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Wikiproject Tree of Life: A Wikiproject report

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By Puddleglum2.0

Wikiproject Tree of Life has been active since the early days of Wikipedia while working on articles related to biology. They recently began a newsletter that goes out to members of the WikiProject which highlights accomplishments, goals, and general WikiProject news. To highlight their work, we interviewed five members of the WikiProject: Enwebb, AddWittyNameHere, Plantdrew, Starsandwhales, and FunkMonk. Here are their answers to our questions.


What motivated you to join WikiProject Tree of Life? Do you have any degrees or experience in biology? Are you a member of a kingdom/genus/species sub-project?
Enwebb: I have a MS in wildlife ecology and my thesis was about a species of bat. I learned how to edit Wikipedia through a Wikipedia writing assignment in a graduate-level biology course. While completing my assignment, I noticed that a lot of bat articles are underdeveloped. I thought, someone should fix those, but realized that not a lot of people have the knowledge, time, and willingness to do here I am. I'm very active at Bats Task Force.
AddWittyNameHere: I've spent a fair portion of my childhood looking for moths and butterflies with my father, so joining WikiProject Lepidoptera was a natural extension of that. Joining WikiProject Tree of Life was a practical decision: it's the easiest way to stay in contact with folks working on other taxa. When you want to figure out how to make a taxonbar work or what parameters to use to get a taxobox to display the information you want it to, it doesn't really matter whether the article subject is a moth, a spider or a plant. Better to share our knowledge than to each separately try to invent the wheel.
Plantdrew: I have a life-long interest in plants, an MS in botany and work as a botanist. I started editing Wikipedia to fix issues I noticed when reading articles, and became more involved over time. I mostly work on plant articles but dabble in other organisms from time to time, which led to join ToL. I can do the most good working on topics where I have interest and expertise.
Starsandwhales: There used to be an event in Science Olympiad called herpetology, where students had to create a field guide of every single animal on a given list. This field guide had to include distribution, behavior, etc., pretty much everything a good Amphibians and Reptiles article is supposed to have. Wikipedia was always our starting point, and whenever I noticed that some of this information was missing, I would add it in. I'm still in high school (also still in SciOly), and I'm still a member of the subproject for amphibians and reptiles.
FunkMonk: I have been interested in animals, and particularly extinct ones, since I was a kid. Though I don't deal with them professionally (unless I have to draw or animate them), I like reading about them, and always wanted to make books about them. Wikipedia was the perfect place to realise this, as I can write about them and illustrate their articles. So I have been active in a few ToL related projects, such as the bird, dinosaur, and palaeontology projects, contributing articles, text, and images, but I also like reviewing articles (at GAN, FAC, or peer-review) about organisms I don't really know that much about, and thereby learning more about them.
Does the project's scope differ from other large umbrella projects? If so, how? Does WikiProject Tree of Life have a relationship with the numerous biological sub-projects?
Enwebb: I think of Tree of Life as a central watering hole for all the descending subprojects. A lot of editors have a particular niche they're interested, but TOL is how we stay connected to each other for making decisions. Ultimately a species article should look the same and be categorized the same, whether it's a mollusc or moth. I try to keep the subprojects connected via writing the Tree of Life Newsletter.
AddWittyNameHere: It's probably the closest thing to a central noticeboard and help desk for everything taxonomy-related, especially if it involves matters that impact more than a single subproject (e.g. templates, categories & MOS) or if the relevant WikiProject has few or no active members.
Plantdrew: I'm not aware of any other umbrella WikiProject that is as successful in serving as a hub for discussion. Some of the subprojects never really got of the ground, so ToL is a good place to get discussion from a larger number of people than may be watching the talk page of an inactive project.
Starsandwhales: I feel that Tree of Life is the centralized location for information on things such as templates (like the speciesboxes on every article), resources for research, and what an ideal article looks like. It also how the community of all of the subprojects is kept united-- with the newsletter and occasional contests. ToL is also the most visible, and the page itself has a massive diagram showing how the subprojects are all related. It's a good starting point for people to find their niche; whether you're interested in turtles or pterodactyls, there's probably a project or taskforce under ToL for it.
FunkMonk: As touched on above, we strive for shared standards across taxonomy articles, therefore discussions about changing various conventions should be held at the most centralised and all-encompassing venue, which is the ToL. Here, people writing about insects, plants, or dinosaurs, have a common ground to coordinate their efforts.
Do you think that there is a bias towards particular kingdoms/species within the project (or more generally, on Wikipedia?) If so, towards what kindom(s)/species?
Enwebb: Oh, absolutely. People self-select for their interests, which often happen to be charismatic megafauna or birds rather than bats and bugs. In the June 2019 issue of the Tree of Life Newsletter I looked at relative WikiWork across subprojects, and it's about what you expect: higher quality is found in articles about cats and dogs than about beetles and spiders.
Plantdrew: Assuming "bias"=has better/more articles, Wikipedia as a whole is biased towards charismatic mammals and birds, but reader interest is also biased the same way. I don't think there's any great mismatch between the taxa that Tree of Life editors (collectively) are interested in editing and readers are interested in reading.
Starsandwhales: There is definitely a bias towards mammals, birds, and extant organisms. Non-dinosaur extinct organisms have very little coverage. People also tend to write many stubs about individual species, rather than improving more general articles. For example. Turtles is only C class despite being one of top importance.
FunkMonk: Yes, birds and fungi are probably over-represented when it comes to quality articles, for example, simply because we have more editors interested in those groups. But there are a few editors who write about very diverse groups, and take on some pretty challenging articles about higher level taxa, and I think we're all thankful someone is doing that.
One of the goals of Wikiproject Tree of Life is to get more editors writing more articles about living things. How close is Wikipedia to providing a stub about every known creature? What will be the next step once that goal is achieved, if the goal is achieved?
Enwebb: Very far. There are 400,000 described species of beetle, for example, but only ~36,000 articles tagged as WikiProject Beetles. I don't know how many decades it would be to have an article on every described species. I focus more on usefulness for the articles I work on. I find stubs very unsatisfying. I think I'd rather have concurrent goals of simultaneously writing missing articles and improving existing ones rather than sequential goals of one and then the other.
AddWittyNameHere: Please no. WikiProject Lepidoptera has traditionally had a fairly strong focus on stub creation over article expansion. The result of that is that we currently have ~100k stubs around that no one can manage to keep up with for maintenance, much less actual expansion. Let's focus on getting our existing stubs to something remotely resembling useful before focusing on adding several hundreds of thousands of additional stubs ToL-wide.
Plantdrew: I don't think that is achievable; we're not even keeping pace with the rate at which new species being described. Wikipedia added about 10,000 articles on taxa from June 2018 to June 2019. Around 18,000 new species are described each year. About 9,000 of those are insects and 2,000 are plants. New plant articles are been written at about the same rate that new species are being described, but less than 20% of plant species have articles. Insect article creation is running far behind the rate of species descriptions. Wikipedia has essentially complete coverage for birds, mammals and dinosaurs. There are articles for more than half of the species of the other vertebrates (fish, reptiles, amphibians), as well as gastropods, and the pace of article creation for these seems to be outpacing the rate of species description.
I'd rather see more effort in improving existing articles than creating more stubs. Most species lacking articles are pretty niche topics mostly of interest to people with a solid taxonomy background. We have some articles of high interest to the general public that are pretty terrible (taro is basically a list of recipes popular in different parts of the world).
Starsandwhales: I don't think that is or should be the goal of Tree of Life. Yes, it's a noble idea to someday eventually cover every known species, but it is better to have 1,000s of high quality articles than 100,000s of stubs. Few people need information on obscure species with very little research, and if they do, should probably just read the research instead. Because Wikipedia is so well known, on search engines like Google, articles are often promoted above other websites that may have more/better information. If, if, this goal is achieved, I suppose the next goal would be to have images and recordings of every organism.
FunkMonk: Unless we get bots to do some of the work, I am unsure we will get articles about every living species any time soon. As for every described species, when it comes to the palaeontology project at least, it is preferred that prehistoric species are covered at the genus level, since such species are often named on pretty shaky grounds, and little can usually be said about them individually that doesn't apply to all species in their respective genera.
Does the Project face any problems today? If so, is there a solution?
Enwebb: We have much more garden than gardeners. The volunteers we have are phenomenal, but there's just a lot of work to do. I'd love it if we had more new editors with the enthusiasm to revive some of the defunct subprojects. I'm not sure where to find these would-be Wikipedians, though.
AddWittyNameHere: Let me echo everyone else here: we could really use more editors.
Example of a taxobox template
Plantdrew: The article:editor ratio continues to grow. There are many microstubs that have gone years without being expanded. Taxonomy isn't fixed; new studies lead to updated classifications. I've become very enthusiastic about replacing manual taxoboxes with automatic taxoboxes as a partial solution for the need to update classifications. With the {{Taxobox}} infobox that was established in 2004, if a genus is transferred to a different family, every species article will need to be updated to reflect the new classification. With the automated taxobox system, a single edit to a template for the genus will update the classification for every species.
FunkMonk: Yes, we simply need more editors. While those we have are very enthusiastic about the subjects they work on, there is only so much a few people can do. But that also means there are plenty of very high profile subjects that need to have their articles expanded and improved, so it is a bit of a playground right now, where editors can pick between whatever they want to write about.
How can a new/inexperienced editor help out with the project?
Enwebb: Ultimately, however they want. We have room for content creators who want to get articles started or expanded. We have lots of taxoboxes that could be replaced with speciesboxes. Lots of articles are missing images. Several of our subprojects are dormant and waiting for someone to come along and get the ball rolling. I think we're a welcoming community. There's not a lot of conflict and I feel we're inclusive (or at least I have never felt excluded).
Plantdrew: So many ways. There are plenty of task for gnomish editors to work on, and many red-links and stubs for content creators.
Starsandwhales: Tree of Life is very friendly to new editors. People can start however they want: starting/expanding articles, working on rating articles, reviewing good article nominees, etc. There's many links to accurate resources on the project and subproject pages, and people are always willing to help look over an article. There is a bit of a knowledge gap with all of the rules and bureaucracy of Wikipedia, but there's always someone willing to help. ToL (other than the occasional but heated taxonomy debate) is relatively conflict free, since no one's going to delete a species because it isn't notable enough.
FunkMonk: An easy way to contribute would be to simply create missing articles for taxa, and what's missing can be found in the various lists of taxa within higher level groups which are often full of red links. But yeah, anyone can do whatever they want, since there is so much left to do, there should be plenty of tasks of any kind for anyone.
Do you have any last words you would like to share with our readers?
Enwebb: Put Tree of Life on your watchlist! We've started having more contests lately, which have been a lot of fun to coordinate and participate in. We had one for Halloween and we're currently doing one for winter holidays. You can work on articles like Christmas emerald dove, Santa Claus melon, Candycane pygmy goby, and more!
Starsandwhales: Subscribe to the Tree of Life Newsletter for updates on the project! It is very satisfying and motivating to see how many DYKs and Good Articles the project has every month. Also, anyone can join the ToL wikiproject, you don't need to be a professional field biologist or have an ecology degree.
FunkMonk: I'd like to thank Enwebb for making the project more like a community by starting the ToL newsletter and organising contests!

We asked these same questions eight years ago to a different group. You can view their answers here. To join Wikiproject Tree of Life, click here and add your name to the list.

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@Puddleglum2.0: It's great to have the WikiProject Report back again. Readers may wish to suggest their favorite WikiProject as a possible subject of future reports. Smallbones(smalltalk) 14:21, 27 December 2019 (UTC) EiC[reply]

Yes, to all readers, please feel free to suggest WikiProjects that you would like to see featured. You can suggest them here or on my talk page; whichever is more convenient for you. Thanks! Puddleglum 2.0 16:00, 27 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
And thanks to you Enwebb for answering my questions! Your answers and work are appreciated. :) Puddleglum 2.0 05:13, 28 December 2019 (UTC)[reply]
Puddleglum2.0 thanks for this great coverage!! I'm glad to see WikiProjects get some great coverage. thanks! --Sm8900 (talk) 05:36, 13 January 2020 (UTC)[reply]


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