I think that observations ID'ed to the family level should be considered for research grade

There will never be enough categories for everyone’s use cases. Of course, everyone considers their own use case to be vitally important, but at the end of the day, there has to be some prioritization. The question then becomes, how many users need to use a given use case before it becomes time- and cost-effective to implement?

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Observations are Needs ID by default, and there are only a limited number of ways in which they can become Casual instead. I can’t think of more than the 4 categories I mentioned, and maybe [no evidence provided] and [insufficient evidence for precise ID] can be combined together.

We’ve had extensive discussion on the forum about the semantic implications of the label “Research Grade”, and I think there are similar issues with “Casual”. What does it mean for an observation to be made “casually”? An observation without any organisms in the photo or lacking basic location/date information is pretty useless, but the first family level observation of an obscure invertebrate in a new country could be pretty notable and may have taken some effort to locate and identify to family level.

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Casual has always seemed like an odd term for these diverse records that won’t reach RG. I know the various definitions of the word but they don’t always quite capture why a record ends up Casual. Informal, not regular, accidental, sloppy? Or maybe all of the above.

I usually chase any casual bird that shows up in my area since I probably haven’t seen or photo’d that species before. If the photo and data are good it won’t be Casual on iNat. I’ve casually taken photos of wild plants without much thought or effort but they were good enough pics to be IDed and make RG.

Not the best word. However I can’t come up with a better alternative term.

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My request for a feature request was denied as it was too similar to Make Captive and Cultivated Now Automatically No ID Needed. I added a comment asking for an additional Data Quality category of Complete noting it had nothing to do with wild vs captive DQA. Complete data would only mean that all the DQAs except for identifiable to sub-family/genus/species are met if the community agrees it’s As good as it can be

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I think that it much depends on the organism considered. With plants, for most genera it would have little sense to raise to RG those obs IDed at the family rank (maybe in most cases the same is true also up to the genus level…). I would say that it could be good with few genera that are almost impossible to identify at the species level with photos (Festuca, Taraxacum, Alchemilla and so on). But the “No, it’s as good as it can be” box should be used with much parsimony and only by users that are experts of a particular genus.
For certain animals it seems much different. Maybe the family level could be ok but I have to rely on those who are zoologists.

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I do agree that casual observations are basically the “trash can” of iNat observations but I’d actually love to see casual grade observations get split and see captive/cultivated organisms get their own little area so it’s easier to find those observations at least. I wouldn’t call those observations “trash worthy” but they aren’t exactly “treasure worthy” either, but because they are allowed yet they aren’t encouraged, they should still after all get their own section where you can filter out all captive/cultivated observations as when you sort by casual that’s all you get. It does appear it may already be that way but being able to sort through casual observations easier is a necessity in my opinion.

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Yeah, taxonomic ranks are arbitrary, so it’s not really fair for research grade to be based on them. I think each taxon should maybe have a grade status, of which there are 3 options:

  • Default research grade, becoming needs ID if community taxon can be improved (currently the case for rank_level 10 (species/hybrid) and below)
  • Default needs ID, becoming research grade if community taxon can’t be improved (currently the case for rank_levels between 27 (subfamily) and 11 (complex))
  • Default needs ID, becoming casual if community taxon can’t be improved (currently the case for rank_level 30 (family) and above)

I actually think there may be a case for eliminating the third category all together. I think potentially all observations should become research grade if the community taxon can’t be improved. I mean, do we really expect people to identify microbes beyond Life?

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Not sure if it’s such a great service to researchers if suddenly, tens of thousands (or millions?) of blurry pics of unidentifiable plant leaves end up on (e.g.) GBIF as “Magnoliopsida”.

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I agree.

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I think we should leave it up to those sites whether they think such observations are useful, not iNaturalist. Taxonomic rank is in any case a poor measure of how useful the observation is.

If we allowed observations to reach research grade if the community taxon couldn’t be improved regardless of rank, people could use rank-based filters if they really wanted. In the current system, how are we supposed to distinguish them from observations that would be casual anyway?

I also feel that allowing observations to reach research grade regardless of rank would reduce the bias towards well-known organisms like birds and mammals.

And I think blurry Magnoliopsida photos that can’t be identified being on GBIF is better than wrongly identified photos.

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And speaking of identifying microbes beyond Life, I actually think it’s likely that many organisms, especially microbes, are given unwarranted specific IDs just so they can be research grade. People really shouldn’t add IDs they’re not sure about. I think allowing observations to reach research grade even if they’re on State of matter Life would significantly cut down on incorrect IDs.

If you haven’t seen it yet there’s this feature request for changing captive/cultivated, with more discussion about splitting up Casual grade in the replies: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/make-captive-cultivated-not-automatically-no-id-needed/112

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(Minor caveat: my concern was about usability and ‘stewardship’ of data - producing-then-spreading as good as possible data is helpful, there are already some platforms who crap the common bed by exporting loads of poor, unrefined, or dubious data. As for the role of taxonomic ranks vs. other metrics of scientific scrutiny e.g. disparity, it’s another debate /Off-topic)

Not sure if I get your suggestion right - can’t figure how a straight refusal to “sort” obs beyond “needs/doesn’t need ID” could work, and whether this would help with community interactions and engaging with nature.

Let’s say that in a new “RG-for-everything” system, two people kindly identify a poor pic of green goo in a puddle as organic thus ‘Life’ - because it’s certainly not paint. There it is! Observer has engaged with nature (taking a poor pic outdoors), good enough, the pic got two confirming IDs, obs got a ‘RG [because-identified-by-someone-else]’ status (flattering observer’s vanity? increasing stats? alleviating the scarcity of identifiers?). It now disappears from the ‘needs ID’ pool (good!), also evading further scrutiny by Chlorophyta specialists.
Is it better than leaving it -temporarily- in the ‘needs ID’ pool for maximum discoverability… or sorting it -also temporarily- away in a -slightly less discoverable- distinct pool of ‘likely-not-taxonomically-refinable’ obs? (what’s currently named ‘casual’).

I don’t mean that all ranks should be treated like species and below. I mean that ranks above species should be treated like subfamily through complex. So you need to say the community taxon is as good as it can be before it will become research grade. Otherwise it will be needs ID.

And the problem with using ranks isn’t just that they’re arbitrary. It’s also that iNaturalist has at least 36 non-monophyletic taxa (excluding hybrids). And most that I’ve listed are at order or above, and they include most of the kingdoms. This means that iNaturalist’s taxonomy is deeply flawed at the base.

I don’t think an observation needs to have a precise ID to be useful for research or science, so many observations (even ones that cannot be identified past subclass or order) are recording really interesting and important interactions with their environments and other organisms, having those ‘banished’ to the casual pool because they cannot be precisely identified is more than a little disappointing.

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There is nothing in law (afaik) or in site rules to prevent researchers from using any obs in the ‘Not-exported-to-3rd-party-DBs’ pool. I’d be waaaay more worried about copyright issues first and foremost, for that matter.

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The way I see it, there are 3 options for how to deal with “can’t be ID’d to species” observations: either you call them all casual, you call them all RG, or you pick some arbitrary taxonomic cutoff for which ones are casual and which are RG.

If you call them all casual, you lose a lot of valuable data being exported for groups where species-IDs are impossible from photos. If you call them all RG, you end up exporting blurry blobs of goo to GBIF as “life”, which doesn’t help anyone. So I think a cutoff somewhere to maximize useful data exports while minimizing useless data exports is the way to go. Obviously the very nature of taxonomy is such that wherever you make that cutoff is going to be sort of arbitrary, and you’ll always have cases right near the line where someone says “this specific set of observations isn’t being treated the way I’d like”. But treating the RG-cutoff for every lineage on iNat differently seems like it would create more confusion and difficulty than it’s worth. So are the cutoffs for RG/Casual arbitrary? Sure. Are they still helpful in the grand scheme of things? I’d say so. “All models are wrong; some are useful.”

I think the solution is just for researchers in those specific taxa to be aware of the fact that some generic-ID observations exist on iNat and aren’t being exported. If someone works with a taxon where lots of observations are going to sit perpetually at order or family level, they’re probably well aware of this, and with a few clicks, they can bring up the full list of all those “Casual” generically ID’d observations to do whatever they want with them. I don’t think there’s any need to overhaul the system and go to an “export everything” or “export nothing above species” model, nor would it be practical to get experts in every taxon of life to request a different taxonomic cutoff for exporting data in their taxon of study.

I think the current system is a good compromise, at least until some billionaire genetic purist buys up iNat, re-defines all taxa at all levels to be monophyletic clades defined exclusively based on branch lengths, and implements a cutoff for what gets exported to GBIF based on the percent of nucleotides that the CID is in agreement on. /s

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Especially since even within a given taxon of study, those experts will disagree,

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