New paper about using iNat to study Mollusca in Brazil

Thought 'd share! iNaturalist as a tool in the study of tropical molluscs.

The authors found a few potentially new species, some novel behavior, the first living photos of some snails, and rediscovered some species thought to be extinct. Plus the paper includes what IMO is a good discussion of the pros and cons of iNat data.

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A quote from the above article, “A huge thanks to the iNaturalist staff for providing and maintaining a fine global natural history platform, and to all the community members for providing observations and/or identifications on the platform.”

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I’m really enjoying reading that paper! One thing that stuck out was how quickly it went from conception to publication:

Searches were conducted on February 1st, 2022, and resulted in a total of 4,983 observations.

Received: February 24, 2022; Accepted: April 20, 2022; Published: May 5, 2022

I realize there’s no field or lab research involved here, just searching and identification that’s quite similar to the work a lot of iNat identifiers might do, but it’s still nice to see research that doesn’t take a decade to get into print.

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"Obtaining such images would require the photographer to handle the specimens, which is generally not an advisable course of action in most contexts and should not be expected of iNaturalist’s general public. "

Is that true for gastropods? Should you handle them for photography?

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The article has a really interesting discussion of several issues with the quality of IDs on iNat that will be familiar to a lot of forum users. And it proposes some fixes!

1. Many observations don’t have photos with sufficient detail for an ID. The authors suggest providing standalone or interactive guides for identification and to assist in taking photos. Coincidentally (?) @bramb just added a great guide on How to make pictures of land snails that allow for species identification? Integrating this kind of guide into the observation and identification process, as many have already suggested in the forum, has the potential to really improve ID quality and observer knowledge.

2. The limited capabilities and coverage of computer vision and its bias towards species in the global north. The bias towards species with more observations can be effectively corrected by adding more observations and identifications for species in the global south. This has already been proved multiple times on iNat. This is where translated interfaces and partnering with local organizations can really pay off. When interested people take up the task of documenting and identifying organisms that are currently poorly covered, IDs improve and over time CV gets really good at any sufficiently frequently observed organism.

Other changes in the CV process have also helped, such as the inclusion of genera in the CV model where there are insufficient species-level observations. Where photos are not sufficient to distinguish species, CV faces a harder task (as do human identifiers).

3. The tendency of some iNat users to agree to IDs that they’re really not familiar with. These people are called “clickers” in the paper and their action are mistakenly conflated with “vandalism”. Interestingly, although the authors also describe a problem of “users who want to accumulate as many IDs as possible regardless of whether they are correct or not” (citing a 2021 paper on Italian mollusc IDs on iNat), they say it’s not something they have observed much themselves.

My experience is that competition for ID “high scores” happens a lot less than people expect, especially since iNat removed several gamification elements. The big factors that appear to drive these low-information IDs seem to be misunderstanding the meaning of the “Agree” button; confirming friends’ IDs within school projects; and the occasional tear of hundreds of dubious IDs from a young and well-meaning user getting started with iNat. In almost every case, users will respond to polite engagement so long as they’re still using iNat.

4. The difficulty in correcting wrong IDs when the opinion of inexperienced users is weighed the same as experienced academics. The authors have two suggestions: “Assigning greater weight to identifications made by curators and specialists, as well as providing tools so that qualified users can restart the identification process.” Valorizing expert IDs has been suggested a few times, but there are many reasons to shy away from this.

Certainly there are a few cases where observations languish with incorrect IDs or inappropriate “Research Grade” status because a few inexperienced users can outvote experts with 30 years of publication history. But these are a tiny minority. A more typical scenario is that an expert will add a better ID and other users will agree or will withdraw their IDs. Occasionally, someone will ask “Why do you say it’s this and not that?” and in the process they’ll improve their own ID skills. In my experience the main reasons people don’t correct their IDs are that they don’t use iNat anymore, don’t realize a new ID was added, or don’t understand how to update their earlier ID. Fixing those issues doesn’t require designating people as taxon experts.

And giving some users greater weight for ID determination has a couple of big downsides, too. First, any such process would require a whole infrastructure of assessing and delimiting expert qualifications, monitoring usage, etc. More fundamentally, it shifts iNat to a less egalitarian and cooperative structure. “Observers” would become dependent on “experts” and feel less able to contribute their own ID efforts; “experts” would be under pressure to validate IDs and using iNat would become more of a chore for them.

5. The scarcity of experts for many taxa in a country like Brazil with great biodiversity but limited science funding. The authors capture both the problem and potential solutions well here:

In this context, Brazilian reality imposes some difficulties, starting with the small number of experts, who are often too overloaded with activities to be able to interact with the platform. The contributions of experts from other Latin American countries and elsewhere were relevant to verify several observations analysed here, which also highlights potential benefits of the platform as a place for information exchange between professionals, networking and establishing collaborations.

In addition, if experts active on iNaturalist take the time to explain how a given species was identified, this can provide a valuable experience for community scientists. With time, community scientists will achieve a similar level to experts; iNaturalist already counts with many of these “expert observers”, who are community scientists with ample knowledge of particular taxa.

It can seem excessive to ask already overtaxed specialists to volunteer time to patiently correct the identifications of a legion of casual observers and citizen scientists. But those observers and identifiers include the next generation of professional scientists along with plenty of people interested to become amateur experts. Time spent communicating ID tips through iNat now can result in a much stronger base of knowledge for these taxa in the future.

I’ll be presumptuous and share the two things I feel would really improve ID quality on iNat:

  1. Improve the user interface so that inexperienced users have better guidance on what to photograph, what characters to look at for an ID, and what level of ID is appropriate.
  2. Better notifications so people know when other people have suggested different IDs and how they can respond.

I know a better notification system is under development (can’t wait!) and I really hope someone has put a guided user interface concept on a slide that will be seen by a funder. Not simple or quick but it could be hugely beneficial.

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If anyone knows of examples of this scenario, just tag another expert (other than the observer).

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The article says (NOT rupertclayton)

I’d like to mention that one of iNat’s top expert IDers is from Brazil.

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I suspect this is perhaps a bit deceptive. Its possible that the original received date is when the revised manuscript was received, not the original submission. This has been the case for several of my papers, where the actual process took 6-12 months, but the dates the journal used made it seem much quicker.

I could definitely be wrong, and it’s certainly possible the review process was this fast (which is always great to see), but I know that some journals definitely manipulate these numbers

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This is of course the ideal approach, but in many cases there simply aren’t enough experts for certain taxa and certain places. For many Australian invert groups, there is only a single expert on iNat. This would definitely be the case for many other regions too

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I think it is more related to the fact you might get some pretty nasty parasites if you handle them with your bare hands. The African Giant Snail which is an invasive species in Brazil is the host of some meningitis inducing parasite for example.

They could also be referencing the different poses you need to apply to get species level ID for gastropod. Someone posted a guide on how to do those recently.

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I have about 37K plants for the Rest of Africa to ID. Two ways I could help - when I go thru Unknowns - is to pick up tiny typos, or the species is not yet on iNat - from the Placeholder text. I would like to search my comments to see how many times I have had to limp thru copypasta because iNat uses prime real estate, top left corner, for :rofl: temporary placeholder text. Makes trying to help ID Southern Unknowns a painful process. Once an identifier has kindly added the first ID, iNat vanishes the observer’s careful placeholder, and makes identifying much more difficult for the next identifier who tackles that obs.

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Yes. The existence of Placeholder text (created when a user enters an ID that doesn’t match an entry in iNat’s taxonomy) and the fact that it is automatically destroyed when the first real identification is added is problem that could seeming be easily fixed. Why not just recode the process to add a note to the observation or an auto-generated comment?

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I don’t dispute that the acceptance timeline on some articles may be misleading. But there’s less scope for that here given that the article was published just 3 months after the iNat searches that generated the dataset.

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I have requested that - and was told iNat intends it to be temporary.
And it is staying as an iNat joke for the initiated :rofl: (PS I, am not amused)

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I realize that this is going quite a long way off the original topic, but… It would be fine for placeholder text to be temporary if we could be sure that the first ID would encapsulate all the info in the placeholder. But the reality is more like this.

  1. Observer enters detailed species ID that doesn’t quite match iNat’s taxonomy e.g “Plantus horridus var. notsobadicus”
  2. Observation listed as Unknown with “Placeholder: Plantus horridus var. notsobadicus”
  3. Well-meaning identifier (e.g. me) adds an ID as “Magnoliopsida” and away goes any trace of the observer’s intended ID.
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Nice! I have added it to the published paper wiki.

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For some countries, the challenge is finding an expert who uses iNaturalist. For Verbascum in Turkey I have not found that person, so even beautiful detailed photos have no ID or comments.

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Reach across the border to neighbouring countries which share similar flora?
Or an international botanist who focuses on verbascum?

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Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and several other countries have many endemic Verbascum species, several hundred in the case of Turkey. The experts really need to be local. And even in simpler countries like Italy, with less than 20 endemic species, finding an expert who is interested is tough.

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I keep hoping an international Verbascum expert will volunteer in response to forum posts, I am keeping my fingers crossed.