Respecting ownership of observations


I have always assumed that it was very clear that users ‘owned’ their own observations, but this doesn’t seem to be explicitly stated anywhere - perhaps I assume too much.

This is of course for observations, and users which don’t breach the site’s terms and conditions etc.

  • @Kueda has previously stated users are responsible for their own observations

  • Only users can edit the description of their observations

  • Users can assert copyright on photos and the observation data, and not allow it to be used just as the viewer chooses

  • Users can prevent addition of projects and additional fields to their observation

  • Users can delete their own observations at any time.

  • The community normally gets to decide on the identification of the subject of the observation, but even that can be overridden at any time by the user by turning off community ID for that observation.

The one area that the user doesn’t have full control of is ‘Data Quality Assessment’ items, where the user can vote, but the community decision is by majority vote.

But who gets to decide what the subject of an observation is? Are there any situations where the community should identify a different feature of an observation when it is clear which element in observation the observer is interested in? And I’m not talking about when the observer is mistaken about the identification of their subject.

Thinking about it, there have probably been occasions where I have added an ID for part of an observation which wasn’t what the observer intended as expressed by their description, placeholder, or initial identification or maybe even comments. I can’t find a particular instance, but there have been observations where the photo or sound has been very bad (eg far too far away to identify the supposed subject), and I can’t spot the thing they are describing, and have added an ID for some other thing prominent in the photo. eg they have stated their subject is a bird on a tree on the far side of the lake, and I can barely make out the tree, let alone see anything bird sized, but I don’t want to ‘waste’ the observation ;-) (NB I don’t think that I have done this where they have actually added a taxon ID).

I have also seen the observer’s subject overridden (some probably fueled by just looking at a thumbnail in the identification tool) where identifiers have argued against correcting their ‘mistakes’ when it was drawn to their attention.

I now see that this is dishonouring the observer - and it shouldn’t matter how inexperienced they are or how bad their photos, they should be given the respect of not having their stated observation subject, overridden.

So what do others think? Should we have a declared iNat etiquette of respecting an observer’s observation subject choice, however much we are more interested in some other aspect of the observation?




I can’t answer the ownership question, but when it comes to observations with more than one subject in them it seems to me that it’s the responsibility of the observer to clarify what the subject of the observation is.

Many observations have more than one potential subject. Sometimes that means that a used can duplicate the observation and open a second identification chain for the secondary observation.



The image I just looked at was a classic example of this: A small Carica papaya in the middle of Cordyline fruticosa. In the series of photos, however, there were close-ups of both the papaya and the ti plant. When I had a look at the user I found that a large batch of observations were posted on 08 March and few were identified with those few identifications not coming from the user. My guess is that the whole batch went up without identification, let alone descriptions of which organism was to be identified. In the above instance I made a judgement call that the dominant plant, the photographic target, was the Cordyline fruticosa. Given that no apparent attempt is being made to identify the observations by the user after more than a month, seems fair game for IDers to step in and sort out the pile of unknowns and make reasonable judgement calls where they can. This is common theme I see in a number of forum topics: the issue of users who effectively shirk responsibility for working on identifications of their observations. Perhaps not even returning to agree with an ID being made by the community. If I am in the wrong, do correct me. I also teach statistics and I am wrong a whole lot more than 5% of the time.



This one is a dicey issue, technically the site guidelines say you should not enter an ID that you personally are not capable of doing, that you should not agree for the sake of agreeing.

Sometimes it comes down to being on the site long enough and starting to recognize names, for example if one of the professional botanists in the province identifies one of my sightings, I am prone to going ahead and agreeing, but if I don’t know the name, I’m prone to leaving it untouched.



In a case like that observation, if it’s mine I state what the subject of the observation is, even if I don’t know the species.

For example, in this observation there are two different types of egret, so I specify that the observation is about the ones with the yellow feet rather than the one with the black feet.

If the observer doesn’t make that type of distinction concerning the subject, then they effectively lose control over what will be identified by others.



Yes, I am talking about where the observer has made it clear what the subject is, either when posting the observation (their description, placeholder, or initial identification or maybe even comments), or later after IDs have been added.

This (duplicating an observation so another subject can be identified) is often encouraged, but sometimes leads to the exact situation I’m discussing - the photos have been taken with the first subject in mind, so when they copy the observation to allow other elements to be identified (eg a host plant), people identify the first subject again and don’t respond appropriately (or at all) when their ‘error’ is pointed out.



Yes, I am only talking about cases where the observer has indicated (with their description, placeholder, or initial identification or maybe even comments) what the subject of their observation is. We can’t always read their minds …



In that particular case I would add a comment with the ID saying that I had chosen to identify the dominant plant and include the ID of the other too if I new it. That makes it easy for the observer to see the ambiguity of their observation and correct our assumptions.



It’s tricky, isn’t it. I believe wholeheartedly that as things currently stand, the onus on the observer should be to declare what the subject is, and the onus on the identifier should be to respect the observer’s intent—and to ask for clarification if necessary.

It is difficult when an observer makes observations in which the subject is uncertain. The best an identifier can do in the current set up is to ask for clarification, but it relies on the observer taking action in response. If the observer isn’t on iNaturalist very often, or is new, or is not particularly diligent, these requests for clarification may go unfulfilled.

Now all that is rightly frustrating, and is particularly so when the observer is a repeat offender, so to speak. But it is how the system is set up. A solution, of course, would be to say that an observer does not have a right to declare the subject of their own observation—but I think that would cause more problems than it solves. Another solution would be to allow curators to split up or duplicate observations with more than one potential subject—this could be a gentle helping hand for new or inexperienced observers, and would prevent irritated non-curators from making rash modifications.


At what point does an anthropogenic introduction become wild?

Since iNat frames itself as a social network, it always seemed clear to me that my observations, photos, IDs, comments, journal posts, etc. are “mine”. The community ID is not “mine”, but I can choose to opt out of it I want to.

No, I don’t want other users creating observations on my account without my permission. I’m welcome to suggestions though—for me to do the duplication of my own observations. I do suggest this to others occasionally. “On the website, you could duplicate this and use the same photo for the host plant by clicking Edit>Duplicate…”

Yeah, I’d be likely to opt out of community ID in a “contested” situation…

I have IDed a different subject in the photo when it was a duplicate observation, such as two observations using the same photo of a butterfly on a flower, where each was IDed as the butterfly, and I interjected with an ID of the flower. I only would do this if the user was unresponsive to removing/fixing their duplicates and/or as a suggestion, which I’d be happy to remove if requested by the observer.

Example: This account not maintained by the user who took the photos, to which many hundreds of duplicate observations have been uploaded and went unfixed for years: (though you can see that another user was not happy with my decision(s)…!)

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I agree that that is a reasonable course of action where one would otherwise just be a duplicate observation, but really that is just out of my sense of ‘tidyness’ and not wanting to ‘waste’ an observation as simply being a ‘useless’ duplicate. But as in other cases, including when someone has deliberately used ‘copy’ to duplicate an observation, you have the side effect that you have an observation in an inappropriate project - ’ eButterfly North America’, which also needs to be cleaned up.



Not an issue with collection projects, and traditional project curators do have tools to find unsuitable observations (option1 / option 2).

But yeah, if there were some butterfly related tags / description / observation fields / annotations I would probably be less likely to “re-ID” and more likely to flag to mark as casual if the observer continues to be unresponsive.



This discussion did remind me of a observation i did dublicate lately … a branch with flowers and plant galls on the leaves.
I now updated the plant galls observation with a cropped image, to make clear what this observation is about.
flowering branch

Hope this this simple photo editing tool helps other users too, to make clear what they want to observe.



Here is a similar example, where it is clear to me that the user has created an observation of a bird, then duplicated it and tried to identify the plant

But three successive people have seemed to want to make it into an exact duplicate of the original, instead of honouring the observer’s explicit intentions.

The mis-understanding appears to simply be that the duplication process replicated the fields and projects from the original, creating confusion in some people minds, whereas the intention appears very plain to me. And if the simple rule of thumb is ‘honour the observer’s subject choice’ there would be no confusion.



As I started reading this topic, I had a feeling it was this observation!

I totally agree with the whole ownership thing, and if it were just the description, I would put the grass.

Jon’s class was undertaking bird counts, and I did find it confusing in that the class (or maybe it was a different one?) was also doing pollinators… When I review Jon’s students observations I tag him with any issues I see, as I imagine that he is acting in a mentor capacity and can guide the student into correcting or amending the observation.

For the pollinators project, there is often two observations, the plant and the pollinator. In this last incarnation of the project, it got confusing, because the students would upload a photo of the plant, we all IDd as such, and then they deleted that photo and put in microscope photos of the insect pollinators… ouch! The ol’ switcheroo… but that is why we review stuff, to catch problems and discuss them and, as in this case, find a way through it!

For the birdcounts it seldom is about anything other than the birds, so I determined in this case that the bird count fields would override the description.

To be honest, in this case I think the subject could be determined to be either, and perhaps it is a good example of CID in action in that it won’t settle on either until the owner of the observation provides more clarity on the intended subject!

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This is kind of a “duress observer” situation which is mitigated somewhat with a mentor (the lecturer). It is also further complicated with a language barrier in that many of the students (and @jon_sullivan should correct me if my assumption is wrong) are not English as a first language.



and one last point, there is no dishonouring of the observers intent here. I am not an absentee identifier, and if the observer clarifies the subject I can change my ID position accordingly!



I think it would be a reasonable addition to the Identification Etiquette wiki.



@mreith I’m glad you noted the point about cropping the images. While I know it would be (prohibitively?) time-consuming for some, I think that a quite a bit of confusion/discussion/etc could be avoided if observers would include a cropped version of the subject of the obs along with the original “context” shot.

This would have the added benefit of providing better “training materials” for the computer vision/AI algorithms, as cropped images will teach it more quickly and accurately. It does a remarkable job a lot of the time, but it does miss occasionally :-)

With respect to the ownership of the records, as I’ve posted elsewhere (with a slightly different focus), I think observers should own and have control over their observations until such time as they go awol, either voluntarily or as a consequence of the march of time (“awol” needing definition), at which point some aspects of control could be assigned to curators, staff, and/or other august individuals.

I agree with the many thoughtful posts above suggest - using comments to suggest splits or to confirm obs target is a great approach. It’s also a good way to bring overlooked observations to the observers’ attention. Some of the most prolific observers have blocks of unidentified or otherwise unclear observations, and I suspect that when uploaded there was a glitch, or they thought they’d IDed the whole page before hitting Submit but hadn’t, or intended to return but forgot, etc.



I think you are over thinking this!

The observer couldn’t be clearer - the description and identification are 100% consistent.

To insist on identifying it as a bird is simply to turn it into an exact duplicate of the orignal observation and is pointless.