Research Paper: An overview of the history, current contributions and future outlook of iNaturalist in Australia

I have always believed in the power of New Year’s Resolutions. I have long been in the habit of marking the beginning of the year with at least one decision to do something different, and usually, I end up keeping resolutions, more or less. Part of the limited success I have had in this department, comes from picking the right resolution. Like everyone I started with nebulous resolutions like lose weight, exercise more, be happy, cure cancer, promote World peace, marry Jennifer Anniston, ride a unicorn, etc. They were doomed to fail, because they were far too lofty, and had elements which were out of my control. It is only when I decided to fine tune my resolutions, did I have a chance to keep them, for at least a year. Examples included: learn to dance, go camping more often and ride a smaller unicorn. Okay, forget the unicorn one, but I have enjoyed setting small goals and often meeting them. My resolution this year, aside from “Don’t catch COVID” was to read at least 4 scientific papers a year. Before retirement, I had to read (i.e. skim) such papers on occasion for my work, and while I have not made this resolution because I missed them, I made the resolution because it turned out I enjoyed the insight into science, research methodologies and scientific thought, which reading the papers provided.
Not being a scientist, I could never understand everything in the papers I read, there were always sections of advanced math and terminology with which I was unfamiliar, but even in the most dense papers I encountered, I always finished with a sense of the discipline and rigour which writing such papers requires and a slightly increased appreciation for science and the scientific method. This insight was more than what I obtain from reading books by scientists. The books are great for reviewing the “big ideas” of science, like anthropogenic climate change, but the papers provide insight into the actual mechanics of scientific enquiry. There is a great deal of understanding citizen scientists can obtain by looking into the methods by which professional scientists conduct their work and communicate with each other. You can learn a lot.
I know this does not come as news to many in the Australasian Fishes project, as I am aware we have both professional scientists and very dedicated citizen scientists who often read papers in their fields or areas of interest. This is often how project participants learn about the current issues in classification of sea life, the changes in the organisation of fish genus and why some of the names have been changing in our classification system. I have always been grateful for these updates, often found in the comments sections of project observations.
While this year, I am actually halfway through my annual objective of 4 papers, I find it personally pleasing when (1) one of the authors of the paper is someone I am familiar with, and (2) the subject of the paper is also something familiar. This has happed to me a couple of times, especially regarding the authors, as I enjoy learning more about my acquaintances, especially though their publications. Recently, I have come across a paper which meets both of the criteria above, which I recommend to all project participants.
Firstly, the paper is written by someone who many of us in the project are familiar with, Thomas Mesaglio (view Thomas' iNaturalist profile). Thomas, who was featured in an Australasian Fishes Project bio blurb, in February 2020, (view) is better known by the pseudonym thebeachcomber. He has 22,426 observations in iNaturalist and an astounding 171,924 identifications, 7,942 of which were for Australasian Fishes alone. I am very grateful for his IDs. In addition to supporting the project through his work in observations and identifications, Thomas has been the organising force behind several BioBlitzes on behalf of iNaturalist (see Spring BioBlitz Report) which has entered Australia in the competition of global locations for recording life on Earth, from backyards to oceans, all during a defined time period. Organising such events is very time consuming and the Australasian Fishes Project has been very happy to support such programs.
Secondly, as mentioned, I like to read papers about subjects which I am familiar with, whether it be a piece of fieldwork I worked on in the past or a project I was involved in at some stage. It does add a little extra enjoyment to the paper, if you know there are titbits which are familiar and enjoyable.
If you are interested in such a New Year’s resolution, I would like to nominate your first paper of the year, titled 'An overview of the history, current contributions and future outlook of iNaturalist in Australia' (view the pdf). The paper is published by CSIRO Publishing in their Wildlife Research section and we have permission to download copies. As you can see the paper features several of the aspects which makes reading scientific papers a little easier, one of the co-authors is someone we know and respect and it is about a project platform we all know: iNaturalist.
The paper explores the increasingly important role of citizen science in many disciplines of science and explores how popular platforms such as iNaturalist, play a key role in fostering this type of significant citizen science activity. The paper explores how increasingly accurate and, therefore, increasingly useful citizen science generated data have become over the years, providing reliable databases for scientific research, including modelling and statistical research. The paper zeros in on iNaturalist, as a tool for the creation of reliable scientific information. Of course, most of us in the project are aware of the history and power of iNaturalist, we have written about this unique platform in the past (see Australasian Fishes Journal post for May 2019 - Behind the power of iNaturalist), however, it is very refreshing to see these impressions expressed in the language of science which more clearly outlines the value of our work when we contribute images and identifications to our project. We always suspected our work was adding value, however, Thomas’s paper outlines that value in the larger picture of scientific knowledge and research. It is very rewarding to read that citizen science, and the work we do, does indeed matter.
While I think all citizen scientists will find the paper inspirational, there’s favourable mention in particular of Australasian Fishes. It is clear that our project has had an impact on how Australia has been regarded in the iNaturalist universe and the authors suspect that Australasian Fishes has been a catalyst for other nature observations and instrumental in increasing the take-up of iNaturalist in Australia. All of you in the project should be quite proud of that achievement. There is special mention of Mark McGrouther and the longevity of the project, and as well as comparative data on the distribution, volume and types of iNaturalist observations coming from Australia.
I do hope you will take the time to read Thomas’s paper, as each of you are deserving of the recognition it bestows on our project and iNaturalist. If your 2021 resolution is to read only one scientific paper, make it this one.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on September 15, 2021 01:32 AM by markmcg markmcg


I have skimmed, downloaded and will read later. It looks an excellent paper which should promote iNat to a greater number of professionals. Many thanks to Thomas and all the others who contribute to its success. It also comes at an opportune time since I'm giving a talk to The Queensland Naturalists' Club on the benefits of iNat next week. It will provide much additional background information.

Posted by nyoni-pete almost 3 years ago

Great to hear @nyoni-pete :)

Posted by markmcg almost 3 years ago

This post is a wonderful reflection, and I too have been looking to ride smaller unicorns :)

Posted by jessie_oliver almost 3 years ago

Keep up the awesome work @thebeachcomber

Posted by amandahay almost 3 years ago

thanks all, I'm glad people enjoyed the paper :)

Posted by thebeachcomber almost 3 years ago

@jessie_oliver, when you find one, invite me over for a ride. Thanks for your kind words.

Posted by harryrosenthal almost 3 years ago

My main goal is to allow and motivate myself to spend as much time possible on studying how to encourage biological activities in Australia, the USA, Canada and other countries where I travelled and not. It is wonderful to know that somewhere, people know about humanity's engagement in protecting nature.

Posted by jenniferrobison almost 2 years ago

Thanks for posting it. It was very interesting to read the paper! I love reading such observations, and I hope one day to write my own paper. But for now, I don't have that much experience and need to work on my skills. For now, when I have time, I read, analyze, and write reviews and small papers on others' work. It helps me to learn more info and also improve my writing, which is still hard for me. Thanks to this tool, I started using it some time ago now; I can also publish my works without no fear because before using the plagiarism checker, I was worried that I might get into a problem. Plagiarism is the worts for me in the academic and other fields, so for now, I will continue practicing and studying and I hope soon to publish my works here.

Posted by terranceparker about 1 year ago

Add a Comment

Sign In or Sign Up to add comments