Create a tutorial and/or Code of Conduct on ethics of exploring wild places for iNaturalist users

I searched through posts on the general and requests subforums and could not find a similar request, but based on some discussions I’ve participated in here, as well as general observations and news items described in this thread, and the growing userbase of iNaturalist users, I’ve come to the conclusion that iNaturalist would benefit from a code of conduct and/or ethical tutorial for new and established users.

The Code of Conduct could be a simple summary or reference to the ‘leave no trace’ principles as described by the Center for Outdoor Ethics, the National Parks Service, Boy Scouts of America, and REI among many others.

However, I believe there would be some benefit to tailoring and adding to the original seven principles to make them most applicable to likely activities by the majority of the userbase. I’d be willing to contribute to the language or process in building guidelines as well.

Obviously this wouldn’t be an ‘enforecable’ policy, but rather guidelines and education for people who may be unaware or underestimate the impact of their activities. It could also include a tutorial with slides showing pictures of various activity types (peeling bark, picking flowers, handling animals) and how they could negatively impact wildlife.

Here is a link to some of the literature and articles I cited in the above thread relating to leave no trace and a code of conduct, and some further elaboration on a piece of literature which highlights recreational activity as being potentially understudied and addressed policy-wise as source of negative impact to threatened species.

Some relevant secondary posts I found for reference here:

https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/adding-a-category-biodiversity-ecology-ethics/4614
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/the-ethics-of-removing-invasive-plants/16613/32
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/poll-is-handling-herps-for-inat-ethical/10741/23
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/users-contacting-me-to-collect-and-ship-them-my-finds/9508/2
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/lightly-obscure-all-records-on-inaturalist/6959/11

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Hi @yerbasanta, thanks for your submission. After talking to other forum moderators and staff, we’ve decided to move this from #feature-requests to #general, as it’s more of a start of a discussion than a request to change technical site functionality.

Adding a code of conduct is technically easy, but obviously the wording would have to be carefully worked out. This discussion should be about whether or not including a code of conduct is something iNat should do, not exactly what the code should say. What are the pros and cons?

I think on balance I’d be for it, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve become less enamored with “bothering” wildlife (and frankly regretful of some of my past actions), but I’m concerned that a code of conduct would be used as the basis for shaming or harassing someone who’s sectioned a mushroom (often necessary for ID), pinned an insect, or is holding a fish they caught.

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I would be in favour of iNat having a code of conduct. It can provide guidance without being prescriptive, and it can also educate people not to shame others who might have a legitimate justification for taking a specimen, or similar behaviour that would not be widely encouraged.

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Thanks for your reply, looks like I logged in right as it came in. I started thinking more about what the response would be like to the proposal of a code of conduct, and thought it might be possible that it had already come up and been debated/rejected because of cultural reasons.

I personally don’t want anyone to be shamed for two reasons, 1) that’s not the goal, and 2) studies on human behavior show that while shaming can be effective, it’s not as effective as positive reinforcement and can push people to do just the opposite.

Part of why I mentioned that a code of conduct would be ‘non-enforceable’ was that I can see there is a some pushback from those who take habitat disturbance as a given (e.g. “it’s already happening, and in worse ways”) or ‘right’ (“I’ve always done it this way”) if you will.

I think the main goal/function of the code would be to make people aware of the impact of various types of actions such as handling animals and encouraging a reduction to a minimum or at least a consideration of impacts to the animal in terms of adding stress or energetic costs.

Ethical concerns aside, in a lot of cases, casual (non-scientific, permit-based) handling of animals in various jurisdictions (i.e. State and Federal land) is illegal and can be met with fines/warnings, so at the very least, I think people should be informed of this possibility and encouraged to learn more and understand the law in their particular locality.

I think the links I included in the thread on “do you feel that by exploring nature we are also killing it?” are somewhat self-explanatory in making the case that human recreational activity does have impacts that are under-studied as well as being high on the list of possible threats to endangered species. In thinking about this some more, I remembered another thread where I tried to discuss the energetic costs of animals like mule deer and grouse being disturbed (and increasing their daily energy expenditures by an estimated >10%) by off-trail hiking and winter sports.

Interestingly, the authors in the study including effects of human presence on mule deer showed that:
“ Approximately 50% of recreationists felt that recreation was not having a negative effect on wildlife. In general, survey respondents perceived that it was acceptable to approach wildlife more closely than our empirical data indicated wildlife would allow. Recreationists also tended to blame other user groups for stress to wildlife rather than holding themselves responsible.”

I feel it necessary at this point to mention that I am not against people (including myself) exploring nature and documenting what they see. As an ideal, I would hope that a code of conduct would encourage iNaturalist users to reduce their disturbance of nature (including irreversible habitat modifications) to preserve the animals they want to document. As a practical matter, I know that people will do as they decide, but based on some of the demonstrated negative impacts of some of the activities that people are engaging in to document life on iNat, it seems somewhat cavalier for an organization that places educating the public as one of the its’ highest goals to not at least provide a place for new users to start, and for existing users to be aware of possible impacts of their activities. This should possible even be explicitly in the code, to not shame others since that borders on harassment (which every website I’m aware of has already has policies in place against).

All that being said, I truly enjoy using iNaturalist to learn more about the ecosystems and organisms where I live, and I recognize the immense value to science and the public at large of data produced by users documenting their discoveries, however, I ask that we consider how we come by these observations and acknowledge the potential negative impacts this may have on wildlife and their habitats. I too have personally gone from an attitude of not disturbing animals at all, to learning more and going out with permitted individuals to capture, record, and band birds and herps, and now personally not engaging in these activities unless in an educational or research context.

It’s definitely a sensitive/contentious topic, but I think the discussion is essential going forward as the iNat gains popularity.

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We could attempt to draft something like this, but I think it would have to be very general and very mild. We don’t want to become the Nature Police.

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It would be that first step - prompting iNatters to be aware, to think about their impact, and then to tread lightly.

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I like the direction this is headed in terms of promoting awareness and a list of things to think about when observing. There are definitely surprises in this area about the impacts observing can have on organisms that we don’t often think of, and making these more visible would be valuable I think (great example with impacts of disturbance on mule deer).

My only suggestion would be to call it something other than a “code of conduct”. I think most people have experienced codes of conduct as things that are enforceable or are focus on dos and don’ts and are prescriptive, so using this term could lead to confusion (I’m thinking of workplace codes of conduct, those at professional meetings, etc.). But just calling something a “code of conduct” seems to be asking for people to view others as either in line with or in violation the code (which seems to be something commenters see as undesireable).

I’m not sure what a better name would be myself, so I realize this suggestion isn’t too helpful. Something like “How to Observe Responsibly”? I’m sure there are lots of other ways to phrase this.

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Back in 2014 a bunch of us put together a document that serves essentially this function - wayback machine link because the original one isn’t working in my computer in the region I’m in.

Here’s the text of it for those who don’t want to click the link:

A Citizen Science Manifesto

Claire Davies, Reef.org

For centuries, people armed with curiosity and a bit of time have kept notes as they observed the world around them. Today, it’s easier than ever before for anyone to organize an exploration, measure what they find, and share their discoveries with a global community. What we now call citizen science encompasses a wide array of tools that let amateur and professional scientists alike collaborate to expand our scientific understanding. But at its heart, citizen science isn’t about the apps. It’s about tapping into your own inner scientist, the curious part of you that wants to dig into questions bigger than one person can solve on their own.

With all the attention citizen science is getting these days — in fields from astronomy to zoology — we were surprised at how few resources we could find for someone who wants to start sciencing or design a citizen science project. So, after a few rounds of discussion at Nerds for Nature events, we decided to write one. We are a group of self-taught adventurers, trained Ph.Ds, tinkerers, designers and jills-of-all-trades and we’ve drafted this manifesto based on what we’ve learned along the way. Offer your suggestions here or take these suggestions and make them your own. More good citizen science is a good thing.

BE A CITIZEN SCIENTIST

Looking for pikas, Glacier National Park

Be curious. It can be as simple as following a hunch or as basic as asking a question. You don’t need any special degree or experience to participate, just a curious spirit and an open mind. Citizen science and exploration is an organizing framework so we can learn faster, contribute more, and work together.

Observe carefully, report honestly. Everything you see, hear, feel is important. Observation is paramount. Keep a notebook, journal, blog, whatever and fill it up with your perspectives, both to hone your observational skills as well as to keep a record. Don’t worry about having a hypothesis or conclusion. That can come later.

Leave things as you found them. Make it easy for other people to enjoy a place after you do your research. Fill in holes and put back rocks, whether you’re in a city park or at the bottom of the sea.

Replicate — be the second or third or thousandth. Don’t chase being first — go deep and work longer, over time. One of the most important parts of science is that another scientist should be able to get the same results as you if they do the same thing. If someone has already tried an experiment, that’s all the more reason for you to try it again and see if you can get the same result. If you’re taking notes on the world around you, long-term data sets are some of the most valuable information we have. Volunteers started collecting weather observations in the United States as far back as 1776, in what would become the NOAA Cooperative Observer Program. Today, those data show us climate change.

Nothing is something. Make a note of what experiments fail and what you don’t find. Keep track of what’s not there. These “negative results” are important because they let you know tell when change happens — birds nesting where they never were before — and help other citizen scientists learn.

Be ethical with each other. Treat your fellow explorers with respect. Take time up front to talk with your fellow scientists about how you’ll communicate and make decisions, like who gets to use the ROV first. Good communication gives you more time for sciencing. Good ground rules are especially important if you’re going to do interviews or any research observing people, when you may need to keep data confidential.

Share. If you record a tree falling in a forest and don’t share the video, no one can learn from it or build on your results. Scan your notebooks for a blog, post to iNaturalist, share what you find and let other people add to it.

Know the rules. Most cities, states, and countries have some laws around this stuff, about privacy or protecting public resources. Many Parks may allow you to take photos but not samples. If you have a lead scientist/project leader, make them tell you what the rules are up front. If you’re on your own, check online or with a local group or agency. And if you think the rules are too strict, work to change them.

DESIGN A CITIZEN SCIENCE PROJECT

Looking for ladybugs at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, via Flickr Commons

Be a responsible guide. Tell participants how much time you’d like them to invest and how their data will be used. Is this a one-off project or something you need people to do every year? Do you need a certain number of people for it to work? Make sure volunteers have a sense of where you’re going and how long it will take to get there. Once the event is over, send out progress reports. You should also take change of knowing the rules and securing any permits or contracts. Take some tips from the folks who manage volunteers as a full-time job.

Have a clear data sharing policy. Will the volunteers get to keep any data they collect? Will you aggregate the data and share just the summary? Citizen scientists want to see their results; you need to determine how to do this transparently and ethically. This is especially true if you’re collecting information from volunteers’ own digital devices where you could be gathering their personal metadata.

Keep an eye on the boundary between observing and enforcing. If there’s a chance a company or property owner could be fined or prosecuted based on your results, make sure you know your rights and protect your collaborators. Aggregate data to keep people anonymous. Clearly define research and advocacy roles for you and your volunteers. Check out groups that do advocacy-oriented citizen science for for guidance, like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Balance fun and science. There’s tons of talk about maximizing your data quality but remember that citizen scientists are out doing science in their free time. They’re participating because they’re excited about the birds or the telescopes, because they have information to share, and because you have a project that really engages them. Make time for your group to socialize and play around, and maybe include a competitive element. These activities may not optimize data gathering, but sometimes great scientific discoveries can happen by accident.

Be welcoming. Having a variety of perspectives will lend credibility to the results. Citizen science is inherently about including more voices in science, so make sure your group reflects that. Flyer the neighborhood, reach out to schools, or give a talk at a local library. Maybe you got into science because of a chance encounter with someone who was passionate about the world. Give that chance to someone else.

Thanks to Andrew Thaler, Victoria Bogdan, David Lang, Amy Freitag, Neahga Leonard, Ken-ichi Ueda, and Dan Rademacher for editing, contributing, and shepherding this manifesto along.

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I understand the rationale behind this request, but my response is “Let’s not, and say we did.” As @susanhewitt says, “We don’t want to become the Nature Police.” Use common sense folks.

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I would agree, but a lot of people don’t have common sense. I don’t think a full code of conduct would really help – people who are going to bother to read them are likely already following them. But a smaller/mini version, maybe like the tips that appear on video game loading screens, might be neat.

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Perhaps “Best Practice” could be a consideration rather than Code of Conduct.

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I am in favor of a code of conduct or best practices and I am glad that people have felt the same way.

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I like this idea I feel that it would be helpful.

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OTOH, people (like me) who are introduced to iNat on the iOS app are given no community , no guidance of any kind. The application is very bare-bones (Fine); but it is left to the imagination of user about how to use what features it provides.

There is not even a link from the app to Inaturalist on the web.

So an iOS app user who doesn’t go looking on their own would have no clue if there is any guidance, or common practices, much less preferred practices related to the few functional features provided in the iOS app.

E.g., There is an Agree button, but not a hint about the significance of using it on the iOS app.

Then experts go nuts when such folk interpret what to do on their own and don’t Happen to hit on the “preferred” practice.

I mean, There isn’t even a link to help files or FAQs ; just a 1.24 minute video on inputting an OB (Simply pick an ID from the AI is what the video suggests) … that is the only instruction I could find anywhere on the app .:no_mouth:

I imagine iOS app users are a small minority, but without any guidance, OF COURSE we will make “mistakes”.

Just saying, it should not take a whole lot of resources to link to the FAQ, should it.

Um… sorry, this sounds kind of rant-ish.

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I very much agree with this. It is rare to find someone who thinks they are part of the problem and goes looking for advice on best practices. If the goal is to distance ourselves from people who don’t follow best practices, then fine, I guess. Are we imagining that the availability of a document on the internet is going to change people’s behavior in the field? Or that professors are going to have their classes read and discuss these best practices? I’d like to hear more about projected use cases.

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That’s also true to some extent, but the bigger issue that a CoC might help address is that things that may seem commonsensical to someone experienced in exploring aren’t always to a lay person. E.g., always obscure the location (at least) of uncommon native or localized organisms, especially plants (and do the same for any you got the same day, because precise locations on common things can be used to identify where you were). You might think you don’t need to because it’s not listed endangered or commercially trafficked, but people may still try to see it and damage the habitat.

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The manifesto wasn’t written specifically for iNat, it was written independently for citizen science as a whole by members of the Bay Area Nerds for Nature. The fact that some of the people involved are also part of iNat doesn’t make it an iNat product and, as such, there is no reason why it would have been linked to the FAQ page.

There are quite a few other guidelines for responsible citizen science floating around on online, so the original question/request can be pretty easily fulfilled by searching on line for ethical citizen science guidelines.

I linked the one I am most familiar with as I was a (minor) part of putting it together, but it#s far from the only such resource.

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Or just let people enjoy what you found and rather precise data, not tons of hidden spots.

I would put it more mildly. Many people who do not seem to have common sense are just biologically ignorant. They appreciate nature, but have no knowledge about its functioning. So the code/rules of conduct should be about information, but not admonishing. And I will always support additional information even though many new users do not read any of it.

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Agreed. A series of “How To Observe” tutorials might be very useful for those iNat users who are new to or inexperienced in field observations.
As an example: I’ve seen photos of salamanders being handled with bare hands or with gloves or placed in sandwich bags in order to observe them. Often the two latter methods are used in what appears to be a classroom or fieldtrip setting. Beyond observing in situ - which of these, or others, “handling” methods are preferred?
Similarly - there are photos and accounts of folks “flipping logs” in order to find more specimens. While I get the desire to find another species - this practice is likely to alter/destroy their homes, uncover clusters of eggs, and/or expose them to cold/heat/predators. A library of “How to Observe XYZ” best practice guides - developed by an authority(s) in the field - would be most useful for citizen scientists and in educational settings.
Certainly no one wishes to harm these critters - but are we negatively impacting their health or causing undo stress in our quest for the next ID?

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