I would like to see the goals you describe met (recruiting more experts, getting more mid-level users to spend more time ID’ing, and making people more aware of the value of their IDing) but I also think there is a missing piece of the puzzle here, which might be more important than all of these goals: helping people to become better at identification.
Identification isn’t something where you become an expert all at once. It’s a lifelong process, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.
“Experts” are often experts specifically because they know more about how little they know, and how many things they actually need to check or exclude to be certain of an ID. Lots of people can identify a dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) and a slightly smaller group of people can identify white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) in its range. Far fewer people know that there are two dandelion species in much of the continental U.S., the more common Taraxacum officinale and the less-common red-seeded Dandelion, Taraxacum erythrospermum, and even fewer people know the characteristics to tell these apart. Similarly for the species Ageratina aromatica where it overlaps with white snakeroot in range. Even fewer people have a sense of the range of natural variability in things like leaf shape, to where they can see an isolated, atypical-looking plant of one species, and know for certain what it is.
A newbie though might make elementary mistakes. A plant with whorled leaves? Can’t be white snakeroot. Oops, but it is. A plant with opposite leaves? Can’t be Verbesinia alternifolia. Oops, but it is.
Moving from a newbie towards an expert, involves learning how to know just how much you know…those crows you’re observing in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. American crow, or Fish crow? Do you know a chipping sparrow well enough to know when you’re actually looking at a clay-colored sparrow? And perhaps more importantly, do you know when to say “Sparrow sp.”, “Warbler sp.” or “Crow sp.”? It’s like Kenn Kaufman’s book Advanced Birding. I love that book and it made me better at bird ID specifically because it made me realize how I had been IDing stuff that I didn’t truly know how to ID.
It’s about having seen enough plants that you know how to spot atypical variants of a plant, like opposite leaves on a plant that normally has an alternate leaf arrangement, or whorled leaves on a plant that is normally opposite, or a plant with unusually wide or narrow leaves, or a bird with aberrant coloration.
iNaturalist can get better at guiding people in these directions, and we as users can also do the same thing. Some things I’d like to see:
- Users sharing more detail in comments about how they’re identifying things. “Note the such-and-such characteristics, excluding such-and-such other species,” “No, this is definitely not a such-and-such because it has these features,” or “But that species has never been reported this far east.” etc. This helps educate others about correct ID, as well as other taxa we need to be checking against, and also helps resolve disputes and more quickly reach a consensus. And by mentioning things like range and habitat, we can help other people realize how central range and habitat are in ID, something newbies often under-emphasize.
- Users asking each other about how they identified certain things: “How did you know this is a such-and-such? How did you exclude this species?” etc. This helps encourage other users to engage in the sort of educational sharing in the previous point, and it also helps resolve disagreements.
- A UI and feedback system that encourages users to exercise more restraint in identifcation. The system as-is seems to encourage haphazard guessing.
- Highlighting and more linking to external resources for ID, which can include books, websites, and online communities. This could happen both centrally in the official UI and documentation of the site, and from users in their comments. This can involve citing or mentioning books, and linking to websites. This can include both material on characteristics for ID, as well as range maps, and discussion of habitat.
- More users setting a positive example of exercising restraint in ID. For example, if you think something is probably a certain species, but you’re not sure, and you are sure of the genus, then identify it to genus level, and say in the comments: “I think this is such-and-such species, but I’m not 100% sure.” This will set a positive example for other users and train them in how to become better at ID. You may also spark some dialogue that helps you improve your ID, if someone can point out characteristics that you might be missing in the photo, that can help you to be 100% sure of the species-level ID that you correctly guessed, or if someone corrects you and it’s actually something else. It also helps if you really have no clue what something is but have a vague guess, like “I have a vague hunch this may be in the Asteraceae family, but I really don’t know.” Learning to distinguish relative degrees of certainty and uncertainty is important for getting better at ID.
- Sharing, and discussing, aberrant examples of common species, including verbally describing what is aberrant about them, and how we ID’ed them as what we did. This is critically important, both for training people to ID aberrant individuals, and for raising awareness that these things happen in the first place (which can lead to people exercising more restraint in their ID’s by realizing how little they know.)
Basically, the more I think about this, the more I realize that this is something that all of us can do a lot about through our own behavior on the site.
But I also do want the architects and administrators of the site to be thinking about this stuff. I think that the UI of the site may be inadventently encouraging sloppy ID, and at best, it’s not doing all it could be for encouraging people to become better at ID. I’d really like to see an interface that encourages caution and restraint in identification. I.e. we want to make it easiest and most natural for people to exhibit the best behavior and not rely on people to exhibit unusual levels of self-discipline, which I think is what the status quo feels like to me.