The current state of citizen science

Citizen, or community, science continues to grow and engage nonscientists in scientific research. Depending on who you ask, citizen science can be anything from planting trees, counting birds or analysing data, all the way through to formulating and executing a science project in its entirety.

While it’s impossible to put a dollar value on citizen science, it’s safe to say many projects would not function without community volunteers. For example, 17% of research publication on the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and 50% of studies on migratory birds and climate change have utilised citizen science efforts.

CSIRO’s own Radio Galaxy Zoo involved over 12,000 volunteers who analysed radio sky images, and made over 2.29 million classifications – equivalent to 122 years of full-time work if done by a single astronomer.

Despite the use of volunteers for science research, little investigation has been done on the bigger picture. Is citizen science data usable? In which areas do we need to improve to make citizen science sustainable?

Is citizen science accessible for everyone?

New research published in BioScience has found that of the 3894 participants surveyed, 77% of them were involved in multiple citizen science projects. Some volunteers were even “super-users”, taking part in as many as 50 projects. This suggests that citizen science is primarily being carried out by a small pool of already interested volunteers.

Participants were also five times more likely to have an advanced degree than the general population, and six to seven times more likely to already be working in STEM fields. Less than 5% of the volunteers who answered questions about their cultural background identified as Black, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Native American, or Latin American.

“Participation in citizen science isn’t reaching as far into different segments of the public as we had hoped for in the field,” says study co-author Associate Professor Caren Cooper, from North Carolina State University (NC State), US. “We’re seeing that most volunteers are mostly highly educated white people, with a high percentage of STEM professionals. We’re not even reaching other types of professionals. This is part of the wake-up call that’s underway in the field right now.”

“Through these projects, volunteers can learn about science, but also about their own communities,” says lead author Bradley Allf, also from NC State. “If those benefits are being concentrated in people who already have a lot of access to power in society, and to science generally, then citizen science is doing a disservice to the underserved.”

A potential way to get more of the community engaged in citizen science may be through school-based programs. Dr Erinn Fagan-Jeffries of the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide has been leading a program called Insect Investigators, which has seen students and teachers across 50 regional schools in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia set up and run insect traps. The insects are then collected and sent back to entomologists for identification and DNA barcoding. The students even get to help come up with scientific names if any new species are discovered.

“The response has been really positive so far,” says Fagan-Jeffries. “We’ve had really good success rates in terms of completing the trapping and sending back the samples to us. We’ve also had quite a bit of engagement through a discussion board online with quite a lot of schools posting photos and comments.”

The Flinders University Palaeontology Laboratory has always been a hub for a diverse range of science-trained and community volunteers. A few years ago, the FU palaeo laboratory introduced the James Moore Memorial Prize, with the aim of providing rural high school students with the opportunity to participate in a paleontology excavation and assist with laboratory research. It’s already showing signs of increasing accessibility of science to more remote communities.

“I’m already seeing names popping up in degree enrolments from previous James Moore Prize applicants from over the past few years,” says Professor Gavin Prideaux, one of the leaders at the FU palaeo lab. The program has now expanded to fund one rural and one metro school student per year.

Another way to make citizen science more accessible is through technology. Over 7.26 billion (91.54%) of the world’s population has a smart phone.

The iNaturalist app, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society, has more than 2.5 million current users around the world, at all age and education levels. Last year over 29 million observations were made by citizen scientists, which resulted in over 39 million identifications confirmed by trained scientists. The peak month for observations in Australia is October, when the annual Great Southern BioBlitz survey happens.

The recently released machine-learning-powered app BirdNET gives users free bird sound identification. The app includes more than 3,000 species; it supports 13 languages, with species names translated into an additional 12 languages. In the past three years of its trial phase, more than 2 million users from over 100 countries have generated over 40 million submissions. Some of the scientific results based on data collected by the BirdNET app have been published in PLOS Biology.

“The most exciting part of this work is how simple it is for people to participate in bird research and conservation,” says lead author Dr Connor Wood, from Cornell University, US. “You don’t need to know anything about birds, you just need a smartphone, and the BirdNET app can then provide both you and the research team with a prediction for what bird you’ve heard. This has led to tremendous participation worldwide, which translates to an incredible wealth of data. It’s really a testament to an enthusiasm for birds that unites people from all walks of life.”

Is citizen science data usable?

The easy answer is yes. In general, citizen scientists do a great job. The main variables are the complexity of the task, and the level of training they receive.

A new study utilised citizen science in a project at Chicago’s Field Museum, in the US. In order to better understand the impacts of climate change on the liverwort, a type of tiny plant, guests were asked to draw fine lines on photographs of microscopic lobes (a type of primitive leaf) to measure how lobe size has changed across different regions and through time. After two years, a total of 11,000 participants generated almost 100,000 measurements.

“It was surprising how all age groups from young children, families, youth, and adults were able to generate high-quality taxonomic data sets, making observations and preparing measurements, and at the same time empowering community scientists through authentic contributions to science,” says Dr Matt von Konrat, Head of Botanical Collections at the museum, and co-author of research published in Research Ideas and Outcomes.

However, not all citizen scientist projects are easily done. For the FU palaeo lab, due to the delicate and complicated nature of fossils, volunteers need adequate training if they’re to produce usable data.

“It’s a cost-benefit situation,” says Prideaux. “For researchers who are time poor, who would like to have volunteers, it’s a huge investment in both time and resources to properly train them.”

One strategy to fix this is getting university students involved and to use them as volunteers, for instance Bachelor of Science (Palaeontology) students who are already being instructed in paleontological techniques from day 1 of their degree.

“In an ideal world, I would have sufficient funding to train and supervise a team of volunteers,” says Prideaux. “Although it’s unfortunate not to be able to include the broader community, at the moment it’s most feasible to prioritise an investment in these students.”

“I think comes down to the design of the project and set up to make things easy to follow, says Fagan-Jeffries. “Are you providing training to your participants or volunteers so that they have the skills to be able to do it well? And accurately?”

Science for all citizens

Perhaps the greatest benefit of citizen science is the opportunity it provides for everyone to have a level of scientific literacy that will help them throughout their life.

“Not all people are going to become scientists, because that’s not a job for everyone,” says Fagan-Jeffries. “What we need is a society where people who are in all different careers have an appreciation for science and an understanding of why it’s important and how it’s done.

“An understanding of science allows you to make more informed decisions when you’re looking into policies or voting for governments, or even just reading the back of a skincare product, just that general awareness of the scientific process and critical thinking.”

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