interactive keys and others

Les at Les at
Sun Mar 12 19:03:44 CST 2006

> Are there any quantitative data or publications out there
> on the relative merits of different ways of identifying
> plants (perhaps comparing conventional keys, interactive
> keys and flower-color-sorted pictures, as in many popular
> field guides)? In terms of % correct identifications and
> time necessary? Perhaps even distinguishing between
> trained botanists and laypeople?

An interactive key incorporating detailed comparative descriptions
offers realistic opportunities for tackling fragmentary material or
incomplete specimens, for which conventional keys and popular guides are
usually useless; and to that extent at least, the different approaches
are not usefully comparable. In any case, attempted comparisons will be
influenced, among other things, by differences in the attitudes,
experience, aptitude, competence, prejudices, intelligence (etc.) of the
people making them.

In 1994, 'Nature' (vol. 369, 718) published a very favourable review of
the first edition of our interactive 'Families of Flowering Plants'
package, in which the reviewing taxonomist described the (DOS version!)
of Intkey as so easy to use that despite our own inbuilt warnings, the
unwary might be lulled into accepting incorrect identifications. Soon
after, professional taxonomists at a national herbarium attempted a
'quantitative evaluation' of the same package. They apparently found it
difficult to use for identification, and concluded that it compared
poorly in efficiency with printed keys. As I recall, however, their
investigative technique involved deliberately ignoring the displays of
'best' characters, thus (for example) spurning the advice of the authors
of the package regarding relative character reliabilities; and since
they also refused for some reason to use the 'tolerance' facility, which
embodies an important advantage of using any well designed interactive
program, I considered the report more informative about their attitudes
(etc., see above) than about the performance of the package. The report
was widely circulated at the time, but so far as I know was not posted
on the Internet. Perhaps somebody will attach a copy to this thread?


Dr. Les Watson
10, Maitland Avenue
Little Grove, Albany,         Email: leswatson at
WA 6330, Australia            Phone: +61 (8) 98 44 4398

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