Doug Yanega dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU
Fri Jun 9 21:10:16 CDT 1995

Some folks are responding with regards to museum materials - but it seemed
to me the original question was with reference to identifications being
made *now*, which is a different matter in key respects (pun intended). My
suggestion, which I sent privately but might as well make public, was that
I conceive of four *very* gross levels of ID work (degree of confidence is
not exactly a quantifiable thing), and the set I'd consider is based mostly
on the following premise: the person's skill relative to the taxonomic key
being used. e.g.:

(1) someone unfamiliar with any of the aspects of taxonomy, not familiar
with the terminology, etc. - a true layman, with only a key for guidance.
Essentially, someone who cannot use a key to its full capability.
(2) the broadest category: someone familiar in a general way, competent in
the use of taxonomic keys, but not intimately familiar with the group.
Basically, anyone who must rely on the *key(s) alone* for their
identification - in other words, the ID is essentially only as good as the
key being used, with the specific identity of the person being less
significant. I can spot ID bees to genus, but if I were to have to identify
Tingid bugs using a key, I'd be ranked a 2 for that task.
(3) keep the person's skill level the same, but give them a reference
collection in addition to a key, and that's the third category - a key
alone, even if it has full descriptions accompanying it, is never as good
as having a reference collection. Give someone a key to Tingid bugs *and* a
good reference collection, and you can place a lot more confidence in the
IDs. A major improvement in reliability beyond a key by itself.
(4) an expert in the group - the kind of person who has already spent a lot
of time examining reference material, who can even pick up errors and
discrepancies in poorly-designed keys, and get a correct ID even when the
key is misleading, or on badly-damaged specimens, etc.

I don't intend to imply that all keys are equally good at guiding
non-experts to a correct ID, but it would certainly have to be one's
working assumption (since only an expert can tell you if a key *doesn't*
work). A possible modifier for the age of the key might be called for,
because it probably is a general truth that it has gotten easier as the
century has progressed for a taxonomist to get access to more material when
writing a revision. It's one heck of a lot easier for one to acquire types
now than it was 50 years ago, and likewise for obtaining good series of
unsorted material - and the more one examines, the more accurate and
complete the keys are likely to be.
My two cents,

Doug Yanega      Illinois Natural History Survey, 607 E. Peabody Dr.
Champaign, IL 61820 USA     phone (217) 244-6817, fax (217) 333-4949
  "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
        is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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