The huge value (and under-appreciated potential) of the citizen scientist

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The world is changing rapidly, in large part due to the growth of the human population. Other species are going extinct or invading new continents and habitats at such speed that it is difficult for scientists to keep pace. But could that same human population be harnessed to better understand these changes? In a new, open source paper in the journal Biological Conservation, E.J. Theobald and colleagues ask whether citizen science projects addressing biodiversity provide data that is currently used, or has potential for use, in mainstream biodiversity research.

The paper, “Global change and local solutions: Tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research,” (which you can read by clicking on the link) addresses three main questions:

  1. What kind of biodiversity data does citizen science currently provide and what is it worth?
  1. How much of this data gets published in peer-reviewed journals and what makes it more likely to get published?
  1. What is the potential for citizen science to contribute to biodiversity research?

By scouring the Internet and interviewing citizen science project managers and biodiversity scientists, the authors compiled a database of citizen science projects in the field of biodiversity. They found that these projects run the taxonomic gamut from birds to bacteria and range in scale from continent-wide to just 10 km. When they tallied up the volunteer-hours of the 1.36-2.28 million people that participate annually in citizen science, they found that work is worth $667 million – $2.5 billion annually. That is equivalent to roughly 11-42% of the U.S. National Science Foundation budget!

That’s great, but is the data that all these hard working volunteers collect being used effectively? Does it make it into the peer-reviewed literature and why should that matter? Citizen science fulfills many other purposes besides collecting data- education, experiential learning and basic monitoring. But biodiversity research is data thirsty and requires data on the time, and geographic, scales for which citizen science is uniquely suited. When this data is analyzed for research published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, the ideas and insights it generates are vetted by other experts and become available to the scientific community. The authors found that data from only 12% of the citizen science projects in their database were used in peer-reviewed studies. Data from projects that covered large spatial scales or long time frames (i.e. decades) were more likely to be used in peer-reviewed research, as was data collected by citizen scientists trained in species identification. Projects that made their data easily available to scientists, for instance on their website, were also more likely to be included in published research. The authors acknowledge that 12% is a conservative estimate of the data that gets used. Some data from citizen science projects may be used in peer-reviewed studies without being explicitly acknowledged (shame on the scientists.) Other data may be used in non-peer reviewed reports, which are useful, but not held to the same standard as peer-reviewed studies, and are not as accessible to scientists.

There is increasing interest and participation in citizen science and much of this interest aligns with the types of research biodiversity scientists want to do. Though citizen scientists typically collect data locally, there are lots of them and they may be spread out over large scales. This allows citizen scientists to collect data at spatial and time scales it may not be feasible for professional scientists to accomplish alone. But there is a disconnect between the citizen science and the mainstream science worlds. Biodiversity scientists need to become more aware of the data resources citizen science provides. Citizen science projects should to be designed with the needs of biodiversity research in mind, i.e. large spatial scales and long time frames are advantageous. Organizations such as the Citizen Science Association ( may be critical to integrating these two worlds. If you are interested in citizen science, go join this organization now- inaugural membership is free!

This study’s assessment of citizen science in biodiversity research makes it clear that the value and potential of citizen science is huge but underappreciated- primarily due to a lack of communication. We need to change that. Get outside, get data and get communicating!

The huge value (and under-appreciated potential) of the citizen scientist

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