Confidence and Error in Identifying iNaturalist Observations

You should be confident in the name you suggest for an iNaturalist observation. Is 100% certainty necessary? No. Do you feel you could say to a friend, "I think it's a such and such"? Then apply that name. If you can keep your error rate below 5%, you're doing well. Of course there's the problem of how you'd know your error rate, but anyway . . . . If you're somewhat less sure, apply the name but comment, "Maybe," or "It seems to be in this genus, but I'm not sure about the species," or "Tentative identification." If you're significantly unsure, name it to a higher level, genus instead of species, or family instead of genus, etc.

You will make mistakes. Even if you know what you mean, you will make mistakes. I recently labeled a large waterfowl as Canada Gooseberry and a common hybrid seagull of the Seattle area as an Olympic Grasshopper. After visiting Alder Creek Falls, I posted photos of a fly and labeled it Alder. Sigh.

Those mistakes are just silly, but I've made more substantial errors, confusing species of periwinkle (Vinca) and oaks, for example. People corrected me. For a while I didn't identify periwinkles, though now I have learned. I learned about the problem pair of oaks, too. (Note: Most oaks are bigger problems and I don't even begin to try on them.) I can't seem to get Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawk straight, though, and now I leave them to people who know them better, or at least exhibit more confidence than I have. I can't distinguish sawfly larvae from butterfly / moth caterpillars either, but I continue to identify them as Lepidoptera, consoling myself that I'm giving the people who correct me a pleasant moment of superiority; we all need such moments.

What to do when someone suggests a different name than yours? First, evaluate the new name. Is it accurate? Were you accurate? If you figure you're wrong (or if you're just too tired to cope with it right now) withdraw the name you suggested. Use the little downward carat at the upper right of your name to expose the "withdraw" option. If you're convinced the other name is correct, agree with it. If you want, write something like, "Oops!" or "You're right," or "Of course; I should have realized that!" or "I'm sorry." (Apologies are the oil of social machinery; you don't have to be especially sorry to offer one.) If you're not sure, or if you want to avoid the problem in the future, ask how the other identifier made his decision. You and/or he may learn something.

What if you decide you're right? Explain why you think you're right. Remember to be polite. This isn't a battle. Treat this as a friendly talk between two people working together.

Most important, don't let mistakes or worry about making mistakes stop you. iNaturalist has literally millions of unidentified photos. As long as you're making more correct identifications than not, you're providing a useful service.

Publicado por sedgequeen sedgequeen, 22 de mayo de 2021


Thank you! This is very helpful. At times, I have been reluctant to post things that I'm kinda-sorta-sure-but-not-100%. And sometimes I post things that should have a caveat in the notes.
Thanks for clarifying!
Mary Lynn

Publicado por mlroush hace 5 meses (Marca)

I agree -- thanks for this journal post.

I like to say that the ID process is a conversation. It's a conversation between someone making and observation and someone giving guidance into what to call that organism they observed. I have been wrong THOUSANDS of times -- and that's totally ok. I've learned from these mistakes. Maybe every ID is a tentative ID -- perhaps in a few generations, folks will be correcting our initial certainty. Nonetheless, it's all part of the process! :)

Publicado por sambiology hace 5 meses (Marca)

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