Roles of taxonomic experts on iNat

From time to time someone brings up the subject that experts are frustrated by the large number of misidentifications. I don’t know the exact statistics, but I think a very large number of iNat users drop in, post a few things, and then leave never to return. These folks greatly outnumber the folks with expertise in identification. This will always be the case–and these folks can’t be trained or taught because it’s a constant turnover. Another large user base are those amateurs that stick around because they’re passionate about observing, documenting, and (for most) identifying (but they are not as skilled as the taxonomic experts).

So what is the most effective role of the tiny number of taxonomic experts if the goal is to maximize correct identifications? I see two options:

  1. Spend a lot of time making identifications (without commenting or educating)
  2. Spend some time making identification guides (freely available on the internet) that are useful for photographed specimens vs. in-hand specimens (published keys and descriptions are typically not useful for a photographed specimen)

It seems like option 2 would allow for passionate amateurs to better contribute toward identification, relieving the constant burden on taxonomic experts to continually perform option 1 with little to no assistance and no end in sight.

“Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”

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I like that idea, I was very frustrated this spring, I had photographed a bunch of bees and was wasting a lot of time comparing species pictures only to later find out that most of them aren’t identifiable beyond genus level.

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I strongly agree, though there is the problem that some of the best finds (new species, new populations, etc.) are misidentified as common species. Also, there is a way to incorporate the two ideas. In the identification guides, you can provide a link to observations that have been verified by the author like this one of my IDs for E. maculata: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?ident_user_id=nathantaylor&place_id=any&subview=grid&taxon_id=58893
With this, you have representative material. If this were a Texas guide, I could restrict to place. If illustrating seasonal trends, you can adjust the month. A lot of neat things you can do with the data.

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@nathantaylor, that’s a really good idea to link to verified observations from the guide!

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A mix of 1 & 2 would be ideal.

I try to ID as many observations as possible for my taxon of interest. I tend to go through many very quickly, which means I often don’t make comments (although I will if there are subsequent questions). I will continue to do this because I find it enjoyable and a good way to keep my ID skills sharp.
What annoys me are the people that make an initial incorrect ID (often a computer vision suggestion) and never change their ID, for one reason or another. With so few other experts in this group on iNat to support the ID, the observation languishes at a higher taxon level. Even worse are the folks who think they know better than the expert, and make a disagreeing ID after the fact! Sometimes it feels like I am wasting my time, and I know this has discouraged other experts from using iNat.

While I don’t see this observer behavior changing even with good ID resources available, it would be very useful to have amateur users for back-up in cases of disagreement. To help facilitate that, I’m working on various identification keys to be posted on my website. These will be designed with photo users in mind and, hopefully, should be useful for experts and amateurs alike.

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To add to point 2, I think it would be helpful to the enthusiastic amateurs if we could add some short notes about what parts of an organism are most important to photograph for the best identification.

People often post observations that have one extreme closeup of a flower and nothing else. I can probably ID to genus based on that but there might be half a dozen plants in that geographic area with very similar flowers but completely different leaves or stems. Or sometimes it’s a picture of a tree from 100 feet away.

It would be nice if the app had a little popup once they have selected an ID (either manually or Computer Vision) that said something like “here are some parts that are important for identification, try to get more photos: lower leaves, back of flower, plant height” or whatever is appropriate for that taxonomic group. Make it easy to copy these points to child taxa to reduce the workload.

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Yes I do absolutely agree. I have started recently to ID a few observations of flora from the Italian Central Apennines where I have a reasonable level of expertise and it is frustrating to see so many “single flower” observations which could easily be identified by at least a leaf, or a photo of the plant as a whole. Same story with the habitat which is not always evident from the photo. I’m sure most of the observers are keen and would be all too happy to spend a little more time on each observation to get the details right, if only they knew what those details might be!

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I am knowledgeable on mollusks. I fall into category 1, because I “spend a lot of time making identifications (without commenting or educating)”, although like many other ID-ers, I will explain if I am asked to do so.

I think the important thing here on iNaturalist is (even for identifiers) to do what they most enjoy doing. Different people learn in different ways. When I am trying to ID things outside my area of expertise, I often do pretty well without an identification guide, even in phyla where I know every little. I find that the iNaturalist website is already a great resource for ID-ing, in and of itself.

Creating “identification guides suitable for use with photographs” would not be something I would enjoy, although I commend people who like to do that.

However, writing pop-up notes or other simple guidelines as to which photos would help with ID-ing gastropods, bivalves, etc is something I would enjoy.

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I agree too, but sometimes this is easier said than done. If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly learning new ways to distinguish between the species you study. As such, something unidentifyable without a picture of the calyces (for instance) may be identifiable once I learn how to ID the plant without the calyces. An expert’s expertise is a moving target. Now, if you use the term keyable, that’s more stable but not always easier. Photos are rarely keyable in general (at least with plants) as all the measurements are based on dried, pressed specimens. The Chamaesyce-type Euphorbias are a good example of this as there are really only two-three species pairs in the US that I can’t ID reliably without seeds (and I can ID those difficult pairs in probably half or more of the circumstances). Except for those cases, all I need is a habit shot, but if you look at the keys, the species you can key without seeds are very few and far between. Technically, you can ID more if you use the descriptions and geography. Who knows, if you get enough descriptions, you might even be able to ID most of them by comparing descriptions without experience studying them. All this to say, unidentifiability is not an easy concept to define when you’re constantly learning new techniques.

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I agree that there are some species which are impossible to ID from photos and I’m guessing this is especially true in the invertebrate world. However, there are many observations that would benefit from having just one extra photo of the right part of the plant/animal/fungus/etc. I don’t see why habitat couldn’t be one of the pointers too. I was just identifying a Thelypodium and even though there were several good close-up photos of flowers and leaves, I still had to zoom in on the map to see whether it was in rocky or sandy habitat.

I started a feature request and I will post a link when it’s approved.

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I really like this idea of adding ID guides, especially for tricky taxa. Even better would be to have those guides linked to the taxon information page for each taxon that that they are relevant to. Right now I find them hard to track down even when I know that there is one for a particular group.
Another possibility (maybe something similar to Curator status) is to have the ability for users to be labeled as some sort of “expert” for a given taxon to give them more credibility for their identifications.

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There’s a place for links on the taxa pages (on the ‘About’ tab where folks can post links to guides and other information. Like this one: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/62403-Agalinis

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This is great! Thanks for the heads up. I see that in this particular case, the link is grafted to the genus, but not necessarily to all of the Texas species. I assume these guides need to be individually linked to the About pages for each taxon that they apply to?

As an expert on treehopper insects (Membracidae) I am motivated to participate by the ability through iNat to encourage interest in my group and develop some level of expertise in those that take an interest. When there are species-level IDs that are unfounded, I often make comments explaining why, sometimes say which body parts need to be visible, and provide links to revisions available online. As observers improve, this lightens the burden on me. I am not dissuaded by the occasional visitors because as was said earlier that will always be a fact of life in an open community. Through iNat I get another direct benefit: having so many eyes out there turns up unusual things. I often see photos useful for my own scientific publications and have found almost all observers to generously give me permission to use them. Sometimes when I see a new species I asked them to try to collect some, and have even been mailed specimens so that I can describe them. Taking the time to create a guide is excessive for me; I’d rather continue with my publications because there are so many that remain undescribed.

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I agree with most of the ideas shared so far, i am not an expert, so this is just my opinion as an amateur user. I think that the most important thing (and i believe, the easiest) is to make clear to all non-experts users, that never or almost never should they make a species-ID, instead they should be encouraged to reach an order or family level at most. Unless they know something oabout the particular taxon and are very sure.

I also believe that the guides are double-edged swords, since promote the misclassification of rare species as common species who look alike, as was said above.

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I’ve always thought that iNat should require a comment when making an ID that disagrees with the original or with previous IDs, even if it’s only a word or 2. I usually try to do that.

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I don’t agree. So long as the user remains active and is willing to withdraw their ID, and is especially careful to avoid specious Research Grade observations, it is helpful to add species and genus IDs. Depending on the taxon, experts may be searching at Order level; or they may only go through one species at a time, in which case a coarsely identified observation will not get attention for a very long time.

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Here’s the feature request I created that would prompt people to add more photos: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/add-an-optional-photo-prompt-to-the-new-observation-screen-in-the-apps/13471

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