The short answer is cost. From our own pilot work, we estimate that digitising our avian collections to a level that would make individual specimens discoverable would cost approximately £4 million, or on average £3-4 per specimen. This includes not only the data creation, but ensuring the collections are “digital-ready” with modern taxonomic determinations, country-level localities, and collections registration numbers, plus checking the accuracy of the data after it’s been created. Creating additional data through imaging, chemical analysis or genomic approaches would be an additional cost depending on the processes, preparation types and the number of specimens involved. Given most collections-based institutions, including the Natural History Museum UK, would be unable to afford this level of investment from their core funding, additional resources for digitisation will need to be found. This requires a convincing case to be made to organisations or individuals who might provide financial or other support.
A key part of this is to be able to show that there is demand for collections data from the research community, and that any investment in creating data is likely to facilitate a significant increase in research activity.
As a collections-based institution, we have a rather patchy understanding of the needs and interests of the wider research community. We can track the research interests of visitors to our collections and research outputs that cite our collections or data, but these represent a biased sample. Existing studies are constrained by collections data in the public domain, the resources available to researchers to create collections-based data from scratch, and the connections between researchers and curators that are critical to designing and implementing research projects involving collections. We have few insights into the part of the research community that might like to use collections-based data but who currently do not for whatever reason.
This is why we need your help!
The UK Natural Science Collection Community, coordinated by the Natural History Museum, London, and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, are leading a national programme of digitisation called DiSSCo UK to unlock this valuable national resource to the world. This new approach builds on the efforts of individual digitisation approaches of institutions like Kew and has an overall ambition to form a global collection comprised of all the collections of all the world’s museums.
We’d like to hear about your research, specifically the role avian collections and collections data play or might play in your work. We’d also like to hear about why you don’t use our collections in your work.
Do you already use avian collections in your research? If so, what sort of research questions do collections help you answer? Would you like to use collections, but have little idea how to access them or what research might be possible? Do you download and use data from our bird collections that are publicly available online? Are there new data you’d like us to create? If we did, what research would it enable you to do? We need your input to help us understand how we cansupport your work more effectively!
To capture this information, we’ve put together a short research users survey (https://forms.office.com/e/VM9Ui8F8FJ). It doesn’t take long to complete, but the information it provides will be critical for us to plan our next steps. We’d like to hear from anyone who’s engaged in avian research in some way. If you have a view, we’d like to hear it! We will ultimately use the information from the survey to plan our digitisation activities and importantly build a better case to funders to support digitisation and data sharing. We will report the results of the survey back to youand explain our plans through this blog. This represents a unique opportunity for the avian research community in its broadest sense to come together and shape how we make better use of one of our most important research assets – our avian collections – and ultimately help protect the birds we all love!