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Botanical organisations in developing countries tend to be unwilling to share information on their collections and prefer not to make it freely available to the public via the Internet, according to a new survey.

Their reluctance is partly due to concern that private companies could use such information to develop commercial products from biological resources without returning any benefits to the countries where the specimens were found. Another concern is potential misuse by criminal organisations that buy and sell endangered species.

The survey, called Study on Data Sharing With Countries of Origin, also shows that most developed-country institutions, such as the Natural History Museum in London and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, do not have formal policies on sharing data with countries where their specimens originated. Despite this, most are gradually transferring their data onto the Internet, though the process is slow and is not considered a priority.

The survey, which was published last month, was commissioned by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), an intergovernmental organisation based in Denmark that calls for basic information on the world's biological resources to be made freely available to the public. This information includes name and brief description of the specimen, where it was found, and the name of the person who collected it.

A clear difference of opinion emerged between scientists in developed and developing countries over how much information should be made available, and who should have access to it. Some of this can be traced to a perception in developing nations that developed countries should not be allowed to profit from information on specimens that may have been taken from developing countries during colonial times.

The South East Asian Botanical Collections Information Network, a project that brings together botanical collections in the Netherlands and South East Asian countries, for example, believes that access to information on biological resources should be restricted. It argues that freely available data on species could be misused by criminals who buy and sell endangered species.

Other organisations, such as the Repatriated Biological Collections of India (RBCI) — which was set up to find out how much information on India's biological resources resides in Europe and North America and help transfer this to India — give a different reason for restricting access to data. They argue that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity states that biological resources are the sovereign property of the countries in which they are found.

But Meredith Lane, a spokeswoman for GBIF, says there is no contradiction between the UN Convention's aims and the concept of freedom of information. Biological resources will always be the sovereign property of countries, she says, but the Convention does not say that access to data on those resources should be restricted.

“The scientific community has always been totally committed to freedom of information,” she says. “But in the past, data on biological resources was mostly used by other institutions who already knew where to find it. Now with the Internet, we have an opportunity to make information available to the global public.”

She adds that it should be possible to restrict some aspects of data — such as information on the specific location of threatened species — that has the potential of being misused.

Link to survey Study on Data Sharing With Countries of Origin

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