Is it useful to write out my identification steps?

I am in the US (Wyoming). Thanks for the suggestion.

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On one hand, yes, you are correct that from this thread it seems that IDers are not interested in your list of steps as far as their ID is concerned. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when I do it and my ID is incorrect, the expert is more likely to make a comment on where I went wrong. I think they see it as evidence that their comment might mean something to you. In that case, I think your list IS useful for the goal you mentioned of having other IDers join in.


I appreciate it when people comment their identification steps, and it makes me more likely to trust their ID, but it’s usually on taxa I don’t consider myself qualified to identify, so I don’t bother to actually use the information.

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Since this seems to be a persistent concern of yours, here’s my rather long-winded take on the matter: I think providing notes on how one arrived at an ID is valuable for all the reasons other posters have mentioned. However, someone providing an explanation of their identification steps would contribute to me adding an agreeing ID only under a very limited set of circumstances.

(Please note that – like many other users – I’m not a trained biologist, ecologist, or taxonomist, just an enthusiastic amateur. I therefore may approach IDing differently than someone who is a professional in the field.)

If I’m IDing someone else’s observation at a genus/species level or similar, it is because I know something about the taxon in question. This means that in many cases someone noting their steps is largely superfluous (because I can either ID already based on my knowledge, or I am using a key and/or other resources to narrow down my ID).

If it’s a taxon I am not very knowledgeable about, either I am not trying to provide a specific ID, or the information provided is unlikely to be useful to me because I don’t know enough to either verify or apply that information. Knowing what the relevant features are doesn’t automatically translate to seeing them. While the inclusion of an explanation helps increase the credibility of the ID, I am not going to simply blindly assume that the user’s account is correct; I have to be able to contextualize it.

For example: the fact that someone wrote out their ID steps doesn’t mean that the information they provided is complete; their notes may, for the sake of brevity, include only the information they found relevant, but omit details that would be useful to me (and might affect the ID I choose). Likewise, it’s fairly easy to make a wrong choice in a key, since often there is a certain amount of room for interpretation – not the presence or absence of a trait (hairy vs. hairless) but the degree to which the trait is present (sparsely haired vs. densely haired). This means that when I use a key I will often follow some of the alternative paths to check my conclusion. But a user writing out their steps is, quite understandably, unlikely to include further details about the options that they ruled out, so unless they provide a link or reference to a key that I have, I can only check their work to a limited degree.

Where ID steps or other information can be useful is if it is a taxon I know something about but have not yet mastered, and I can verify the points they mention. This might mean I can find secondary sources that confirm their information. Or they might be directing my attention to a feature I hadn’t noticed or isn’t mentioned in the reference literature I am using, but I can compare reference images and confirm to my own satisfaction that it is applicable.

It may be worth noting that there is also a trade-off: if I’m going to spend 5 or 10 or 20 minutes researching the ID for one observation, that’s time that I could otherwise be using to provide IDs for several dozen other observations of taxa that I don’t need to research. Given that there is no shortage of observations in need of ID, some users might decide it is more efficient to mostly stick with taxa that they already know reasonably well rather than confirming an ID they are not sure about.

I hope this doesn’t come across as too blunt, but some of your repeated comments in the forum seem to suggest that you feel other users are insisting on some unreasonable standard when IDing. This attitude strikes me as rather counterproductive. There are lots of reasons why a user might not choose to add a confirming ID, regardless of what information is provided in the observation. I doubt that complaining about this choice is going to make them more inclined to confirm your IDs.

My impression is that ID cultures vary a certain amount across iNat depending on the taxon and region. There are different approaches to assessing observations: some users are happy to consider notes about habitat or characteristics not present in photos (i.e. texture/smell), or information that an individual pictured in one observation is the same as the one in an earler or later observation. Others prefer not to rely on this, or only take it into account to a limited degree. Likewise, there are different ways of dealing with cryptic species or taxonomic disputes (i.e., if there are two lookalike species but one is extremely unlikely in a particular area, whether to ID as the species it is 99% certain to be or stay at subgenus for the sake of accuracy).

How users choose to handle such cases is to a certain extent a process of consensus-finding that emerges over time, through comments in individual observations, through dialogue and gradual dissemination of knowledge among users. It is not automatic, nor is it fixed.

If you’re unhappy with the way that the IDers you interact with approach things, it seems to me that a more constructive way to deal with this would be to start a conversation with those users – to find out what their reasons are and whether there is some solution that everyone can agree on. Sometimes this may just be accepting differences in approach: maybe a particular user isn’t comfortable IDing your seedling on the basis of the subsequent observations, but they are willing to refrain from disagreeing with your ID and throwing it back to family or order. Maybe some other user is willing to confirm the ID in such cases, and you tag them instead. Maybe there are users who particularly enjoy the challenge of detective work on taxa that are new to them and would welcome the chance to help you with observations where you have written out your ID steps.


Which only exacerbates the unevenness of what gets IDed and what doesn’t, which has, itself, been a topic of various threads.

Honestly, it comes across as if you are saying that if I want my observations to reach research grade, then I should stick with observing popular taxa that lots of people know.

It does sometimes seem that way. A lot of my IDs were only possible because I believed a published key to a taxonomic group that was new to me. And it does sometimes seem as if people won’t trust the key unless they could have written it themselves.

I dunno, to me, it just often looks like a case of overcaution; the perception among the non-naturalist public that knowledge of nature is specialist knowledge, arcane and difficult to acquire. The perception that all trees look alike unless you have some highfalutin technical learning. What comes across to you as me complaining was originally my attempt to encourage people to have more confidence in themselves. It morphed into complaining when that effort began to seem futile.

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I was not referring to your comments in this thread, but to the frequent negative remarks in other threads about how providing notes “doesn’t work” or “still won’t get an ID”.

This statement assumes that “what I know” is generally going to largely overlap with “what everyone else knows”. To some extent, yes: there are always going to be more people knowledgeable about common, easy-to-ID species than less common and more-difficult-to ID ones. But most taxa are going to fall somewhere in the middle, and what particular taxa capture a given user’s interest may be fairly idiosyncratic. Also, just because a species is “common” (as in “frequently observed”) and reasonably feasible to ID with a bit of experience, doesn’t mean that there are enough people IDing it. Some of these observations still sit around for years without getting an ID. So “spending time IDing taxa I happen to be familiar with at present” isn’t at all the same thing as “adding IDs to taxa where there is a surfeit of IDers”.

This is also not the same as not trying to learn and improve as an IDer overall.

Observations I look at in the context of IDing fall into one of three categories:

  • taxa that I am reasonably confident in (although I may still be using a key or other reference material)

  • taxa that I am actively working on learning; here I am often more cautious – e.g., I may initially stay at genus rather than suggesting a species or I may do some research and decide to come back to a particular observation later. The distinction between this and the first category is somewhat fluid.

  • taxa that I only have general knowledge of and am not actively trying to learn at present, though some passive learning does take place. E.g., going through “Pterygota” or “Magnoliopsida” to see if there is anything I can ID or at least help get it to where it will be seen by the relevant experts.

When I spend extra time researching an observation, this is generally because it happens to fit into the learning processes I am already engaged in – not because of anything the observer did or did not do.

It’s not about IDers lacking confidence, or refusing to accept keys they didn’t write themselves, or only IDing “easy” things, but quite simply about whether interests (those of the observer and of the IDer) converge, and this isn’t something that can necessarily be controlled, though tagging taxon specialists for observations that require specific expertise may help.

If part of the underlying concern is that IDs are unequally distributed (absolutely true) and how could some of the ID effort be directed towards taxa/regions that don’t get enough attention, perhaps it would make sense to reframe the conversation in a more constructive manner: not “why aren’t people willing to confirm IDs” but “what are our goals as IDers” and “what are we working on / what have we learned this week” or “how can we encourage each other to step outside our comfort zones.”


Well, I tried that with this thread:
How can we encourage people to learn less-IDed taxa? - General - iNaturalist Community Forum
Which petered out after 14 replies. Still, I’m glad I went back and reread it, because there was a useful suggestion there: starting threads or groups about certain taxa to help people understand them.

That comes from frustration, or maybe despair. It is still true that it came about after I failed to encourage people.

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Hang in there. I have a row of URLs in waiting - my current addiction will fill this year at least. Identifying on iNat is partly temperament - do you or don’t you?

For what it’s worth, you’ve encouraged me to broaden my IDing, and I thank you for that. Not that I’ve learned that much yet, but I am trying.


I’m currently enjoying African coromandel. Learnt it while IDing on iNat, recognised in life at Kirstenbosch!

Yes, I also write complete descriptions with collected insects just copying the text of the the steps followed in a dichotomic key so, If I was wrong, I can easily find which feature interpretation was wrong. An exampole here