interactive keys and others

Mary Barkworth Mary at BIOLOGY.USU.EDU
Sun Mar 12 07:47:59 CST 2006

I agree wholeheartedly with Les Watson's comments re the value of
interactive keys for fragmentary material or incomplete specimens. There
are other values to building interactive keys than just identification.
One quickly becomes aware of how unparallel many of our descriptions
are. This is not completely bad - a key is supposed to be a shortcut to
identification, whatever its format. A description, if we separate them
from keys for a moment, should be permitted to contain more than is in
the key - if more is known.  Otherwise we find ourselves limiting what
is in the description.  There should be similar core information in all
descriptions.  It is also helpful if there is a level of uniformity in
phrasing throughout - but again, one may wish to enhance the information
about some aspects for taxa that one knows particularly well. If we
require absolute parallelism, we lose the additional information that is
available, something that is not helpful. Yes, it would be lovely if one
could then go out and obtain the additional information for all other
species; that is not always feasible.   Should we conceal what is known
in order to keep parallelism?
We also need to distinguish, as Les pointed out, what our goals are.  If
we are simply trying to make it easier to reach a correct (probably
correct) identification of good material quickly, one can probably use a
smaller character set than if making a key that could be used on
fragmentary material.  If we are making a key for public use, then we
definitely to focus on characters and character states that are easy to
observe. If one wants to use the key to generate monographic-quality
descriptions for use in analyses of patterns of variation, then one is
looking at yet another suite of characters and character states.  In
other words, in key writing, as in  any kind of writing and regardless
of mode, we need to be guided by our intent and audience. These
differences should also be taken into account when evaluating keys and
descriptions. One can generate descriptions from databases - and they
usually read like that. One can also use a computer-generated
description as a first draft, to be expanded, reworded, or contracted
depending on the intended audience. Yes, errors can be introduced at
this stage - but it might make the descriptions more useful for a
particular audience. 
And I still like books - I can move them to my microscope and, as I said
in an earlier message, I learn from them more readily. The last resort I
mentioned in the earlier post usually involves fragmentary material.
Please do not mention that a palm pilot can be moved around even more
easily than a book. The herbarium budget will not stretch that far and I
am not yet prepared to pay for one myself.


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.

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