"Description" is from a field guide

I’m glad that the Description field is undefined and can be used in many ways. But there is one use that bothers me a bit. Some observers use the description field to add information from a field guide or other uncredited source, information that can’t have been actually observed by them (and that, in the case of an inaccurate ID, is wrong). I am sure that people who do this are well-meaning, and they may have even be instructed to do it. What, if anything, would you say to them, to help them realize why this isn’t in the spirit of iNaturalist?

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Sorry, I don’t see the problem. Observing a species in the first step; finding the name is the second; learning more about it is the third. Transcribing some details from a guide for a person’s own personal notes and further education seems very much in the spirit of iNaturalist to me. Yes, if long passages are directly word-for-word copied from a guide then the source should be acknowledged, but small notes like “flies from May to August” or “distinguished from other species by X” or some random life history info… it feels very harmless, and it makes me happy when observers are looking beyond the photo and the name to try and learn more about what they are observing

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Most of the time where I see this it is kids involved in some sort of school project. I think the teacher probably requires them to add information about the taxa they add. Other than not citing the actual references I don’t really have a problem with it. The teacher has to make that decision I guess?

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I think what Janet might be alluding to is the practice of adding the diagnostic features to the description, almost to support the ID. Inferring, for instance, that it had the correct diagnostic features of the ID given, when the image/photo clearly shows that it does not.

In other words, assume it is a specific taxa (looks close in the fieldguide), copy the description and inadvertantly make it look like your observation description is describing what you saw, not what you read in the book…

If this is the case, then I would only follow up on it if I saw an actual situation where I can see the diagnostic feature in the photo is contrary to the image, and I would point that out to the observer/identifier, and suggest that any description given should be of the actual specimen seen, not of the taxa being assigned as an ID.

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The problem is that the description field is a place to relate direct observations about the organism being observed. Text copied from a field guide is not derived from the observer, but from an external source as a result of the observer’s assumptions about the organism being observed. If the observer makes the wrong ID assumption, they will be adding text that may not apply to the organism.

This is different from a case where the observer had a guide in hand, observed specific things noted in the text, and included those specific things (as observed) more or less directly worded as in the field guide in the description- certainly I do that myself when I’ve checked for a key plant trait in the field that isn’t apparent in the photos I took- but I did not get the impression that is what Janet is referring to.

It’d be like if you uploaded photos of a blurry white bird, but also an image you took of a page in your field guide showing a picture of the bird you assume to be the correct ID. The photos you upload are supposed to be photos you took, and the description is (I would think) supposed to describe what you actually observed.

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I don’t always use the description to list what I observed, I may use it to jot down useful ID tips, ecological interactions, habitat, conservation, management needs, etc that someone has provided to me, whether or not I was able to see those markings or interactions, etc in the field at that moment. Usually that’s a person but I don’t see why using it as a notes section for learning from other sources, like a field guide, would be bad (assuming it’s fair use). I don’t think anyone should be interpreting the description to only mean one thing or another, since it’s basically just a general notes section.

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This is a nice discussion that brings out more nuances than I realized were in the question. I think kiwifergus and er1kksen got what I was alluding to, when the person puts things like “seed capsules have over 1200 seeds” when you know they didn’t count them but took that from a reference, like they’re writing a report. But psyllidhipster and sandboa aren’t bothered by it because it shows some initiative. In any event, it’s usually clear what’s going on and I guess if it isn’t, we can ask a clarifying question. Thanks for the ideas. I’d like it if they cited the reference but we don’t have a rule about it.

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Lots of differing opinion here, that’s interesting.

My 2cents is that an observation should only include information directly observed or related to the specific observation, not random generic facts. iNaturalist already has a page detailing general information of a species that is easily accessible to everyone, so i see no reason to transcribe generic facts from a field guide to a specific observation. Perhaps iNaturalist could add a species discussion page for each of the species information pages, where people can discuss a species as whole?

For example, I observed a Flying Dragon in the genus Draco, and in my observation I mentioned I had seen it flying. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to get a photo of the glide, but I did see it. I often add behavioral information based on what I see to contextualize an observation.

However, had I not seen the Draco actually gliding i would not include that information. Sure, its true that the species can/does glide regardless of if i actually observe it, but unless I actually observe something, it probably shouldn’t be part of an ‘Observation.’

I think this becomes important when tracking behavioral information especially, as different populations or species may behave in unpredictably different ways in different geographical regions, times of the year, times of day, in different weather conditions – and so on. Those patterns are only going to emerge with accurate correlations between all the information on a particular observation.

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I can see it becoming a problem if someone has mis-ID’d their own obs and then populates the description with out sourced info about the wrong species. But in such a case one hopes that they’ll change the info when they become aware of their mistake. This however is unlikely to happen in the cases of the many hit-and-run users who post a few obs, make lots of mistakes, and are never seen on iNat again.

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It has come up in other topics, that the observation “belongs” to the observer. In that regard I feel that the description should be allowed to hold whatever they deem appropriate for their purposes. Legal considerations of course, with respect to copyright and citing sources where relevant. I think as far as community is concerned, it is appropriate to be discouraging a use that might inadvertently support a wrong or dubious ID, but certainly would only do so politely and definitely not a suspension-able offence!

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This is an interesting one, because I have a suspicion that many of our “regular” members are ones that made a few mistakes, got “shown the light”, and having found that iNat is a community rather than just a service, went on to become regular users. I know I would likely not have carried on past my initial use case if it weren’t for the sense of community I received from those who helped me in the early days.

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Especially since there doesn’t seem to be any place else for it. If I learn how to tell one species from another I want to remember that. The description section is the best place to put that information currently, in my view. Putting it in a comment would generate unwanted notifications. Putting it in a place other than the observation would make it unfindable by the person writing the note.

I look at taxon pages all the time for ID tips on distinguishing species, and rarely see any.

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Note: the following is based on definitions in the US, where iNaturalist is hosted.

It depends on how long the passage is that was included and how much is verbatim from an uncredited source. Non-attribution is always a form of plagiarism, by definition, but may not always be copyright infringement (i.e. it’s always unethical but not always illegal). Plagiarism, even unintentional plagiarism, can potentially be a legal issue as most field guides are protected under copyright (for definitions, I highly recommend this overview as this tends to be a more serious issue than many initially believe). For text, non-attribution is the single common denominator when matters go into the legal system, with the second commonality being lack of explicit quoting when using verbatim material. For this reason, attribution should always, always, be given if quoting a sentence or more (or even 3 “significant words” depending on the exact definitions being used). If in doubt, a very useful tool is a plagiarism checker (this one requires no account, no money, no nothing).

There’s also the necessity to look at the particular licensing of the work being quoted as that gives the legal permissions and requirements for re-use. Some explicitly require that attribution be given for any re-use of material verbatim. In certain cases, attribution is a legal requirement. There are various differences and similarities between the ethical definitions of plagiarism and the legal definitions of copyright / licensing. Non-compliance with a material’s license is going to be much more serious an issue. Another complication is fair use, primarily as the legal requirements and four pillars for re-use to fall under this exception are so poorly understood by the public. There’s a decent, open-language write-up by the American University’s Washington College of Law that I really recommend as a resource. Claiming fair use of material that fails one of the pillars (particularly a transformative nature) can actually be copyright infringement.

That being said, I do think there’s a place for using verbatim materials with appropriate quotation and citation, particularly when it comes to taxonomic keys. Also, for the most part, if you blockquote and give attribution (author, title, and year; license if known), you won’t have issues with plagiarism or accusation of copyright infringement.

As far as communication to users, one of the major issues is that most people simply don’t realize the definitions of concepts such as plagiarism, copyright infringement, copyright licensing, and fair use. Users also tend to not realize that there can be legal implications so may be responsive if these issues are brought to light and steps are given as to how to include appropriate attribution.

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I add notes about ecology, management, mapping etc too. It’s the only way to do so with the app really.

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Notes about ecology, etc are great when they don’t confuse. If I have an observation of a wolf snail and put “Predator on other snails” in the Description, that would be interesting and not misleading, I think. But if I have an observation of a 5-leaflet vine and I write “Climbs using sticky pads” when that is the key difference between Parthenocissus quinquefolia and P. inserta, it’s not clear whether I actually observed the sticky pads or just took this information from a field guide. So that’s the potential problem, but in many cases a friendly question can clear it up. Interesting to see how different people use the Description!

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I am tempted to copy/paste what @jonathan142 wrote, above, and pass it off as my own. Nicely worded.

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I would say, “If the paragraph in your Description is copied directly from a book or a website (including Wikipedia), please, because of copyright law, it is important to state which source it is copied from, and where applicable, to mention the author’s name. Thank you”

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Journal entries might be a good place for the kind of info, if perhaps there was a button to create a new journal entry from an observation. Also the observations would need to show linked journals, currently you can see linked observations in a journal entry, but not the other way around.

I occasionally see where someone has copied a significant amount of a Wikipedia article into the description, sometimes of a species that they used the computer vision to identify incorrectly.

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I use the description section as a “notes” section, which, I think, is how it appears when you upload on the app. (I just checked–it does say “notes.”) At any rate, sometimes, if I know the plant from which the bee is gathering pollen, I’ll state that, OR if I have an identification from elsewhere (e.g. Bugguide or BAMONA) that confirms the ID, I will acknowledge it and thank the curators. Many of those experts who verify on Buguide and BAMONA also verify on iNat.–I just want them to know I credit their help. I quote if there is something new and interesting that the curator/expert told me about the observation . I always use quotations when directly quoting, and I provide that information because it adds to the observation in my opinion. For example, if the butterfly sighting is a county record–that seems significant.

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