Friday, September 07, 2007

Dealing with large inventories: advice from an expert

On Wednesday I went down to the Harvard ant room to chat with Jack Longino, who was in town working on Pheidole. I really wanted a chance to discuss the logistics of dealing with such a large collection. I found his advice very helpful, so perhaps others will, as well.

Mistakes -- What do you do with mistakes? I am doing a pin-by-pin inventory right now and have come across a couple of errors. These include having two specimens with the same ID number on them, records with no ant, ants with no record, etc. Not a ton but when you are dealing with over 7000 pinned specimens (forget about the stuff in alcohol) there are bound to be errors. And I tend to obsess about them and over-analyze the significance of my actions, etc. etc. And I really really don't want to have the wrong information in my database. I want it to be perfect. And the truth is it will never be perfect. You just have to look at your mistakes, try to figure out what happened, make your best guess correction, and realize that in the big picture it really won't make a difference in your overall analysis. Which makes perfect sense and sounds very reasonable and kind of makes me wonder why I made such a big deal about it. But I tend to do that, I guess.

Reproductives -- I have all these reproductives. Many of them are unidentified. Many of them are identified. I frustrates me greatly that I have all of these unidentified specimens. It also frustrates me greatly that when I do my analyses, the reproductives I was able to identify won't be included. I just wanted to confirm that a) no one expects me to identify all of the reproductives, b) I should not include any of the identified reproductives in the analyses , c) I should stop staring at them and put them away or I will never finish my thesis, and d) even Jack has a big drawer full of unidentified reproductives that he occasionally goes back to over the years.

Stopping -- this is my problem. I don't know when to stop. I never feel like I am finished. There are always genera that I don't feel certain about, things I want to re-check. I want everything to be perfect. This is what Jack said: "Don't be afraid to be wrong" and "err on the side of lumping." Because of course it will never be perfect (I should make a plaque that says this and put it on top of my computer so I can stare at it all day long) and you have to stop sometime and at some point you just have to say that you have done your best job and let future taxonomists make any changes if necessary.

There is more to say here, but I am going to sign off for now and hopefully continue this post later.

Image: me feeling overwhelmed

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