This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and co-founder of citizen science projects Season Spotter and Snapshot Serengeti. She blogs regularly at Ecology Bits.
Back in December, I wrote a post here on Dynamic Ecology about citizen science data quality. I was in the midst of drafting a paper about the same topic (that I hope will be published soon-ish in a publication near you), and it was nice to explore some less-quantitative ideas in blog format.
You may recall that I had a brief survey at the beginning. It asked about career stage, level of involvement in citizen science, and one’s opinion about the primary purpose of citizen science. With the caveat that Dynamic Ecology readers do not form a representative subset of anything (and the caveat that that particular post attracted a disproportionate number of people involved in citizen science), I’m going to tell you about the results. I tried to capture the couple dimensions that I thought might most matter in influencing people’s opinions of citizen science. So I think the survey is actually a reasonable representation of what ecologists – or at least web-savvy ecologists – think of citizen science.
The survey asked people to choose one of the following statements (presented to readers in random order):
- Citizen science is primarily a way to gather otherwise unobtainable data
- Citizen science is primarily a method for conducting scientific research
- Citizen science is primarily a method for science outreach and education
- Citizen science is primarily a way to increase stakeholder engagement in conservation issues
- Citizen science is primarily a way to meet ‘broader impacts’ criteria on grant proposals
I consider the first two statements to be about science and data. In other words, these statements reflect a belief that the purpose of citizen science is to broaden our toolbox of methods to address scientific questions. And I consider the last three to be about outreach. That is, these statements reflect a belief that the purpose of citizen science is to engage non-scientists in the scientific process in order to promote things like scientific literacy, positive attitudes towards science, and buy-in for conservation objectives.
Just so you know my bias: My motivation for working in citizen science is highly science-skewed. Citizen science opens data doors that would otherwise be closed. I do also believe that citizen science can be successfully used for outreach purposes. And in both domains, project managers must carefully design and execute the project for their desired objectives. However, I believe that a citizen science project that is science-oriented can be successful without targeting outreach objectives. By contrast, I don’t believe that an outreach-oriented project is successful unless it actually contributes to science. (It’s just a glorified lab or field exercise otherwise.)
Having been involved in citizen science for several years now, I have discovered that there is a skepticism of citizen science as science in ecology as a whole. I’ve seen it directly in proposals that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve heard over and over from others others engaged in running different citizen science projects. Reviewer #1: “We can’t be sure the data will be any good.” Reviewer #3: “How do we know the volunteers are providing accurate data?” Summarized panel review: “The use of citizen science gives us hesitation.” Even, from a funding officer: “you shouldn’t propose using citizen science for data collection. It will won’t be received well.” These sort of comments appear even when detailed methods for ensuring data validity are included or when publications are cited that show a likelihood of high data quality in the proposed project. The establishment attitude has seemed to me to be “citizen science is great for outreach and we will support its educational objectives, but we’re not so sure it’s useful for actually doing high-quality science.” And this attitude seems especially deep-rooted at (national) funding agencies.
So my main hypothesis prior to this survey was that most ecologists see citizen science as an outreach activity, and not one whose main aim is science knowledge. With the recent rapid rise in interest in citizen science, I also hypothesized that later career people would be more likely to see citizen science as outreach, and that earlier career people would be more likely to see its scientific possibilities. Finally, I also hypothesized that the more involvement an ecologist had in citizen science, the more likely that ecologist would view it as a science tool, and not just outreach.
Here are all the results in a single figure (click it for a bigger interactive version): 1
I’ve grouped the five opinion options into two groups: “science” in blue and “outreach” in orange. Career stage is ordered from “undergrad student” to “10+ years permanent position” along the x-axis and involvement with citizen science from most involved to least involved top-to-bottom. Each pie shows the fraction of people in that career and involvement group who chose a “science” or “outreach” statement. The size of the pie tells you how many people are in that group. Marginal totals are shown along the right and bottom. 2
The result that surprised me the most was that more than half the 363 respondents saw citizen science as “science” rather than “outreach”.
I also saw the opposite of the trend I expected for career stage. Later career folks are more likely to see the science potential of citizen science than early career researchers. In fact, the only marginal group to lean heavily “outreach” are the group that reported that they were unfamiliar with citizen science – and that group had a small sample size and was heavily biased towards graduate students and postdocs.
Just one of my hypotheses appears to be valid: that the more involved with citizen science you are, the more likely you are to see it as a “science” pursuit, rather than an “outreach” one.
If I wanted to be cynical, I could explain away the results by saying that Dynamic Ecology readers are a weird sampling of the general ecology researcher pool – more likely to be tech-savvy and more likely to be open to alternative ideas, including ways of doing science. But if I listen to the (admittedly not perfect) data, they’re telling me that a bit more than half of ecologists see citizen science as a science tool – and the proportion is even higher than that for those who are likely reviewers for funding proposals.
So maybe that means that most scientists are open to the idea of citizen science as science, as long as proposers convince reviewers that their methods are sound. Maybe it means that it just takes one skeptic to down a proposal — and with, say, a third of all reviewers thinking of citizen science as “outreach,” that’s what explains all the anecdotes I’ve witnessed and heard. Maybe funding agencies have seen a large proportion of citizen science proposals crash and burn, and so are reluctant to fund them. After all, the rest of us mostly only see the positive results of citizen science due to publication bias.
In any case, I’m actually rather heartened by the survey results. Citizen science as a broadly used science tool (as opposed to one used by only a few of the mega-successful projects) is still a relatively new idea. There’s a lot more work that can be done to provide guidelines for better meeting both science and outreach objectives. And I think that the increasing awareness of data quality standards for large datasets and the importance of data management in ecological science generally are only going to help facilitate the production and use of high quality citizen science data going forward.
End note: I’m not planning on doing anything further with these data. They’re openly available if someone else wants them. Note that there was no standardized sampling and no human subjects vetting, so they’re not useful for publishing directly. They might be useful to someone as preliminary fodder for a proposal to do something more formal, though.
1. I’ve been playing around with Tableau Public and Plotly for quick visualization and exploratory analysis. I like them (in different ways for different purposes). While I’m a firm believer in scripted figure-making for publications, being able to make a figure like this quick-and-dirty is super time-saving. This figure was made with Tableau Public. ^
2. Most of the time, I’m adamantly against the use of pie charts. But in this case, I think the pies work well for conveying the general patterns of science vs. outreach. And I like having the number of respondents in each category easily viewable, as any conclusions could easily have been derided with a “but you have unbalanced data” comment. With this table of pie charts, I’ve plotted FOUR dimensions in a small space! I can address my hypotheses by looking at the totals on the right and at the bottom, as well as look for additional patterns in the middle. ^