Seeking truth and passing it on, a Selby and New College collaboration

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune Nov. 14, 2019.

Bu Donal O’Shea

President Don O'Shea
New College President Don O’Shea.

Sarasota’s New College of Florida and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens will collaborate on Selbyana, a respected, peer-reviewed journal devoted to botanical research related to tropical forest diversity.

I recently attended an event celebrating the beginning of a new collaboration between New College of Florida and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Since 1975, Selby Gardens has published Selbyana, a respected, peer-reviewed journal devoted to botanical research related to tropical forest diversity. The event marked the transition of Selbyana from a biannual print journal, available only by subscription, into an online, web-based, open-source journal.

Cook Library at New College will host and maintain the journal at journals.flvc.org/selbyana, using a journal management system made available by the Florida Academic Library Services Cooperative. The collaboration between the institutions extends beyond providing access to content: New College librarian Cal Murgu and biology professor Brad Oberle have joined the journal’s editorial team along with Bruce Hoist, Selby’s vice president for botany; Antonio Toscano de Brito, curator of the Orchid Research Center; and research botanist Sally Chambers.

The celebration was quiet: a couple of dozen people in all — a handful each of scientists from New College and Selby Gardens, other faculty members, librarians, administrators and students. No entry charge, no lunch, no keynote addresses.

The lack of pomp and hyperbole belied the event’s significance. The online Selbyana continues two ancient and admirable human traditions.

Selbyana Journal cover
The cover of the latest issue of Selbyana.

The first tradition — knowledge seeking, or research — stems from our curiosity. Over centuries, humans have sought and discovered truths about our natural world. Some of the earliest truths were about plants, about what could be safely eaten, what had medicinal effects, and what could be grown.

The second tradition — passing on knowledge, or teaching — stems from our willingness to share. Over centuries, we humans have passed down hard-won knowledge to our children and to other people’s children. Different groups of our earliest ancestors exchanged seeds and techniques about how to harvest and use plants.

Selbyana’s move to an online, open-source platform not only continues, but significantly enhances these traditions. The online journal will publish articles on a rolling basis and expects to post about five articles a year at the start. Every journal article published since 1975 will also be made available online. Any individual with internet access — over half of the world’s population — can read and study them without charge.

Looking at any single article provides a window into curiosity-driven research on a narrow topic. The most recent article wonders about what is pollinating a certain family of Neotropical plants. Is it the wind, insects (and, if so, which), or self-pollination? I won’t spoil the suspense, but I will say that the authors are particularly interested in ants.

Sampling articles over time, or reading one of the splendid review articles, reminds us how botanical knowledge, and by extension scientific and mathematical knowledge, builds on the work of others. More importantly in these confusing times, it reminds readers that truth exists and that it is often hard-won.

Stepping further back, Selbyana and other online, open-access scientific journals underscore the vital role played by the social and cultural institutions, like New College of Florida and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, that house those who discover knowledge, and that give others the chance to engage with past and current knowledge. These journals and institutions will play an increasingly important part in ensuring that ours is a society that stewards and develops our common scientific inheritance.

Seeking truth, and passing it on, is one of the quintessentially human activities that makes us more fully human. I find it deeply inspiring to imagine some school child, be it in Sarasota, or Bangladesh, or sub-Saharan Africa, many years hence, absorbed in Selbyana and entering a whole new world.

— Donal O’Shea is the president of New College of Florida.

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