Monday, 22 May 2017

Feedback on noteworthy records

A thread posted on the NFBR Facebook group concerning noteworthy records provides food for thought. The important line is: 'You collect a species in a group with which you are not very familiar. Straight away you wonder - is it an interesting record? Would anyone be interested in hearing about it?' Responses to the thread frequently emphasised that all records are interesting, but of course the main point is whether the level of interest is enough to encourage an outsider to contribute?

The occasional record of something interesting may be an incentive to do more, but that really depends upon feedback. So, the critical issue is for Recording Schemes to make sure that contributors get regular general feedback, and individual feedback  either when they find something unusual or when the organism is fairly commonplace.

Feedback I have had from recorders suggests that they are discouraged when we, the specialists, don't put enough effort into giving the feedback that they want. The common complaint concerns iRecord where lots of posts do not get looked at because the scheme organiser(s) is/are not willing to participate or has/have not got the capacity to do verification on a daily basis. I am very guilty of that! If pictures are posted on Facebook pages, the common complaint is that nobody looks at them or, in my case, that I don't adequately spend time explaining why something is, or is not, what its contributor thinks it might be. One contributor took the trouble to express their frustrations (paraphrased) 'I put a lot of work into cropping these photographs and you could not be bothered to comment more than 'Syrphus sp.'.

We need to think about this. In the case of that particular contributor, I now try to write a bit more on each post. It adds to my time commitment, whilst not necessarily improving the numbers or quality of records entering the recording scheme!

The challenge we face is, therefore, how to provide the necessary feedback to enthuse potential new specialists, whilst avoiding burn-out amongst the existing specialists. I am afraid there is no simple answer. What we can say is that modern communication has raised expectations. Recording Schemes need to provide updated maps almost in 'real time'. We don't have the luxury of working for several years to produce an atlas – we really need that atlas to be on-line and regularly updated. Likewise, we need to engage on interactive media and make ourselves available to provide advice on a daily or even hourly basis.

These demands are a different paradigm to the days when a scheme organiser had the summer out in the field, spent the winter checking specimens and corresponded with those contributors that sent in record cards or sought help with identification of problem specimens. They were far gentler times. Today, organisers of schemes that generate large volumes of records must expect to spend several hours a day providing advice and verifying records. I don't notice a great rush of people who have the skills to do this and are willing to take on the job. I do see a gradual growth in skills and the development of a small cohort of people who will be able to take on aspects of mentoring that are essential. Mentoring is a skill in itself and we need to avoid pitfalls such as elitism or dogmatism.

This takes me to the nub of the problem. Where there are lots of capable specialists who are prepared to spend their time helping with ID and providing feedback, it may be possible to do more to provide the necessary encouragement. In many cases, however, there are very small numbers of people capable of providing technical advice and consequently the demand often outstrips the capacity to provide. Increasing interest in a group of organisms does not necessarily lead to a commensurate growth of specialists – that takes many years!

In the case of hoverflies there is no chance of providing a specialist County Recorder for all counties. I recall that when I tried to encourage one very capable recorder to take a more prominent role in the Hoverfly Recording Scheme the response was: 'I like the fieldwork but don't want to take on the administration'. Wise man! But we do need people who are willing (and able) to take on the administration.

Somehow we must cross this hurdle, but we must do so without sacrificing quality.

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