Publishing with iNaturalist maps?

I’ll be publishing a paper that includes range maps. Two factors come into play: staying legal, and overlaying maps.

To be legal I found this “Citing iNat, Google Maps, and GBIF dataset should cover the map and observation data you would use in a screenshot.” So I guess I’m OK.

But if I want to overlay the range of several species, with different color observation markers, is there an easier way than downloading the data and plotting it on GIS?

Third question relates to a future project, that is how to use iNaturalist maps in a for-profit publication?


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I can’t really weigh in on the legal aspect (I think it’s fine? For money, no idea), but I would suggest that if you are going to use data from here, it would be a good idea to reach out to the top identifiers for the datasets you are going to use and interview/vet them as to their abilities. These people are essentially framing the datasets and getting their input on pitfalls might be useful. An example would be if you were hoping to use iNat to gauge Bombus vagans, I can tell you that a large amount of eastern vagans are not ID’d to species instead ID’d to Subgenus Pyrobombus due to their similarity to another species. Talking to the ID’ers might get you nuances like that. Crediting as identifiers would also be a good idea.


I’d just make my own map, especially for publication. Download the data from iNat and plot it in R or ArcGIS. There’s tons of tutorials out there. It will give you much more customization.


Agreed, but even better, download it from GBIF and cite the DOI, that way it’s better for iNat, and it solves copyright issues in one go!


copyright and licensing for a commercial application can be a bit squishy. ideally, you should have a proper commercial license to use whatever layers you have in your map.

it’s easy enough to contract with Google to use their platform or ArcGIS to use their standard layers. but then you get into how to license data from iNat or GBIF. theoretically, observation data is licensed at the observation level. in iNat and GBIF, you can look for only observations that carry particular licenses. some people claim that you can’t really copyright the locations of observations though. so i guess talk to your own legal advisers to figure out how you want to handle that.

squishier still are the cases where iNat actually has range polygons for some taxa. it’s not always clear exactly where these range maps really come from without talking to the curator who added it. iNat also has checklist place maps that indicate whether a taxon is present or absent in a “standard” places (countries, states, counties, and equivalents). a lot of this data comes from the observations in the system, but some of it comes from data that people have loaded from various other sources. so it’s not always easy to figure out exactly how to properly handle these from a copyright perspective.

if you just want to go from a practical perspective, it would all really just come down to how likely someone would be to sue you for using their stuff without permission. a corporation like Google or ArcGIS is probably more likely to be in a position to sue you for using their map data without permission. an individual observer is probably less likely to do so. talk to a legal adviser, if in doubt.

how best to do this depends on what exactly you’re trying to achieve. this talks about some of the mapping capabilities within iNat itself and then goes into one method for visualizing some of the data: this particular approach may not necessarily be the best way to visualize your data though. so, again, it just depends on what you’re trying to do.


I agree. Make your own map from scratch. As a reviewer (and reader) of journal manuscripts, I always cringe when I see authors use these sorts of maps. It comes across as lazy (not saying that you are!). QGIS is also an alternative if you can’t afford the ridiculously high price of ArcGIS.


I used to have QGIS, but it looked like I needed to subscribe anyway in order to use it?

One thing that I never did figure out: what if you don’t need all the fancy layers? What if your intended publication just needs shorelines and county lines, on which you can plot points? It seems like every mapping platform is biased toward fancier and more colorful.

I used QGIS to make these maps (plus PowerPoint to add the inset maps):

You just find the layers that you need (country, state, county) and then create a file that contains your X,Y coordinates of your points. And then read lots of tutorials to make the map pretty for printing (that’s the hard part–knowing what buttons to push to make it look just like how you want it. There’s nothing fancy or colorful–unless you go to the extra effort to add it. QGIS is free and open source.

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