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Classification proposal

Phillip Harpootlian emailed me some proposals for changing the classification scheme within the guide. I asked him if I could share the ideas here for input from the group and he had no problem with that so here goes.

He actually put together a nice PDF document but that's not easily reproduced here so I'll summarize his main points.

First, he suggests that we always include subfamilies to help break up really large families. That makes perfect sense to me and in fact we can already do that. As sections of the guide grow it makes sense to do that at some point but often not right off the bat. The real problem to address here is making it easier to move guide pages around so that we can easily add a subfamily and then move appropriate things below it. Having done that I admit it can be tedious to try and identify which genera need to be moved so maybe we should always do it?

Second, Phillip suggests that we always use scientific names for guide page titles below subfamily rank (i.e. genus and species). He gave some examples from the guide where the genus/species name and family/subfamily name for example were essentially the same (e.g. May Beetle and May Beetles). I agree that we should avoid vague common names, but I'm not ready to give up on common names entirely. He suggests our audience is ultimately looking for genus-species so we should always display that. I'm not sure our audience is necessarily that technical and I'd wager many will walk away remembering the common name (if there is one) and quickly forgetting the scientific name. I certainly think it would be a good feature to have a user preference that would make scientific names appear instead of common names, either for everything or just for genus/species. I would probably turn that on for myself.

If you read this Phillip and I didn't characterize it quite right please jump in.

I appreciate Phillip taking the time to write up his proposal. I just wanted to share his ideas and get some feedback. I'm trying to work out how to implement changing the classification (e.g. moving guide pages) so this is a good time to work this out. Comments?

Value of "non-taxonomic" groups
I'd like to add another comment about the value of having some guide pages for groups that are not strictly taxonomic. Moths, for example. Another important one is aquatic beetles--families not necessarily related, but they sure look a lot alike. (Most beetle books list them together for this reason.) There are probably several others groups like that.

I guess the only question is how to do that within, or alongside, the taxonomic structure of the guide. Maybe such pages could be isolated, with no daughters, but a list of linked families with thumbnails put in the guide page, e.g.:

(Page placed under coleoptera, but with no daughters)
Aquatic Beetles

Hydrophilidae--Water Scavenger Beetles
(thumbnail) Dystichidae--Diving Beetles

Patrick Coin
Durham, North Carolina

Good discussion
This is really helping me organize my thoughts around what to do going forward.

I agree it's somewhat disconcerting to be looking at a node in the tree and seeing a mixture of children (e.g. subfamilies + genera). I recall John and Jane mentioning that to me before. I'm not sure how to solve that particular issue though. The only real way is to always require subfamilies (and every other taxon we might use). Otherwise when you do add one it becomes a sibling to the genera nested under the family. If I don't show the genera then you can't get to them. I suppose I could make up a node (e.g. "All other subfamilies" or whatever) when that situation exists. Do subfamilies always exist, by the way? Or only for some families? I was thinking the latter.

Here's another issue. Currently it's possible to create guide pages that don't correspond to any taxon. That can be convenient. Consider "Moths" for example. As far as I know there's no subdivision of Lepidoptera that includes all moths. It's more like a subdivision for butterflies and everything else is moths. I created a moths page that doesn't correspond to any particular taxon just for convenience. I know other places in the guide where that's been done. If we wanted to be strict about making the guide mirror taxonomy then we'd have to dispense with those. I don't think that's too big a deal. It'll just require some cleanup here and there. Or maybe the answer is to allow these arbitrary pages and just use the parent's scientific name along with a qualifier like "in part".

I built in the ability to order siblings but I haven't exposed a way to take advantage of that because I ran out of time initially. I believe I know a good way to do that now.

I like Joel's idea about another tab in the guide pages that shows the subtree for the current page. I'm imagining that we could also have an "edit" mode for editors to allow reordering children with edit boxes for each one child prenumbered but changeable (like NetFlix queues if you've ever used those). Probably the tree would only have detail for the immediate children and maybe summaries below that to avoid displaying too much (at least for things with lots of grandchildren). I haven't thought it out yet but there's probably a way to make use of that tree for moving groups of pages around as well (say to create a new subfamily). Maybe that page could also provide quick ways to add new taxa without going through the whole guide page submit.

Having a way to display scientific names instead of common names will definitely get done. I'm ready to turn that on for myself :). Displaying both would just take up too much room I would think, but there's no harm in providing that option. It's easy either way.

I've been rethinking the classification fields for guide pages as well. Rather than include all the taxons on each page, I'm thinking I'll go to a model where you just specify the taxon (e.g. this is a genus) and the scientific name, along with a preferred common name. When I need to I'll build the list by visiting the parents. The taxons available would of course be limited depending on where you create it. This would force separate creation of genera and species, for example. Often I notice people just create a species page without creating the intermediate genus page. I want to tighten up extending the guide to keep things cleaner.

Those are some of my current thoughts. I'm hoping to get started on this soon, as I want to finish all significant site development for the year in the next few months so I can devote the remainder of the year to my photography and contributing content to the site. I still have tons of stuff from last year but I've been holding off till I work though most of my site "todos". I feel it's important to get that stuff done so others can help manage the site.

All good points, thoughts on taxonomy, etc.
I agree with all the comments, basically. We are all thinking the same--we want to impose a more consistent taxonomic structure but maintain the lovely free-form nature of the guide. My four cents:

1-I like the idea of being able to browse with just scientific names.
2-I think it is a good idea to limit the guide page creation to the correct level--just genus (or subfamily--there's the problem) under a family. It's too easy to mess up now, even if you are trying to be careful.
3-Most large families need subfamilies. Some don't seem to have very consistent or useful subfamilies, however. Carabidae seem to be organized by tribe (groups of related genera) in recent works. Philip H. mentioned superfamilies being very useful for beetles.
4-I like the use of some "non-taxonomic" groups, such as moths. It would be nice to maintain some of those for accessibility. The modern lepidoptera taxonomy is just so hard to understand. "Butterflies" versus "moths" is easy, even though not quite correct.
5-Very good idea to make editors able to move nodes around to change taxonomy--otherwise it is way too much work on Troy.
6-Keeping things in some sort of taxonomic order, instead of "node creation order" would be great. Problem is, an amateur can't always find an authoritative source with all the classification, such as subfamilies. That's a tough one.

Still, the site looks wonderful, even in its current, somewhat taxonomically inconsistent, incarnation.

Patrick Coin
Durham, North Carolina

I tend to agree with what I'm reading here. Having subfamilies as part of our classification might help in another regard: some authorities consistently raise subfamilies to family level, so someone looking for a "family" that we treat as a subfamily might still be able to find it.

I think the suggestion on subfamilies is excellent. Many subfamilies are quite distinctive and having the genera placed in them would help quickly narrow things down. It might be good in this case to make sure the family guide page included information on separating the subfamilies.

Some families (off the top of my head) that have well-differeniated subfamilies I think would benefit from this:
Coleoptera: Cerambycidae, Chrysomelidae (these two already have some subfamily treatment), Scarabaeidae, Curculionidae
Diptera: Syrphidae(?)
Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae, Pieridae, Nymphalidae, Hesperiidae
Hymenoptera: Sphecidae, Vespidae

I don't know if every large family would benefit from this, such as the tachinids, where there are so few identified species using subfamilies would just result in unnecessary extra layers (as well, I think the current catalog of the tachinids used tribes as the highest level of subdivision). If you can figure out an easy way of moving guide pages maybe some families could wait until they reach a certain number of identified genera where placing them into subfamilies would make them more manageable, but before it becomes too much of a headache to move them all.

About the English/scientific names, I think you're right that some users find using common names easier. Since many species have both identified, could both be shown by default (eg: "Harmonia axyridis-Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle")? This would keep the user-friendly common names while minimizing ambiguity. I also like the idea of allowing the names used to be set by preferences. I'm sometimes confused by common names for families and genera, and having the scientific names available would help with that.

Another thought I had for helping navigate the larger groups would be some sort of list view, similar to the "images" option in showing all subpages below the selected node, but without thumbnails.

One more thought would be considering how order and family pages are ordered. Right now it appears to be based on time of addition, but perhaps a system to allow them to be ordered according to their taxonomic order (eg flies running from "primitive" Nematocera to "advanced" calyptrates) would help keep things organized. I'm not sure how this could be implemented, although I'm thinking of something like Hodges' numbers for moths (although for orders/families, rather than each species). This might be unrealistically difficult to implement, though.

My primary concern with subfamilies is that they are consistently applied e.g. "scarab beetles" Scarabaeidae currently has "dung beetles" (scarabaeinae) and "may and june beetles" (melolonthinae), but other genera now come right after the family >>scarab beetles>>Dynastes - I would insert a subfamily here, maybe Rhino Beetles. For Beetles, I would use the order and common names from the recently published "American Beetles" (1).

I had also proposed adding superfamilies with the idea that this would help group together, what are in many cases, numerous closely related families - many of which were until recently considered subfamilies [Geotrupidae, Trogidae, etc.]. As Joel suggests - implementing some way of ordering the taxa would largely correct this. Adding superfamilies would allow placement of taxa that can't even be ID'd to family. Not all things that look like click beetles are Elateridae for instance.

I have no problem with common names for genus-species per se, but I would only use scientific names for the folder names - again for consistency. Common names can be noted with the picture or under the info tab. Someone browsing through the images isn't going to pay much attention to whether the picture is under >>scarab>>dung beetles>>Phanaeus or >>scarab>>dung beetles>>rainbow scarabs.

is under - Insects » Beetles » Bess Beetles » Odontotaenius » Horned Passalus. I would replace >> Horned Passalus with Odontotaenius disjunctus. The common name is with the picture.

some more thoughts
Superfamilies would also help organize the wasps and ants and bees so they would end up being grouped together in an orderly fashion. We use scientific names for plants so are comfortable enough with their use, but understand others might not be. What confuses us is sometimes looking for Noctuidae, for example, through browsing rather than search, and having to try to figure out what its English name is. Of course, we're sure there are others more familiar with English names who have trouble when the titles are scientific. Our preference would be scientific headings, but admit we are interested in the scientific relationships. How exciting that this is even a dilemma! Who would have thought so just a year ago?

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