Concepts of an Online Key

Some thoughts and considerations
David Nelson
First posted March 24, 2010 Last updated May 11, 2010

This page outlines some thoughts on the advantages of an online, photographically-based, parallel key for identifying stoneflies.

An online key would have the usual advantages of an online document compared to a print document:

(1) Unlimited use of full color photography without the cost and limitations of print media
(2) Widespread, instant distribution
(3) No printing or distribution cost
(4) Continuous, no-cost updating of every copy
(5) Hyperlinks
(6) Video

There are also some advantages to the online format for a dichotomous key. Consider these concepts:

(1) The main problem with a keys is that they are notoriously difficult to use. They have been described as "documents written by those that don't need them for use by those that can't use them." The challenge is that the decision at each dichotomy or branching point is difficult to make and each decision is crucial: one wrong decision and you are practically guaranteed the wrong result.

An online key can be more than just a two-dimensional print document: it can be three dimensional. For instance, consider two parallel keys densely hyperlinked to one another, with the same numbering scheme at each dichotomy. One key, similar to the standard print key, which I term a "skeleton key" (pun intended, as I am an orthopedist), consists of the minimum of words and images to allow the user to proceed quickly. This type of key is ideal for the experienced user who knows how to answer each dichotomy and just needs to be guided over a decision tree that they are already familiar with. However, it is common for a new user to be puzzled at any one decision point and to be unable to proceed, or to proceed with their best guess, which is wrong. The Internet provides a solution: the words of the dichotomy in the skeleton key can be a hyperlink to another page where the entire page, termed the "detailed key", is devoted to that particular dichotomy. The text can go into the question at hand in greater detail, and there can be more illustrations and photographs, with advice on the decision. When decision points have known problems or exceptions, the new user can be guided to the correct choice. The optimum page would be formulated based on the knowledge of experienced entomology teachers as to what the typical problems are of students of the key at that point. It would be as if you had the professor at your elbow, guiding you through that particular dichotomy. The user could move from the detailed key via hyperlinks back to the appropriate next step in the skeleton key, or they could proceed via hyperlinks to the next dichotomy in the detailed key. This approach would allow the for the speed of use of the current generation of skeleton key for experienced entomologists as well as lead to faster learning and better identifications by new users of the key. For an example, see this. This kind of key would be termed a "parallel key."

This kind of parallel key can only be done with the power of the Internet, that is, with hyperlinks, unlimited page size, unlimited page number, and unlimited color or graphic material.

It should be noted that the parallel key need not be limited to three dimensions, but could be an N-dimensional key. For instance, if there are two rival or alternative keys, the stems that lead to the rival or alternative dichotomies can easily link to both of the new keys, and the user could determine which key was easier for them to follow. Alternatively, if a key to the species level is different for different parts of the country (a common situation), the stems can hyperlink to completely different regional keys. There is no limit to the number of simultaneous keys. Over time, practice and research may define one key as preferable and the keys would evolve.

Another option in an Internet-based key is that the branching point does not have to be limited to two choices, but with the backup of the parallel key, multiple options may be offered at any branching point. This has been shown to be effective in the keys on Discover Life.

(2) The next point is trivial compared to the concept above, but is also possible with an Internet-based key. The classical key is primarily text, directing the user to the next couplet, which is usually located at some distance from the current couplet, and often results in skipping around on the page or flipping to another page. A better option is a graphically laid out key, such as the one by Bill Stark in the Photographic Guide to the Plectoptera. This is the first page:

The key continues on the the second page, overlapping with the beginning of the nymph key:

The key continues on to a third page.

Why is the key spread out over three different pages? Why are the nymph and adult keys mixed up, with some dichotomies from one part of the key placed on a page with part of another key? The reason is simple: the limitations of paper pages, with publisher-defined size limits. Consider this same key online:

The key can be listed as a continuous graphic due to the fact that pages online have no dimensional limits, and blank space has no additional cost as it does in the print version. This is a trivial example of a much larger concept. For instance, Google Maps has a map which goes from San Francisco to New York, but rather than store a page that large, it is stored as separate pages that load as your cursor is moved to the edge of the current map. The graphical layout can be as large as required for the purpose, but new pages can appear as if they are continuous, with the cursor as it approaches the edge of the current page to download the adjacent portion of the key.

The limits of the next generation of online keys are only due to our imagination! The possibilities are just now being discovered.