Questions on taxon curation

Hello! Based on conversations I have had with @loarie and other curators on the site, it seemed like a good idea to discuss how we should handle taxon curation in the future.

  1. When are we (curators, community, admins) choosing to deviate from an authority (MDD, WoRMs, etc.)? Should we deviate?

  2. Who are the people that make the decision to deviate? Should it solely be a decision made by taxon curators, or should other people in the community (who aren’t curators) have input as well?

  3. How should we differentiate an intentional deviation from a lingering, unintentional deviation from an authority in Taxon Relationships?

  4. Who should be Taxon Curators? What credentials should we be looking for?

  5. How should we collaborate with one another on taxonomic issues? Here, in the Forum? Have the Working Group projects been helpful?

  6. When splitting 1 species into 2, how important is it to preserve the taxon range? What should we do when a split seems valid but it is completely ambiguous on where the geographic boundary occurs between the 2 species?

  7. What changes would you suggest that would make taxon curation easier for you?


Rather than embedding quotes which will make for a very long reply, I will just reference point numbers

1- My understanding (I played a small role in helping test the taxon framework approach before it was globally rolled out) is that deviations are fine. The objective is not to blindly follow a defined resource. Rather, I think of it as the starting point for the discussion. Deviations should be done if there is both scientific and community consensus to do them. It needs both, scientific consensus in and of itself is likely an unreachable goal. For example, I am sure there is some level of consensus (if you select the right people to ask) that European and American Herring Gulls are 2 different species, but it is not a settled matter among the gull experts and certainly not in the community

2 - I think anyone should have the right to request a deviation. Ultimately the taxon curators should engage top identifiers or known site experts for their fedback. Recognizing it may be impossible to get a consensus in that group, in the end as the only people who can apply the change, I guess to an extent the taxa curators have the final say, but i think it crucial that the curators not have a unilateral no vote

3 - It just comes down to documenting it. From a pure data perspective, they both look the same - they are not external deviations. If it is intentional, there should be comments and or a link to the flag discussion in the notes section. Unintended ones will likely lack this commentary which should be a visual prompt to curators this has not yet been looked at

4 - To my mind each locked taxa should have at least 1 subject matter expert and 1 experienced, active curator who is not an expert. Taxonomic expertise is clearly valuable. Understanding and respecting what the site is trying to do with this approach is more important. A taxa expert who is a curator who takes the approach of ‘I’m the expert, I decide’ undermines that approach and takes us back to the issue of unilateral taxonomy changes, which this structure is meant to minimize.

5 - Not on the forum, we tell users who bring taxonomy issues up on the forum to use the site curation tools, we should eat our own dog food as they say in technology. There does seem to be a split between doing it in flags and doing it in the taxonomy relationship documentation, it would be nice to settle on 1 place. My personal sense is in the TFR’s as it separates it from day to day flag management, but I dont have a particular preference, just wish it would be more standardized. I have no experience using the Working Groups to comment on

6 - If the ranges legitimately overlap, and you reflect that in the atlases, if you run a split, it will bump any records in the overlapping geography back to genus. I’m not sure there is a better solution. I know this is a hobbyhorse of mine, but I still think the site really needs to discuss what a range is, and what/how we should be documenting it


Standardize where we discuss between flags and the TFR’s

It would be great if when a new species were added, especially in areas like plants where we have an authority that a trigger ran to try and automatically create the TFR documentation. I know it can be done by bulk load, if that means the data is in a database structure somewhere, just automate it as part of the creation process

It would be great if on the taxa page there was some kind of indicator as to how many child species there are in the database. So for instance if you looked at the taxonomy tab here

Rather than it saying what it does now it had Typical Cardinals (Genus Cardinalis) (3) it would help, Yes i know counting to 3 is easy for most of you, but for larger genera, where there are dozens or hundreds of child species, it would really help to understand just how out of synch the data is with the reference

Having some way to indicate that a genus or family etc is aligned to reference (for things like plants which have a reference but are not locked).


WoRMS is often woefully out of date. There have been many times where I’ve asked for a new taxon to be added (citing the relevant literature), only to hear back from the curators “sorry, it’s not in WoRMS”.

Although I am not a curator, I have the same question. When I flag a plant taxon for curation I know I must cite Kew’s Plants of the World Online. Are there situations, however, when primary sources can be used (e.g. peer reviewed, curated, published, authoritative journal articles)? Or is the policy to cite and follow only secondary sources as a way to avoid taxonomic churn (e.g. Plants of the World Online)?

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In groups with ongoing rapid rates of new species discovery (including plants), I think we would be derelict not to allow them to be added to the iNaturalist taxonomy when requested, based on the primary literature source, and as documented deviations from the secondary source(s). Otherwise a lot of valuable observations and IDs would be left waiting in limbo for years while the secondary sources eventually catch up. I think this has already been common practice in iNaturalist for plants. Not sure about other groups, but I would encourage the same in any group.


Just two comments. You don’t have to cite Powo or another defined reference or anything. Many requests are sent that just say something like ‘add Branta snuffleupagusi’ ,or even worse ‘fix genus x’ but it certainly helps and will make it both faster and easier for curators to look at. And given the small number of curators who try to deal with the requests, any help is both good and appreciated.

Site guidelines say the site explicitly does not follow primary literature, it does not say they will not do so. My experience is the same as a above, that a well cited, peer reviewed new species can and will be added. Requests that use primary literature that conflict with a defined reference will be more closely scrutinized.

But it is a matter of judgment.

The site has several reasons for their primary literature policy

  • it is simply impossible for the number of curators working to review all journals
  • many are still behind paywalls and the site does not expect curators to pay to access them
  • it is an ineffective dispute resolution (journal article A says Larus argentatus is 2 species, article B says it is 1) if you just followed requests that cited them, you’d just be switching back and forth
  • these days with preprint servers, self publishing etc the lines are blurry about exactly what meets the standards for primary literature

A more well written explanation of the policy is on the help page under the curators guide which all users can read.