Brief Communication | Published:

To list or not to list? The value and detriment of freelisting in ethnobotanical studies


Although freelisting and semi-structured interviews are widespread methods in ethnobotany, few studies quantitatively examine how these methods may bias results. Using a comprehensive ethnobotanical inventory of palm species, uses and names in the Chácobo tribe of Bolivia, we show that interviews elicit more items than freelists, but the effect is sensitive to sample size, item type and data categorization. This implies that even subtle methodological choices may greatly affect reported results.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    de Sousa, D. C. P., Soldati, G. T., Monteiro, J. M., de Sousa Aráujo, T. A. & Albuquerque, U. P. PLoS ONE 11, e0165838 (2016).

  2. 2.

    Quinlan, M. Field Methods 17, 219–234 (2005).

  3. 3.

    Brewer, D. D., Garret, S. B. & Rinaldi, G. Appl. Cogn. Psychol. 16, 343–358 (2002).

  4. 4.

    Magaña, J. R. & Norman, D. K. Percept. Mot. Skills 51, 931–934 (1980).

  5. 5.

    Weller, S. C. & Romney, A. K. Systematic Data Collection (Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1988).

  6. 6.

    de Sousa Araújo, T. A. et al. J. Ethnobiol. Ethnomed. 8, 11 (2012).

  7. 7.

    Borgatti, S. P. J. Quant. Anth. 4, 261–278 (1994).

  8. 8.

    Paniagua Zambrana, N. Y., Bussmann, R. W., Blacutt, E. & Macia, M. J. (eds) Los Chácobo y las Palmeras (Graficart, Trujillo, Peru, 2011).

  9. 9.

    Bussmann, R. W. & Paniagua Zambrana, N. Y. in Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes (eds Ponman, B. & Bussmann, R. W.) 23–24 (Graficart, Trujillo, Peru, 2012).

  10. 10.

    Boom, B. M. Ethnobotany of the Chácobo Indians, Beni, Bolivia 2nd edn (New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY, 1987).

  11. 11.

    Córdoba, L. I. Bol. Am. 2, 85–106 (2012).

  12. 12.

    Cámara-Leret, R., Paniagua Zambrana, N. Y. & Macía, M. J. in Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes (eds Ponman, B. & Bussmann, R. W.) 41–71 (Graficart, Trujillo, Peru, 2012).

  13. 13.

    Schrauf, R. W. & Sanchez, J. Field Methods 22, 70–87 (2010).

  14. 14.

    Prost, M. D. Costumbres, Habilidades y Cuadro de Vida Entre los Chacobos (Instituto Linguistico de Verano, Riberalto, Bolivia, 1970).

  15. 15.

    Prost, G. Notas Linguisticas de Bolivia. No. II: Phonemas de la Lengua Chácobo (Instituto Linguistico de Verano, Riberalto, Bolivia, 1960).

  16. 16.

    International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics (with 2008 additions) (ISE, 2006);

  17. 17.

    Paniagua Zambrana, N. Y., Macía, M. J. & Cámara-Leret, R. Ecol. Bolivia 45, 44–68 (2010).

  18. 18.

    Bussmann, R. W. & Paniagua Zambrana, N. Y. La Etnobotanica de los Chácobo: Traduccion de “Boom, B.—The Ethnobotany of the Chácobo Indians, Beni, Bolivia” (Graficart, Trujillo, Peru, 2011).

  19. 19.

    Paniagua Zambrana, N. Y., Bussmann. R. W., Tellez, C. & Vega, C. Los Chácobo y Su Historia en el Siglo XX (Graficart, Trujillo, Peru, 2014).

  20. 20.

    Oksanen, J. et al. vegan: community ecology package v.2.4-6 (CRAN, 2016);

Download references


We greatly thank R. Ortiz, President of the CIRABO, and M. Ortiz, Capitan General of the TCO Chácobo, as well as all our Chácobo friends and counterparts and the whole Chácobo population for all their friendship and support. We thank the National Geographic Society (grant no. 9244-13) for support of the fieldwork. This study was funded by the National Geographic Society (grant no. 9244-13) and endowment funds of the William L. Brown Center at Missouri Botanical Garden, for which we are grateful.

Author information

N.Y.P.Z. and R.W.B. designed the study. N.Y.P.Z., R.W.B., A.L.M.H., G.O.S., M.O.V., D.O.A., J.S.M., M.S.M., S.C., B.C.M., G.C.M., O.R. and E.S. conducted the fieldwork. A.L.M.H. curated and identified the collections and entered the original data. N.Y.P.Z. and R.W.B. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. R.E.H. conducted the statistical analysis. All authors read, corrected and approved the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Narel Y. Paniagua Zambrana.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figure 1 and Supplementary Results Discussion.

Life Sciences Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

Code used to generate analysis presented in Supplementary Figure 1.

Supplementary Table 2

Comma separated text example data file (1 of 2) to be used with Supplementary Table 1.

Supplementary Table 3

Comma separated text example data file (2 of 2) to be used with Supplementary Table 1.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark
Fig. 1: Change in Arecaceae knowledge metrics for each of the 23 participants interviewed with freelisting and semi-structured interview techniques, quantified by the number of species, Chácobo names, uses (by subcategory) and parts reported.
Fig. 2: Informants, scaled by species reported in semi-structed interview methods and freelisting methods.