Curator guidelines about made-up names

The Curator Guide is very clear that we should not make up names to add to iNaturalist, but I’d like some additional clarity on whether we should avoid adding names made up by other people. In the cases I’m dealing with, there’s no question that the names are made up: the source explicitly says the names were created by them. There are also glaring, systematic quality issues with the names. On the other hand, a major conservation organization carelessly imported the list of made-up names, and this counts as “in-use”, technically. But the names are not used in any guides or other non-web publications I’m aware of.

One curator is systematically adding these names to iNaturalist, and in some cases re-adding them despite previous removal (the previous round happened some years ago, not last week or something, so that part is probably forgivable). It’s relatively easy to get several other curators to agree that any particular bad name should be removed after seeing the evidence, but it’s rather exhausting to have to repeat the process for each name. It would be nice to have something official to cite when arguing for removal of made-up names.

I can give some examples of the bad names, if that’s relevant. There are some real howlers in there, and there are hundreds to choose from.

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Common names should only be added if they are in common or widespread use in the region.

If that is ignored then there is nothing preventing people from adding whatever they want and saying, “Well, my uncle came up with the name, not me, so it’s ‘in use’.”

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I agree. However:

The Curator Guide doesn’t currently attempt to define how widespread a name should be to count as a common name. Almost all the guidance has to do with the form of names and overly generic names. So far as I can tell, the only relevant lines in the whole guide are:

“If a species has no common name in usage, do not make one up. For example, do not create a new common name based on its scientific name or based on a translation of a common name from another language.”

We’re left to interpret what counts as a common name ourselves, and the counter-argument in this case is “X (a major conservation organization) is using them, so of course they’re in-use.”

I’ve been able to point to the parts of the Curator Guide dealing with overly generic names to support getting rid of a number of these names, because many of them are in fact overly generic, but there is currently nothing which I can cite to support “This name is made-up, and therefore should not be added to iNaturalist” without getting the counter-argument “All name were made up at one point, and this name is in-use.”

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I would argue that this wording implies ‘actual usage by a meaningful portion of the population’, not ‘one agency added these names that no one uses to a list they have.’

Intent is key here.

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Related question that I’ve had to deal with. A fish had a common name listed that:

  1. did not describe the fish properly
  2. I could find no evidence online of anyone using it outside of iNaturalist
  3. I had seen it actively confuse people

Now I know common names suck and just cause a common use name is bad doesn’t mean we should remove it, but in this case where it seems to have been added with no citation or evidence that it’s used colloquially, is removing it appropriate?

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This certainly sounds like a good case for removing it, but first I would flag the taxon for curation and tag other interested users to allow for discussion first, in case there is information about that name that you weren’t previously aware of. If possible, also tag whoever added the common name and ask them where it came from. (If it was added before the taxon history feature was enabled, a Curator should still be able to find out who added the name, if it isn’t too old.)

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All common names are made up by someone at some point. Where is an exact line drawn here? And, frankly, why is it important to define that line?

My interpretation:

iNaturalist should not be the place where a common name is first used in communication between humans about an organism. There should be an established prior history of such use, written or oral, preferably both.

Mere publication in a print or online work or database does not constitute an established history of use in communication between humans. It might lead to such use later (especially in groups where common names are standardized by organizations established for that purpose, like with birds), but iNaturalist does not want to become that kind of “primary source.”

So that iNaturalist doesn’t become a place where people feel free to invent new names that they feel are “best” for an organism, with no prior history of common usage, and then to argue about them ad infinitum when others disagree.

It’s really ok if a species does not have a common name. The scientific name is still there to learn and use.

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For many species, such as most insects, I doubt the common name is used by any meaningful percentage of the population so that criterion is not applicable. More like a handful of entomologists and naturalists would know it. But if it’s published in a field guide, checklist, etc. it’s an established name.

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And how is publication of a source with a name not communication between humans about an organism? And if other sources copy if from said original, is it now okay for iNat use? If not, how many additional uses does it take?

Again this is just my take, but I didn’t say anything about which or what percentage of humans use the name to communicate. At least two are required.

I was careful to say “mere publication.” Subsequent agreement and adoption by other humans can subsequently establish common usage.

I see common names “made up” in field guides or in online resources like the USDA Plants database, for species with which I am very familiar, that I’ve literally never seen or heard used by anyone else before or since. I refuse to consider such names “established” in any sense of the word.

But occasionally (very rarely) I might actually like one of those names, and start using it when I communicate with other people, and so start it down the path to established usage. But the iNaturalist names database will not be the place where I first start using it.

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If that’s the case, then the vast majority of these “made up” names (at least for arthropods, the reason for which this thread was created) do qualify as in-use, as they would be created by the Canadian government and subsequently adopted by NatureServe.

But regardless, for all cases, how do you know others haven’t adopted those names from the original source, especially colloquially? In fact, is the name being added to iNat from those sources not direct evidence of this?

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Not to speak for the op, but I think we’re looking for input and guidance from the site admins rather than having the exact same arguments like on the countless flags.

So, @tiwane, @kueda, et al. some word from on high would go a long way here.

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Thanks, laying out the arguments here once and not having to repeat it on the countless flags seems like a good idea, if @raymie is willing to accept the result?

Since raymie has chimed in and referenced some of the particulars, here’s detailed background information:

The project which explicitly attempts to create English and French names for all species in Canada if they don’t already have one (full list of names available for download as an Excel spreadsheet):
https://www.wildspecies.ca/common-names

NatureServe imported some of these names, where they’re visible on their Explorer tool. This is the source raymie has been citing recently:
https://explorer.natureserve.org/

My interest is in spiders, so I can speak about the systemic quality issues in the made-up spider names. I suspect quality varies, e.g. I expect the bird names were just copied from the AOS names, so those are probably fine. But the spider names have (at least) the following issues:

  • new common names created for species which already have common names
  • new common names which duplicate existing common names of other species, e.g. “Striped Fishing Spider” for Dolomedes striatus when D. scriptus is already known by that name
  • missed species and genera (I don’t even agree with the goal to create names for all the species, but the sloppiness pains me. They made names for all 400 dwarf spiders in Canada and then missed a whole genus of Wolf Spiders.)
  • overly generic names (e.g. “Common Orbweaver”, “Eurasian Wolf Spider”)
  • naming families after characteristics unique to one genus, e.g. “Feather-legged Triangleweaver” for Uloborus glomosus when the genus Hyptiotes are the only triangleweavers in the family (the other genera all do full orb-webs)
  • names badly calqued from the scientific name, e.g. “Pink Orbweaver” for Eustala rosae, which is neither pink nor associated with roses - it was “Named in honor of Mrs. Rose Berlin of Salt Lake City who was a member of the collecting party.” (quote from the paper which named the species).

These are cherry-picked examples, but I think they faithfully demonstrate the systematic lack of care put into researching existing spider names and creating new ones.

You can download the full list in an Excel Spreadsheet from wildspaces.ca if you want to examine the names they came up with for taxa you know a lot about. I’m interested to hear whether the same sorts of issues exist in other taxa, and whether they’re more or less severe.

If the problems are as widespread as I suspect, it would probably be best to make a blanket ruling that names solely sourced from this list should not be added to iNaturalist so that they can be removed quickly if they are added to iNaturalist.

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If I were in charge of policy (which I’m emphatically not :slightly_smiling_face:), I would probably have some exclusion for “rote adoption” by one database of made-up names in another database (or publication). Humans are populating the databases, but they aren’t (yet) actually “using” the names for communication purposes.

But as to the good point about

I think all we have ever had is

Try to add names that have been used elsewhere. Please don’t invent new names.

The interpretation of “used” is where the gray area is, and I’ve suggested one interpretation for what it’s worth. I’ll just add

I don’t, which means I am risking putting them into “first use” on iNaturalist, which I interpret the site as not wanting us to do.

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After reading and re-reading the relevant section of the Curator Guide, it seems to me the most important aspect of names which are added to iNaturalist is that they should be useful for observers and identifiers on iNaturalist.

Whether names are in use elsewhere or not is a secondary concern - the Guide spends six paragraphs discussing overly generic names and the problems they cause, going as far as to say “If you find names that don’t meet these criteria, delete them without mercy.”, and only one paragraph to tell curators not to make up names.

So: I think it’s a reasonable interpretation of what the Curator Guide says, to say that names which make it harder for iNaturalist observers and identifiers to find the correct species, for whatever reason, should be deleted regardless of whether they’re in use or not. The names on iNaturalist are not there primarily to document existing usage. If the name is in use and it doesn’t cause problems, then it likely helps iNaturalist observers and identifiers find the correct species, and that is the reason the name is added to iNaturalist, not simply that it’s in use.

Thoughts?

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@jdmore has given a good answer, but this is a question that has been discussed at exhaustive length and answered many, many times in the past in a wide range of discussions on iNat.

I’d suggest searching the forum and reading some of those past posts and threads so as to avoid yet another repeat of the same discussion and the same arguments on either side.

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Here in England I’m forever seeing common names that I’ve never heard of because they were invented in America. Widely used in America is not widely used in England.

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flag the taxon so a name more commonly used in the UK can be set as priority for your area

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This is something I’ve wanted for a while. If you can’t ask folk from somewhere about a common name of a local taxon and get a response besides “huh? never heard of that/we don’t use that” I don’t see it as common (of course assuming those people should be familiar with the taxa). The idea of “made-up” names on iNat is problematic because as you’ve said, many iNat names are just sourced from another website where one or two people made up a name or copied something random they found just for the sake of having something filled in for the common name. Some things are better with no common name than a bad one. At the very least, I think any sort of tertiary/cataloguing source should require a primary source for names.

This isn’t exactly the same issue, but on the topic of common name practices I do also wish there was a way to not just have region priority but also region-lock names:
I.e. Taxon A has a common name in region A and is absent in region B. Taxon B has the exact same common name but is restricted to region B. If someone searches up the common name, they can easily choose the wrong taxon because they are identical, yet one is obviously wrong. There is no way that I know of to prevent this from happening currently. Region-locked names would also be useful for vague/misleading names that do have niche, colloquially understood usage within a region, but are confusing for outsiders who see the name pop up (e.g. generic names based on color).

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