Photograph of Kevin Thiele

Kevin Thiele is a systematist and taxonomist with a particular interest in Australian Proteaceae, Rhamnaceae, Viola and Hibbertia (Dilleniaceae). He is currently working on new Western Australian species and other taxonomic matters in Hibbertia, but notes that as a herbarium curator, there is rarely enough time in the day to complete all that has to get done and manage to do much “real work.” So, he does taxonomic work in between other tasks. For Kevin, this time is almost meditative: “By around 3:30 in the afternoon, to stop myself banging my head on the door or going completely barking mad, I disappear into a quiet corner of the vaults and work on taxonomy for a bit – it’s a wonderful salve for sanity.”

Kevin notes that having access to Global Plants has “greatly facilitated and sped up my taxonomic research.” The only downside?  “It’s becoming increasingly possible to complete a small taxonomic revision without needing to get up from the computer and desk! I recently described a new species in a small paper, during the drafting of which I accessed the Australian Plant Name Index (APNI), International Plant Name Index (IPNI), Australian Plant Census (APC), Australia’s Virtual Herbarium (AVH), Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and Global Plants. This was good for productivity, though perhaps not so good for exercise, fresh air, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and Acronym Overload Syndrome (AOS).”

In 2014, as Chair of the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria (CHAH), Kevin led the efforts to successfully launch sponsored access to Global Plants for Australia and New Zealand thanks to generous support from the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). A frequent user and Global Plants Partner, Kevin was immediately drawn to the idea of making sponsored access a reality for Australasia, “When I first heard about the option, clearly this was a model that would be attractive to us, as CHAH is an ideal body to take up such a subscription.”

In our interview, we asked Kevin to tell us more about making Global Plants access possible for Australasia.

Let’s start with the basics: why is it important for institutions in Australia to have access to this database?

There is an enormous need to taxonomy and systematics in Australia. While we are not as rich in plants as some tropical counties, we are still mega-diverse and an outlier on the latitude-richness relationship. We remain also only partly explored botanically. In my case in Western Australia, we discover and name around 100 new species per annum, and have a “parking” list of over 1500 informally-named putatively new taxa that need resolution and description. Clearly this results in a high need to study types, and of course many critical types are in overseas institutions.

How did the idea to seek government or outside funding for access to Global Plants come about? How did you find an outside funder and why did this funder decide to support funding for Global Plants access? 

Partly this arose because a number of CHAH herbaria are very stretched for budgets and resources; a survey early on indicated that several CHAH herbaria would not be able to afford the subscription. This would obviously have been a tragedy, as we work as a network and would not want some of our members to have access but not all. My first approach to the Australian government sought funds to support the entire regional subscription. When this was declined I approached the Atlas of Living Australia with a suggestion that they fund half the subscription with the remainder funded by the herbaria through CHAH. This was acceptable, and brought the herbarium subscriptions within reach of all of us, a great result for our CHAH. ALA was happy to do this as it has a clear role and mandate to support taxonomy in Australia, and Global Plants is obviously a resource that supports taxonomy.

Can you tell us about the process of coordinating this effort: how did you identify institutions that would also be interested in Global Plants access and bring them together? 

Coordination was a fairly laborious and drawn-out affair, mostly because all of us concerned are time-poor despite out best intentions. The first step was simply to get a quote from JSTOR based on all Index Herbariorum-listed herbaria. We then contacted all the smaller herbaria (many of these are not directly involved with CHAH) to find those that had no taxonomic activity and hence no need for Global Plants. In this way we gradually whittled down the list to those who would benefit and were in. I’m pleased to say that no herbarium with taxonomic capacity declined to be involved.

Any advice on how others might go about seeking government or outside funding for access?

My main advice would be to keep at it. Governments, of course, do not naturally support programs if they can’t easily see the value proposition, so it’s important to draw attention to the value of Global Plants and of taxonomy. And if the first idea fails (in my case, what I thought was an excellent idea that the government pick up the entire tab), then rethink and come up with a Plan B (in our case, the 50:50 arrangement, which was much more palatable).

Global Plants in Australasia
Global Plants currently has 13 Partners in Australia and New Zealand that have contributed 109,462 specimens.

About CHAH
The Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria promotes all matters of interest to herbaria in Australasia, and works to increase cooperation and understanding between herbaria. Among other things, it provides a platform for herbaria to be involved in projects such as Global Plants without having to replicate the governance, contracts and communications across each institution. A partner with the Atlas of Living Australia and Bush Blitz, CHAH holds an in-person annual meeting, as well as quarterly meetings via teleconference. Its two committees—Herbarium Information Systems Committee (HISCOM) and Managers of Australasian Herbaria (MAHC)—are active and report regularly to the Council. Two other important activities that occur under the auspices and oversight of CHAH are the Australian Plant Census (APC) project, which has nearly completed a first-pass consensus census of accepted plant names in Australia, an important resource that provides a taxonomic backbone for the ALA and other projects, and the AVH (Australia’s Virtual Herbarium), which is soon to become Australasia’s Virtual Herbarium by combining with a similar project in New Zealand.

Global Plants Sponsorship
Interested in sponsorship for your country? Find out more here.

Questions, thoughts, or comments? Email Deirdre Ryan, ITHAKA’s director of Primary Sources.