Observer error in vegetation surveys: A review


Vegetation sampling employing observers is prone to both inter-observer and intra-observer error. Three types of errors are common: (i) overlooking error (i.e. not observing species actually present), (ii) misidentification error (i.e. not correctly identifying species) and (iii) estimation error (i.e. not accurately estimating abundance). I conducted a literature review of 59 articles that provided quantitative estimates or statistical inferences regarding observer error in vegetation studies. Important Findings Almost all studies (92%) that tested for a statistically significant effect of observer error found at least one significant comparison. In surveys of species composition, mean pseudoturnover (the percentage of species overlooked by one observer but not another) was 10-30%. Species misidentification rates were on the order of 5-10%. The mean coefficient of variation (CV) among observers in surveys of vegetation cover was often several hundred % for species with low cover, although CVs of 25-50% were more representative of species with mean covers of >50%. A variety of metrics and indices (including commonly used diversity indices) and multivariate data analysis techniques (including ordinations and classifications) were found to be sensitive to observer error. Sources of error commonly include both characteristics of the vegetation (e.g. small size of populations, rarity, morphology, phenology) and attributes of the observers (e.g. mental fatigue, personal biases, differences in experience, physical stress). The use of multiple observers, additional training including active feedback approaches, and continual evaluation and calibration among observers are recommended as strategies to reduce observer error in vegetation surveys.



Document Type




interobserver error, intraobserver error, misidentification, pseudoturnover, vegetation sampling

Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Plant Ecology