Misidentification, accountability, and bullying

I’d just like to add that context is important. Some moths cannot be told apart without dissection which cannot be done from a photo. So if I collect a moth in S. Ontario and identify it as Xestia dolosa I might be correct. I might also be wrong, as there is another species in the area that cannot be reliably ruled out without dissection. Similarly, a worn moth may be correctly identified, but I can’t verify that because some features cannot be seen. I will bump the more precise id up to Genus because I cannot reliably agree (I do leave reasons). If that person decides not to make the change, at least my reasoning is there for others to see.
To be clear, I’m not disagreeing with you, but adding that sometimes context matters.


I would disagree, as the majority of observations (at least in my region) sit “in limbo” anyway and never are confirmed by anyone else – what is so bad about letting a few more remain unconfirmed rather than identifying them to a higher taxonomic rank based on photographic evidence alone (rather than physical evidence)? It can be difficult to photograph an organism (especially some of the more “obscure” native plants in my region) in a way that makes it easy for others to identify it – and some can only be identified with physical examination, which I don’t see as much of a reason to omit these species from iNaturalist. I tend to favor documenting which species are in a particular rather than concentrating on producing a few images that can be easily identified (especially when they likely will not be identified anyway).

Again, I am not saying that anyone should ignore an identification that is clearly wrong, but that people should not go around bumping IDs that may not be identifiable from a particular photo on its own back to a higher taxonomic rank. Most of all, it is the attitude of “no one else knows what they’re talking about because I’m an expert,” that bothers me.


Of course, but that is not what I am saying; I apologize if I was not clear enough. How would you (just as an example of what I mean) like it if I started identifying your moth observations to family level because I cannot tell the differences between them either because of your photos or my lack of skill? I hope you understand what I’m trying to say here.


I hear you - I’ve experienced this with a couple of my observations of carpenter bees. I was at first confused why they would ID it to a higher taxonomic rank when the species ID seemed obvious enough to me.

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A couple of the people id’ing just opened accounts today and appear to have zero expertise in the specific order/family/genus.

Based on the amount of community interaction I see on most observations, this sounds like a single user being vindictive. I’ve never seen two brand new users show up to give a species level ID on a difficult observation. I suspect you disagreed with one person who wanted to drive home their ID and started making new accounts to disagree with you. I’d imagine that is against iNat rules in some way and could have been looked into if the observation still existed.

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These examples really aren’t difficult to come by if you look in the right places…
Just have a dig around in some of the taxa from the computer vision clean-up thread for commonly misidentified species and you’ll find stacks.

Here is a similar example I posted before :
Two new users both using autosuggest to take a blurry observation to species level. If users are new to biological recording… which many are… they likely won’t have any idea what constitutes a “difficult observation”. At the time, I took a look at the activity of one of the users as the OP has here… and saw they had just blitzed a whole bunch of observations in a similar way.

With no warnings in play, and the autosuggest itself offering species-level IDs for blurry indeterminate blobs…I think its fair to say the system as it stands actively enables this sort of situation.


It’s not unusual for new people to make bad species level ID’s I agree. But for two users to be created the same day to come in to disagree with the OP, I’d say that is unusual. Even in your example pic those two users who posted their bad IDs 2 months apart.


I do understand what you are trying to say, and I’m not looking to start an argument. If you were mainly, say a Mollusk person, and gave no rationale for the change, or if it seemed like you were deliberately out to disrupt my ID’s, I 'd be ticked off (in the latter case, I’d be enraged). As I’ve said above, I have never experienced either of those scenarios, so I’m not speaking from a place of knowledge. I have long maintained that if an ID is changed, then a rationale should be given. If I bump a taxon up a level I say why - sometimes a poor photo means I cannot, in good conscience, make an id. About a week ago, a person posted wonderful photos of a moth, but only from the side. I was sure I knew the species, but since I would need to see the dorsal wing, I could not ID it past Genus. I let the person know, and my rationale for leaving it at Genus.
I guess this is a long way of saying communication is essential, and if someone changes an ID, I believe they should give a reason. If they don’t, I’d call in some help. If it kept up, I really don’t know how I’d respond.
As an identifier, I believe it my responsibility to give the best ID’s possible (although many of mine have been glaringly questionable!), as with confirmations.
As I said, I’m not arguing, but trying to present a slightly different perspective, while acknowledging that I have not directly experienced what you appear to have.


I disagree pretty strongly. If you know that there isn’t a way to conclusively ID an organism from visual inspection or the evidence given, it’s entirely appropriate to disagree with the ID as @alexis18 and @mamestraconfigurata have laid out. This is the situation that the disagree text refers to when you ID with an explicit disagreement. If you don’t want to do that yourself, that’s fine, but the site provides that functionality to users for an important reason.

Best practice is to explain your reasoning for doing so; that’s how we learn.


In a lot of cases, new users create their accounts for a class project (on the same day during the same class period) and start IDing similar sets of observations with classmates. This often occurs when a class project requires students to make a certain number of identifications (which is bad practice because it encourages situations like these, where new users make identifications just to get it done and not because they have expertise).

In many of the cases of multiple bad IDs close in time that I’ve personally seen, this has been the reason. Someone using sock-puppet accounts to influence IDs would definitely be wrong (and against terms of service), so if there’s evidence of a pattern of this it would be appropriate to refer to staff. However, I think in most cases it’s likely not a user with multiple accts acting in bad faith.


I’m definitely not arguing. Actually, I agree with you wholeheartedly; there must be communication. That is why I never add a higher ID without explaining my reasoning. As an example, I’ve seen a few observations show up in my area of plants that are found nowhere near here but may look somewhat similar to the observed species (the result of computer generated IDs, mostly), but I’m unsure which species it really is. In those cases I will explain why I am adding a higher taxonomic ID, or say which species I think it may be, but am not confident in identifying. I hope this makes sense.


As I said previously, there are many organisms that cannot be identified from photos alone, and I don’t feel that it is right to simply assume that the observer did not have some other evidence to come to that identification. If you think it is a different species, then why not ask the observer about this possibility rather than merely supply a higher taxonomic ID? Would I be correct in understanding then that species that cannot be identified to species level from observation media should not be included on iNaturalist despite other evidence (e.g. measurements, habitat, etc.)?

My general understanding has been that iNaturalist is about documenting biodiversity and engaging people with Nature, not about providing perfect, easy-to-identify records of (easily identifiable) species. Maybe my own philosophy of natural science just isn’t in alignment with iNaturalist’s goals?


I tend to feel that a good observation should be able to stand alone from the observer. There’s nothing wrong about making a determination that wouldn’t be possible from the observation media alone, but IMO, a responsible observer should make use of the notes field to reveal their basis for that determination. e.g., some of the local Parmotrema are only distinguishable by K+ spot test, and are frequently over-specifically identified. I wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to include a photo of a spot test, if I did one, but I do feel that ought to be recorded along with the observation, rather than waiting for someone to interrogate me about it (for the same philosophical reason we keep lab and field notebooks; a written record is preferable to memory).

Unfortunately, the long tail of activity on iNat is full of accounts that over-use computer vision for identification and no longer (if ever) participate in dialog about their identifications. Re-identifying to higher taxonomic levels will usually hit those cases, and it’s good when it does. But it’s also important to exercise discretion in re-identification, do it in small batches so as not to overwhelm any one observer, and be prepared to follow up and engage in dialog if the observer comes back and offers reasons for the more specific ID. And it is proper to have, if nothing else, some sort of cut-and-paste message explaining why you’ve re-identified. As you say, there must be communication. This is not something that can be managed just by norms about which button to push.


and there has been an extremely long history of debate over this. This comment from @loarie to me is fundamental to the discussion:

When you can’t see enough evidence, explicitly disagree ONLY if the community supports it. If you get push back from anyone, then it stands to reason that the community DOES NOT SUPPORT IT. Yet time and time again, I ask someone to consider withdrawing their explicit disagreement because I am asserting my finer ID (with reason), and they traipse out that explicit modal dialogue wording to back up why they are being an a-hole over it.

In fact, this issue is a good example of exactly what we are talking about. The wording says one thing, but the site developers intended something different, and yet without an understanding of what took place on that conversation we have people asserting that their way is the right way, even though it conflicts with the statements made by the developers, and conflicts with the iNat mission.

Hey, I could be wrong… but I am not arguing that I am right here… just that there is ALWAYS more to something than even the experts can be aware of, and that should factor into play in identifications as well. I don’t care if you are the worlds pre-eminent expert in the field, or have read the latest books, and so on. There is ALWAYS something else that can be brought to the table, and to back-handedly dismiss the input of others because a modal said you could… JFC…

Don’t get me wrong… experts are great. They are right more times than I am, and for that I am eternally grateful! I would not have learnt what I have without the sharing of knowledge that they have given me… but much of that knowledge would never have been given to me had I not had the ability to challenge them with my own ideas.


What do you mean? It is unacceptable, users shouldn’t id just because they want these observations to be ided that way. We shouldn’t agitate wrong behaviour, as we already have enough of blind clicking on species known to general public.

We’re cool!

I’m not quite sure what you are asking? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people blindly agree with previous identifications, I just don’t feel that it is ethical for an identification to be bumped back to a higher rank because someone else cannot identify it to species (not even that it is unidentifiable to species). It is really the assumption that the observer is unfamiliar with the species they have identified an observation as that bothers me – yes many are, but that doesn’t mean we should assume that everyone who is not some “expert” with a PhD doesn’t know what they are talking about.


I know what you mean philippwickey. I have had a similar problem.

There is a particular type of bird that I will no longer post nor ID for others because the community ID process has been so frustrating to me about it.

The bird in question has a very similar species (same genus), but one that is still different based on subtleties in appearance, distinctly different calls, and somewhat different geography. Inevitably, when I post the bird as its own species, I have people contradicting the ID for the similar one. Even after I explain that the call is very different - and I heard the call even though only the photo is posted - and that the location where the bird was spotted is more toward the one species than the other, plus pointing out the differences in appearance, people still override me. Often, too I get very hostile responses for disagreeing, even though I make a point of being polite. I also get the type of response where people over-explain to me as if I am a simpleton, because my disagreement must be due to me lacking understanding rather than them being wrong (eyeroll).

Not wanting to be rude, and not wanting to be frustrated, I have just opted out of posting anything about this bird and its similar species altogether.

It is disappointing. inaturalist ought to be about accuracy rather than band-wagon-popularity. I will look into opting out of community ID, but at the same time, my experiences have still deterred me from ever again posting about these birds. The data might end up skewed if too many of us are making these types of decisions, but if that is how the system is set-up then what else is there to do?

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As I noted, I think it’s best practice to explain why you explicitly disagree; I did not advocate for just bumping IDs back. In this case, I think an explicit disagreement with an explanation is opening a conversation. If an observer responds with more info (measurements, habitat, call, additional photo, posting a DNA sequence, whatever it is), it’s very easy to respond and identify to a more specific level. I’ve seen this happen many times, and I think it improves both the observation and often helps the observer and other identifiers learn!

Of course, species which require info apart from visual/sounds media can definitely still be included on iNat (I’m assuming this is a straw man argument on your part). That info just needs to be included with the observation somewhere (notes, annotations, whatever). The most obvious example is probably location, as in situations where an observation in an area with multiple similar species might not be idable to the species level based on visuals alone, but it would be idable to species in areas where it is the only species with that appearance.

And I think that you draw an unnecessary forced dichotomy when discussing what iNat’s purpose is:

Based on statements from its founders, iNat’s primary purpose definitely is engaging users with nature as well as users learning about nature. A secondary purpose is also generating useful biodiversity data. These can occasionally be at odds but, fortunately for us, are mostly in a happy relationship! But I think that an observer learning that not all observations can be identified to species can be meaningful learning about the natural world as well. For example, in these situations observers can learn to improve their ID skills, document key characters, etc.


It clearly depends on a case, minority is when observer definitely knew what they were seeing, just documented it worse than needed, but majority is users knowing 1 species out of big group (it’s not about being an expert or not, we all can think we know what it is while there can be multiple even not related taxa looking for us exactly similar) and putting it as an id, does this species lives there? Yes. Can we just forget about all other species and leave those observations as they are? Probably not, 1 example is Alchemilla vulgaris, when I started studying in university we were taught it’s the only species (was in Potentilla) looking like that, and people thought so for decades, but then this complex was studied and now we have many similar species, though pretty much identifiable for regular user if they just photograph what is needed. But majority don’t know about it, they id everything they see as vulgaris, they upload barely seen leaves with species id when it’s impossible to id the species without flowers. Following the rules we can’t add disagreement as nothing what is needed for id is seen on those pics, but I see this obs being RG at genus as better data than just forever needs ID that is most likely wrong. Teaching people about biodiversity is along the engaging people with nature you mentioned. Also maybe next time they’ll take more time documenting needed parts (as it’s clearly not what you do when you think it’s one of its own).