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The value of citizen science

Helen Roy and Michael Pocock find research and education combined

Helen Roy and Michael Pocock find research and education combined.

The term ‘citizen science’ was coined relatively recently but the concept is not new: citizen science has a long and impressive history.

The recording of the timing of seasonal plant events has long been a pastime amongst natural historians inBritainwith records going back to the 1730s. The use of citizen science for astronomy has an equally impressive history. In 1874 the British government funded the Transit of Venus project to measure the Earth’s distance to the sun, engaging the Admiralty and amateur astronomers to collect data from around the world.

The last decade has seen citizen science flourish with a new range of diverse and exciting opportunities.  Whether someone is interested in water pollution or wildlife recording, there is something for everyone.  The development of communication technologies through the internet means getting involved has never been easier.

Many faces of citizen science

We have recently reviewed hundreds of citizen projects from across the globe. They have huge diversity but we found that most follow the same basic approach, in which the project is established by professional scientists who invite people to contribute data.  This is called ‘contributory citizen science’.  Many of the wildlife trends, which are reported by the UK Government on an annual basis, use data collated by volunteers through contributory surveys such as the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme run by Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology but involving many, many volunteers across the country.   

Collaborative or community approaches, in which professional scientists and volunteers work together throughout the project establishing aims and methods in partnership, are certainly more difficult to set up but provide exciting opportunities for sharing expertise.  One example of a collaborative approach is the Riverflies Partnership which involves volunteers with expertise in the ecology and identification of freshwater insects, working alongside anglers, to gather occurrence data on insects such as caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies. These insects are not only food for fish but are also indicators of water quality.

Reliable data

Perhaps the most worrying and misleading misconception of citizen science is that the data collated are inferior to data gathered through conventional scientific approaches.  Our review found plenty of evidence to suggest that this is simply not the case.

Many citizen science projects involve highly-skilled volunteers.  For example, the wildlife schemes and societies in the UK, run by volunteers and hosted through the Biological Records Centre, document the occurrence of plants and animals and provide large-scale and long-term datasets which have been used extensively to assess the effects of environmental change on wildlife.  There is no doubt that these datasets are hugely valuable and appreciated by professional scientists ­across the globe.

There are many different ways of verifying and validating the data provided, to ensure the quality is known and more importantly to provide feedback to the participants, enabling them to improve their skills.  A new initiative called iRecord provides both a straightforward way of reporting wildlife observations alongside a system to check the data.  The system uses automatic validation rules and review by experts, to check for example whether the location of the species recorded is likely. This is a great way to combine the skills of amateurs and experts in all their guises.


Citizen science is certainly not cost-free.  All projects will involve some costs for development, and most will require ongoing maintenance costs.  However, we also found that open-source software is allowing ambitious projects to be established and maintained at very low cost. 

Citizen science provides an indispensable means of combining environmental research with engagement and education.

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Helen Roy
Helen is an ecologist at the Biological Records Centre within the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford. She co-leads the UK Ladybird Survey.
Michael Pocock
Michael is an ecologist at the Biological Records Centre within the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford. He co-leads Conker Tree Science.
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