Optimising citizen science

Citizen science is on the rise. Aided by the internet, the popularity and scope of citizen science appears almost limitless. For citizens the motivation is to contribute to ‘real’ science, public information and conservation. For scientists, citizen science offers a way to collect information that would otherwise not be affordable.

The longest running and largest of these citizen science programs are broad-scale bird monitoring projects. There are two basic types of protocols: (a) cross-sectional schemes such as Atlases – collections of surveys of many species contributed by volunteers over a set period of time, and (b) longitudinal schemes such as Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) – on-going stratified monitoring of sites that require more coordination. Ayesha Tulloch and colleagues reviewed recent applications of these citizen-science programs to determine their influence on science. They used return-on-investment thinking to identify the minimum investment needed for different citizen-science programs, and the point at which investing more in these programs has diminishing benefits.

Atlas and BBS datasets are used to achieve different objectives, with more knowledge-focused applications for Atlases compared with more management applications for BBS. Estimates of volunteer investment in these datasets show that compared to cross-sectional schemes, longitudinal schemes are more cost-effective, with increased BBS investment correlated with more applications, which have higher impact in the scientific literature, as measured by citation rates. This is most likely because BBS focus on measuring change, allowing the impact of management and policy to be quantified.

To ensure both types of data are used to their full potential, they recommend that: elements of BBS protocols (fixed sites, long-term monitoring) are incorporated into Atlases; regional coordinators are in place to maintain data quality; communication between researchers and the organisations coordinating volunteer monitoring is enhanced, with monitoring targeted to meet specific needs and objectives; application of data to under-explored objectives is encouraged, and data are made freely and easily accessible.

Reference

Tulloch AIT, LN Joseph, JK Szabo, TG Martin & HP Possingham (2013). Realising the full potential of citizen science monitoring programs. Biological Conservation 165, 128-138. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2013.05.025

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