Robert Montoya: Ph.D. Candidate Honored with Litwin Books Award

IS dissertation to examine taxonomies and the global collaboration on biodiversity databases.

Robert Montoya (’03, B.A. American Literature and Culture; ’15, MLIS) has been honored with the 2016 Litwin Books Award for Ongoing Dissertation Research in the Philosophy of Information. A doctoral candidate in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, Montoya is the first American to be given the award since it was established by Litwin Books in 2013.

Montoya is currently at work on his dissertation titled, “Contingent Consensus: Documentary Control in Biodiversity Classifications.” His research will examine the international Catalogue of Life project, and how this open source global species checklist and taxonomic hierarchy is transforming the scientific community’s methods of establishing, classifying, and sharing biodiversity databases.

Professor Johanna Drucker, who nominated Montoya for the Litwin Books Award, wrote that the doctoral candidate’s work on classification used in the natural sciences, “is going to offer insights into the ways classification systems and knowledge organization meet a specific set of conditions in application and use. His dissertation should also be of interest to those working in the history of science, cultural history, bibliographical study, and discourse analysis from a philosophy of knowledge perspective.”

Montoya, who has served as operations manager and head of public services for UCLA Special Collections, traveled to Europe this summer, supported by a NSF grant, to research practices by the Catalogue of Life at the organization’s secretariat at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands. He also visited natural science museums and archives including the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; the Linnean Society of London, and the Natural History Museum in London and interviewed botanists, scientists, informaticians, and taxonomists from a variety of global organizations and resources.

“It really was a way to acquire knowledge unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Montoya. “Meeting these individuals made me realize how much bigger this all was than the Catalogue of Life – I’ve definitely taken a step back to see what the other players in this information ecology are and to find out about the intellectual and theoretical work of identifying species around the world and how these complex concepts play out in integrated resources. It was an opportunity for me to connect all the dots and see how all that is leading to global initiatives like the Catalogue of Life… so that I can more appropriately understand what it can teach us in information studies.”

Montoya says that the social and political implications of a study on biodiversity databases is exciting and that, “There is a direct connection between all of these [information] systems, law, and policy.”

“Government entities like the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture need authoritative, vetted species lists to assess produce that shouldn’t be imported or animals that shouldn’t be imported because they’re endangered, or vectors,” he says. “Mosquitoes are big right now, because of the impact of diseases like Zika. Lists like the Catalogue are what identifies one mosquito that is harmful and one that is not.

“These lists are important on a government level and on a trade level,” notes Montoya. “If a species is identified as one that shouldn’t be in the United States and it’s on one of these lists, it could influence the [economy] of another country that depends on its export. These lists are also really important to chart the future direction of issues centered on and working toward saving species that are endangered. Doing the best to identify them [is] the first step.”

Montoya says that his research places him in the position to observe, not to critique initiatives like the Catalogue of Life, and that he has found that in many cases, the goals of information scientists and taxonomists working with these biodiversity databases are very similar.

“If a scientist needs information about a polar bear, they need to know what that bear is called and they need to be able to find all the data associated with that species,” he says. “It’s no different in an archive or library. When we have a book or document, we do our best to say, ‘This is what we think this document is about.’ After we name what information and subjects might be in that document, we have to help people find it.

“We have to be able to describe things in such a way that different communities can access them for different reasons across different spaces and throughout time,” Montoya says. “They may not be reasons that we are aware of, and that’s inevitably going to be the case. We can’t always foresee what people need, or what they might possibly need at some future point in different contexts.”

Montoya says that citizen science is gradually playing a larger – if still marginal – role in taxonomies like the Catalogue of Life, with biodiversity knowledge that is collected and stored by individuals who are not necessarily trained academics or scientists. He notes that while many of these databases are open source, there is still a sense that scientific knowledge is concentrated in countries that have stable and coordinated science networks and scientific institutions.

“There are a lot of communities and cultures that cannot easily contribute knowledge,” he says. “We might all benefit if they could somehow collect [information] at the local level, but that requires intensive support. We’re always striving to pluralize the way we describe things so that people who need this information can find it.”

“There are definitely divides,” says Montoya. “These systems may have the capacity… to bridge those divides, but I think that perhaps the best they can do right now is collect existing information and create a foundation upon which they can build future versions of the system. In the whole scheme of things, these initiatives are relatively young. I am told that this kind of large-scale, global collaboration is relatively new for biodiversity scientists. Their goal is to collect everything; they [ultimately] want to bring in everybody’s voices and knowledge.”

Montoya is currently a teaching associate in UCLA IS and the General Education Clusters and on the faculty of the California Rare Book School at UCLA. He also serves as project manager of the History of the Book and Literacy Technologies project, which was established by Professor Drucker, who is the UCLA Breslauer Professor of Bibliography and Information Studies.