Taxonomy changes and preferences vis a vis long-term iNat data use

I’d like for iNaturalist to take this issue more seriously.

Here’s one aspect of it: one of the things documented by herbaria is the past usage of plant names. You have a plant with an identification from 100 years ago right there on the sheet. This is a reason I opt out of community ID. If you opt in, so far as I can tell it becomes impossible to tell which of the IDs represents what the observer called the plant vs. an ID created on their behalf by a taxon update. Or that information may exist somewhere in the system, but not in a way most people can access. Of course, once I’m gone, my observations will be frozen in time. The herbarium system is built to preserve the ID history and let subsequent botanists annotate the specimen; in iNaturalist it’s one or the other. Of course, I suspect we’d get the usual answer from the powers that be: iNaturalist isn’t actually about biodiversity data. It’s about outreach.

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Why is it impossible? Taxon changes result in a new id, and you can turn off automatic taxon change, anyway old id stays and there’s no problem to see it, as long as user is alive all taxon changes are thought to be supported by that user.

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And it took me a while to realize that a lot of the data in photographs is being thrown away, too. If you’re interested in having your photographs available as a long-term archive, be aware that this is not iNaturalist’s intent. Find a second home for them.

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“Thought to be supported by that user”—I would not make that assumption!

I opt out of community ID because I don’t know how else to even have control over what IDs are attributed to me! If I opted in, I’ll tell you straight out that this assumption would be totally wrong in my case.

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I don’t know why it even matters, correct id is what it’s all about.

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I don’t believe there is even such a thing as correct ID.

It’s like saying people should just use the correct language… it flattens the situation into a caricature.

One can always add a note to any record they submit that includes their ID and other comments such as rationale for the ID. That won’t change or disappear regardless of whether one opts in or out of community ID. Taxonomy can change and we won’t always agree with those changes but the submitter’s original intent can be preserved. That’s no different than with a museum specimen.


I do that sometimes, but it’s more hassle and hard for someone downstream to access.

I have precisely zero objection to taxonomy changing. The ideal situation from my viewpoint is that I put the name I prefer on the observation, and everyone else does the same. Different understandings can all be expressed clearly and unambiguously; disagreement is something to be embraced. iNaturalist’s approach to taxonomy is in direct opposition to that concept.

It is opposed to that concept but I think out of necessity. It would be pretty chaotic if we could all use whatever taxonomy we prefer.

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I think that’s the concern, but I don’t take it seriously.

There are separate questions here—the name and the taxonomy. A particular name is compatible with any taxonomy. The nomenclatural facet of a taxonomy is simply the way in which it aggregates groups of names into taxa. Supposing you have that relationship between names and taxa in front of you, it’s trivial to apply it to a set of observations using any of those names. If you don’t have that relationship between names and taxa, your taxonomy is incomplete—and that’s the issue to tackle.

I find that a strange statement. If you go to the observation, the original identification and all later identifications are listed (unless they’ve been deleted by the person who posted them). We can always know what name the poster applied to the observation. We also who applied each other name. If there’s a taxon update, the original and new replacement name are both shown. Some good reasons to opt out of community ID exist, but this isn’t one of them.


You and Marina are reaching opposite conclusions, that taxon updates should be assumed to reflect the intent of the observer and that they can be easily distinguished from the intent of the observer.

Also, suppose you identified a plant as Mertensia foliosa. How would you record that? Would someone with access to iNaturalist’s identification database be able to retrieve that information?

Well, in the end it’s all just filing. No file system is perfect and no biological taxonomy is correct. A correct phylogeny for any group of organisms may exist – must exist, even if we never figure it out – but how we categorize that information is always going to be imperfect. As long as the system allows us to communicate and find things in any museum, database, or collection of literature (albeit imperfectly) it’s still useful.

I might add that I’ve never lost a moment of sleep worrying about taxonomy. And now it’s bedtime.


And, yes, I know my concerns are strange. :-) There wouldn’t be much point communicating them otherwise.

I guess I just don’t understand what you’re seeing. When I pull up the full observation, I see, right there, all the identifications – just like you would on a herbarium sheet! Why aren’t you seeing all the names? I’m using a PC. Are you using a cell phone? I’ve heard they’re different, though I don’t use one for iNaturalist so don’t know what view you have with one.


My basic thought here is that, given that we don’t have “the right answer”, let people be flexible and clear in their communication of different possible viewpoints.

Here’s an example:

Did I knowingly apply the name Picradeniopsis absinthifolia to this observation? Yup. Did Alex? I have no idea. I don’t know if he even knows that an identification under that name is attributed to him.

In an herbarium, you might type up an annotation label with someone else’s name on it and stick it on a specimen if they had communicated to you that they identified that specimen by that name. Absent that communication, you wouldn’t just attribute IDs to them out of the blue. iNaturalist does. If a taxonomist at another institution got specimens on loan and annotated them, you wouldn’t tell them, “Here are the species I recognize. You’re not allowed to call these plants anything else.” iNaturalist does that, too.

As I said, taxon changes are not automatic, you can turn that on and off, and person is notificated about them anyway.

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