People & Science

A publication of the British Science Association

02/10/2014

Show me content for... +

Show me content for...
Events
Resources
Volunteers
Teachers
Professional development
Families & teenagers (aged 12+)
Families (children aged 12 & under)

Donate

register

Register with us and you can....

  • Sign up to our free e-communications
  • Become a member of the Association
  • Create your own web account, & post comments
  • Be part of British Science Festival
  • Save your favourite items

Register

Keep up to date with the latest news from the British Science Assocation. Sign up to our RSS feeds and take us with you when you are on the move.

You are here

Citizen science: proper science?

Noel Jackson and Helen Roy differ.

Noel Jackson has doubts

Citizen Science seems to be flavour of the month, but I question its novelty, the depth of its engagement and its use to science as a whole.

Citizen science projects seem to fall into two types; those which crowd source data and those which require identification in the field.  I take it on trust that projects like Galaxy Zoo are important, but remain more sceptical of biorecording projects.

Citizen Science seems to be flavour of the month, but I question its novelty, the depth of its engagement and its use to science as a whole.

Citizen science projects seem to fall into two types; those which crowd source data and those which require identification in the field.  I take it on trust that projects like Galaxy Zoo are important, but remain more sceptical of biorecording projects.

I have to admit that I am addicted to identifying animals and so love the challenges posed by Instant Wild.  However, judging by the comments posted by other contributors, the general quality of identifications is low and the value of the project to science must be very limited indeed.

Sterile interaction

BC (Before Computers), there were lots of local natural history societies and specialist recording groups.  Data transfer was slower as people exchanged letters and plotting was slower as maps were marked by hand. But there was more personal interaction, as voucher specimens were checked by a recorder.

The nearest to this in Citizen Science is the UK Ladybird Survey, where observers submit pictures of their finds.  It’s a pretty sterile form of interaction compared with the apprenticeship, peer review and transfer of enthusiasm one received when part of a recording group.

I am yet to see anything involving investigation by experiment in Citizen Science.  I can see that the data collected might be analysed centrally, but this reduces the person making the records to the role of an unpaid field assistant and certainly doesn’t make them a scientist.

Batty project

This is particularly the case where the project uses some form of mechanical device to identify the target species. An example of this is the Bat App where people are invited use their mobile phones to record bats in flight. The phone logs location by GPS and matches the input to a database of bat sound.

The problem is that bat sound is not usually a form of communication but a form of navigation, so it as much dependent on habitat and prey as it is on the species of bat. 

Identification of bats from their echolocation is a complex art, much harder than learning bird song. BatApp surveys inDurham, where the bat fauna has been well recorded since the early eighties, suggested that Leisler’s Bat was the commonest species in some areas. Unfortunately it is not known to breed north of Wakefield. 

It cannot be right to suggest that people are doing something useful by wandering around doing a survey where the results are likely to be wrong.

Big bang

Modern technology has the potential to make fantastic contributions to some areas of science. People I work with are looking at phone add-ons that analyse genes, opening up enormous areas of biology for widespread exploration.

One project which I thought really proved the worth of Citizen Science was the AshTag project, which tracked a potentially landscape-changing tree disease across East Anglia. However, it was not the technology that was impressive but the way it was supported by scientists and media specialists, so that the data was immediately used to highlight the problem to the general public. Contributors saw the value of their work very quickly.

Citizen science has great potential but I don’t think project organizers have gone far enough in engaging with their publics. Too many apps are like computer games and hence seem trivial.

Even with all my reservations about Citizen Science, I can’t help but see the potential it has to offer if harnessed properly.  All we have seen so far is the fizzing of the blue touch paper.  I look forward to the big bang that is yet to come.

Recording ladybirds is inspiring, asserts Helen Roy

People have been recording wildlife inBritainfor hundreds of years.  By simply noting the occurrence of a species on a given date and locality, people have provided information which is proving invaluable for understanding changes in the British flora and fauna.

People have been recording wildlife inBritainfor hundreds of years.  By simply noting the occurrence of a species on a given date and locality, people have provided information which is proving invaluable for understanding changes in the British flora and fauna.

Biological recording is undoubtedly one of the earliest examples of citizen science.  In some guises biological recording could be termed ‘mass participation citizen science’, whereby volunteers contribute data to a scheme led by professional scientists. In many cases, however, biological recording involves volunteers in all aspects of the scheme from the contribution to the compilation, analysis and interpretation of biodiversity observations.  There is no doubt that the role of volunteers is pivotal in ensuring the legacy of these large-scale and long-term datasets.

The UK Ladybird Survey, one of these volunteer recording schemes, started life in 1968 as the Coccinellidae Recording Scheme. Tens of thousands of people have now contributed records – simply inspirational.

Role of the individual 

There is no doubt that internet technology has revolutionised citizen science and increased participation beyond the imagination of early pioneers.  It could be argued that, with this number of contributors, the role of the individual and their sense of contributing to real science might be lost.  I do not believe this to be the case for ladybird recording (and indeed many other citizen science initiatives) in theUK.  

One of the many appealing aspects of successful mass participation citizen science is that people can very easily get involved without having to commit much time or effort but with the opportunities to progress and learn along the way. 

From one submission to research

An individual may begin by submitting one ladybird record – perhaps of a particular ladybird in their garden.  This may be accompanied by a photograph of the ladybird.  The contributor will then be notified as to whether or not their identification was correct (by me or one of the other UK Ladybird Survey volunteers) and encouraged to submit further sightings. 

Some people will submit further records and others will not.  Some will submit hundreds, and perhaps extend their recording to monitoring a specific locality on a regular basis.  Others will get so involved that they undertake research projects quite literally on their kitchen table – the UK Ladybird Survey invites people to study parasites of ladybirds and, perhaps, amazingly some people are willing to do so! 

Traditional engagement essential

It is critical that people contributing to citizen science initiatives are provided with feedback and the opportunity to get deeply involved in biological recording – not just of ladybirds.  But every record counts and the submission of just one ladybird record will make a difference to the UK Ladybird Survey and hopefully to the participant too.

New technologies are revolutionising biological recording but they are just one of many components that contribute to the success of citizen science.  Traditional methods of engagement are essential to ensure the sustainability and progression of a citizen science initiative. 

Current resources

The UK Ladybird Survey has just launched a new smartphone app called iRecord Ladybirds.  There have already been thousands of downloads and a surge in ladybird records.  Each and every contributor will receive confirmation and feedback on their observation.

In 2013, the UK Ladybird Survey team also published the revised edition of the Naturalist Handbook Ladybirds (Pelagic Publishing, Exeter).  First published in 1989, this book placed emphasis on equipping all enthusiasts with the relevant techniques for studying ladybirds.  The revised edition also encourages those who want to get more involved to contribute to increasing our understanding of ladybird ecology, whether in a professional research laboratory or on the kitchen table. That is what the UK Ladybird Survey is all about – real science for everyone.

Noel Jackson
Noel Jackson is a keen amateur naturalist and is a founder-member of Durham Bat Group. He is currently head of education at the International Centre for Life, Newcastle.
Dr Helen Roy
Dr Helen Roy is head of Zoology at the Biological Records Centre (BRC), part of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology which hosts more than 70 of the UK’s volunteer-led wildlife recording schemes and societies. She tweets as @UKLadybirds
Join the debate...
Log in or register to post comments