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The reputation system used by Stack Exchange to rate replies to questions, and to rate those who provide answers, is based on scores given by editors and users with sufficient reputation points. It is a reasonable approach for technical questions where it is not difficult to provide conclusive answers using reputable information sources, such as official documentation for a computer language.

By contrast, species identification questions that rely solely on a photograph do not fall in the same category. You can not provide conclusive documentation for a photo. You can only provide circumstantial evidence. That means that the quality of putative species identifications is subjective and should not be given the same weight as answers that can be supported by conclusive documentation.

Yet we have people down-voting replies to species IDs because of 'lack of evidence'. Hogwash!

There has been lengthy discussion on Biology meta about the pros and cons of posting species identification questions. But I don't see much discussion about answering such questions. For posters, there are guidelines (e.g. Welcome to Biology.SE! Identifications questions should include...). What about for replies?

I am particularly interested in the question of experts vs laypeople. Here is the issue:

Some species are are well-known to the general public (dogs, cats, goldfish), others to specialists only (insects, amphibians, fungi). 

In these cases, expertise in the particular taxonomic would lend credibility to species identification.

But Stack Exchange permits only circumstantial evidence in species identifications, and provides no avenue for expert opinion.

The general public and the US court system rely on experts to answer questions regarding species identification. For example, I once provided expert witness testimony on the identification of an insect found in a candy bar. I have two degrees in zoology and a Ph.D. in biology, and have worked as a professional entomologist and as a professional herpetologist. Those credentials are considered sufficient to make me an "expert" and to raise the status of my opinion above the average person. Yet on Stack Exchange, there is no way to distinguish my level of expertise when I identify a specimen from a photo.

To me, the idea that a citation or other information can unequivocally identify a species from a photo alone is ludicrous. Biologists use taxonomic keys or DNA when a conclusive species identification is required. Sure, one could provide evidence based on coloration, pattern, morphology, and size. But 1) individuals of a species show variation in these traits, and 2) such evidence can only suggest an identification, not provide a conclusive answer.

On the other hand, someone with the proper education and years of experience in identifying species from specific taxonomic groups can provide reliable identifications. A grey wolf specialist with 20 years in the field should be considered a reliable source on the identity of a wolf from a photo. Her opinion should be given greater status than someone lacking her background.

I'm sure I am not the first to suggest a system that recognizes education and experience when judging replies to ID questions. The same reasoning could be applied to any of the topical areas of Stack Exchange.

And I realize that I am opening a can of worms just by asking this question. I have only scratched the surface of issues that could be (and perhaps have been) raised.

Still I believe the question merits discussion. Why not include education and experience in reputation scores and when judging the reliability of replies to questions?

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We don't verify the authority of people answering questions, so purported authority/education/experience of the poster are not valid reasons for voting. This is SE Biology, not a US court, and we very much value experience and expertise when they are directed into writing informed answers, but not so much degrees and titles (neither of which contribute to good answers by themselves).

I think you are misunderstanding the reason for downvotes on species ID answers. If you are getting downvotes for "lack of evidence" it's because you haven't explained your answer. That's a general principle that applies to all types of Q&A here. We want detailed answers that educate: explanations of how you know are key to an informative answer, even if it can sometimes be harder for an expert to explain exactly how they identify some species.

It's very common for species ID answers to be at least partly unsure of the exact species. There's nothing wrong with that; if anything, it's probably much easier for an expert to know how unsure they are. That's almost always sufficient for the people asking the questions, who tend to be a lay audience asking out of curiosity or for practical reasons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. Perhaps Stack Exchange editors could be more transparent about why they downvote. Simply assigning a minus one without explanation (which is what happened to me, twice) is not very helpful. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ @prefectionist It's been discussed ad nauseum at the main meta (and I think people have raised it before here, too), meta.stackexchange.com/questions/135/… for example. It's not a perfect system, but the short story is that comments can be used to explain downvotes, but it's not required. I think people get bored explaining the same reasons over and over, and people who explain their votes can be subject to revenge downvoting, abusive comments, etc that train them to avoid it. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Nov 3 '20 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ In general, I think Biology is better than some of the other stacks at explaining downvotes. You can always come to meta, or maybe even chat, and as long as you ask politely I think you'll get a polite answer. Also sometimes someone who didn't downvote but sees the negative score will offer an opinion of why they think someone voted that way. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Nov 3 '20 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ Here's the thing Bryan. What's the point of Stack Biology? Is it trying to be an academic resources, along the lines of a scientific journal? Are people expected to conduct research and provide references to back up claims? Or is it simply a public forum where knowledgeable people can share their knowledge with less experienced people in an open informal exchange? Requiring citations for answers to "what kind of dog is this?" is just being egotistical IMO. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ I received -4 to my post. LOL At this point SE Biology has lost its appeal. You're no fun anymore. : P $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ @perfectioneist: regarding purpose: The tour explains Bio.SE to be a Q&A site for biology researchers, academics, and students... However, what's this mean in practice? Well, that's actually a matter of existing discussion (e.g., see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc) $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 2:35
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    $\begingroup$ @perfectionist you received -4 to your post because at least 4 people likely disagree with your rationale or statement in some kind of way. Voting on meta is often reflective of personal opinions relating to the posts under question. Don't take this personally -- this is why we have meta (where voting doesn't "count" against you). You made a proposal, and the community disagrees. If you spend more time here (or anywhere on the internet) you'll find a lot of people claiming to be experts (whether true or not) and making wrong, or misleading ID's... $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ @prefectionist Science is built on citation; I don't see asking for citations as egotistical. To the contrary, "just trust me I'm an expert" seems to fit that description. As a whole, Stack Exchange intends to make a repository of useful Q&A, not just to answer the questions that individuals have. For species ID questions in particular, I see the explanations as critical for serving that purpose. It lets the next reader learn and possibly complete their own ID on the similar organism they have in front of them, rather than needing to ask their own separate question. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Nov 3 '20 at 3:16
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Regardless of your (or anyone's) own legitimacy or expertise, the internet doesn't know that about you (nor should users passing through necessarily believe that to be true about you -- there are plenty of "fake" experts out there). Having a more formal source of info allows users to check in on the legitimacy of something more completely & objectively. It also enables them to use your source as a doorway to learning more about the topic. Take a look through Yahoo answers or Quora and see how many "legitimate" answers from "experts" are wrong -- without regular citing practices, users will never know one way or the other

We want posts to demonstrate your line of thinking. If you're an expert, then expand someone else's understanding. Walk them through your thought process using reputable links, pictures, guides, keys, etc. If you learned to ID something personally using a "gestalt" approach, take the time to confirm a resource that backs up what you always believed to be true. Everyone walks away understanding more about the subject organism. No one should believe you just because you're an expert. In the age of internet misinformation, we need to be explicit, demonstrative and well-cited when teaching others

also, certain individuals here have demonstrated themselves to be experts. Often the way you write posts (vocab, resources you link, etc.) paint a picture of who you are as a biologist and where your expertise lies. So, pad your answers with the best evidence you can, do so in an informed and formal manner, answer a few more questions the same way, and you'll certainly pick up a reputation here. You can comment about your expertise in your bio, too, as people will go looking to find out who this new "expert" is that's giving a bunch of good answers ;). Thanks for your efforts.

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  • $\begingroup$ so what you seem to be saying is: SE Biology is a teaching site. A place where people come to ask questions and other people attempt to answer them. But what you discount is the chilling effect of pedantic moderators who themselves act as experts, can anonymously censure others, but can not themselves be censured. Who are you to say that someone's citations are sufficient or even relevant? What prevents a rogue moderator with a grudge from simply downvoting whoever they want? I like the premise of the site, but the implementation needs work my friend. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ "certain individuals here have demonstrated themselves to be experts" Don't you see how ironic that statement is? First you deplore expert opinion, and next you raise it as a shining emblem of success. Demonstrated to who? Who are you to decide what is evidence and what is not? You can discount credentials all you want on SE, but they matter in the real world. Degrees are not mere titles but the results of years of hard work, and for higher degrees, a vetting process of peer reviewed original research. Would you prefer open heart surgery from a surgeon or a random guy who cites papers? $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ "Often the way you write posts (vocab, resources you link, etc.) paint a picture of who you are" and here lies an important and revealing truth. SE moderators are biased. Let's give biased people policing powers over others. What could possibly go wrong? I'm sorry but you guys have constructed a walled garden here. As an experiment in self-moderated scholarship, SE Biology suffers from the usual flaws of cliqueishness, intolerance, and self-congratulatory BS that bedevils all social groups. It could be a truly open forum for discussion, but for the anonymous policing of participants. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ may the downvoting commence! LOL $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @perfectionist well I'm sorry you feel that way, but I'm certainly not going to engage you in any argumentative fashion. I'll just simply state 1) we have 4 mods and some amount of across-SE moderation to provide checks + balances to prevent unfair moderation and 2) mods were all voted on by the community. Ultimately, it's the community that decides the value of your posts through voting. Does that reflect "expertise"? Unfortunately, not as likely as 6 years ago given our transition from mostly professionals to mostly students here. If we all cite sources, it doesn't matter what your status is $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate you comments and I apologize for getting my hackles up. My goal is to provide (hopefully) constructive criticism and perhaps rock the boat a bit. We are all students, it's just that some of us have been at it longer. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ You're right that all social groups have flaws, and I certainly don't promote the SE network as any model of perfection (ever post over at SO? :p). Given that mods will only delete harmful material here, the worst you'll likely get from a mod is a post notice to add citations and a comment. You've claimed to be an expert and used to hard work, so you know this is the expectation across the sciences. So just provide citations to support your work. This site is not a discussion forum (though see our chat), but rather a Q&A site trying to maintain scientific truth and rigor. Just add citations! $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Okay I get it. Citations talk, bullshit walks. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ Yes. Community members can judge your sources a lot easier than they can judge your expertise.... But that doesn't mean expertise isn't welcome (and in fact absolutely wanted) here. Experts know their fields and all the nuances that go with them. So experts can plug the community into the most informed and rigorously supported answers -- with the most thorough and reputable sources! So, please consider applying your expertise here within our guidelines -- it'll be appreciated. You can remain active on meta to discuss improvements, but know that the core values are unlikely to change $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ " the core values are unlikely to change" social systems/websites are like species; a few evolve into something new. Most fail to change and disappear into the gaping jaws of extinction. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Getting back to my original question, and after reading the posts linked by @theforestecologist, I think it's important to make a distinction between research questions ("what are the implications of Taylor's Power Law for community dynamics?"), and species identification ("what kind of butterfly is this?). Citations definitely make sense for the former. I'm not convinced they do for the latter. As I said, you can't use a taxonomic key on a photo. You can only compare a photo to a another with a verifiable provenance. Things like toe counts are not reliable (toes can be lost). $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ perhaps it would be better to start a separate new question. $\endgroup$
    – user21485
    Nov 3 '20 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Comments aren't for extended discussion (this has already extended quite far), so yes please address tangential questions in new posts. Species ID came up a lot early on in the site's history as well as more recently, so you should find a lot of previous discussion on Meta already exists. The same is true regarding citations in one's answer. Please do a thorough search concerning these prior posts to see if a similar question has been asked before, and you can add to that existing discussion. (I'm surprised you're this adamant about not providing support for your answers...). Good luck. $\endgroup$ Nov 3 '20 at 20:45

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