Accuracy, precision and quality control in age determination, including a review of the use and abuse of age validation methods


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Many calcified structures produce periodic growth increments useful for age determination at the annual or daily scale. However, age determination is invariably accompanied by various sources of error, some of which can have a serious effect on age-structured calculations. This review highlights the best available methods for insuring ageing accuracy and quantifying ageing precision, whether in support of large-scale production ageing or a small-scale research project. Included in this review is a critical overview of methods used to initiate and pursue an accurate and controlled ageing program, including (but not limited to) validation of an ageing method. The distinction between validation of absolute age and increment periodicity is emphasized, as is the importance of determining the age of first increment formation. Based on an analysis of 372 papers reporting age validation since 1983, considerable progress has been made in age validation efforts in recent years. Nevertheless, several of the age validation methods which have been used routinely are of dubious value, particularly marginal increment analysis. The two major measures of precision, average percent error and coefficient of variation, are shown to be functionally equivalent, and a conversion factor relating the two is presented. Through use of quality control monitoring, ageing errors are readily detected and quantified; reference collections are the key to both quality control and reduction of costs. Although some level of random ageing error is unavoidable, such error can often be corrected after the fact using statistical (‘digital sharpening)’ methods.