Science Sunday: Online Citizen Science and Scientific Research

The dragonfly swarming season is over, but I want to keep the Sunday posts going. From now until the swarming season starts up again in June, Sunday will become Science Sunday!  There is likely to be a rather random assortment of post types here, but they’ll all relate to insect science.  I might not post every week, but I hope you’ll enjoy it!

For my first Science Sunday, I’m going to contribute to Morgan Jackson’s Scientists and Social Media series on his excellent Biodiversity in Focus blog by discussing internet-based citizen science and how these projects can help scientists study biological problems that are difficult to research.  My dragonfly swarm project has given me some experience in this area and I already talked about it briefly in my last year-end summary for my project, but I find had more to say.  I shall do so now!

I think that scientists are just beginning to understand the power of internet-based citizen science projects and the new avenues of research that these projects open to scientists.  Although not all scientists are ready to accept that non-scientists can contribute meaningful and valuable scientific data (I am not one of them!), many are beginning to make use of a science-hungry, enthusiastic public to tackle scientific goals that might not have been otherwise possible.  Consider a few scenarios:

1) You wish to study a plant or animal that is rare or you suspect is extinct.
2) You wish to study a behavior that is rarely observed in nature.
3) You wish to track movements/migrations of animals over large geographic areas.
4) You wish to study an organism/behavior that has an extreme seasonality or is dependent on unpredictable weather patterns or other conditions.
5) You wish to determine the natural distribution of an organism, or track changes in its distribution over time.
6) You wish to document every species within a geographic area of interest.
7) You wish to study biological phenomena that occur either regularly or irregularly over long periods of time (i.e. there are many months/years between events).

These sorts of problems, and many like them, are exactly suited to internet-based citizen science!  In each case, these studies require many people, lots of money, lots of time, or some combination of the three.  Let’s consider a scenario where a researcher is interested in, say, an insect that they suspect has been extinct because the last known sighting of it was in the 1930’s.  Where does that researcher even look for the insect?  If there is decent geographical data for the species (unlikely), you can start where it used to be.  But what if climate change or some other driver of environmental change has destroyed its traditional range?  The researcher might look to see if there was information about its habitat requirements, look for areas that meet those requirements, and start looking for the species there, assuming that information is available.

And what if there are only 5 specimens of that species left in the entire world?  Can you really expect one person to find even one member of a species that has so few individuals?  Think about how much time, money, and effort a researcher would have to put into tracking down the species of interest just to say whether it is extinct or not.  Imagine too how little chance that researcher has of convincing a funding agency that it’s worth confirming that the species is extinct or not.  Why would that agency want to pay for something (especially if the work is expensive) when there’s a real likelihood that the researcher will fail?

I believe that these sorts of impediments create an enormous barrier that prevents scientists from pursuing many areas of research.  Honestly, if you had a choice between an easy project that is sure to be funded and will generate good results, why would you ever consider doing a project that might not produce any results?  Justifiably, scientists often go the easy, fundable route and only dream about how they would tackle some of those impossible problems if only there was an easier way to do it…

That’s where internet-based citizen science projects come into play!  These projects allow researchers to actually pursue some of those difficult or nigh-impossible research problems, and much more easily/cheaply than if they use the traditional model of scientific research.  Let’s continue with the problem of determining whether an insect is extinct or not and consider it as a citizen science project instead.

The researcher makes information about the project and the species of interest available on a webpage and provides participants with a means for reporting data.  She might then promote the project at science outreach events, to her colleagues, to her students, on Twitter and Facebook, so that people start to learn about the project and visit the website for more information, sign up to participate if necessary.  Over time, the researcher builds up a network of people who read the information on the website (their training!), know what they’re looking for, and know how to report sightings.  These people are likely spread over a wide area and will be out and about at different times according to their personal schedules, maximizing the chance that they’ll come across an individual if it’s not extinct.  The odds of 100, 1000, even 3000 people finding that one individual (maybe even 3 or 4!) in five are much greater than a researcher working alone.  The chances of project success are greatly improved too!  Meanwhile, all the researcher has to do is sort through the data coming in, determine which data are useful and which are not, and keep the website going, maybe provide some results so participants can see how their data has contributed to the project.  Later, she’ll publish the results, making the information available to other scientists.  And, she can do all this rather easily with a small group of project administrators (maybe only one!), very little money (sometimes none!), and with very little time and effort.

I believe that citizen science projects are the key to tackling many difficult biological problems such as those I listed above.  By generating networks of trained volunteers, scientists can remotely, simply, and cheaply collect data on subjects that might be otherwise too expensive, too time consuming, or too likely to fail using traditional scientific practices.  I know firsthand that scientists can benefit hugely from citizen scientists!  I am currently the sole administrator of the Dragonfly Swarm Project, a project I do in my minimal free time and without any funding – and I’m collecting a ton of data.  Citizen scientists benefit by increasing their knowledge of the biological phenomenon of interest and the warm fuzzy feeling they get from knowing they’re contributing to science without getting a science degree.   They get to interact with other citizen scientists and the researcher(s) administering the project.  Science in general benefits from citizen science too as projects increase scientific literacy and support for scientists and science funding.  It’s a win-win-win situation!

Not every scientific problem is going to be solved via citizen science as many problems require highly specialized knowledge that one can only acquire through years of training.  I couldn’t, for example, train 1000 people to use an electron microscope to study the structure of aquatic insects eggs.  However, there are many areas of research that are currently being ignored by biologists where I think citizen science can play an invaluable role.  In fact, citizen science projects are already making a difference!  Look at School of Ants or the Lost Ladybug Project!  School of Ants researchers are learning so much about the distribution of ants in urban environments and the Lost Ladybug Project uncovered a rare ladybug that no one had seen in nearly 30 years!  Projects like these probably wouldn’t be nearly as successful or as scientifically valuable without the help of the citizen scientists who participate and they’re perfect examples of the power of internet-based citizen science.

I predict that the recent rise in the number of citizen science projects will continue to climb as researchers begin to realize how powerful these projects can be.  In the meantime, I intend to continue with my own citizen science project and contributing to others so that we can all start to understand those dark, undiscovered corners of our world a little better.


If you’re interested in how blogs and other forms of social media are improving science, I encourage you to visit Morgan Jackson’s first Scientists and Social Media post!


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