Observer Added Context: Is It Relevant?

I have an observation of a species of plant in my area that is commonly cultivated but occasionally escaped. This observation is of a wild volunteer that I collected and took home. I photographed the plant at my home, after I had removed it from the location I had originally seen the specimen. I noted in the description the context that this individual was wild.

Today, a user marked this observation as captive/cultivated. The user said that since there is no evidence that this plant was wild visible in the observation, it should be captive. I @ mentioned the user and clarified that it was a wild individual. But, they told me this:

“observer self-report is not really admissible as evidence. per the official guidance for assessing nature journaling: judge the evidence in the actual observation, not what the observer says.”

Is there really some policy somewhere I was unaware of that context added by an observer is irrelevant? Should we be marking organisms that we can’t prove are wild as captive?

Of course observer context is relevant. Admissible in court, even. Actually, the photo itself would not be admissible in court without observer context explaining ‘where did this photo come from and how was it produced’. Notes can help with smells, textures, or sounds that can be valuable but are not contained in a photo. Relying on observer’s notes does require a certain evaluation of the observer’s credibility of course, just like you have to rely on the observers credibility for not having edited the geotag.


Nonsense. We ultimately do have to place some trust in the observer; yes, a dishonest observer could tell an untruth about the circumstances of the observation, but they could also Photoshop a picture or something like that. I don’t see this as very different from an herbarium voucher, where you record details that can’t be captured in the pressing on the label.


Information from the observer is not just important, it’s often decisive in making an ID. It’s also confirmation that the observer really exists and is interested in their observation, and that’s no small matter. Of course they might knowingly or unknowingly provide incorrect information, but heck, that’s life, no?


The thing about it is that people are not always perfect or honest. I’ve encountered instances where a user appears to be lying in order to have an observation marked as wild, but I’ve also found myself describing my own situations that might seem dishonest to others, even if I know they’re not… I’ve also encountered instances where people think one thing is correct but it’s impossible, like when people will upload tracks and claim they saw the animal make them. Maybe they did see that animal but the tracks are not from that animal. So, my point is that even with user context, it’s not always accurate or perfect, but that just is what it is.

I think there’s something in the guidelines that covers all of the above in one swift motion: Assume others mean well.

So, all that being said, unless you as the identifier can prove the observer is incorrect, whether it be deliberate or not deliberate, I think the word of the observer should be taken as truth. Even if it seems like a gray area or is shocking. It’s literally in the guidelines to assume people mean well. Just assume the person means well.


No. :)


quoting from @cthawley :

Please don’t make requests to confirm IDs based on an observer’s (or identifier’s) expertise such as
“why do you refuse to trust that I know what[…] they look like?”

iNat IDs are not judgments of the identifier’s perceptions of the observer’s ability to accurately ID something. They are an assessment of the evidence for the ID in the media. This is true of pictures as well as drawings. For instance, with bad pictures, the observer may be certain of what they saw with their eyes, but there isn’t enough evidence in the photo for other identifiers to confirm. This is fine - it happens. But IDers should always ID based on the evidence presented and their own expertise.

I personally extend this suggestion to marking captive status on an observation. Assessing the evidence in an observation independently, I believe it is possible to come away with a different conclusion than the observer may. There is no intrinsic reason to vote wild on an observation only because the observer says it is wild. This is something that identifiers can decide for themselves based on the evidence available to them in the observation, and the community at large can decide how to treat an observation.

@alex_abair @jingyilu

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This sounds dangerous to me. Just imagine if we follow this, we will soon have RG ivory-billed woodpeckers on iNaturalist. Cases will be observers providing a blurry photo of a large woodpecker and detailed descriptions matching the species. We can not prove the observer is incorrect, and then the word of the observer should be taken as truth. I don’t think people who believe in ivory-bill woodpeckers do not mean well. Instead, for cases with doubt, I think it’s more important to have enough supporting evidence. The observer’s text could be considered but it alone cannot act as enough evidence and this applies to both IDs and DQAs.


If you can’t see those traits though I don’t think it would be acceptable to add an agreeing ID. You can’t confirm it if you cannot see it. In a case like that I would ID it as “woodpeckers” and say “that’s as good as you’re going to get given the quality of the image”. Even with the context which may be true or may not be true, identifiers have the responsibility to make choices based on their own knowledge and should ID based on what they can see. It’s also different with animals that are common. Like if it’s a bad image of a robin and a user adds additional context that sounds like a robin, agreeing to that doesn’t hold the same amount of weight as agreeing to the example you provided would. I think that responsibility and differentiating to know the difference is on the identifier.

I think the difference with the DQA though is that the identifier cannot confirm or deny what another’s story is about the organism. You can’t see it with your own eyes like the observer did. I think if you’re doubtful of somebody’s story, you can offer a thumbs down or you can just not offer a vote at all. You can see the images of an observation with your own eyes, so I don’t think it’s the same thing. Offering an agreeing ID and offering a thumbs up or thumbs down have different levels of confidence needed, imo.


Yes, I agree whole-heartedly. I feel disagreeing on “wild” or “not wild” is akin to disagreeing on an organism’s taxonomic identity. I think it’s totally fair game to use the provided evidence to cast a vote for what an identifier deems is an accurate representation of means of establishment. There is a voting system for a reason.


There is also no intrinsic reason to mark an observation as “not wild” only based on photos while ignoring textual information provided by the observer. Information provided by the observer is also evidence. I see people using it all the time: for information about the substrate of a fungus, linking the same specimen at different life stages, to get additional context on out-of-range or out-of-season observations, to indicate field marks that were confirmed on site but not captured in the photos/audio.

An IDer can assess this textual evidence and decide whether it is plausible, the same way as they would for visual or audio evidence. I don’t see why an observer’s note that a plant specimen was found in the wild and brought home should be automatically discredited unless there is specific reason to doubt it.

Would a herbarium specimen also be marked as “not wild”? A pinned insect? We trust the observer in such cases that the location and date are correct, even though the specimen has been taken out of context and we cannot verify the location based on the photos.

In the case at hand, I don’t know whether the notes in the observation merely said that the individual was wild, or whether the context was explained in more detail (wild individual taken home, type of habitat where it was found, why the observer believes it was a volunteer). That could make a difference about how plausible the note would seem to others.

I do potentially see a different issue here. It isn’t clear to me – was the specimen merely uprooted, or was it then replanted? If the latter, and it was not photographed immediately after replanting, I would find it difficult to argue that the observation represents the plant in its wild state, because it likely has grown/changed appearance since it was found.


A wild volunteer taken home is Wild.

But I would pass on voting either way.
And I certainly wouldn’t insist on Not Wild.
We don’t know whether it is, or is not - and have no reason to cast a vote either way.

However the location for Wild would have to be where you found it. Easier to avoid argument, if you had taken a photo There.


Yes, the location was marked where I found the plant. The photo was taken at my home because at the time I found the plant I did not have a camera on me.


I think we need to evaluate all the evidence INCLUDING the person’s notes. That doesn’t mean we should assume a person’s statement is always true, but we should take it seriously. We shouldn’t consider it wrong just on some principle that notes aren’t evidence.

Possible conflict of interest: I love finding escaped plants, waifs, untended bamboos that have been spreading vegetatively for a long time, etc. I do my best to evaluate their status and report it accurately. I’d hate it if y’all marked some plant as “capitive/cultivated” just because the photo centered on the plant itself don’t give you as much context as you’d like. (I would be willing to explain why I think it’s wild, if you ask.)

I think the person who voted your observation captive/cultivated was just wrong.


I think the “as much context as you’d like” is most important here because it seems like that’s what prompted the post. I think if it’s impossible to say if what the observer is saying is accurate or not, there’s no reason to immediately assume it is dishonest, which is what I was getting at with my “assume others mean well” mention. I think maybe some people will look at an image and think “well, I’m not sure I agree”, and instinctively will mark in opposition. I think that’s okay if the observer is not responsive to questions but if they are telling you context that is relevant to the vote you offer, you should listen to them unless you can somehow prove they are incorrect.


Where does this appear as iNat policy? If it does I haven’t come across it.

If photographing pinned specimens from museum collections, the advice to observers is to mark them as wild at the location where the speciemen was collected. How is this different?


I completely agree that an observer’s word as to whether the organism was captive or not should be accepted. Otherwise, the entire system breaks down. Should I be marking observations as having an incorrect date just because the user hasn’t proven to me that the date reported was accurate? Should I be marking all observations as having an incorrect location if the user doesn’t have GPS data tied to the photo to prove where it was taken? Should I be downgrading everything to casual if the observer can’t prove to me that they personally took the photo? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. There’s a voting system on whether or not those aspects of the observation are correct, but if I went around downvoting what the user claims about when and where they saw the organism, just on the grounds that the picture doesn’t contain enough information to confirm the date, I’d expect to be banned from the website. We take the user’s word that they did in fact see the organism, that they took the picture, that they’re accurately reporting where they were, and that they’re accurately reporting the date when they found it. None of that information is provable given only a photo. We only downvote the accuracy of these claims if there is a very clear and obvious reason to doubt their accuracy. Why wouldn’t we also take their word that they saw the organism in the wild?

Disagreeing on an ID is an entirely different issue than disagreeing on the circumstances of the observation. If someone posts a picture of a bullfrog and calls it a toad, I can positively say that the photo shows a bullfrog and confidently disagree with the ID based on that evidence. To then say “now prove to me that the frog was wild! Prove that you’re not lying about the date, that you’re not mistaken about where the frog was! Prove that you took that photo and not your sister! Based only on the photo provided, that could have been taken in a different state on a different date! How do I know you’re even who you say you are?! I say that photo was actually taken three years ago and was staged in a zoo and you spoofed the EXIF data! Prove otherwise! PROVE IT!” … is just ludicrous beyond belief.

Unlike an ID, the underlying data about the circumstances of the observation is absolutely taken at the user’s word, unless there’s some extreme reason to doubt what they say (i.e. they demonstrably just posted someone else’s image from the internet). If you allow identifiers to disregard what the observer claims about where and when and how they found the organism (wild/captive), the entire premise of iNat collapses. Everything about an observation, besides the ID, relies on “user self-report”. If there’s an obvious reason to think they’re reporting incorrectly, that’s where the DQA voting comes into play. But I cannot express strongly enough how much I disagree with the idea of voting “captive” on an organism the user explicitly says they collected from the wild just because they can’t prove where they found it from the photo. There are hundreds of thousands… perhaps millions… of photos on iNat taken of collected specimens - either pinned, dissected, or examined microscopically - that could be torn out of Research Grade if this dangerous practice were put into wide use. Goodbye to every microbe observation - you can’t prove where you got the water sample from that you’re examining. Goodbye to every observation of insect and plant species that require examination under a microscope - you can’t prove you got it from the wild based only on a specimen photo. If we take only the evidence in the photo into account when voting on the DQAs, iNat will be left with nothing but photos of selfies where the observer is holding up the day’s newspaper to prove the date of the observation and pointing to the organism in the background to prove they were physically present to observe it in the wild. -_-


I disagree with the interpretation that “assume the observer means well” is equal to “assume that the observer is correct” or that

Assuming that someone means well or that they are acting “in good faith”, another phrase that is used frequently (eg, in the Curator Guidelines), applies to the person’s intentions (which are very difficult/impossible to ascertain), not the factual content of whatever they have posted which is open to assessment by other users. The means that we start interacting with them/their content under the assumption that they are not acting dishonestly, forging data, changing EXIF to deceive, etc. But it does not mean we are required to uncritically accept that what they assert is true if we have some reason to believe otherwise.

In fact, the Community Guidelines that provide the relevant guidance are specifically focused on well-intentioned, but clear mistakes (eg copyright violations):
“please assume people have made an honest mistake unless you have evidence to the contrary”.

Two examples from my own experience to illustrate my point:

  1. An observer IDs their observation as a brown anole based on its brown color. However, it is clearly a green anole (which can be brown), based on multiple characters . The observer notices the disagreeing IDs and comments “I saw the dewlap and it was red” (which would be diagnostic for IDing a brown anole in the continental US). Based on the picture in their observation, the observer is almost certain to be incorrect (unless they have found a one-in-a-million green anole with a red dewlap, which is not technically impossible). I assume they are not intentionally lying to support their initial ID: they could remember the anole incorrectly, they could be remembering another anole they saw the same day with a red dewlap, etc. BUT, it’s still perfectly legitimate for me to judge they are likely (honestly) mistaken and keep my ID of “green anole”. I’m don’t need to change my ID to brown anole, or even bump it back to Anolis (the genus), based on their statement, because I judge it almost certainly incorrect (regardless of intention).

  2. An observer uploads an observation from several years ago of an anole of species A from island B. Species A is native to island A (not B, where the observation is), and would be the first observation from this island. This is quite unlikely but isn’t impossible since anoles are moved between islands by humans. After a comment asking if the observation location is correct, the observer says “Yes, I vacationed on island B that summer.” While the observer does have some other observations from island B, they are on different dates. The observer also has observations from the same date that are in a different location, where species A is native. In this situation, I assume that the observer has made an honest mistake in adding the location of the observation, even given their response, and downvote “Location is correct” in the DQA. I judge the totality of evidence, while circumstantial, to indicate that the observation location is incorrect.

In general users aren’t all going to agree on every aspect of an identification or DQA vote. Different people will assess the same evidence and come to different conclusions - that’s ok. Everyone gets an ID/vote. As the Guidelines note “Sometimes differences cannot be resolved”.


Observer-added context is for sure relevant, and as many others here have said, should be evaulated as you would other evidence. We should assume others mean well but not necessarily that they are correct or accurate - that’s what the ID system and DQA votes are for. Use your best judgement when evaluating the observation, ask questions if need be, and either render judgement or move on. The observer is also able to add their own vote, to counteract someone’s vote.

I would ask them to share what resource they’re citing so it can be evaulated.


Insofar as the topic is about context, this:

is interesting.

The context of @dysm 's comment is clear if quoted in full:

The examples provided by Chris are clearly of the “prove them wrong sort” (to the extent that proof is actually possible).

Every single thing in an observation can be falsified. The GPS co-ordinates that many think are objective in some way, can be easily falsified. Metadata are editable. Photographs are editable (and stealable). The fundamental principle on which so-called citizen science is based is that most people will act in good faith in a shared project of this sort.

I have marked a bunch of things captive/cultivated. In some cases I have done so because it was obvious. More often I have done so after asking the observer about it and getting no response. I have always followed the advice that specimens collected in the field should be marked as wild, at the location of collection. That pretty clearly applies to @Raymie’s situation and the person who is insisting on marking it as not wild is simply wrong, whether or not they are entitled to their mistake.