Ethics of making IDs of your own observations in taxa where you are not an expert

I’ve been using iNat for about five years and am wondering how far I should go to try to ID my own observations in areas I’m not an expert in. My specialty is birds, particularly on the east coast US.

But what about, for example, moths that I observe in my yard and am using a Peterson Guide to Moths of the Southeast field guide to identify? I’m by no means an expert, but I have a field guide and am familiar with looking for field marks and justifying my ID. Same goes for plants–can I use a field guide to wildflowers of my region and try to ID to species level my observations? Or should I leave it to the “experts” who are more familiar with species that may not be described in my books.

Are there certain areas I should stay away from as a novice, like fungi?

How do you all approach making IDs in areas where you are not an expert but are able to consult resources and make educated guesses? I would love to hear how others approach this.


Making mistakes is one of the ways one becomes an expert. By making a best guess and then having someone else confirm or disconfirm it, you learn more about the taxa. If you don’t know how to identify something, identify it to the best you can - if someone identifies it further own the tree, you can always ask how they did so.

The only think ethically wrong with IDing things you’re not an expert in is if you identify beyond your own knowledge. That’s guessing, not identification.

At least, that is how I approach it.


There’s no ethical problem with this. The worst case is that you’ve made a mistake, and someone corrects it. Perhaps that someone is you a couple years down the road, reviewing your past IDs with new knowledge!

If you’re just starting out in IDing a group it can be particularly helpful to include your notes on how you’ve IDed it. Perhaps the resource you’re using is outdated, and an expert has more info on new taxonomic changes. Maybe an amateur finds your comment and knows where to start looking to ID this group. Maybe it just indicates that you are working from a logical process and not just trusting the computer-suggested ID. You don’t have to do this every time, but I think it’s good practice, especially as you’re starting out.


I wouldn’t consider myself a expert in any field, but what makes me fine with IDing is expertise with specific species. As a forager I like to continually added more plants/herbs/fungi to my lexicon. As I do this I become familiar with a species enough through interacting with it that i feel confident IDing. Also when i make mistake others are quick to correct and through doing so your knowledge expands


I think IDs should be made to the most precise taxon that you are reasonably sure of, nothing is ever 100%, but I wouldn’t guess.
I specialize in hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), and there are some ants that you really need to look through an identification key to ID, even experts do this, there is nothing at all wrong with consulting published materials such as a field guide to ID something

However I would not rely on a field guide that does not include all species in your area, unless you are familiar with all the missing species

Many general field guides to insects include a few percent of the species in each order, I had a lot of these when I was younger, and they are really good for someone interesting in insects who want to know a little bit about a lot of species, but they are utterly useless for ID

Field guides to every species in a family or order in a given region do exist though, and can absolutely be used for ID, I’m not familiar with the specific one you are using though, as moths are not my specialty

The only ethical problem would be if you are knowingly putting in IDs that you know you have no clue about, or intentionally misidentifying things, everyone is wrong sometimes, I’ve even been wrong in the taxa I specialize in


This subject has come up before, although perhaps not recently. A lot of iNat users seem to be outright afraid of making a wrong ID, as if the consequences were dire. I saw a reply in one such thread that said, “I only do it if I’m CERTAIN.” (Emphasis theirs) This is why so many observations get stuck at Needs ID – nobody wants to venture to agree or disagree.

I frequently go back and revisit my observations if I have found new identification materials – not that I think that I’m an expert, but that those materials were, presumably, made by experts. Identfying a bird by using the Sibley guide is the next best thing to Sibley himself identifying it for you.


For laypeople like me, I find that’s the biggest hurdle. The most obvious example for me was the marsh frog Pelophylax ridibundus, which would have been my goto ID (following field guides, the signs on the different sites I frequent, what I’ve been taught long ago in school, etc.), I would not have known to look for the nuances had IDers not corrected me.

It’s the famous Rumsfeld quote about “known unkowns” and “unknown unknowns”. I feel like as long as you’re intellectually honest and reactive (quick to withdraw a wrong ID you can’t honestly defend so as to not waste extra IDers’ time), making mistakes is part of the process.

The only thing I wish is that competent IDers were more inclined to DQA “as good as can be”, but I can also understand why they wouldn’t.


I feel, as long as you can justify your ID and are willing to get back to and correct it, if need be, it’s fine suggesting the species level ID.

I you feel somewhat unsure, but have a hunch on what species it probably is, you could go on tagging one ore two identifiers for that species and let them help you confirm or bring you on the right track. Especially if you give a quick explanation on how you arrived to your conclusion, the identifier might give you valueable hints for next time you see that organism.

As others have said, making mistakes is part or learning as long as one is willing to indeed learn from those mistakes (we all make). Part of that is also to sometimes allow yourself to possibly make an mistake :slightly_smiling_face:


As a prolific identifier for hard to ID taxa myself, I think many people just don’t think of this, but the other issue is that there might be something I think I can’t ID to species, but I know I’m probably not the single best IDer on all of iNat, so there could always be someone else who could ID it, and I don’t want to say no one could ID this

I will mark as good as can be with taxa I know well where I know they can only be told apart by certain features, and those features are not visible, like a wasp nest that is the same as every other wasp nest in the genus, and no actual wasps are visible


I don’t see a problem with someone going straight in with a species level id as long as they’ve done their best to understand it and are prepared to learn from the experience, especially when receiving others’ ids. I think that a potentially bigger problem is with people putting a very broad identification on their observation and then copying the first species level id they get without understanding it.


I think that iNaturalist as a platform kind of encourages making IDs in areas you aren’t very familiar with, for better or for worse. For context, I do a lot of millipede work. iNat bot LOVES to suggest the same three species (Euryurus leachii, Cherokia georgiana, Apheloria virginiensis) when people post just about anything in the family Xystodesmidae. I’m not going to fault someone for hitting the check mark when iNat suggests something for them. Sure, it’s great to exercise due diligence, but part of the draw of iNat for people is the bot, so I don’t think there’s anything “unethical” in taking advantage of it, even if it is a pain.


How do you define expert? By my understanding of having a paying job or degree in the field, I am an expert of nothing nature-related.

For the field guide question, I like to “cite” my ID source - bugguide, Moth Photographers Group, books - in case someone asks or I want to check it again. It’s still you using the resources to make a determination, so there is nothing unethical.


I don’t think there’s any ethical problem with putting a possible ID out there and seeing whether it gets confirmed or corrected. As long as it’s your best attempt at an ID, it doesn’t need to be an absolute certainty. With taxonomy constantly evolving and species being split/lumped/revised all the time, I consider every ID to be tentative at some level. I think any open-minded IDer would be willing to change any ID they’ve given if new information comes out about the species in question, so the idea of only suggesting IDs that one is 100% certain of doesn’t seem practical. Say what you think the species is, and if it’s not that, someone will come along eventually and correct it. I’d say the only two “ethically questionable” practices I can see with regards to IDs are:
-clicking “agree” on someone else’s ID you don’t actually have the knowledge to agree with, just to get an observation to “research grade”
-leaving an incorrect ID active on an observation even after determining that it’s probably wrong
Otherwise, I can’t see any issues with putting “best guess” IDs on things.


Sometimes it can be difficult to tell when this DQA value is applicable, even for competent IDers. In other cases, it can help to just ask questions, like in this observation:
It often provides opportunities for everyone involved to learn a little bit more about the subject or taxa


I think this is a good place to put this question up for debate as well. Currently, I have been attempting to put observations out there for groups such as powdery mildews. However, considering the paywalls that most of these resources are behind, I have taken up searching the “Host Plant ID” Observation Field and looking for organisms that seem to match the description of the organism I am looking at. For example, a powdery mildew on a bindweed ===> bindweed powdery mildew. However, I am aware that there is also the possibility of there being species that I just don’t know about.

What I’m unsure of is if there’s a better practice I can be following considering my lack of access to many of these resources. Should I just put it to powdery mildew, because I know that many of those rarely get identified due to many of them missing host IDs. Maybe start a collection project for powdery mildews?

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If there’s a journal article you really want to read, but can’t pay for, you can sometimes e-mail the corresponding author and ask if they’ll e-mail you a copy. You might also be able to ask your local library if they could get you a copy – sometimes they can do this, depending on what journal the paper is in.

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I have a real personal issue with making mistakes and am capable of literally losing a night’s sleep if I make a mistake and someone corrects me unkindly (it’s happened). This held me back from publicly IDing both my own and other people’s observations for a long, long time, but what gave me courage to persist was the actual wording on iNat: “@user suggested an ID”. Now that “suggested” of course doesn’t mean you should fire away with the first thing that comes into your head, but it does invite you to perhaps risk just a little with an informed attempt. I now have a personal policy that if my ID will push an observation to Research Grade, I only click that agree button if I really am confident. But otherwise I will on occasion allow myself the adrenalin rush of a certain degree of doubt (sometimes specifying that doubt in the comments) in the hopes that even a wrong ID may have the effect of bringing the observation to the attention of someone more expert in that particular field able to confirm/contradict my suggestion. Quite honestly, if everyone stayed strictly within their own personal comfort zone of expertise and never took that little bit of risk, I fear iNat would grind to a rapid and painful halt, suffocated by an exponentially growing mountain of observations destined to forever remain at the bottom of the Needs ID pile. And as several people have already said in this thread, making mistakes really is the best, if not the only, way to learn.


IMO, the “as good as it can be” DQA should be used very sparingly and only by known/knowledgeable experts in a given group of species. This DQA is not a litmus test of anyone’s level of knowledge per se, but usually an assessment that a more specific ID is known to be unreachable because given the best scientific evidence currently available, species can’t be IDed or separated in images. And that’s a big assertion to make in any taxonomic system since our knowledge base will inevitably improve. So “as good as it can be” is just a bold assertion to hang on many observations.


That is of course true in general terms, but I believe it also has another slightly different significance in iNaturalist, namely that the species (or sometimes genus, family, etc.) can’t be IDed from the images provided in the observation in question. There are a whole lot of cases where you just know the information in the photo(s) is not going to get the job done (half rotten waterlogged fragments of a fungus, a blurry fly (?) that takes up 5 pixels in the photo, a wilted leaf on an anonymous branch, we’ve all been there). “As good as can be” would seem the only cruel-to-be-kind way to get the observation out of the Needs ID pile.

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There’s no reason an expert, armed with new knowledge that allows to split things that were thought un-IDable, wouldn’t be able to search for any observations at genus marked as RG and re-check them with the new knowledge, improving them if possible.