Saturday, 29 April 2017

Verification of records

Over the last couple of days, there have been busy threads on both the BWARS and NFBR Facebook groups concerning record verification. It all started with a question concerning the distribution of Anthophora plumipes, a relatively easily recognised solitary bee that flies in early spring and whose distribution is well-known.

The map that was produced on the NBN (Figure 1) showed vastly wider distribution than is shown in reliable data compiled by BWARS (Figure 2) but not currently available through the NBN. The difference is obvious! The data in question was compiled by the ‘Great British Bee Count’ run by ‘Friends of the Earth’. In essence, the data are junk as they stand! Sadly, an awful lot of well-meaning people have been encouraged to participate in what seems to me to be little more than a publicity stunt. No thought seems to have been given to data verification or to the impact poor data can have on the work and outputs of long-established biological recording schemes.

Figure 1. Distribution of Anthophora plumipes according to data collected by the 'Great British Bee Count'

Figure 2. Distribution of Anthophora plumipes based on verified data compiled by BWARS.

In fairness to FoE, they do seem to have recognised the problem and I believe have linked up with Buglife to do something about it. I was recently contacted by someone at Buglife to seek my views on whether the project should extend into hoverflies and whether I would be willing to verify the data. I said NO on both counts. Why? Surely I should be getting involved?

My rationale is simple. The Great British Bee Count swamped BWARS with utterly unreliable data and they were neither able nor willing to take on the job of verification; I don’t blame them as it is not the simple job people sometimes think. It is not just a question of getting a specialist to sit down and check a few photos; it is weeks or possibly months of work that is tedious and frustrating. Also, is it making best use of skills developed over several years or, in most cases, tens of years? My answer is emphatically NO.

I seem to recall that FoE’s rationale for starting the Great British Bee Count was that there was inadequate data on bee distribution and that it needed more effort from the general public. That was pretty naive. The issue should not start with data availability, although it is fair to say that coverage of most invertebrate taxa is much poorer than for vascular plants, birds or mammals. The big issue starts with the complexities of identification and the skills needed to become competent with exceedingly difficult identification. Acquiring these skills take time and patience. I spent maybe a decade doing aculeate Hymenoptera, and still do the odd few specimens. I don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ but can make a reasonable job of separating out the majority of regularly encountered species when I sit down for a couple of days and work through a block of specimens within a single genus. Likewise, I now feel I can cope with Hoverfly identification from photos, but it has taken me ten years to reach that point (and I am still learning).

If we want bigger datasets, the starting point has therefore GOT to be growing skills. It is a very slow process but is the best use of specialist time if one looks at a long-term strategy to improve our knowledge. That is why the HRS has been running training courses for a decade or more. Thanks to OPAL grants we can take the courses to the places where they are needed, and we do so regularly. Even so, I reckon that at best we convert 5% of the people who do our courses into serious recorders; and of that cohort, probably only 10% will go on to have the necessary expertise to take on the task of data verification. For most it is a hobby and one that has to fit in amongst a plethora of other activities and responsibilities. It is the rare individual who can devote time to developing the skills that are needed to take on the challenging taks of ID from photographs and data verification.

So, the message is clear. If we want more data we have got to engage constructively with people who want to learn. FoE’s initiative will generate a lot of interest, and hopefully it will get a new generation of young people sufficiently enthused to take up the net and pooter, microscope and keys. That is the real benefit of the initiative; not the generation of a block of data that has already wasted a certain amount of specialist time dealing with the ensuing kerfuffle when the data they publish are so obviously inaccurate.

On a broader theme, it is also worth reflecting that there is a great deal of naivety about the potential of 'Citizen Science' to solve shortfalls in data. The Great British Bee Count has been helpful in showing the pitfalls of badly designed initiatives and  the need for researchers to be very careful about the datasets that can be relied upon. It also shows why recording scheme organisers have to be vigilant in evaluating those records that they receive. There are lots of tests that can help to verify a record, but in the end the only sure way is to examine a specimen on a pin and place that specimen in a suitable repository for re-evaluation as and when necessary!


  1. This is by far the best response I have read regarding the issue. Always thoughtful and always thought-provoking, this really is a most excellent blog.

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