Citizen Science: all fun and no data? ScienceOnline 2010

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Sandra Porter

Do citizen science efforts ever go beyond "feel good" contributions? Do the data get published in peer-reviewed journals?

In an earlier post, I started a list of citizen science projects that allow students to make a contribution. Many commentors are graciously adding to that list and I thank you all! I'm glad to learn there are so many interesting projects and ways for people to get involved. Science is so empowering!

My question today concerns things like outcomes and deliverables. We'd like to assume that good things are coming from citizen science because people are involved, but I don't know if that's really true and being a scientist, I want to avoid over-doing the assumptions.

Does the research from citizen science ever get published?

Last Wednesday, at the University of Washington, I learned about one such study. If you know of others, I'd love to see citations in the comments.

One of my fantasies when I was a full-time college instructor was to figure out a good project where my students and I could collaborate and we could collect publishable data.

This sounds easy, and there are plenty of projects out there now where students can do this, but when I was teaching, I had a hard time finding one that combined our learning goals with a chance to do real science. I did publish one paper (1) from our sequencing project, but I would have liked to do more.

One of the papers that I always liked was a paper that combined ecology and microbiology. In this study, the authors enlisted girl scouts to go out in the woods and drop acorns in certain areas so they could learn more about Lyme disease (2). I know this was a serious study, but I can't imagining an army of little Red Riding Hood girls, skipping through the woods with GPS devices, dropping acorns from their baskets.

Since then, I've been learning more about citizen science, sometimes combined with student projects, and it's made me wonder how often these efforts result in peer-reviewed publications.

Do these studies get used for anything beyond education and entertainment?

I haven't been able to find digital biology projects that involve citizen science, but last week, at the UW COSEE workshop, I attended a talk where Dr. Nathalie Hamel talked about her work, the contribution from citizen scientists, and a resulting publication.


Figure 1. A sandpiper at Damon Point, on the Washington coast.

As a graduate student, Dr. Hamel studied the question of whether gill nets have an impact on marine birds. Marine birds that dive, like the Common Murre, can be confused by nets and drown. Until her study however, the magnitude of the effect of gill nets on bird drownings had not been systematically measured.

Citizen science data became a valuable part of her study because they allowed her to survey a wider area and measure the number of birds that are normally found dead on the beach, in the absence of a nearby fishery. The data provided information about the kinds of birds that were normally found on the beach and the number of birds found at different times of year.

In Washington, the citizen science group that really made an impact was the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST). COASST is a network of volunteers who monitor the Washington beaches. When COASST volunteers find dead birds on the beach, they photograph them, identify them, take measurements, tag them and enter the data in a web interface to an on-line database. For this project, entries were verified by experts using foot type, photographs, and the measurements (3).

One of the greatest concerns that scientists have about citizen science efforts is data quality. In this study, COASST data were validated through numerous means. Birds were tagged to prevent volunteers from counting them more than once. Photographs and measurements were taken and used by UW researchers to recheck citizen data. The web site was also designed to include some error checking tools, increasing the likelihood of capturing higher quality data.

Through the verification process, the researchers at UW were able to measure the quality of citizen science data. Quoting from the paper (3):

Across the program, volunteers were able to identify carcasses correctly to the level of species and family 85% and 92% of the time respectively (present study).

i-558f44a2ec18a042ad84e394fffc54d4-Screen shot 2010-01-11 at 10.12.57 AM.pngFig. 2. Species of dead birds identified by COASST, 1999-2008, data regraphed from COASST.

With the background data in hand, the researchers were able to compare the number of dead birds per kilometer and determine if the numbers were different near fisheries.

In case you're wondering, the story didn't stop with research paper. The study found that gill net fisheries did have an impact on drowning events and murres were especially vulnerable. Even better, Dr. Hamel mentioned in her talk that these data are being used by fisheries to inform decisions.

1. Sandra Porter and Todd Smith (2000). Bioinformatics in the Biotechnology Classroom Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, 24, 314-318

2. Jones, C. (1998). Chain Reactions Linking Acorns to Gypsy Moth Outbreaks and Lyme Disease Risk Science, 279 (5353), 1023-1026 DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5353.1023

3. Nathalie J. Hamel, Alan E. Burger, Kristin Charleton, Peter Davidson, & Sandi Lee, Douglas F. Bertram and Julia K. Parrish (2009). Bycatch and Beached Birds: Assessing Mortality Impacts in Coastal Net Fisheries Using Marine Bird Strandings Marine Ornithology, 37, 41-60(pdf)