Whether they call it crowdsourcing, community-based monitoring or simply volunteer research, many scientists rely on members of the public for collecting data, but that fact is not always obvious in the studies that they later publish.
Caren Cooper, a scientist at the Bird Population Studies and Citizen Science programs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, would like to see that change. She says more researchers should explicitly state when their research relies on "citizen science," the term she uses to describe "research practices that relies on public contributions of data."
Cooper is a big supporter of citizen science. Much of her research draws on information from eBird, a program that allows users to report any bird seen anywhere and is the biggest volunteer-based data collection in the world. She also gives talks on the subject, where she says she often hears the same concern from other scientists.
"The most frequent question I got was about data quality; they'd ask, 'How do we know the data is any good?'" Cooper said. "I'd often say, the proof is in the pudding."
To show the influence of citizen science on current research, Cooper and her colleagues evaluated a review paper written by 27 ornithologists. The paper outlined 10 central claims about the impacts of climate change on migratory birds. The paper represents a "critical synthesis of the existing scientific support for the patterns, mechanisms, and consequences of phenological changes in bird migration," according to the study.
They found that half of the 173 original studies cited in the review paper were based on citizen science research. Yet more than 40 percent of these papers only mentioned volunteers in the acknowledgements, while another roughly 40 percent did not use the term volunteers at all, simply mentioning the name of the group that provided the data, like the British Trust for Ornithology's Common Birds Census.
An often understated influence
When the majority of the review authors ranked the quality of the evidence supporting each of the claims, Cooper found no correlation between the amount of volunteer-collected data backing up each claim and the confidence the researchers had in the claim's reliability.
For Cooper, these results showed both that researchers had strong confidence in data from volunteers and revealed that the influence of citizen science on the study of birds and climate change was greater than is commonly acknowledged. Her study was published in the journal PLOS ONE this month.
None of the studies mentioned in the review paper used the terms "citizen science" or "citizen scientist."
Cooper didn't think the omission was intentional.
"I think that it's just the term citizen scientist hasn't really caught on," she said.
That's unfortunate because using citizen science in studies would not only highlight volunteers' role in science, it could also could attract more investment into future research, said Rick Bonney, director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who reviewed Cooper's study.
"If we want to get more funding for these kinds of studies, let's all use that term," he said.
Citizen science projects are especially good at providing data for both long-term and geographically broad studies that require too much data for a single research team to compile on their own.
Although the term "citizen scientist" is fairly new, members of the public have been contributing to science projects for decades. One of the oldest projects is the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, started in 1900. The volunteer-generated count has helped track bird populations around the world. In an even older study, farmers began formally collecting weather data beginning shortly after the Civil War. Information from those records is still used today in climate change research, according to Cooper.
Wide range of opportunities
Bonney was one of the first to use the term "citizen science" in 1994 as a way to more easily describe the types of volunteer-based studies that had become more popular at the university since the end of the 1980s.
"I just thought citizen science had a nice ring to it," Bonney said.
In fact, a man named Alan Irwin gets official credit for coining "citizen scientist" in 1995. He used the term to describe the way the public influences and participates in science, rather than to describe the data collected, according to Cooper.
Today, people interested in taking part in citizen science projects can easily find a broad range of studies. Participation can be as simple as filling out an online form
Bonney said the public seemed to embrace citizen science faster than the scientific community. As an example, Bonney described a talk he gives each March to science communication students about the current role of citizen science in research. He said when he first started doing the talk in the 1990s, students seemed surprised and excited about the fact that people without science backgrounds could get involved in research. This year, when he informally surveyed the lecture, the response was much different.
"The students now just expect the public to be involved," he said. "People are just taking matters into their own hands."
To learn more about citizen science projects in the past and present, go to Cooper's blog on PLOS ONE, Coop's Citizen Sci Scoop.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500