October 7, 2014

Lab of O. Study Finds Citizen Scientists Are Major Contributors to Climate Studies

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Global climate change is a hot topic of study for scientists in many fields, including ornithologists, who observe changes in bird behavior to see the impact of climate change on bird populations. However, they do not work alone — much of the data used in such studies comes from ordinary bird watchers, who often go uncredited for their efforts, according to a recent study from the Lab of Ornithology.

“We had long suspected that a lot of what we know about global climate change comes from citizen science,” said Caren Cooper, a research associate in the Bird Population Studies and Citizen Science Programs at the Lab of Ornithology. “Most studies of climate change require long-term data sets and citizen science is one of the best ways to get these data. Also, these studies often required data sets across broad geographic areas, which is one of the advantages of citizen science — there are people everywhere.”

“Citizen science” refers to the involvement of the public in collecting data for science research. According to Cooper, citizen scientists may do anything from counting sea turtles on a beach to sampling microbes on a door handle.

“In pretty much any field you can imagine, there are people who make observations and are willing to share them,” Cooper said.

Cooper and her colleagues at the Lab of Ornithology published a study in September that determined how often citizen science participation is acknowledged in journals.

“We had suspected that a lot of what we know came from citizen science but we didn’t know how to show it, since we also knew most people don’t use the term,” Cooper said. “So we couldn’t just search the literature for citizen science.”

In the study, the researchers analyzed a scientific review paper on climate change in which the authors evaluated the strength of 10 different articles’ claims on changes in bird migratory patterns. Cooper said she and her colleagues found that half of these 10 papers utilized data gathered by citizen science participants on average.

“The number varied though, one claim had 20 percent citizen science data and another had 75 percent,” Cooper said. “That was the first time we could put some kind of estimate of the magnitude of the contribution citizen science is making to our understanding of this one area.”

The study also found that there was no relation between the strength of the claim made by a study and the use of citizen science data, so the use of citizen science had no effect on the reliability of the research.

“Some of the claims that had the most support, in expert opinion, were the ones that used citizen science,” Cooper said. “We also noticed that not one of the papers used the term ‘citizen science.’”

According to Cooper, not only was citizen science not mentioned in the papers, some of the authors were unaware of where their data originated.

“One of the authors just said that it was publicly available data and he had no idea how it was collected,” Cooper said. “So we showed that citizen science was very prevalent and important to what we know, and that it wasn’t explicitly acknowledged as citizen science in a way that can easily evaluate its impact on science research.”

Cooper said part of the reason for this lack of acknowledgement is the relative newness of ‘citizen science’ as a term, which had just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary this past year. The concept of using members of the public to collect data is nothing new.

“A lot of projects have been really long term. Christmas Bird Count started in 1900, and people have been monitoring weather stations since just after the Civil War,” Cooper said. “It was happening in all these different fields at all these different times, but it wasn’t seen as all the same thing. The term citizen science is starting to make us realize how someone monitoring water pollution isn’t that different from someone counting birds [or] someone watching for the next supernova.”

The Lab of Ornithology at Cornell hosts a number of citizen science-driven projects.

“Project Feederwatch, Nestwatch and eBird are set up for birdwatchers to contribute their observations over a long period of time,” Cooper said.

As part of these projects, members of the public report the species they’ve seen, when eggs are laid, when eggs hatch and other useful information for ornithologists. The Lab of Ornithology is among a large number of organizations that establish projects that use citizen science, according to Cooper.

“There are a lot of different organizations, academic, non-profit, government agencies, that run these kind of projects for people to aggregate their data together so that information can be used for science, conservation, management and sometimes to inform policy,” Cooper said.

In addition, communities occasionally begin their own citizen science projects, according to Cooper.

“Communities also start localized projects. They sometimes even ask scientists for input to improve their protocols,” she said. “There is a long history of that and in environmental justice movements, where people are concerned about pollutants in their environment and they’ll set out to monitor it themselves.”

Cooper said recognizing the contributions of citizen scientists in research is important for future research projects.

“We make a call in our paper for researchers to acknowledge citizen science if they use data collected by volunteers,” she said, “That would help us keep track of the use and impact of citizen science data, which I think is really important in terms of how we continue to refine and develop this method, just like any other method that’s used in research.”