Climate change science aided by huge but 'invisible' efforts of amateurs

Sep 03, 2014

Hundreds of thousands of volunteer data collectors are due for some thanks from scientists, according to a new paper that reveals the role of citizen science in studies of birds and climate change. Data collected by amateurs underpins up to 77 percent of the studies in this field, but that fact is largely invisible by the time the research appears in journals, according to a study published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

"Our paper is a chance to say thank you to the many people who are ," said lead author Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "These people are part of the process of creating new knowledge—and whether it's counting birds or butterflies, gazelles or galaxies, they should know that their observations really make a difference in professional science."

Birds make excellent subjects for citizen-science projects—the term for studies that depend on members of the public for data gathering. That's in part because the great popularity of bird watching offers a ready pool of skilled observers. Some well-known North American projects are the Christmas Bird Count, eBird, and the Great Backyard Bird Count, as well as activities such as bird-banding stations and breeding bird atlases. But citizen science is not limited to birds—hundreds of other projects cover bugs, trees, flowers, mammals, and microbes, as well as topics like , air pollution, and astronomy.

Citizen science provides scientists with continent- or globe-spanning observations, often over periods so long that they outlast the careers of individual researchers. (The Christmas Bird Count has been running continuously since 1900.) For many types of data, there's simply no other way to collect it at such a scale than with volunteers.

So how well does that dependence on volunteers come through in scientific papers? As a springboard for their study, Cooper and her colleagues analyzed the bibliography of a recent review on the effects of on migratory birds. For each of the 173 primary studies cited in the review, Cooper and her colleagues tracked down the sources of data used.

Neither the review itself nor any of the cited papers used the term "citizen science"—a term coined in 1995—and only 37 papers used the word "volunteer." Yet between 24 percent and 77 percent of the papers supporting each claim drew primarily on volunteer data. Citizen science proved especially important for documenting the patterns and consequences of climate change, such as population declines and changes in migration timing.

Cooper says that it's not as if scientists are downplaying the role of citizen science—in some cases, scientists use large data repositories and may be unaware that citizen science was involved. In the majority of cases, scientists simply don't use a standardized term to refer to citizen science. The result is that the product of all that volunteer effort is invisible in the literature, despite having played an integral part in analyses.

"I'd like to see this information coming full circle. In the world today we tend to have notions about expertise, and that only professionals have it," Cooper said, noting that this idea can keep people from feeling they have anything to contribute to the scientific process. "But people who have been doing a hobby for years have tons of expertise, and they can make a very real contribution."

"It would be so cool for people to start to identify with the term , instead of thinking 'I'm a bird watcher,' or 'I measure water quality,'" Cooper said. "People might realize they have a lot of kindred spirits out there."

Explore further: Mobile technologies accelerate citizen science

More information: PLOS ONE, www.plosone.org/article/info%3… journal.pone.0106508

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Citizen science: Armies of volunteers aid research

May 08, 2011

(AP) -- Besides being a researcher in New York's Hudson River Estuary Program, environmental scientist Chris Bowser leads citizen projects that collect reams of data for other scientists.

Snowy owls invade US 'south' as cold has effect

Feb 18, 2014

Reports from tens of thousands of bird-counting volunteers show a southern invasion of Arctic-dwelling snowy owls has spread to 25 U.S. states, and frigid cold is causing unusual movements of waterfowl.

What's that bird? Check your smart phone

Jan 15, 2014

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has released a free iPhone app to help people identify 285 birds in North America. Created with support from the National Science Foundation, the app asks just five questions, then displays ...

You can be a star—on science's stage

Nov 14, 2012

The rapid growth in "citizen science" projects during the past decade is enabling more and more science enthusiasts, hobbyists, students and other ordinary people to participate in the excitement of real-world scientific ...

Recommended for you

How can we help endangered vultures?

15 minutes ago

Zoologists from the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin are proposing an ingenious idea to help conserve populations of African white-backed vultures. The iconic birds, which play a critical ...

Scientists work to save endangered desert mammal

55 minutes ago

Amargosa voles, small rodents that inhabit rare marshes of the Mojave Desert, have faced dire circumstances in recent years. Loss of habitat, extreme drought and climate change brought this subspecies of ...

Sex-loving, meat-eating reptiles have shorter lives

2 hours ago

The health risks and benefits of vegetarianism have long been discussed in relation to the human diet, but newly published research reveals that it's definitely of benefit to the reptile population. That, ...

US charges safari owners with illegal rhino hunts

14 hours ago

Two South African men were charged Thursday by the US government with conspiracy to sell illegal rhinoceros hunts to American hunters, money laundering and secretly trafficking in rhino horns.

User comments : 0