Africhthy is a Scratchpads-based data management and social networking website for the community of researchers, conservationists, technicians and hobbyists who work with African fishes.
We envision Africhthy.org evolving into the premier African ichthyology web resource: a place to locate literature, images, and other information on African fishes, to disseminate our own publications and reports, and just as importantly, to find each other and work together.
A multi-purpose informatics portal
I work in a facility with an amazing library of old and new literature as well as a world-class collection of preserved African fishes. I live 6500 km from Africa. My African colleagues live next to the living fishes, yet don’t have the books and journals, or a reference fish collection, and so can't identify them. There are students at African universities looking for research projects who have no way of knowing that undescribed species are to be found almost at their door, because they lack these resources. Their professors are no better off.
What researchers working on fishes in the developing countries of Africa repeatedly ask for are simple means to identify species. While there remain huge gaps in the published information on African fishes (for instance, still no comprehensive work on Congo basin fishes), sharing that which is available—e.g., literature, keys, species descriptions and good photos—on a site like this would go a long way towards correcting this information deficit. Have a look at the Mormyridae LifeDesk, itself still very much a work in progress, to get an idea of what could be done for every other African fish family. (This LifeDesk as well as the Congo Fishes LifeDesk will at some point be ported into the Africhthy site).
In addition to what gets directly uploaded to this site, a species page on a Scratchpad such as this one aggregates data from across the web, showing you museum holdings from GBIF, genetic data from NCBI, literature citations from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Wikipedia articles and more. Scratchpads 2, coming out in April-May of 2012, will have a very useful module for the Encyclopedia of Life. (I'd love to see integration of FishBase, Catalog of Fishes, FAUNAFRI, IUCN and other web resources we routinely use. I hope this will be possible in the future.)
Most of my colleagues in Africa have access to the internet, but their connections are painfully slow. Remember dial-up? Imagine navigating today’s web with a connection slower than that and the constant threat of a power outage. Under such conditions, finding new articles and information on African fishes is time-consuming and hit-or-miss. Imagine instead if you could stay current with new publications and find relevant information and keys by visiting one site. Even for those of us with fast internet this would be immensely useful.
Africhthy can also serve as an online “rolodex" for African ichthyology. Say you consulted a published key or guide to identify a fish specimen in your study, but you are still stuck, or perhaps you think you have an undescribed species in hand. At a certain point, you need access to an expert. On Africhthy you could "crowdsource" your ID to a discussion forum and/or find a taxonomist (or taxonomists) for the group of fishes in question who would likely be interested to see what you have and happy to steer you in the right direction.
‘Gray ichthyology’ archive
While it’s obvious that fish labs across much of Africa would love to have access to the library I have at my disposal, what might be less obvious is that I’d love to have access to theirs.
Gathering dust on bookshelves across the continent is a tremendous wealth of knowledge on fishes and aquatic biology that has never been published. These are student research theses and reports for government agencies, NGOs and international development projects. Such sources are often called “gray literature” since they are outside the peer-review process from which most scientists get their information. Quality of this literature of course spans the spectrum, but much of it is good and could be useful to somebody if it were made more widely available.
The unfortunate truth is that the amount of this gray literature greatly dwarfs the non-gray kind in the developing countries of Africa. Africhthy.org can be the perfect platform for archiving and serving such gray literature on African fishes. PDF documents can be easily uploaded, along with bibliographic information, keywords and text abstracts such that they can be readily found on the site and also by a standard Google search from anywhere. Documents can be copyright protected with a Creative Commons license.
A revision-proof infrastructure
All records for literature, images and other content that are uploaded to the site get taxonomic and geographical tags from a controlled vocabulary. Thus, finding what’s relevant to your needs is easy: you can search for data by taxon or by watershed or by country. The fish classification that organizes the information on the site will be kept up to date by the specialists who work on each group. This way, if the name of a taxon is changed, it needs only be modified once in the site-wide taxonomy to update every item that is linked to it.
An African ichthyology social club
Finally, what we need to actually function like a community is a commons: a place where all of us who study African fishes can exchange ideas, ask each other questions, find others of like interests to pursue research goals, organize research and meetings.
There are graduate students and faculty in North America and Europe interested in African fishes and with the means to launch a research program, but with no information on what institutions and researchers would welcome them. Meanwhile, there are plenty of African students, professors, and researchers anxious to find such colleagues elsewhere in Africa and in Europe and North America.
I know this from personal experience. In 2008, I happened across a very basic webpage uploaded to a blogging site describing the Laboratory of Hydrobiology and Aquaculture at the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS) in D.R. Congo. From this page I sent Professor Alidor Kankonda an email asking if he'd be interested in a joint project. I ended up spending most of 2010 there and our collaborations continue. How many more such fruitful relationships could be started if everyone working in African ichthyology knew to go Africhthy.org to find partners? Africhthy can even serve as a platform from which African institutions involved in fish research can publish their own webpage.
Africhthy will host discussion forums. I imagine fish ID questions, queries about locating supplies (nets, bottles, tags, etc), lab procedures, etc. being common uses for these. We’ve set up some already. Have a look, contribute posts, and suggest new forum topics. Africhthy can also host special interest groups. These can be configured to be open to anyone, or access-controlled. Members of groups can be emailed and follow group discussion independently of everything else on the site.
Africhthy can be used to organize meetings. The Pan-African Fish and Fisheries Association (PAFFA) lacks a website of its own and its fifth meeting is tentatively scheduled to take place in late 2013 in Burundi. This would be the perfect platform for the organizers of the event: an announcement page could be created, bulletins and newsletters sent to potential attendees, and a webform created to handle registration.
Africhthy can host blogs (like this one). Here's the opportunity for anyone to describe their fish-related project, fieldwork, or to tout their own publication, or someone else's. Anyone with contributor status in Africhthy is welcome to publish articles here on any ichthyological topic, in English or in French. They'll get exposure on Africhthy's Facebook page, as well.
The multilingual imperative
Language has always been a barrier to international colloboration among African researchers and between African researchers and those living elsewhere. English and French are the dominant working European languages on the continent and while by no means do all Africans speak one of them, having a bilingual site would go a long way towards bringing research communities together. Scratchpads can be adapted to different languages and the interface is already partly available in French. We will work to make the entire interface available in French as well as English, via the language switcher in the sidebar. Blog posts like this one can't easily be presented in more than one language, but Google translate and Google's browser, Chrome, makes switching to and from many more languages an almost instant process. The results, while far from perfect, are getting better and better as Google makes improvements. We'll do our best to integrate language switching tools as we develop the site and possibly add additional languages.
Many hands make light work
In the end, a great strength of a Scratchpad site for African ichthyology will be that content and functionality will not depend upon any centralized administration, but on the ichthyology community itself. It is hard to anticipate all the directions in which Africhthy could go if everyone joins in. One could even imagine the site becoming a publishing platform for the “Freshwater and brackish fishes of Africa,” a work that currently doesn’t exist and seems a long way off. Publication from the site could start more modestly: the publisher Pensoft already publishes species descriptions composed directly on Scratchpads in its journal ZooKeys and this functionality will be enhanced when Scratchpads 2.0 comes out this spring. (Version 2.0 of Scratchpads promises a number of new features and an improved appearance for the site that we are looking forward to. For a sneak peak at the look of the version 2.0 site, click here.) Think of what you see now as just the larval form of Africhthy.
Please have a look around the site, request an account, and help us build a cyber-infrastructure for 21st Century African ichthyology! Leave your comments & suggestions below, or in the General Forum. Look for the Africhthy page on Facebook (and *like* us!)
To learn more about the exciting Scratchpads project and to see other Scratchpads, use the link at the bottom of the page.