This excerpt from Inside CTFS is a prime example of using terms without clearly defining them. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 12-066.

Where to Begin? Determining Founding Dates in ForestGEO’s Global Network of Research Plots

Behind the seemingly objective certitude of a date lies an argument about what counts.

ForestGEO counts trees. We’re a Smithsonian-led network that censuses forests in seventy large-scale, long-term research sites around the world. Our website provides a series of statistics to describe each plot, including the dates when the site was established and when it joined the network. Some plot records lacked dates. An effort to amend the omissions turned my attention to issues of Inside CTFS, our organizational newsletter from 1994 to 2004. There, I found plenty of phrases like "the plot was initiated in x" and "establishment of the plot will begin in y," but these findings raised further questions about what counted as "established."

A screenshot of ForestGEO’s webpage for its Mpala, Kenya plot, the arrow pointing towards “Established” and “Joined Network” dates. Courtesy of author.

This excerpt from Inside CTFS is a prime example of using terms without clearly defining them. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 12-066.

Caly McCarthy with the mother-of-all spreadsheets! Courtesy of author.

I thumbed through pages of newsletters, noting whenever a date was introduced and compiling a list of the steps to become a part of our network:

  • articulating an intention to begin a plot
  • obtaining funding
  • choosing the specific location
  • conducting a topographical survey
  • establishing the grid
  • sampling vegetation
  • tagging, measuring, and mapping all stems
  • identifying each stem to species
  • entering data
  • cleaning data
  • announcing the plot’s progress in organizational literature

Many of these individual steps had beginning and end dates that could be years apart. Which one would make a proper representative for each of our dates?

To think through the possibilities, I wandered to the land of metaphor. I considered how western culture counts age from birth, not conception, and how businesses often have soft openings prior to grand ones. I realized that any definition we assigned would be a symbolic marker, a point extracted from a considerably longer process.

For "established" we sought a definition that identified when a research site became a Forest Dynamics Plot (a large-scale, long-term plot with a commitment to censusing trees in great detail), regardless of formal affiliation with ForestGEO. For "joined" we wanted something that initiated a possibility of future collaboration with other network partners. After consultation with colleagues, I decided upon the following:

established: the first year of the first census to include all stems with a dbh ≥1 cm in a plot that is at least 15-ha (unless the plot joined ForestGEO at a smaller size, in which case, the date of the smaller size)

joined: the first documented date of introducing a plot to the network (via newsletter article, blog post, tweet, etc.)

With definitions in hand, I hoped that I would find documentation to substantiate specific dates for each plot. At the Archives I surveyed grant reports, internal memos, and methodology guides to ascertain when sites were established and when they joined the network. I scrolled through archived pages of ForestGEO’s former website. I read the last decade’s worth of blog posts. I made the mother-of-all-spreadsheets to keep my information organized. There are still holes, but fewer, and for dates that we do share, I can identify specific sources substantiating the claim.

ForestGEO is uniquely positioned to conduct cross-site analysis because each of its members abides by standardized protocols; we have long understood that methods matter. In carefully considering what we mean by "established" and "joined," consistently applying our definitions, and rigorously citing our sources, we’ve applied that principle in a new way. In the epistemological process I’ve learned that dates are points in time, and when they are called into service to represent a considerably longer process, they transition from dry facts into subtle arguments about what it means to belong.

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