Misidentification, accountability, and bullying

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).


This is exactly what I am suggesting, so I’m not really sure what you disagree with? Unfortunately, not everyone will explain why they disagree with an ID like you and I do. It is identifying an observation to a higher taxonomic rank (even when the initial species ID was correct) without explanation that I am talking about here, if I have not made that clear already. I don’t understand why I have to keep repeating myself here.

To be completely honest, it is this kind of attitude that discourages me from participating in iNaturalist. You can disagree with me all you want, but there is no need to interpret my words beyond their face value.


I agree, except that I feel it is better to have an accurate record of the species occurring in a particular place, even if they cannot be identified by others to species level. It personally makes no sense to me to remove accurate records because they can’t (or won’t) be verified by others at that taxonomic rank. I suppose I feel this way as so many native plants in my region never are confirmed (regardless of observation quality, it would seem) yet clearly cultivated (but well known) plants somehow become research grade. iNaturalist is not perfect, and I don’t think it can (or should) be made perfect.


That’s sad to read, I guess it’s because there’s a lack of local experts and cultivated plants are known in bigger area (though they should be marked as cultivated, other than OP case). I know many areas somehow don’t have enough botanists even though there’re a lot of iNatters, we focus so much on invertebrates and fungi while it’s clear we need more people studying plants! Not even mentioning mosses, they’re not getting ided no matter how accurate record you have.

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I had my first encounter with bullying on inat today. I agreed with a spider identification in my backyard and because it was an over ID and I am a scientist somebody felt entitled to lay into me about it.

I would have been pleased to roll back the ID and learn something, but instead this person decided to question my integrity over this with comments like:

“Do you think the observations and IDs in iNaturalist are essentially worthless? Then why participate?”
"That seems like a very strange attitude for a scientist and biologist. "
“I don’t understand your nihilism.”
"I’m just puzzled. I am not surprised when the general public doesn’t understand the difficulty in accurately identifying organisms from photos, but I am confused when a professor of biology doesn’t seem to… "

I told the person to leave me alone and they didn’t. And then they even said that if they were called out for harassment that they would never help anyone again. A passive aggressive bully.

I flagged it but the curators dismissed it in 30 seconds saying that it was “clearly not inappropriate” to go at people like this. - I was shocked. I tried to reason with them, but they would not do anything, In the end I deleted the observation and blocked the user.

Sure, I am a scientists, but when it comes to using inat to identify bugs in my backyard I am an amateur. Such gatekeeping and shaming people publicly just kills enthusiasm and IMO any kind of activity like that should be handled swiftly, not whitewashed.


Some of the comments that you have quoted (and I appreciate it’s likely from memory and not in context) do seem very dismissive, but I wouldn’t view them as bullying. The “attitude” that you are describing is far more concerning to me than the actual words they used.

You state that it was raised with a curator. You have to remember that curators are volunteers in iNat, and although there is a review of the policy, any curator can make another user a curator, so it is possible that you have struck a mediator that is biased. If the response in such situations seems unusual compared with what you would expect, then you should take the matter to iNat staff via the help@inaturalist.org email. My experience has been that they are quite level headed and fair.

I have to say, that many of these type of issues start, and escalate, via misunderstandings from the nature of the communication medium. That said… there are a lot of inatters that have no clue about what iNat is about… but they still mean well and think they are doing the right thing…

And then there are those stresses, like covid, that affect how we all interface with the world :)


No, those are direct quotes form the person, not from memory. The mediators said that the person was being “genuinely curious” and then doubled down and said “It does come across as unexpected behavior for a scientist or biologist, e.g. for myself, I wouldn’t go to a natural history museum and annotate specimens unless I was familiar with identification of those specimens.” I am doing the best I can, trying to have fun and learn, I should have to be subjected to people questioning my scientific integrity in a pubic forum. This was not curiosity, this was an attempt at shaming.

I understand that people do science on these observations, in fact I have a project that I have cited in a paper. I have personally corrected thousands of identifications. I never once got on a high horse with people about mistakes they made or asked them why they even bother participating etc.

I have never seen such ugliness on inat before.

All I did was agree with an ID from someone else about a spider in my backyard.


Don’t listen to them, really, some people can be bullies even when they don’t intend to, and some just had their reasons to become one, you have all rigts to feel attacked, but please don’t let those people affect on how you participate in iNat, your observations is what matters and you matter, not what they say. I had one user writing some very agressive comments, checking some years old photos and complaining how bad they are and how they’re tired of them, like if I forced them to see those. But I learned the lesson and decided it is a bad way of things to agree with other ids, in the end we want the truth, not the first added id, which can be totally wrong even if we think it is right.

By the way it was changed and listed in @tiwane post about recent changes, so no more random curators (if there were any).


Yeah, I just reverse the situation and think that if some spider biologist Over IDed a turtle what would I do? I wouldn’t ask them why they did it, or question their approach, ask then why they even bother participating, etc. I’d just give a new ID and move on. (EDIT: I might explain why I gave a new ID)

In this case the person’s ID removed it from being research grade so the bad data problem was already solved.

Comments like that should be deleted if flagged as they have absolutely zero value and I’d argue that they are deleterious.


Bearing in mind that I’m only getting one channel on your exchanges wit this person, I’m actually wishing that you hadn’t deleted the comments so I could see who made them. It’s always nice to know who to avoid. Anybody who made those sorts of comments on my observation could count on me sharing them widely with attribution (and maybe a smiley face).

People act like jerks for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they’re having a bad day. Sometimes they think they’re being funny. Sometimes they’re just clueless. Regardless, the only sensible reaction to that sort of garbage is to be grateful that you didn’t wake up in that person’s head and move on. As an old friend of mine used to say, time wounds all heels.


I feel like this thread has the potential to turn quite sour. This is understandable given the issues being discussed, but I would hate to see someone write something in the heat of the moment that they will later regret. I’m going to temporarily close this thread for a little while just to let everyone cool off, re-evaluate, and approach things with a level head. I’m not saying that anyone has done anything wrong thus far, I just don’t want things to get to that point :)