“old and fragile records” in an age of RTI and computers: How our heritage collections are managed by ZSI

The Zoological Survey of India has an illustrious history. On 1st July, 1916, the organisation was instituted with a mission to “…to promote survey, exploration

Alfred Alcock, the physician-naturalist who was instrumental in the creation of the Zoological Survey of India

and research leading to the advancement in our knowledge of various aspects of exceptionally rich life of the erstwhile British Indian Empire” (Emphasis mine). Alfred William Alcock was a British physician-naturalist, a common breed in those colonial days when doctors were still excited about working in “difficult” and remote areas and doubled as explorers, naturalists and prolific writers without any of those “rural area incentives” under the present-day National Rural Health Mission that miserably fail to entice doctors to work even in small towns, let alone remote areas. Those were days when being a doctor in the service of the “empire” was still a reputed member of the “civil service” – a cadre of the service was designated the Indian Medical Service with illustrious doctors such as Ronald Ross; a cadre undone ever since. Alcock turned out to be a prolific writer, traveller, doctor and a scientist. He worked in many parts of the country ranging from the North-west Frontier Province in today’s Af-Pak region and as a Surgeon-naturalist on the Indian Marine Survey. His survey results are in 17 volumes and he also wrote an 8 volume narrative of his experience in Indian seas as “A naturalist in Indian seas”. 

Like many other doctors who left their medicine behind to pursue natural history, Alcock in the course of time found himself superintending the Indian Museum in Calcutta when one day in 1903 he was ordered by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon to “to vacate the gallery of Fishes at a moment’s notice.” His protestations and support from trustees of the museum prevented the damage to the fish and other collections. Considering such experiences and the wealth of knowledge to be gained by his and future generations, in a letter that was apparently taken seriously by the British administration, he urged for the creation of the Zoological Survey of India. He wrote “…zoology is…a branch of pure science pregnant with human interest, important to the state in matters of education, in matters agricultural and veterinary, and in the vital matter of public health. He suggested the establishment of an Indian Zoological Survey with a museum and laboratory administered by zoologists along the lines of the Geological and Botanical Surveys.”

I can’t but miss the irony. Today the website of ZSI boldly proclaims that it “..has maintained its primary objectives unchanged from its inception”. Apparently, this is true – for none of their collections are accessible to researchers, let alone lay people. While the 5-odd million specimens sitting at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) far away at Washington DC are indexed and searchable online through a simple search our own “premier organisation” wrote to me in bold letters in their RTI response that the details of the 41,291 bird specimens that they hold cannot be shared with me

 

because “..some of the registers are old and fragile”.

 

The ZSI holds some very important and heritage collections – the collections of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the erstwhile Indian Museum were inherited by them. In addition to this, several other type specimens of extinct and extant species are held at ZSI – albeit in secret. The sheer apathy of the institution in making information available is evident in its website – a type-specimen of terrible design conspiring with lack of information to make the user experience as unproductive as an application under RTI.

And reform does not come easy either. When our maverick minister with the coolest haircut in the cabinet tried to shave off a bit of the apathy through structural reform of the ZSI, the bureaucratic machinery swung into action to scuttle all such moves. Although thorough evaluations have proposed specific suggestions and new organisation structures and mandates, nothing has come even two years after the most recent task force report. Shyamal captures this wonderfully in his essay “Tax-payer funded science in India” – where the mere apathy and lack of access to public collections and repositories hinders research. It is not for lack of a secure job, poor infrastructure, lacking mandate or unavailable data that organisations like ZSI are not producing. It appears to be sheer apathy that our premier institutions can get away with such responses under Right to Information Act. It is another matter that I never needed to establish that I have a right as a citizen to ask for such basic details of heritage collections for which this nearly 100-year old body has been established!

This is of course merely a rant before I send off the first appeal. I am not the one to accept “old and fragile records” as an excuse for not making available details of our heritage collections on the internet or through RTI. Perhaps, a letter also to the “Panel on scientific data of public interest”?

* Update: Another RTI filed with yet another premier institute, the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Lot more data will be out in the open if this works.

* Thanks to Shyamal and Kullu.

* Download my RTI application and the response from ZSI. RTI filed with ease through RTI nation

18 responses to ““old and fragile records” in an age of RTI and computers: How our heritage collections are managed by ZSI

  1. Hi Prashanth,
    This is a laudable and timely effort on your part; thank you for taking the initiative. There are a lot of changes urgently needed in both ZSI and BSI, which have become anachronistic, inward-looking institutions, instead of being national institutions with international standing. Apologies in advance for the long comment, but wanted to add the following:

    The final report of the Gadgil Task Force is available here:
    http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/BSI%20ZSI%20TF%20-%20Final.pdf
    On the lines of your RTI application, you can note that the Task Force recommends many changes with time frames. The key related recommendations for implementation are

    Short-term (1-2 years)
    17. “BSI/ZSI should organize an immediate review of the procedures for access to collections for scholars and students with a view to evolve transparent and timely access. Such review should not be only in-house but should involve the Coordinating Group on Systematic and Biology. New rules should be put up on the web and revisions made after soliciting responses.”

    Medium-term (3-4 years)
    6. Collection inventory and management should be computerized using open source softwares such as Specify 6.0 (www.specifysoftware.org).

    7. The BSI/ ZSI journals and other occasional publications should go online and could be part of Public Library of Science (PLoS). This will save a lot of time and financial resources.

    Long-term goals (5-12 years)
    3. All the identified species records should be computerized and geo-referenced, with a high priority assigned to the oldest collections.
    7. BSI/ ZSI Heritage publications and drawings should be digitized and could be part of Biodiversity Heritage Library project.

    More comments to follow…!

  2. It is also a kind of joke to say that you can access this information by going to Kolkata (or regional centres) and plough through the specimens yourself. It is not easy even for genuine researchers who have specific funds for travel and museum visits to do this because of the red tape and obstructions often imposed on them. While one cannot generalise to all BSI/ZSI scientists or locations, I know personal examples of students and researchers who struggle to get permission to visit the museums, see the specimens or records, and take notes, photos or copies. Sometimes this is flatly denied, sometimes key specimens are not shown, or researchers are fobbed off with some excuse.

    Secondly, to say some (which? where?) information is available in their in-house journals is unfair and unhelpful. These journals, which have their own drawbacks in terms of quality and peer-review, are barely accessible to researchers. We once spent almost an entire day in a BSI regional centre trying to get a single paper in their journal located and photocopied (with paperwork and signatures of approval required for making the photocopy, of course, even though we were quite happy to pay for the copy and were not asking for free).

    All this data should be made more accessible and free. All the journals (including old issues) need to be scanned and made open access with at least searchable titles, abstracts, and keywords. We should all work towards seeing such changes happen. If you are sending a letter to the Indian Academy of Sciences panel, please do consider getting signatures from a cross-section of scientists and institutions in India in your effort.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks for your comments. Noted the relevant observations made by the Gadgil Task Force. I would like to test the RTI on some more institutions (not only in forests). For example, the Registrar of Births and Deaths collects massive information through a pathway starting at each village (the village accountant), but the availabilty of such data is very poor. You can imagine the public health implications of such data made available easily.
      So, together with some more RTI’s I think I will try to put together a letter to several authorities including IAS and will keep you posted.

      • Do RTIs really help in such situations? It might need more work in addition to RTIs.

        • Absolutely. Much more is needed.

          My idea of the RTI was to “test” its ability. In an ideal scenario, such information should be available on the website of these institutions. In fact, the RTI clearly says that the Act is only for information that is not already made available. It urges all government departments to put up all their internal procedures (rules, guidelines etc) as well as their outputs (in this case details of collections, surveys, research etc.) on the websites. I am here using RTI only to make them realise that this has not been done. Else, I am sure such information will never reach websites!

          I would suggest the use of more and more RTI’s to government research institutions to wake them up. 🙂

          • I also even forming an interest group to address these issues might be helpful. While there are lot of interest/study groups mushrooming in various parts of the country working towards making a lot of govt data open, it might be interesting to have one for ecology too.

  3. Daktre, a colleague of mine and I wanted to access some really old civet specimens (apparently the type), and it was an uphill task. We did get access but not to the one we wanted. It took us more than three years to be able to get past their gates. However, at the same time, with just an email we got access to all the related specimens across the world! – Singapore, UK, US! – within 24 hours of having sent an email to the address provided on their websites.

    These institutions need to be told (again and again) that they are only custodians of the property in their museums and not owners, and these museums also need to meet international standards in the way of record keeping, access, and maintenance.

    All other museums also loan their collections to other institutions (including ZSI and BSI), while if they want to loan any from these in return, it is only red tape until they give up.

    No other museums expect authorship as these do when they finally allow access.

    It is a pity that there are so many key specimens sitting with these institutions. If they cannot maintain them or provide access to them, wonder if there is some way we can get them transferred to better museums in other countries.

  4. A few more points to hmm over: These institutions do not know the value of the collections they have. The do not value the effort and enquiry by international scientists and researchers either. The so-called curators are barely trained in their job/responsibility.
    On the same lines, it is also a pity that there are numerous specimens rotting or languishing in institutions such as the Bombay Naturalist Society. That is another bunch of specimens that need to be revived and saved.
    Some new scientists in ZSI have been helpful in digging out some literature and publications for us though. I would like to thank them. I also fervently hope that these new, young scientists will change the system in ZSI for the better soon.

  5. Just as a curiosity, should we as a nation waste so much of money on benefitting so few researchers, when the researchers themselves, using public money funded infrastructure and grants, transfer the copyright/IP rights of material which rightfully should have belonged in the public domain, to profit oriented societies/businesses/companies/publishers which print journals in the name of ‘papers’, and then charge exorbitant amounts on even a per view basis to all the citizens who have paid and paying taxes? People who publish in journals which charge money hardly have any moral right to question anybody else! According to law, to the best of my knowledge, the rights to commissioned work should, without a-priori contractual agreement, belong to the commissioning authority/agency/person and not to the service provider (in this case the researcher). If I recollect it properly, there are rulings of high courts on this, and even the AIR manual which lawyers use has citations to this. What are the views on this? So aren’t these researchers engaging in illegal activity, while the government agency displays apathy?

    So as a further, would not the government agency be aiding and abetting a fraud if it provided material to a researcher who commits it?

    I was told that a contractual agreement cannot take precedence over or nullify the conditions of an act or law of the country, or this is what I have understood it to be. So, much of the EULA that we are forced to accept (without a clear option for negotiation) would not be valid legally and is often, I am told, used for its threat value. Now given the law, can you put up on your blog or website, the papers of yours, irrespective of where it has been published, irrespective of the conditions the publisher imposes on you except that the publisher is credited with publishing it, up for free download by the citizens of India? Don’t I, as a taxpayer become an un-demarcated shareholder/investor in the infrastructure or funding of the state and as such am entitled to rights over the content and or intellectual property that accrues from it. Will you accept it? I as a citizen, need to see and examine the entire data that you have collected so far using any fellowship or stipend or resources of the state in any form, will you do that please?

    🙂

    • For the record, since your comment here is no different from the one pasted on fb, I am pasting my responses from there too! 🙂

      1) I am sure all researchers are with you on how publishing houses have a lion’s hold on access to information through journals. On this point, they are WITH you, but so are many researchers (if not most!)

      2) Access to information on heritage collections of the country is a duty and responsibility of the State. And as merely a citizen (let alone as a researcher), it is both my right as well as one of the fundemental duty (to increase scientific temper, I believe it is called) to ask for such collections to be accessible.

      I do not see any “crime” in researchers using public data and publishing in in accessible journals- this is public information already! What researchers do with this and where they share it and publish it is completely another issue. This information is as public as census data! If somebody analyses census data and publishes a paper in Nature, which is not accessible to public, then surely, it is not a crime, it is merely an unfair market practice that we should fight against.

  6. Hi Prashant,

    In 1999 I happened to go to the ZSI in Alipore. I managed to see the insect collection as I knew a scientist there. As I am passionate about ants, I asked my friend if he could show me the ant collection – I assumed that I might get a glimpse of the ants found in the north east. To my horror, I could see many of the collections to be in a deplorable state. There were live ants crawling all over dusty specimens. Most of the ants had incomplete body structures or the specimens were missing. The incident left me bitter about such Institutes and their ability to serve Science.

  7. Hi: Any further news on this?

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