Is it More Helpful to Observe or Identify Organisms?

I have been wondering if observing or identifying organisms is more helpful to science. I understand a mix of both identifying and observing is ideal; however, I end up spending time identifying my own observations and barley provide community identifications anymore.


There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some people are better at getting to places other folks won’t and respectfully observing things other folks don’t know how to. Likewise, some folks are really good at distinguishing important species characteristics that generalists don’t know to look for. It’s good to contribute what you can, how you can, in good faith.

Observations are especially valuable if they are (a) consistent in a given place or (b) are in a place that doesn’t have a lot of observations or (c) if they are using an ethical but unusual collection/observation method.

Identifications and annotations are especially valuable if they (a) are either leading or confirming/resolving an ID (b) if they are of relatively rarely documented species (c) if they are less charismatic species.

In most clades, there are more observers than identifiers, but not all observations have captured the sometimes subtle/difficult features necessary for ID. Once the computer has enough high quality data, the AI can help guide identifications. So the bottom line is that high-quality observations and identifications are both needed – and that, whatever your level, the iNat community welcomes your participation!


Wow. I checked out your profile, and you’re doing amazing work on isopoda. I’ve always been a generalist – but specialists like you are especially valuable on iNat. It seems like your observational work is pretty unique and that you should keep doing what you’re doing!


As many threads have said, there is no right or wrong answer here. If we are considering only data, as opposed to getting people interested in the non-human world, both are helpful. Observations can extend ranges, or give a sense of species abundance. Without identification those data are of less ‘use’. I prefer the identification side of things, and work mostly with Noctuid moths. As I’ve said before, there are folks who take huge numbers of observations, and I know of at least one person who has 0 observations but almost half a million identifications! Basically, whatever floats your boat. It’s all good.
As @schizoform says, if you are doing observations and identifications of Isopods, that’s probably more ‘valuable’ than identifying Mallards.
EDIT I should have said “As many threads ‘in the past’ have said”. There have been lots of discussions about this topic.


If you are able to do identifying of a group where there are few experts, that is really valuable (not saying any more or less valuable than anything else per se, just really valuable!). This is for two reasons.

  1. Identifying in an area without much expertise obviously increases good quality data that is available.

  2. Perhaps less acknowledged, identifying in a taxon with few identifiers is a huge encouragement to other observers! If observers feel their observations don’t get much attention or aren’t seen, it’s pretty demotivating. Getting IDs from an expert is very validating for observers and often leads to more observations being made. Of course this means more work for IDers down the road, but it’s a good problem to have!

In any case, any participation is valuable - keep up the good work!


To function, iNaturalist needs both observers and identifiers. Any individual can perform one or both functions. Identifiers seem to be in shorter supply, so all things being equal, identifying is more useful (I think). However, all things are not equal. The importance of observations depends on the species, the place, any regular pattern of observation, etc., and doing what you don’t like will make you burn out sooner. So do what’s fun. It will be useful.


Observing and identifying are both helpful. Within identifying, it’s helpful to ID your own as well as others’ observations. Depending on whether all your observations are in your area of ID-focus or not, you may also want to try leaving some at coarse rank ID to see if others also help refine them over time while you’re IDing other things. I tend to focus more on IDing other observations than trying to finish IDing all of mine past certain ranks, especially for unfamiliar or difficult ones. Although I also do spend a long time on some of mine which are especially interesting, worthwhile, or may not get IDed otherwise.


If we talk about time, in ideal situation you should spend more time on others’ observations as there’re just too many of them and little to no iders, it means if you observe a lot - id even more. Proportion is up to you, usually people say x2 of their observations, but it’s not enough imo.


The most important thing is that you do what’s fun to you. And you should only invest time as long as it is fun!
Personally i think good identifications are more important, because they encourage others to keep using iNaturalist.

If you want to be especially helpful, you could also do research outside of iNaturalist, and publish your findings. I’m saying this because you seem to have a special interest and expert knowledge in Isopods.


I think realistically, identifying is more useful on the whole. As has been said quite a bit, there are not enough identifiers on here.

Although looking at your profile it looks like you’re doing both to pretty good in both camps.


Personally, I think that observing is a little more important, because when you identify them, you are inside on a screen. When you observe, you are outside enjoying nature.


Just like others have said it really is almost like a 50/50 split, although I would lean a bit more towards identification. Being able to spot an animal/plant/fungi is a great experience, but getting to identify it to the species level really helps the scientific community progress. Although of course being able to observe a rare species is also very much helpful!


observations and ID’s are equally helpful.


Observing and identifying (but not necessarily how much time we spend on each) are also two sides of the same coin. For example some expert identifiers virtually never observe, but appreciate that they’re only able to ID in the first place via in this case others’ observations.


Like other examples of commons-based peer production, our goal is to provide a place where you can participate in the way that suits and fulfills you. However you participate, you will be helping. :smile:


My $.02: Identifications in iNaturalist are useful for downstream data use primarily as a means of finding potentially relevant observations. If I’m looking for observations of Heterotheca hirsutissima, I’m going to search for observations of Heterotheca from areas where Heterotheca hirsutissima might occur, then I’m going to check the IDs on all observations that I might do anything with. So I’ll find observations identified as Heterotheca villosa, but not observations identified as Asteraceae. I’m not going to assume that identifications as either Heterotheca hirsutissima or Heterotheca villosa are correct.

Also, my opinion is that the “Research Grade” designation has no information value for indicating the potential usefulness of observations for research. So, while I certainly understand people like getting things to “Research Grade”, ultimately I think that designation has a useful role internal to iNaturalist but not for research.


(The exception to the above, for what it’s worth, would be people like Mark Egger. If he identified a Castilleja, I’ll trust his ID unless I have a compelling reason not to. In estimating how valuable your own identifications are, it might be worth considering whether or not there taxa in which you have that kind of expertise. That kind of self-assessment is, of course, made difficult by innumerable psychological traps! Depending on our own psychological idiosyncracies, we’re likely to wildly over- or under-estimate.)


The main Explore page says 2,042,940 observers, 237,469 identifiers. I’m inclined to say we need more identifiers on just the fact that less than 12% of users have made at least one identification at any level on someone else’s observation. “That’s a plant!” or even “that’s life” once for someone else and you’re an identifier.


but then - how many observers dip in for a day - never to be seen or heard of again? Not such a problem with ‘too many’ observers.

And how many identifiers plug away steadily at their chosen taxon / geography? I am continually reassured and encouraged when I find … the right identifier to help us with this one … There is so much kind and willing knowledge available across iNat!

For example - I have unutterably no idea what this is, but am sure the ID is now correct.


There’re definitely too many observations for the amount of iders we have, that doesn’t mean we need to stop observing, only that everyone should start iding.