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?