Thoughts on Responding to Less Experienced Observers

I’ve been thinking about how we react on iNaturalist to new and less experienced users’ observations, both currently active and no longer active. This is one example of what I’m talking about, but it is by no means unique because I see it over and over: The observer chooses an organism, and other people try to change that choice. Maybe the observer didn’t know what they were doing in choosing, but maybe they did. Maybe they wouldn’t care, but maybe they would. Whose decision is it, or should it be (assuming that the observer’s chosen organism is actually in the photo)?

I’ve also been noticing a lot of very abrupt responses to some users who have done nothing more than enter an ID. Usually it’s in some form of “No!” followed by the entry of a different ID. I’ve seen at least one expert do this. And then I think about danaleeling’s students in Micronesia (see danaleeling’s post today in this thread: who are eager to test apps, who love their plant-hunting excursions, who are all positive about their learning experience, who go out in stormy weather with no complaint to learn, and I envision them seeing someone change the organism they put in without explaining why they’re doing it, or shouting “No!” at them (yes, I guess I’m the only person who thinks exclamation points seem more like shouting than all caps), and it makes me sad.

Just wondering what others think.


in example 1, the observer didn’t enter an initial ID and it’s not obvious the observer’s intention, so it becomes the choice of the first identifier to make a call to move the observation along (in this case, insect). But then the observer enters their own ID, clarifying that they are focusing on the plant. It then becomes the responsibility of the first identifier to retract their initial insect ID, and any identifier thereafter who enters an insect ID is in the wrong.

The observation belongs to the observer, the observer picks the focal point, regardless of whether anyone else thinks there’s something more interesting in the photo (in which cases, I always suggest kindly to the observer to duplicate the observation for the other organism, and often they do).


I think I’ve been guilty of that particular issue once or twice. It’s often worth asking in a comment what the observer is interested in before putting in an ID, if it appears to be ambiguous.

More generally, putting in an explanation of a different ID is always worthwhile, but I have to admit there are quite a few times where I don’t do so.


I wasn’t really referring to the case where there is no ID. I don’t see any problem with getting the ball rolling by making a decision if the observer hasn’t yet.

Often the choice of organism is in the “description” but not in an actual ID. I try to point this out when I make an ID that conforms to the choice of organism in the description, but many times no one seems to care and they just keep on going with something different.

Also, I didn’t mean that all changes of ID should require an explanation–just thinking that it should if the observer’s chosen organism is in the photo and someone is wanting to change to a different organism after that.


I worry about this too. The problem, I think, is that we want to attract more new users but also more identifiers, and their emotional needs and patience seem to run counter to one another sometimes. Many identifiers/professionals don’t see themselves as volunteering to educate, just to research and stratify data. They appear to get very quickly frustrated when others are making it harder to do that without considering what the amateur naturalist is feeling. I try to at least throw a smiley onto the end when I’m explaining something. I hope those who are impatient will use the filter to restrict new accounts so they don’t scare new users off in the name of science.

Heck, I remember when I first started using the app - even just a corrected ID felt like a rebuke. Worse when people said “obviously” or “definitely” because of course it wasn’t obvious or definite to me. But I don’t want to tone police the brusque professionals too much because of course at the end of the day their expertise is essential for making iNaturalist work. I don’t have a solution. But it makes me sad too.

Especially because that impatience with education seems to be translating into a direct antipathy against educators and educational systems, as your mention of @danaleeling’s comment reminded me. I would say there’s clearly a fundamental disconnect between various user groups and what they think the primary purpose of iNaturalist is - creating naturalists, collecting research data, or (casual new users) identifying things for them. I’ve said before that maybe precision in iNat’s own intentional branding could help mediate this.


Occasionally I experience this problem as the observer. If I notice the identifier whose ID has been disagreed with or commented on is still making IDs elsewhere, I assume they have not seen an alert on theobservation’s follow-up IDs or comments.
If they also fail to respond to a mention I can only assume they receive too many alerts to read them all, or have opted out of such alerts. Perhaps this problem will be fixed in the overhaul of the Alert system?


I agree with all the above. Thankfully I don’t often see this, and when I do I add some kind of suppportive comment, hoping to counterbalance the experience, even if its just commending the fact of having made the observation.

In my own case, most expert IDers have obviously chosen their words, and the amount and type of info they add, kindly and with the aim of extending my understanding a realistic amount (eg one tip to build on) without making me feel bad. I don’t know that that is a skill that can be taught to some people. Perhaps some succinct fictitious examples, along with examples of positive response, could be included more prominently in the sign-up process to reassure people when they encounter arrogance, ignorance, lack of empathy or complete oblivion? I know this is in the iNat info somewhere. Perhaps it could be an un-skippable page? Or would that put people off before they even start?

When I personally introduce someone to iNat, I usually tell them that such responses are possible, part of being in a diverse community of users, not “the right thing” and to be ignored.


Honestly I often fall back on the cliche - and I’m an academic researcher myself and I HATE this cliche - of the absentminded wild-haired glasses-wearing professor. Because if you picture THAT as the person who’s sputtering and saying “of COURSE this isn’t Fringle’s pink frog HOW could you miss the spurs on the second toe???” it puts it in a more humorous and less hurtful context, I think.


Exactly so jilliankern…I’m a bit like that myself in some contexts, but I try to be careful online as you don’t get to see the effect of your words,or follow them up with self-deprecating acknowledgement. I think you have written the appropriate part of the Guide

and making it humorous and ridiculous avoids making previously-unwitting offenders feel bad


inat has a problem, but it’s not exclusive to inat. That problem is that there are a lot of people in academia who don’t know how to interact with nonspecialists. It’s a particular problem in highly technical, scientific fields. And inat attracts lots of nonspecialists. I flirt with the boundary between a specialist and a nonspecialist, and the gruff specialists piss me off sometimes. I can’t imagine how someone who’s brand new to this environment feels when they get the same treatment.

The word “Naturalist” itself is suggestive of a more nonspecialist focus, anyway. Yet inat in general seems to gear its policies towards making researchers happy. And less towards the nonspecialists and the casual observers who make up the bulk of inat’s users.

As for the handling of the observation in the original post, it’s been recommended to me (by observers) to create a 2nd observation (or more) to cover other species in the photo. A recent one, in particular, had 2 smooshed bats on a gravel road. I didn’t realize when I took the picture that the bats were 2 different species, and one of the first identifiers pointed that out, so I created a 2nd obs, and I noted in the descriptions of each one which bat the observation was referring to. Easy peasy. And it helps avoid the cluster of contradictory identifications that people won’t retract because they don’t seem to care about them. I think that’s the best policy for identifiers, simply to ask the observer if the observation doesn’t make that clear to begin with. Rather than jumping in and making assumptions.


This is not always so easy, because if you duplicate an observation for the two different organisms, and you explain what you are doing in the description section of each, but the identifiers are using the Identify tool and not looking past the thumbnails with the agree buttons, they aren’t reading those descriptions. I have had Research Grade observations that were correct undone because the descriptions are not being read. A new user wouldn’t understand this–they would assume that their actual observation page is being considered.

Hmm, I would have said that the other way around. I guess they are close to a good compromise if they are getting complaints from both sides :)


Maybe off-topic, I don’t know. As a diligant generalist amateur non-expert who stayed, I have realised there is often no right answer to the best way to do things, for this reason; and its not just two camps, there are multiple purposes being met using iNat.

When I joined a year ago I was in constant fear and trembling (without anyone being mean to me) of “doing the wrong thing” as far as the professional scientists go. I have been reassured many times by curators and others that iNat is for “whatever you want to use it for”, provided there is a focus species for each obs (and an obs for each focus species).

Reading this forum has confirmed that, and my impression remains that the needs of both camps, and others, are catered for as far as possible. An unenviable task but a great job being done, as far asI am concerned.


In the early days of my inat use I simply just upload the photo. Now if I want to draw attention to the specific organism (typically a good portion of my photos are grainy but good enough for inat) I add in either a red circle or an arrow. This method personally works for me and it seems intuitive for the viewer to understand which organism I am referring to.

Here are some of my observations to illustrate what I mean:

Edit: To those who think this may be a good idea, not really tbh: Since adding such edits may mess with the computer’s ability to identify research grade observations that makes the suggest an ID feature more reliable. A description to locate the organism in the photo may be better.


I disagree with this. I think iNat policies focus more on the nonspecialists. Community ID, no expertise weighting, ownership of observation with the observer… just to name a few examples


I’m new to the app. Work better on a desktop than a phone. I mess up stuff on phones. I know about some things in the natural world and then I’m a neophyte in others. The system doesn’t always infill a suggested id or category - I’d go with that or leave it blank. My reason for being here is to get ids on things I don’t know (lots!) and sometimes contribute the existence of something in an area. I would be one of those people who sometimes gets things way wrong- and I didn’t even know I should correct my guess if someone puts something that’s more plausible. I thought the system would simply do a correction after 2-3 concurring id’s by those who know. So - tech challenges, lack of time (rush), lack of knowledge (of the site or natural world), lack of patience, and not nearly as invested in this as you guys are … these things and more can be hurdles. Err towards assuming that the user has little to no knowledge - of the system, processes and species. Everyone who has looked at my stuff has been really great: so I’ve gained knowledge and that makes me want to continue participating. Yes you want quality - but you need quantity too


I wish there was expertise weighting. What do you mean ‘ownership of the observation with the observer’?

@natashag Sometimes an image might show more than one species, in which case the observer gets to decide which observation they are referring to when they post on iNat. Good example in @sgene’s OP.


With normal vouchering, for instance, I supply the material to the museum, and then they control it from there. It still has my name on it, but they effectively “own” it, and rather than community ID, they will control access to the identification of the material to generally recognised experts in the field

@robotpie, that’s clearly a little more work than describing in words which organism the observation is for. But it is definitely very clear – well done!

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