Researcher’s Perspective: A citizen science fix for data junkies

On behalf of our small team of bloggers, I’d like to welcome you to CitizenSci, a new PLOS blog about the people, projects and perspectives powering citizen science. Our first post is from Dr. Caren Cooper, a researcher and citizen science practitioner with a deep understanding of this field’s textured landscape. We hope you enjoy reading our posts and encourage you to join discussions and share your own perspectives with us. 

–Darlene Cavalier, Founder, 

In a Mark Twain moment, Albert Einstein said, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” From the truth of this sentiment springs the success of citizen science, in which people spend leisure time participating in genuine research. I work at one hub of citizen science, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I’m fascinated by the rapid rate at which citizen science has grown in many fields: astronomy, biology, conservation, environmental justice, geography, natural resource management, medicine, meteorology, zoology, and more.

The word “citizen” in relation to governance confers rights and responsibilities to a participating member of a country. But in the context of citizen science, “citizen” conveys the idea that anybody can assume rights and responsibilities to participate in the enterprise of science. Do you participate in citizen science, perhaps by another name, such as volunteer monitoring, amateur astronomy, community-based management, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping, participatory sensing, or open science, to name a few?

Lemur with radio collar.For over a decade I’ve been a professional scientist using citizen science methods, particularly for data collection. Yet I started my career like most other biologists, that is, by doing field work. When I was 16, in one of my most brazen moments, I cornered Jane Goodall backstage after a public presentation to ask her for a job. Alas, she hired only Tanzanians, she explained politely as her escort elbowed me out of their path to the exit door. At the time, I was certain that I wanted to spend my life doing field work, perhaps, as Goodall had, even raising my family while observing wild dogs, hyenas, or chimps. Goodall, as kind as her reputation, called back to me over her shoulder as she was forced to exit, “Contact the zoooooo.” The Ashboro zoo was too far away, so I volunteered with the Duke Primate Center’s captive breeding program for endangered lemurs until I started college.

For the next unforgettable decade I worked as a field technician. I broke a finger in a bear trap; felt the teeth of a Siberian pole cat sink into a different finger; persuaded a drunk to stop waving his gun at a peregrine falcon roost; was sniffed by a curious moose when I came up for air while collecting wetland plants. As I began to focus on birds, I slipped metal bands around the legs of warblers and hawks and spied on swans and parrots. I felt nourished by hours of measuring, trapping, and surveying and thrilled by the rare moments: when I glimpsed a bobcat, found an extraordinary slime mold, and diverted my step over a timber rattlesnake. These are the moments I’ve repeated at campfires and to my kids as bedtime stories.

Eventually I wanted to learn more than field methods. I went to Virginia Tech for my doctorate to find out whether Australian birds were sensitive to habitat fragmentation for the same reasons North America birds were? (short answer: no). Each breeding season, August through December, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Flocks of brightly colored parrots flashed among the trees and then vanished into the thin canopy, teasingly audible but remarkably invisible. The woods were full of flamboyant fairy wrens, whistlers, and bee-eaters. I studied brown treecreepers: nondescript, but highly social birds full of drama. My third field season was Goodall-esque as I carried my infant daughter while measuring tree diameters. By the end, I had racked up a whopping 14 juvenile dispersal events. Combined with a field experiment and some modeling, it was enough for me to write six papers explaining why brown treecreepers were declining and what to do about it. Meanwhile, my advisor knew the dispersal, fate, and pedigree of almost every single red-cockaded woodpecker on military bases in NC based on decades of work.

I had data envy. I felt like I was wiping my plate clean to make use of every observational crumb while others had more data than they could digest. So I graduated and transitioned directly to research with massively accumulated “big data.” At that point, I had come full-circle, from only doing field work to doing all aspects of science except the glorious field work.

Some call us data junkies, but I’d say we’re field martyrs. We’ve struck a deal where the public does the fun work of finding nests, counting delicate eggs, and watching nestlings gape. We organize observations, manage unwieldy datasets, and sweat the analysis. We design the protocols to enable disparate volunteers to make comparable observations. We build in back-ups to filter, check, validate, and correct for biases. We spend weeks getting familiar with numbers that represent natural patterns. For us field martyrs, a misadventure doesn’t involve spending hours in the perverse pleasure of picking seed ticks off of our ankles, but hours agonizing on the phone with tech support dealing with virtual bugs. We get vicarious satisfaction knowing that our curiosity is mirrored in the curiosity of participants out there in the field.

Although I enjoy field work, I don’t envy field ecologists. Most study sites are small enough for a researcher to traverse in less than a day. They extrapolate results from their study site, inevitably winding up in arguments with researchers whose study delivers contradictory results. Large-scale citizen science practically eliminates the very notion of a study site. Participants in NestWatch monitor nest boxes across pretty much all of the Eastern Bluebird’s temperate breeding range. What else could a researcher ask for (other than observations of nests in Mexico to cover the tropical range?). There are natural patterns and phenomena hiding in plain sight (as well as in the far distance: we only need to coordinate our curious, capable volunteers and aggregate their observations to discover something new.

Through Citizen Sci, I’m excited to share with you the knowledge gained from citizen science methods published in PLOS journals and elsewhere, including the open access journal Ecology & Society where I co-edit a special feature on citizen science contributions to socio-ecological resilience (an approach to conservation that explicitly includes humans as drivers of ecosystem change).

Now 1,000 words is enough about me; please do tell about you! Where does your interest in citizen science stem? What do you prefer to call it? What aspects of citizen science are you interested in reading about: opportunities to participate, behind-the-scene stories, knowledge gained, the public education achieved, new technologies? If you’re a researcher, have you considered citizen science methods to increase the scale of your inquiry? Pleas share your views.

Twitter: @CoopSciScoop

Lemur at Duke Primate Center. Credit: Caren Cooper.
Caren Cooper with tranquilized black bear. Credit: John Zimmerman.

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5 Responses to Researcher’s Perspective: A citizen science fix for data junkies

  1. Nice post, Caren! I had never heard your ‘origin’ story before! I too am a recovering field ecologist, although vertebrates were never really my thing — it was the bugs that enraptured me when I visited far off tropical places! And now I coordinate a citizen science and outreach program that asks folks to consider the biodiversity (including bugs) living right under their noses

    In future posts, I’d love to hear about the perspectives directly from the participating citizen scientists themselves. What are your motivations and expectations in participating? Why do you want to participate? How deeply involved do you want to be in the scientific process? How important to you is it to see a project all the way through vs. occasionally contribute data? What’s frustrated you during previous citizen science experiences? What projects have gotten you super-jazzed and why?

    • Caren Cooper says:

      Thanks Holly. I’m curious about the questions you raise too. I’m always keeping my eye our for new published studies and evaluations of citizen science projects that examine participant motivations and satisfactions…based on surveys and qualitative interviews. Thanks for provoking thoughts on this!

  2. Caren Cooper says:

    Thanks Allison! Great, b/c I never tire of learning and writing about knowledge that is co-produced via citizen science. I’m also curious to explore whether co-produced knowledge differs from scientific knowledge produced “the regular way”…such as in its scale and/or dissemination. And, yes, new studies on the learning outcomes are amazing, and extend beyond STEM learning to powerful outcomes like increased social capital. So, stay tuned. BTW, I enjoyed your blog post about how librarians can promote citizen science!

  3. Allison S says:

    Hi Caren, I’m a science librarian at VT working to create partnerships between libraries and citizen science projects. I’d be very interested to hear about the knowledge being gained from these projects and the public education.

    • Caren Cooper says:

      Thanks Allison! Great b/c I never tire of learning and writing about co-produced knowledge coming out of citizen science projects. I’m curious about the ways co-produced knowledge might differ from knowledge created “the regular way”…like in scale and dissemination. And the learning outcomes are amazing, in STEM & beyond, studies are finding increased social capital. More to come on all that!

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