Thursday, April 28, 2016


Although I had been aware of its existence for quite some time, I have only recently seriously tried out KeyBase. Under the motto "teaching old keys new tricks", this website hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is a repository of dichotomous identification keys. The following post is a quick note on my experiences so far.

What is in KeyBase?

Coverage so far seems to be mostly Australian plants, but there are also some keys to plants of California, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and very few non-botanical projects. Maybe coverage will expand over time, it all depends on whether the taxonomic community in other taxa will take it up.

At least for Australia, many of the keys appear to be either previously published in traditional print floras or draft keys meant to be published in upcoming floras, then together with full descriptions, drawings and suchlike. Having them on KeyBase is of course great. In the former case, it makes identification aids freely available to people who cannot afford to buy, say, a four volume state flora for several hundred dollars, or to people who are currently in the field and did not bring those books along, as long as they have an internet connection. In the latter case, it makes keys available that one would otherwise have several years to wait for, and in the ideal case they could be tested and improved in the meantime.

How does it look from the end-user perspective?

If you want to use the key repository, you can enter the scientific name of the group you are interested in into the search field in the upper right corner. Usually it works well. If, for example, you were to enter "Asteraceae", you would be presented with links to keys covering the states of Victoria and New South Wales, all of Australia, and California. Sometimes, however, it doesn't. I know that there is a separate subkey to only the Gnaphalieae tribe in Australia, but searching for "Gnaphalieae" currently draws a blank. You have to go into the Australian Asteraceae key, search the web page for that name, and then click on the little triangle next to it.

This brings me to the next point. Many keys are very helpfully inter-connected. You can use a family key to get to a genus, and then you may find such a little triangle leading you to the genus key. At the moment a species may link to other, external resources, for Australian plants often the Atlas of Living Australia page of the species, which is very helpful as they usually feature a photo and a distribution map.

Each key can be presented in three different ways. The obvious ones are bracketed and indented, terms that I have explained in a separate post. Unfortunately, Firefox has a tendency to freeze on me when I try to have a very large key displayed as indented, but bracketed always seems to work, and indented still works well for smaller keys.

Given that all the keys in KeyBase are dichotomous, it is a bit surprising to find that the third display option is "interactive". As far as I can tell, there is nothing interactive about it though, and it is certainly not multi-access. It just seems to walk through the questions in the usual pre-determined order, displaying only a single question at a time. It thus seems to have only downsides compared to the other two options, and I see no point in using it.

As for the keys themselves, there is obviously very little quality control going on, but that is to be expected in a crowd-sourced project, even if the crowd is largely professional taxonomists. For example, I recently found that a daisy genus containing perennial species can only be reached by answering a couplet as "annual", and then there are the usual problems of hard to judge characters and user-unfriendly, arcane terminology.

How does it look from the contributor perspective?

That is a very good question. I have two small genus keys that I might consider contributing, so I got myself an account today and started looking around for information on how to submit a key and what format it needs to have. The experience was a bit disappointing.

The Help page reads "coming your way soon". Under Manage Account I found the following: "Sorry, we ran out of time and have not been able to create this page yet. In the not too distant future, you'll be able to reset your password and apply to become a contributor to a KeyBase project here." Yeah, that is not very helpful. In that way the repository will not really grow very much.

In conclusion

Although more and more online keys in the future will be multi-access, I see a market niche for KeyBase, especially for collecting in one point lots of previously published, otherwise hard to obtain dichotomous keys, from paper floras and obscure taxonomic publications. And there are also people who actually prefer dichotomous keys.

Already I have made some use of the keys that are available in the repository, so that is good. On the other hand, it definitely needs to become easier to contribute, otherwise it will largely remain restricted to Australian plants, as it is now.

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