Common names invented on iNat

UPDATE: please try to avoid discussing advantages/disadvantages/differences of common and scientific names here. This topic specifically addresses a problem that is frequent - particularly in some groups of organisms - on iNat and is against iNat guidelines: invention of common names by iNat users that are not used outside of iNat. Thanks!

General problem: “Common names” invented by iNat users are very common. Note that in this post I refer to English common names - I’m not sure what is the situation in other languages.

Specific problems and non-specific solutions

  1. current poor definition of what is an acceptable common name on iNat: “in regular use”. Since for many languages and groups of organisms there is no authoritative list of common names that could be adopted, manual or automatized curation should be universal step before a common name is used anywhere on iNat. Common names extracted from authoritative lists could be accepted without curation.

  2. after reading other posts on this topic on iNat forum I concluded that the consensual solution is to flag incorrect common names so they can be revised. This indicates that it is considered acceptable to use incorrect common names (e.g. invented by iNat user) until they are flagged. I suggest it is a better practice to treat common names as not verified (and therefore not use them) until the community consensus or curators approve them.

  3. iNat gives universal emphasis to common names - they are given in larger font size, appear first, not in parenthesis etc. Numerous common names invented at iNat demonstrate that users are motivated to come up with a common name. I propose, without evidence, that this is partially mistake of iNat: the emphasis on common names incentivizes users to add common names whenever missing and treat species without a common name as somehow “incomplete”. As possible solution, a combination of the accepted common name for the lowest taxonomic rank plus Latin species name could be used, e.g. Higher Termite Neocapritermes taracua. This would naturally convey to non-specialists that this is a termite, belonging to a particular termite group, but lacking a common name, perhaps because it is not so important/handsome/well studied. For species with approved common species name, nothing would change.
    As a side note, it would be very informative to investigate what are the motivations of common name inventors on iNat.

I suggest not to underestimate severity of this problem as common names invented on iNat without much consideration can leak into common usage and add to confusion of common name users - i.e. all of us.

Selected specific examples of why this is a problem:

  1. google search with “Microcerotermes carton nest termite” confirms - as a third hit - that termites belonging to Microcerotermes genus are commonly called “Carton Nest Termites”. The problem is that the source page is iNaturalist and to the best of my knowledge “Carton Nest Termites” does not refer to any termite group outside of iNaturalist. This is a striking example of how non-curated common names from iNat can easily disseminate if not controlled.

  2. Currently on iNat, Lichen Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda boiei) does not belong to genus Lichen Huntsman Spiders (Pandercetes). Genus name appears to me to be an iNat invention. In this case it is difficult to see how having a common genus name could achieve the purpose of common names - to make naming of organisms more intuitive. Again, one of top google hits will confirm you that Lichen Huntsman Spiders are common name for Pandercetes - source: iNaturalist.

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Making up common names is explicitly prohibited. That being said, enforcing this can be difficult.

This would add a lot of work to an already overwhelmed curator workload. Common names are also highly variable, and verifying them is difficult if they are not published anywhere but they are still commonly used. (But the subjectivity of common names is another topic, see posts such as this.)

That would depend on your settings. This is not the case for me:

This is already sort of in place, but perhaps your proposition is more elegant.
Screen Shot 2021-10-26 at 12.19.34 PM

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You can toggle a setting and choose to see common names, or scientific names.

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I have also wondered if it’s time to toggle off or add more restrictions around this and other some of the other crowdsourced information on iNat. Especially because so many websites and apps now scrape iNaturalist and subsequently copy-paste made-up names throughout the web → https://xkcd.com/978/

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I appreciate the problem. However, I just don’t see how it’s feasible to give positive confirmation for common names to approve them at this point.

Curators already don’t have enough time to keep up with taxonomy (which is more important than common names IMO). And regardless, common names are given in tons of different languages. We don’t have the curators with that level of language fluency to be able to implement this and verify sources, etc. (even if the curators had the time).

Another issue is that, for many languages that are not commonly in printed scientific discourse, those common names aren’t going to have sources that can be cited. That doesn’t mean those names are less valuable though. A system which needs positive confirmation and documentation would likely be biased against including common names from these languages, including many spoken by ethnic minorities, in smaller countries, or by indigenous groups.

I also think that most common names on iNat are actually used and reasonable ones - the bad ones are a relatively small proportion. There are a few cases of “vandalism” but by and large, iNat is a good resource for common names - there really aren’t better ones out there online that have such a breadth of organisms in so many different languages.

If there are cases where particular users are acting in bad faith and adding lots of unsupported common names, I think it would be reasonable to “ban” them from adding more common names (though I don’t think this is currently an option).

So while I agree that the proposed type of system for positive confirmation might work well in a perfect world, I just don’t think that it is realistic/feasible at this point.

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I’m sure i am in the minority here, but as long as it isn’t something awful or inappropriate, why is it an issue? All names are just made up by someone, represented by marks on a screen or sounds made by an animal. Scientific names are mostly standardized, but common names are not. They are abusrd and often interesting. They tell a story. Yes, it is best to use ones already in existence. Should I rename Acer saccharum “Charlie’s Sweet Syrup Spurting Maple”? No, of course not. Does it bother me that some iNat user makes up a silly name for some tiny mite that is otherwise totally ignored by society and even scientists? No, not at all.

To be clear i am not making up common names on here. I just don’t see it as a huge deal.

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There is a possible solution that would solve two problems, though putting it into action would require a bit of behind the scenes effort.

When a species with no widely-used common name is entered for an observation, the scientific name (or genus, family, whatever) would simply list under it “Some common names for this organism might include: x, y, z”.

This, plus a feature to indicate that a name is colloquial would likely go a long way toward both clarifying these situations, whether when the OP suggests a name or a community member suggests one. It would also shift the way people approach the application of a name. And if there were an option to flag and/or add colloquial name options or to add an accepted common name if one is not currently listed, this would also help-- at least in theory.

This would add a bit of moderation, but nothing beyond what the community already does for suggesting an ID-- it would simply be an additional field/option when community members are offering suggestions for IDs and rating the variables related to data quality. The hard part is behind the scenes building this into the ID/grading interface in a way that is not so messy that people avoid interacting with it.

First of all, thank you for making me aware that there is such a thing as a “Fatmucket”. This made my day. :-)

I’m an amateur, although I’ve been an amateur for a few years; I’m not entirely new at this. Both here and on bugguide, and from some individuals in person, I’ve gotten the impression that there’s a lot of hate for common names among experts and professionals. This worries me a little. I absolutely understand the liabilities of common names, but if part of the mission of iNat is outreach to a broader audience, common names are indispensable. They’re easier to remember, they’re accessible, and they’re often engaging. I was fascinated the first time I saw the common name “Intractable Quaker” and wanted to know more about these moths… Experts will always have scientific names to rely on, and I’m not sure there’s any real harm even where there’s confusion in common names? Wouldn’t it be the case that you’re only confusing people for whom there are no real consequences for the confusion?

So in part I wonder if my impression is correct that many experts would just as soon strip common names, or if that’s an exaggeration. And I want to enter a vote on behalf of being tolerant of them. I mean c’mon… Fatmucket. ;-)

But again - I’m an amateur, I may not fully understand the concerns.

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@thomaseverest and @dianastuder : thanks for the common names/latin names toggle - I did not know it exists. But I think this does not change anything in the way how iNat universaly emphasizes any common name it happens to have its common name database - users who know there is such a switch or users who will switch to Latin names are unlikely to be among those users that need guidance in the common name/Latin name dilemma.

@thomaseverest and @cthawley : agree, clearly not easy thing to solve. I just think this is a problem better to be solved early as with growing influence of iNat things can become messy very fast, as @bouteloua said.

@charlie : But public expects the common names they use are standardized and that they mean something. iNat has the incredible power and opportunity to educate people and provide them with good information - therefore made-up common names should be strictly avoided and iNat should non-invasively teach their users that common names have their limits instead of providing made-up names whenever somebody feels like it would be nice to have one.

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“Common Names” are just that “common names” They are not like scientific names that are generally agreed upon (but not always) by the scientific community.

Not just on iNaturalist, but in much of the literature there can be more than one common name for the same thing and sometimes the same “common name” may be applied to more than one thing. What is common in one locale is unheard of in another locale where a different “common name” is used. I find many “common names” on iNaturalist that I know by another “common name”.

My father spent a large part of his life out in the woods. He knew the “common name” for a vast number of things, but he did not know a single “scientific name”

I don’t think that “common names” can be looked at in a scientific way and that most “common names” were probably not created by scientist. To do justice, iNaturalist would have to list all the common names for each individual and I don’t think that is feasible. I find it interesting to look at all the various “common names” for the same thing, and I would never think of telling someone that their “common name” is wrong.

I don’t think that it is possible to assign only a single “common name”.

Is a soft drink a “soda”, is it “pop”, is it “coke” or is it “soda pop”?

Sorry to disagree

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Based on entomologists around me it is an exaggeration. We know common names have their purpose. We use common names and we like many of them :)

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iNat says its purpose is to encourage people to engage with nature.
That needs both common names, and the Greek/Latin/whatever binomials.
We each have our own preferences.
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/scientific-name-vs-common-name/25152

And @bouteloua 's request to
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/select-language-for-common-names/5430

https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/decolonization-of-common-names/21512

https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/multilingualism/3788

The latest obs from @alesbucek is a centipede (I can also remember Chilopoda as a group) But for that one - Chinese red-headed centipede - I can understand (also Chinese, Japanese and Korean common names for it on iNat). The binomial is secondary for me. And clearly, vice versa for the working biologist.

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Ah, good. :-) Yeah, some of them are too good not to like. :-)

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Exactly. But that is what iNat currently does by default: it gives you a single common name in large letters as the name of the organism (and in smaller letters in parentheses scientific name). That is what I called in my first post as too much emphasis on common name when not appropriate. This is a more nuanced problem. It is not about scientists saying that common names are wrong. We use common names and we like them.

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@dianastuder I agree with everything you wrote but this topic is not about “scientific versus common name” - it is about not using meaningless made-up names - so in fact it is not about common names at all.

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Is this true? My experience is whether the public expects this or not it is not true. We regularly get taxonomists coming through trying to ‘standardize’ (ie rename) species, writing over the existing common names. The issue surely isn’t limited to amateurs. And on iNat it seems a lesser problem than would be created by restricting curation of public names. But like i said, i expect my opinion is in the minority here

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The amount of likes you got on your previous post begs to differ. I think your opinion is the majority. I certainly agree with it.

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an alternative idea would be to have official common names tagged to some source (if there is one) and then another list of possible common names - not willy nilly random ones, but less ‘established’ ones? But i mean to be honest i am kinda into the idea of naming things.

Also I am NOT speaking here as a site moderator or reflecting any sort of official iNat policy :)

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Common names bother me. So too do generic name changes. I have always known Anarta trifolii as Scotogramma trifolii. It is also known as the ‘Nutmeg’, where I have always known it as the ‘Clover Cutworm’. The binomial name change I can understand, and I know I can go through the common name list, but, frankly, I can’t be arsed. I’ve learned the generic change, so whatever iNat wants to call it is fine with me. So, unless it is a huge problem, just rely on the binomial name and ignore the common name.

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I always thought that there was a body which determined ‘official’ common names. Like many things, clearly I was wrong!

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