Written by Abigail Engleman
Citizen scientist n. a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions; an amateur scientist.
Citizen Science, although not officially defined by the Oxford English Dictionary until 2012, has long been a part of scientific practice. Technological advancements in recent decades, however, have facilitated information exchange, making it easier than ever to involve people in research, regardless of their occupational background.
For marine ecosystems, which are vast and variable, citizen science has tremendous potential to enhance monitoring efforts and improve our understanding of marine systems across various spatial and temporal scales.
Figure 2: Volunteers participate in a beach cleanup effort to remove trash and debris from a local beach. [Photo by Brian Yurasits]
Types of Citizen Science
Not all citizen science is created equal. Overarching goals and level of citizen involvement vary drastically between projects. For the most part, citizen science projects fall into one of five categories (Wiggins & Crowston, 2011):
- Action Projects: volunteer projects that encourage local participation to address issues relevant to a region or community.
- Conservation Projects: inspiring citizen stewardship of natural resources to enhance outreach and scope of management goals.
- Investigation Projects: employing citizen involvement in collecting data applicable to answering scientific research questions.
- Virtual Project: virtual-based projects that utilize citizen participation in research but have no physical element of participation.
- Education Projects: promote ocean stewardship through both formal and informal outreach and educational opportunities.
Figure 3: Uploading images of marine species for population tracking and monitoring is a common and easy way to participate in citizen science. [Photo by Luke Porter]
Benefits of Citizen Science in Research
Scientists, alone, can only do so much. Enlisting citizen scientists in research, conservation, and management projects, broadens the scope of such efforts by getting more ‘hands on deck’. With more people working towards a scientific goal, citizen science projects often amass extensive data. Despite initial concerns over the use of ‘amateur scientists’ in data collection, citizen-collected data continues to gain popularity, validity, and support as a research tool. Moving research out from behind the curtains and allowing non-scientists to participate also generates support for the conservation and management initiatives these projects aim to advance.
Signs of Success
Big, unstructured data resulting from citizen science projects may not be applicable to all research questions, but remain a key component needed to discover trends and draw fundamental conclusions about our oceans. Citizen-collected data has been particularly useful in species sighting/monitoring projects, in which conservationists cannot monitor everywhere at once. These projects typically involve citizens reporting or uploading images of species and/or environmental information, to track individuals and populations.
An Australian citizen science tool employs citizen participation to detect presence of crown-of-thorns starfish (Dumas et al., 2020), a devastating corallivorous invertebrate wreaking havoc across the Great Barrier Reef. Citizen scientists contributed over 640 observations to the database, recording 38,000 total crown-of-thorns between 2014 and 2018. The collaborative effort helped researchers and managers identify reef risks and prioritize follow-up reef surveys and crown-of-thorn removal (Dumas et al., 2020).
Citizen reporting tools allow stakeholders to monitor species and systems in real time, revealing important trends and facilitating management. In 2016, an online reporting tool helped researchers monitoring coral bleaching throughout the Western Indian Ocean (Gudka et al., 2020). The reporting tool received 698 entrees that helped researchers assess trends in bleaching distribution and mortality. The information collected in this study, though basic, was highly important for detecting regional variation and trends in coral bleaching (Gudka et al., 2020).
Find Your #CitSci
There are numerous ways to participate in citizen science research, regardless of your interests or desired level of commitment. Take a look at the extensive list compiled by Earp and Liconti (2019), featuring nearly 120 marine citizen science groups (Table 1).
Are you already participating in scientific research? Perhaps one of these organizations has data that would be of value in your own research!
Table 1: Comprehensive list of nearly 120 citizen science projects and organizations published by Earp and Liconti (2019).
Dumas, P., Fiat, S., Durbano, A. et al. (2020) Citizen science, a promising tool for detecting and monitoring outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster spp.. Scientific Reports 10(291): 1-10. DOI:10.1038/s41598-019-57251-8.
Earp H.S., Liconti A. (2020) Science for the future: The use of citizen science in marine research and conservation. In: Jungblut S., Liebich V., Bode-Dalby M. (eds) YOUMARES 9 – The Oceans: Our Research, Our Future. Springer, Cham. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-20389-4_1
Gudka, M., Obura, D., Mbugua, J. et al. (2020) Participatory reporting of the 2016 bleaching event in the Western Indian Ocean. Coral Reefs 39:1-11. DOI:10.1007/s00338-019-01851-3.
Wiggins A. & Crowston K. (2011) From conservation to crowdsourcing: A typology of citizen science. 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 1-10. DOI: 10.1109/HICSS.2011.207.