Wednesday 3 July 2024

Pseudonyms and the BSBI Distribution Database

Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera
submitted on iNaturalist by 'hemipepsis'  
In this blogpost, BSBI Countries Manager James Harding-Morris sheds light on the issue of botanical recorders using pseudonyms Over to James:

"In the past, BSBI's County Recorders (VCRs) would largely receive records from a known network of individuals allowing a fine-tuned understanding of their botanical abilities. With the growth in recording technology (such as iRecord) this has allowed any enthusiast to generate biological records for any taxa. This increase in accessibility has allowed a broader range of people to take part in recording, but means that our approaches to working with this data need to evolve.

We are all familiar with the rule that a biological record is composed of four key parts; the Who, What, When and Where. When working with data from certain sources, however, some records are submitted under a pseudonym. This has led to some discussion around the treatment of pseudonyms on the BSBI’s Distribution Database (the DDb). To help VCRs make decisions on what data they chose to move into the DDb, we have drawn together some information into this blog post.

Sources of records with pseudonyms

Great Forget-me-not
Brunnera macrophylla

Pseudonymous records are most likely to be encountered when working with data submitted by the general public through iNaturalist and, to a lesser extent, iRecord. These records enter a separate holding pen on the DDb after a transfer and can be moved into the live DDb at VCR discretion. See full guidance on that process here.

To take "my" vice-county North Lincolnshire (VC54) as an example, the vast majority of records submitted via iRecord have been submitted with full, personal names. With iNaturalist, the incidence of pseudonyms is higher - perhaps 10% of records. These proportions may and probably will vary from county to county, but in my experience the records I have received from pseudonymous users are no less serious or valuable than those from people who appear to be using legal names. For example, the record I received of Brunnera macrophylla (on left) submitted on iNaturalist by 'giles63' - this is an unusual alien for VC54. 

A benefit of iNaturalist is that nearly all records will have an associated image, allowing the identification to be confirmed. Pseudonyms are also stable and unique - as in, a person will be associated with an unchanging name - and can allow development of a long-term perspective of a recorder’s ability.

Why do people use pseudonyms?

People may use pseudonyms online for a number of reasons:

Trailing Bellflower
Campanula poscharskyana
submitted on iNaturalist by 'biomel'

Internet safety: Young people, when first learning about internet safety, are told not to share personal identity data online. There are now generations of people who have grown up with this advice, making online pseudonyms second nature.

Uniqueness: Pseudonyms are unique. When registering for an online account, you can’t have the same name as someone else, which can compel people to use something other than their legal name. There is value in this, as pseudonyms tend to be stable and unique, unlike real names. Matt Harding, BSBI Scotland Officer, recently pointed out that there are a number of records on the DDb for ‘M. Harding,’ not all of which are his.

Protection of vulnerable people: Pseudonyms can protect the identities of vulnerable individuals or those responsible for them, who may not want to disclose their real names for personal or safeguarding reasons. This is something to be aware of when considering the use of pseudonyms in a public-facing forum such as iRecord or iNaturalist, where anyone with an account can see the names (or pseudonyms) of other recorders.

What are the risks of ignoring pseudonymous records?

The risk of trying to identify pseudonyms is that some people simply have names that might look like pseudonyms - Monte-Carlo, Dreamy, Alloy, Costly, Arwen and Eowyn could appear as unlikely real names but were all given to children in 2023. Conversely, the name Colin Robinson could appear a perfectly reasonable name but may actually be the pseudonym of a What We Do In the Shadows fan. Ignoring records with (perceived) pseudonyms runs the risk of accidentally excluding records from genuine recorders with unique or unusual names.

Colin Robinson (on right) alongside
 his other vampire companions 

Another risk is that valuable plant records could be missed. By simply discounting records on the basis of a pseudonym then unusual or exciting records could be eliminated before consideration.

Final points

Feedback mechanism: Working with records in the DDb holding pen does not (yet) allow feedback to the users of iRecord. However, if you or a member of your VCR team verify records within iRecord itself, there is an opportunity to exchange messages with users, which could include asking whether they’d be happy to provide a legal name - which they often are! Of course, given some of the reasons mentioned above, a few people may have a good rationale for remaining pseudonymous.

Support for record verification: If you would like to start verifying records in iRecord for your VC, or would like to find someone else to support you by verifying records, then please contact your Country Officer or email me, James Harding-Morris, who will support you in getting set up.

VCR discretion: VCRs have final say on which records enter the live DDb for their vice-county and hopefully this blogpost will support VCRs with that decision making process. That said, no records should be rejected on the basis of a pseudonym, and instead should be left in the ‘holding pen’ and not moved to the live DDb.