatives of the same spider.

Adapting to the quite basic conditions at the DGFC laboratory, the students and their mentors put in use various items they had on hand, including smartphones paired up with headlights mounted on gooseneck clips in place of sophisticated cameras.

In the end, they gathered all the necessary data to prepare the formal description of the newly identified male.

Once they had the observations and the data, there was only one question left to answer. How could they proceed with the submission of a manuscript to a scholarly journal, so that their finding is formally announced and recognised?

submitting

Thanks to the elaborated and highly automated workflow available at the peer-reviewed open access Biodiversity Data Journal and its underlying ARPHA Writing Tool, the researchers managed to successfully compile their manuscript, including all underlying data, such as geolocations, and submit it from the field station. All in all, the authoring, peer review and publication – each step taking place within the ARPHA Platform‘s singular environment – took less than a month to complete. In fact, the paper was published within few days after being submitted.

This is the second publication in the series “Dispatch from the field”, resulting from an initiative led by spider taxonomist Dr Jeremy Miller. In 2014, another team of students and their mentors described a new species of curious one-millimetre-long spider from the Danau Girang Field Center. Both papers serve to showcase the feasibility of publication and sharing of easy to find, access and re-use biodiversity data.

“This has been a unique educational experience for the students,” says Jeremy. “They got to experience how tropical field biologists work, which is often from remote locations and without sophisticated equipment. This means that creativity and persistence are necessary to solve problems and complete a research objective. The fact that the students got to participate in advancing knowledge about this remarkable spider species by contributing to a manuscript was really exciting.”

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Original source:

Miller J, Freund C, Rambonnet L, Koets L, Barth N, van der Linden C, Geml J, Schilthuizen M, Burger R, Goossens B (2018) Dispatch from the field II: the mystery of the red and blue Opadometa male (Araneae, Tetragnathidae, Opadometa sarawakensis). Biodiversity Data Journal6: e24777. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.6.e24777

Data Quality Checklist and Recommendations at Pensoft

As much as research data sharing and re-usability is a staple in the open science practices, their value would be hugely diminished if their quality is compromised.

In a time when machine-readability and the related software are getting more and more crucial in science, while data are piling up by the minute, it is essential that researchers efficiently format and structure as well as deposit their data, so that they can make it accessible and re-usable for their successors.

Errors, as in data that fail to be read by computer programs, can easily creep into any dataset. These errors are as diverse as invalid characters, missing brackets, blank fields and incomplete geolocations.

To summarise the lessons learnt from our extensive experience in biodiversity data audit at Pensoft, we have now included a Data Quality Checklist and Recommendations page in the About section of each of our data-publishing journals.

We are hopeful that these guidelines will help authors prepare and publish datasets of higher quality, so that their work can be fully utilised in subsequent research.

At the end of the day, proofreading your data is no different than running through your text looking for typos.

 

We would like to use the occasion to express our gratitude to Dr. Robert Mesibov, who prepared the checklist and whose expertise in biodiversity data audit has contributed greatly to Pensoft through the years. Continue reading “Data Quality Checklist and Recommendations at Pensoft”