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Gateway to the Paleobiology Database

Frequently asked questions


What is the Paleobiology Database?
Who should I contact?
What data are now in the Database?
What is the database structure?
Who owns the Paleobiology Database?
Who owns the data?
How is the Paleobiology Database funded?
How is the Database organized?
How did the Database come into existence?
Who is currently participating?
Who can join the Paleobiology Database?
Are you interested in private collections?
What is a Paleobiology Database working group?
What is a research group, and how can I form one?
Who has access to the data?
Can I upload data into the Database?
What is considered an official Paleobiology Database publication?
How should I credit the Database in a talk?
Are contributed data sets electronic publications?
How should the data be cited?
What events has the Database sponsored?

What is the Paleobiology Database?
The Paleobiology Database is a non-governmental, non-profit public resource. It is operated by John Alroy (Macquarie University). The data have been contributed by a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional, international group of paleobiological researchers. Its purpose is to provide global, collection-based occurrence and taxonomic data for marine and terrestrial animals and plants of any geological age, as well as web-based software for statistical analysis of the data. The project's wider, long-term goal is to encourage collaborative efforts to answer large-scale paleobiological questions by developing a useful database infrastructure and bringing together large data sets.

Who should I contact?
General queries, bug reports, and feature requests should go to John Alroy and Michael McClennen (Universiy of Wisconsin-Madison). Questions and comments about individual data records should go to the contributor who authorized the data.

What data are now in the Database?
We maintain full descriptions of each of our Online Systematics Archives. You can also see what we know about the taxonomy of a group by generating a classification. It's easy to tell what collection and occurrence data are in the Database by generating data summary tables. For example, you can get counts of fossil collections within geological periods, or by continent.

What is the database structure?
The Database currently includes nine main tables: published references, taxonomic names, taxonomic synonymies and classifications, primary collection data, taxonomic occurrences, reidentifications of occurrences, and three tables describing geological time scales. Additional scientific tables track ecological and taphonomic attributes of higher taxa and species, measurements of specimens, and data about the digital fossil images on the site. There are also a number of bookkeeping tables. The tables are tied together relationally with record ID numbers. At a later date we may add tables to handle phylogenetic relationships, ecomorphological attributes, stratigraphic sections, radioisotopic age estimates, and other data.

Who owns the Paleobiology Database?
The Database consists of servers housed at Macquarie University and purchased using an ARC grant to John Alroy; software and a website created by John Alroy in 1998 and revised by him on a continual basis since then; domain names registered to John Alroy; and data contributed by numerous individuals. It is not owned by a university or funding agency in any sense.

Who owns the data?
Based on internationally settled law, individual contributors own the copyrights on their fossil collection data records because they are new intellectual works instead of simple facts. The reason is that most of the field values within a given record are based on the contributors' personal judgment and interpretation; very few are directly copied from published information. The United States government holds copyright over data records that were entered by its direct employees as part of their official duties, but all other records are owned by the listed data "authorizers" and made available to the public based on Creative Commons licenses that require attribution before use. Some funding agencies including the National Science Foundation require researchers to grant them licenses to all data entered by personnel paid using their grant awards, but the awardees still retain personal copyright. Some types of data in the system such as citations to published papers are compilations of facts and therefore cannot be copyrighted.

How is the Paleobiology Database funded?
The Paleobiology Database's core facility is funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council to John Alroy, and its mirror servers are operated independently. Software development by Michael McClennen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the home of the main North American mirror, is supported by NSF's Geoinformatics program and supervised by Shanan Peters. The analytical paleobiology training workshop operated by Alroy is sponsored by the Database and now funded by the ARC. It received funding from several collaborating organizations in its early years and has guaranteed support through 2013. Data entry projects are funded by grants to individual Database members. The Database originally was funded from 2000 to 2006 by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Biocomplexity program, and also has received funding from NSF's Sedimentary Geology and Paleobiology program.

How is the Database organized?
The Executive Committee makes decisions regarding data access, data storage, assignment of credit, membership, and interoperability with other organizations. The Committee consists of 15 members. The Database's ten most dedicated data contributors serve on a permanent basis, and five other major contributors are selected to serve rotating two-year terms. The Committee's Chair is Mark Uhen and its Secretary is Jocelyn Sessa. The Database has a main office at Macquarie University that houses John Alroy, the Database's Director. Software development is also being carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the co-supervision of Assistant Director Shanan Peters. The main paleodb.org server and data repository is at Macquarie University and we maintain several mirror servers. The Database serves as a repository for other organizations such as the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems database and Paleogeographic Atlas Project.

How did the Database come into existence?
The Paleobiology Database originated in the NCEAS-funded Phanerozoic Marine Paleofaunal Database initiative, which operated from August 1998 through August 2000. The PMPD was organized by John Alroy and Charles Marshall and its website and software were created by Alroy at that time. The Paleobiology Database was funded from 2000 to 2006 by a National Science Foundation grant to Marshall with Alroy as a co-PI. The fossil collection data set was founded on the PMPD, Alroy's North American Mammalian Paleofaunal Database, Kay Behrensmeyer's Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Database, and Arnie Miller's Ordovician invertebrate faunal database. The taxonomy system was founded on Alroy's North American Fossil Mammal Systematics Database and Jack Sepkoski's Compendium of Marine Animal Genera. You may view the text of the 1998 NCEAS proposal.

Who is currently participating?
Please see our participants web page.

Who can join the Paleobiology Database?
Database membership is open to all professional researchers who agree to abide by Database policy and contribute a significant amount of data. There is no charge for membership or any other service provided by the Database. Conversely, the Database will not make payments to receive existing data sets. By "professional," we normally mean having a track record of publication in peer-reviewed paleontology journals. Most contributors have doctoral degrees. However, serious researchers without graduate-level training also may be considered for membership. We also expect that contributors will work largely independently of any academic supervisor, as opposed to using data collected by a supervisor. If you don't fit these criteria but do want to contribute, you might consider entering data under the authorization of a formal Database member who is in your local area. No formal procedure needs to be followed to become a data enterer. Please see our list of members for contact information. If you do wish to join as an independent contributor, please see our guidelines for joining the Database.

Are you interested in private collections?
Like most scientific organizations, we believe that descriptions of fossils should be verifiable and reproducible, which means that the fossils themselves must be publicly accessible for further study. Therefore, we expect Database members to focus on recording published data or their own unpublished data regarding material held by public institutions such as museums, universities, or government agencies. Publications also may be entered if they describe uncollected material that is still in the field or publicly accessible casts of privately owned material.

What is a Paleobiology Database working group?
From 1998 through 2006 the Database organized working groups of data contributors that collaborated on large-scale, long-term research projects. See our working group page for details.

What is a research group, and how can I form one?
The Database also includes less formal research groups. The purpose of a research group is to facilitate sharing of otherwise private data by researchers who are collaborating on a study. If you are a contributor, you may form a group or add members to a group at any time, without having to obtain permission from anyone. Just write the Database's Director stating the name of the group and its members. Conversely, the Database will not add members to your group unless you want us to, even when researchers working in related areas independently join the Database.

Who has access to the data?
We encourage contributors to make data publicly accessible immediately upon entry. However, taxonomic occurrence data sets entered into our system may be protected so that they are not viewable either by any other users (your private data) or by anyone outside of your research group (your group data). Protection is limited for up to two years after date of entry for previously published data, and up to five years for unpublished data. Your own password will allow you to view research group-readable data belonging to any group that includes you. Protected data cannot be accessed by any of our scripts or in any other way unless the appropriate password is provided. The only exceptions are the reference search and taxonomy scripts, which need to access all the reference and taxonomy data because there is little subjective interpretation and we need to avoid duplicate entry of published data.

Can I upload data into the Database?
We are happy to accept paleontological data files for upload. However, we do have some criteria that must be met first. Specifically, all of the following should be true:

  • The contributor already is a Paleobiology Database member, or the Executive Committee has approved making the contributor a member after discussing the proposed upload.
  • The data already are in electronic form.
  • Entering the data by hand into the Database would be extremely time consuming.
  • The data include most, if not necessarily all, of our key fields (e.g., for a collection record we'd like country, lat/long, period, reference).
  • A good-faith effort has been made to get the data into Database format.
  • A good-faith effort has been made to identify and remove data that replicate existing Database data.
  • The contributor intends to maintain and augment the data on our system using our software, or else the contributor has no plans to do this on any system.

Please see our data upload tip sheet.

What is considered an official Paleobiology Database publication?
We consider any paper to be an official publication if: (a) it uses data taken from the Database; (b) it results from research conducted as part of a Database research group meeting; or (c) it results from research conducted while the author was funded by a grant used primarily to support the Database's operations. Because we maintain a list of such publications, please notify us as soon as any such paper is accepted for publication and the final version is ready to be sent out. We will then give the publication a number and add it to the list. We ask that you acknowledge the Database by adding a line to your paper saying "This is Paleobiology Database publication #..." We also encourage you to submit your electronic data files to be archived and made available on the web site, although this is strictly optional.

How should I credit the Database in a talk?
We ask that you display our logo either on your title slide or on your acknowledgments slide. We have prepared versions with black and white backgrounds.

Are contributed data sets electronic publications?
Yes: contributors may consider their contributed data sets to be electronic publications. In particular, our Online Systematics Archives are considered official electronic publications. To have your Archive listed, simply write the Database's Director a letter saying that you consider a certain block of data to be a publication, and then giving a title and list of authors. Of course, electronic publications on this list can refer only to publicly released data.

How should the data be cited?
You can cite the Database in either of two ways. First, you can cite the specific electronic publication that you used (see above). Second, you can refer to a specific download from the Paleobiology Database, giving the date and parameters of the download. Here is an example:

"The data were downloaded from the Paleobiology Database on 31 December, 2000, using the group name 'marine' and the following parameters: time intervals = Carboniferous and Permian, region = Europe, paleoenvironment = marine, class = Bivalvia."

What events has the Database sponsored?
John Alroy organizes and co-teaches an annual analytical paleobiology training workshop and the Database nominally sponsors it, although it does not provide funds or oversight. It has been funded in the past by NSF, the Paleontological Society, Palaeontological Association, NCEAS, and NESCent. The Database sponsored the International Paleobiology Database Symposium in Berlin in March, 2003. Members of Paleobiology Database working groups met regularly from 1998 through 2006 to plan research and data collection, analyze data, and work on manuscripts. Meetings through August, 2000 were of the original Phanerozoic Marine Paleofaunal Database group.


Page adapted from the original PMPD FAQ by John Alroy on 22 August 2000. Revised on an ongoing basis.