Do You Trust “Citizen Science”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | May 13th, 2010 | 12 Comments
topic: Conscious Living News, Eco Travel, Green Living

Citizen science” isn’t the study of all of us who reside in the U.S., but rather a way of collecting information that has become popular in recent years. The phrase refers to volunteers who work as field assistants for scientific studies. In a time when school and natural resources department budgets are tight, using ordinary folks to gather and record wildlife and environmental observations can stretch research dollars by getting reams of data for no cost.

Most of these citizen volunteers aren’t scientists at all, but people who just love the outdoors or who are concerned about environmental trends and problems. Often, interest and passion are their only qualifications regarding scientific work. But while citizen scientists don’t analyze data or write papers, they are responsible for recording the facts that research papers are based on. A case in point is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Program in Ithaca, N.Y., where more than 30 ornithology papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals using data collected by their volunteers.

At REEF, the world’s largest marine-sightings database (more than 138,000 entries so far), recreational snorkelers and divers are recording information about fish population and density. The site’s data has been used in more than 55 scientific papers.

Visitors welcomed with open arms

Not only is citizen science a money-saver for many researchers, it can reduce the time needed to complete a project. Launched in 2007, the Galaxy Zoo website invited its visitors to look at images of a million galaxies taken with a robotic telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Participants were then asked to classify the galaxies as either ellipticals or spirals and — if the galaxy was a spiral — record the direction of its arms. Yale and Oxford astrophysicists estimated that with so many galaxies, it might take at least two years for site visitors to work through them all. Within 24 hours of its launch, however, the site was receiving 70,000 classifications per hour. The project received more than 50 million classifications during its first year, from almost 150,000 people. In addition, a 24-year-old Dutch schoolteacher discovered a never-before-seen astronomical object that is now the subject of two peer-reviewed articles.

Most “citizen scientists” aren’t scientists at all, but people who are willing to record their nature observations. ©John T. Andrews

Citizen science not only brings researchers benefits in terms of money and time, but also allows them to gather information on a larger geographic scale. Drawing observations from citizen scientists all over the world rather than just those collected traditionally, researchers can gather mass amounts of information, if the volunteers are allowed to record their findings on a website.

When accuracy counts

I’d never suggest that only trained and certified biologists or astrophysicists or climatologists should be allowed to collect information that will be used in scientific studies. A man in Huntersville, N.C., for example, was able to verify that barred owls, once thought to only live in old-growth forests, can also do quite well in cities with mature hardwood trees. He monitored a barred owl nest box on his property with a motion-activated camera.

Barred owl

A citizen scientist found that barred owls, once thought to live only in old-growth forests, could do quite well in cities. ©Bob Leggett

But having had my own recent experience with citizen science, I’m more aware of how difficult it can be to record what should be even the simplest of observations, such as the number of birds you see before you. In April, I had the opportunity to sit in a plywood box in the middle of 156,000 acres of midwestern grasslands, which served as a blind so I could watch greater prairie chickens “dance” at dawn on their booming grounds. A survey form in the blind asked all observers to record how many chickens were on the grounds in 15-minute intervals. Just before exiting the blind, I counted six birds on the grounds and noted the number on the form. But the moment I stepped outside, 12 birds flushed into the sky. A small dip in the grounds — not noticeable when sitting in the blind — had obscured half of them.

It caused me to wonder what other mistakes have been made in greater prairie chicken surveys — and other wildlife and nature surveys — by amateurs such as myself. A lot of decisions — important ones — are made on such biological reports. Scant funds for wildlife and environmental conservation and management may be allocated the wrong way or worse: lost altogether, if such observational data is wrong.

Do you think it’s a good idea to allow ordinary citizens to gather scientific data that will be used in studies, the results of which might influence how we use and manage our natural resources? Or should such observations be left to trained professionals?

Let me know your thoughts.

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Counting greater prairie chickens on their “booming grounds” is an exercise in citizen science. ©John T Andrews


  1. I knew a chamber music coach named mark who had contributed countless hours of recorded bird calls to the cornell library. The fact that he was a musician kept him from being an ornithologist, but that’s not to say he didn’t spend many hours and dollars in research. Although a citizen scientist, it’s his passion and an area of expertise.

    travis | May 14th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. As a scientist, I’m inclined not to trust data collected by people without science training. It’s too easy to commit common mistakes of counting the hits and ignoring the misses, or counting borderline cases as positives.
    That said, it probably does have some value for large databases full of things that are easy to score (like the aforementioned astronomy database). I would hope though that the team in charge of analyzing the data double-checks results submitted by the public.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | May 14th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. When birding, we have always insisted on at least two people seeing the bird in question,and agreeing about its identity. That should make the statistics more reliable, although obviously two people can also be wrong. I guess my acceptance of data gleaned by citizen scientists depends a lot on how knowledgeable they are.

    Carlyn Kine | May 14th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. Here in South Africa we are busy with SABAP2 – the second Southern African Bird Atlas Project. There just isn’t the funding to collect even a 20th of the data currently being gathered by hundreds of keen volunteers. In any event the bulk of the serious data-collectors are keen birders – many with better birding skills than professional ornithologists, who may have academic qualifications, but not necessarily the field experience to find more difficult and elusive species. There is no way this sort of project could be done without citizen scientists, and also bear in mind there are checks and balances built into the protocols including vetting of data by 10 regional panels of experts. There will always be errors in a project like this, but with large volumes of data these are probably statistically insignificant.

    Etienne Marais | May 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. There’s no doubt in my mind that we absolutely need ‘citizen scientists’ who are actively involved in gathering scientific and environmental data to support ‘the pros’.

    My late husband was a birding enthusiast so I know that for decades this small slice of the scientific community has been reaping the benefits of a massive, extended community of committed, dedicated and highly knowledgeable citizens providing critical support with data of all kinds.

    I think of the annual Christmas Bird Count that happens across at least North America (and perhaps the world?) and the invaluable data it provides about the changes in bird population statistics, ranges, etc. I also remember a summer bird count we used to be involved in that required us to roam a specific territority from 1 hr before sun-up for a set period of time and count every bird we saw or heard. It provided similar data. Now this is years and years ago, but I also remember there was some project he was involved in where he’d get blank maps from some organization and he’d patiently colour in ranges of species based on data this group provided.

    Gwen M. | May 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. I thionk citizen science is a good thing–for two reasons. One, much more data is collected with a team of volunteers than would be possible by paid observers operating within today’s limited budgets. Anyone can make errors in collecting data, not just citizen scientists. As experience and volunteer training increase, errors most likely decrease to some extent. Second, involving ordinary people in scientific data collection is one of the best ways I can think of to increase their interest in the subject being studied and lead to a greater awareness of some of the complex issues in our natural world. Many of those kids helping their parents count turtle eggs, listen for sandhill crane calls, etc. may turn out to be tomorrow’s scientists.

    Dorothy Klinefelter | May 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. I would think in this age of tight budgets,and lack of funding for research or other projects, that volunteers would be the hottest commodity around. I would think with the baby boomers now retiring and looking for things to do, that a few well placed adds for volunteers would garnish a plethora of help. I would also think that with minimal amount of training, these volunteers could be taught how to accurately collect information, from counting butterflies to taking water samples for research purpose.One more thought, maybe a little gas money would be appreciated on certain projects

    John H Gaukel | May 20th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. I’m a pro– a PhD entomologist with 25 years of field experience. I now run a team of citizen scientists for a local wetland health evaluation program. The difference between a professional crew in a cornfield (undergrads in science majors) and a self-selecting team of amateurs in a swamp is revealing. Around the first of August, when conditions in the cornfield are brutal and the most important data of the year are being collected, some of the crew may start to treat “doing science” as “just a job.” I can’t blame them. Without passion for the work, interest wanes when tasks are both monotonous and monumental. The problem is that the job demands attention to detail that lapses the instant one switches from active inquiry to punching a clock. My citizen-scientists, on the other hand, are in the swamp because they want to be. It’s head in the game, feet in the muck, all of the time, every time. We have few perfect summer evenings in this part of the country, and I have people who will spend one sorting through two liters of tadpole corpses to find the half-eaten insect remains in a bottle trap. The smell is incredible; even I hold my breath. That takes a devotion to scientific inquiry impossible to fake.

    Collecting good field data isn’t rocket science. Nor is it intuitive. We pros make lots of mistakes while learning the ropes (hopefully early in graduate school when stakes are lower). Citizen scientists can generate quality numbers if they know the “hows” and “whys” of methodology. As pros, our first job is to teach those subjects. After all, the PhD is a teaching degree; shrinking funding should prod us to use it liberally. Besides, isn’t sharing science the real fun of it, in the end?

    (Originally posted on LinkedIn)

    Ann Journey, Scientist at University of Minnesota | May 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. I vote for Citizen Science. I am sure that there is a mathematical way to calculate the potential errors made by the citizens so that it can still be good science in the end.

    (Originally posted on LinkedIn)

    Ann Donkle-Dillett | May 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  10. When it’s your job rather than your hobby, often the passion is missing. A mix of the citizen and the scientist sounds like a pretty good combination.

    Art Hardy | May 24th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  11. The resident arachnid specialist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science ran a very successful Colorado species survey a few years ago using citizen volunteers. And there is a long history of experienced birders gathering valuable population data. So if the project calls for lots of brute force footwork and not much precise or difficult measurement, I think volunteers would be invaluable.

    (Originally posted on LinkedIn)

    Hank Schultz | May 25th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  12. Most “citizen scientists” are every day people who are willing to record their observations. This is the best way to secure — field information in bulk.

    Mike_Dunn | July 27th, 2010 | Comment Permalink

Post a Comment

If you want to show your picture with your comment, go get a gravatar!