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Citizen Science Projects Are Actually Helpful to Science

How helpful can citizen scientists really be? A new review study says: very helpful

smithsonian.com

Since the early days of “citizen science,” many have wondered just how helpful a group of untrained people can be. The recent boom in citizen science projects has been lauded as a great way to both help researchers and get the public involved in science, but how far can we go? How helpful can citizen scientists really be? A new review study says: very helpful.

The National Park Service puts the challenges this way:

Despite the benefits of citizen science, some scientists have expressed concern about the validity of volunteer-generated data. Indeed, certain projects are not appropriate for volunteer involvement: complex research methods (Newman et al. 2003) and projects that require long hours of arduous or repetitive work (Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Newman et al. 2003) and taxonomic identification to the species level (Penrose and Call 1995; Darwall and Dulvy 1996; Fore et al. 2001) may not be suitable for volunteers. Without proper training in research and monitoring protocols, volunteers are also more likely to introduce bias into their data (Eaton et al. 2002; Danielsen et al. 2005).

Basically, people who aren’t trained as scientists aren’t good at collecting really precise data for a really long time. But, what they are good at is collecting some data, sometimes. And that’s what this new study suggests. They looked at over 230 citizen science projects and found that the data collected by volunteers should be recognized as legitimate, useful and cost effective. They even published a guide for how to get the most out of your volunteers. Citizen science works best when:

  • It works for the benefit of you (or other end user of the data) and for the benefit of the participant
  • The project aims are clearly defined and communicated from the outset
  • The members of the project team have the appropriate expertise, not just in data collection and analysis, but also in communication and publicity
  • Evaluation is built into the project design and there is a willingness to listen and adapt as necessary
  • Small scale trials are undertaken to test the approach with potential participants
  • The participants are carefully targeted and supported
  • The motivations and skillsets of all parties (project team and participants) are understood, because they may vary considerably
  • Participants feel part of the team, understand the value and relevance of their role(s) and (especially for long-term projects) gain new skills
  • The project is an efficient and enjoyable way to gather and analyse the required dataset
  • The quality of the scientific data generated is measurable.

Those looking for citizen science projects have tons of resources at their disposal. Places like SciStarter, Scientific American and CitSci.org all keep track of ways you can get involved. And now your involvement might even be taken seriously be scientists!

More from Smithsonian.com:

Science Contests Across the Web
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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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