Robert Montoya: Ph.D. Candidate in Information Studies to Examine Taxonomies in Science

Former Head of Public Services for UCLA Library Special Collections receives NSF grant to study organization of biodiversity data in online infrastructures.

Robert Montoya, a Ph.D. candidate in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, has been awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation’s Science, Technology and Society section to study the way that the international Catalogue of Life project has transformed the scientific community’s methods of establishing, classifying, and sharing biodiversity databases. The Catalogue of Life is an open source global species checklist and taxonomic hierarchy that strives to catalog all of the world’s biological organisms.

Montoya (’03, B.A., American Literature and Culture; ’15, MLIS) says that his experience as Head of Public Services for UCLA’s Special Collections dovetailed with the IS department’s focus on equity and diversity.

“It was a rewarding job, and it got me to really apply what I was learning as part of my degree in a professional setting,” says Montoya. “Inclusivity is a core tenet of information studies,” he says. “There is always a culture or community involved [and we can] think about the way in which we communicate information and how that is influenced by those communities and their values.

“Working in Special Collections… helped me understand how archives are windows into analyzing the way that communities evolve over time. Any intellectual system we use, all of those practices reach back many – sometimes hundreds – of years, which is the case with the scientific taxonomic community. And so, my time in Special Collections has helped me appreciate the historical dimensions of our practices and how I can use archives to help me better understand what we’re doing now [in the field].

Montoya’s NSF grant will enable him to travel to Leiden, Netherlands, where the Catalogue’s Secretariat is located this summer, and to visit museums that use the Catalogue for essential institutional organizational functions in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, and Madrid. While in Europe, he will be able to meet with key individuals in the Catalogue’s project in order to conduct ethnographic and qualitative research to complete his dissertation.Montoya will also make initial contact with Catalogue personnel in April, when he will give an invited talk at the organization’s symposium in Crete.

“The Catalogue of Life has been really supportive of what I’m doing; I’m appreciative of that,” Montoya says. “Talking to them is really essential, as is seeing where they work, their different databases, and how they’re doing the editorial work required to make such a complex resource.”

Montoya became interested in the Catalogue of Life as a scientific community that “organizes information and creates infrastructures that, as part of their creation, represent certain value systems.” Through the use of classification and knowledge organization theory in Information Studies, he will examine taxonomies and classifications and how they are being articulated in the Catalogue project.

“For some time now, scientists [have been] building taxonomic databases in may locations around the world, trying to assess what organisms are on the planet and understand their relationships,” says Montoya. “The Catalogue of Life started in the early 2000s to bring all of these together… so that we can share information and get a better sense globally of our biodiversity situation.

“I am looking at databases in biodiversity and how they are created, and how by creating these structures, scientists make assumptions about knowledge. I also look at infrastructure and how it represents community values, and how local taxonomies are being transformed by being brought into the global Catalogue of Life.”

Montoya says that part of his study will include how scientists negotiate access to their data, whether to the Catalogue, other scientific colleagues, or to the public.

“Because the Catalogue is public, anyone can transform that data once it’s downloaded,” he says. “One of the things I’m looking at is how scientists might feel about the integrity of their data changing over time. There are also the political dimensions. We have particular ways of understanding science in the Western world. And because of that, paradigms in science sometimes have trouble meshing with indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the environment. These taxonomies exclude indigenous narratives that don’t subscribe to data collection methods and experimental scientific practices. So it does get political when you think about what the Catalogue doesn’t include – what voices are there, and what voices are not there. In this project I’m asking if there’s a way these multiple ways of understanding knowledge about our natural world can be integrated. And if so, what does that look like?”

Montoya also attributes his ability to conduct his research to his experience in the MLIS program at UCLA.

“Without my MLIS, I would not have been able to bring all these domains together, which is looking at classification theory, database practices in science, and the philosophy of information,” he says. “It’s a professional degree [with the] purpose of giving you an idea how libraries, museums, and other information institutions work. And because you examine a lot of different institutions and ways of organizing the world [through] documents, books, and specimens, it helps give you a sense of how all of these things are interconnected.”

Montoya also appreciates the support of his dissertation committee, including Professor Johanna Drucker, IS Chair Jonathan Furner, Professor Christopher Kelty, who is also affiliated with the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, and Professor Geoffrey Bowker of UC Irvine, whose work has included collaborative knowledge practices in science, infrastructure and database studies, and biodiversity informatics.

“All of my advisors have domain-specific and method-specific knowledge that has come together to really help me bring together and focus my research,” Montoya says.

Taking a step back from the immediate research needs of his dissertation, Montoya says that he wants to “think more broadly about what this project means to the larger community of academia, and about how we can create taxonomies and organization systems that are more inclusive and pluralistic. I think that the classification systems we use have a particular point of view, but it’s not generally something we think about. This matters on a global scale, because what biological organisms we choose to protect and where we choose to put our resources changes, based on the knowledge we have.

“No system is going to be perfect – it’s always going to exclude and include. You can talk about that in science or library classification systems,” says Montoya. “But I think our job as information professionals and academics is to do our best to make these systems as inclusive as we can, and to acknowledge what these systems can and cannot represent. Biodiversity research is a really interesting place to do that, because the consequences of it are real in our contemporary natural environment.”