Like any parent, I get a lot of questions from my kids that only an encyclopedia could properly answer. I got away with being vague when they were young: “What plant is this?” they would ask, as if they were being introduced to a new person.
“Um, a succulent.”
Now they want details: “But what kind of succulent?”
Sometimes I follow in my dad’s footsteps and use his made-up words. “Mom, is there a term for the lock button on the car door?”
“Yes, that’s the ginicky.”
Suddenly I’ve become a stickler for names. Well, for one name. I recently did some digging and had a startling realization: the work of citizen scientists is quite substantial but mostly unacknowledged in the scientific literature! After working for more than a decade with citizen science, I promptly want everyone to know that this – citizen science – is the name for the wonderful phenomenon of ordinary people contributing to science. Sure, there are plenty of other names like crowdsourcing, volunteer monitoring, community-based monitoring, and more. Sure, I used to call it zealous birding (with the utmost respect). But now I realize that if we don’t all call it the same name, then we can’t easily keep track of the important role it plays in the world.
I’ve been working with a meteorologist, matching up historic weather data to historic nesting data across the United States. We are examining whether patterns in the occurrence of unhatched eggs in nests can be explained by weather variables. I was attempting a little academic bonding when I asked, “Isn’t this great that we are using bird citizen science and weather citizen science together?”
Unmoved, my meteorologist said, “This is not weather citizen science.”
My jaw dropped. “What?! Who collected all these weather observations?”
“Farmers,” he replied.
I sat and waited quietly while his words sunk in.
“What I mean is, this started before the term citizen science was even coined.”
I stared, still waiting quietly.
“Ok, so this is weather citizen science, but we don’t call it that.” (We meant meteorologists, in contrast to the lesser ornithologists).
I’ll leave meteorologists alone, for now, because their hands are full dealing with climate change deniers (Plus, I know what it’s like to hear birders talk about birds, so I can easily imagine what it’s like to hear weather bugs talk about the weather).
I want to focus on ornithologists. After all, the term citizen science, when used as I do here to refer to volunteers collecting data*, was coined by Rick Bonney at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He was initially referring specifically to birdwatchers. Certainly ornithologists must have adopted the term?
A couple of colleagues and I explored this question in our new paper in PLOS. We knew, from our own research experiences, that citizen science can provide data at spatial and temporal scales unobtainable by any single researcher. Even a tenured professor. With graduate students. Climate change is a global phenomenon unfolding over decades. We decided to look in detail at the literature on birds and climate change.
Lo and behold, there are heaps that we know about migratory birds and climate change. Here are 10 claims in the literature (Each deserve at least a blog post of their own, but that will have to wait). First, songbirds are responding to climate change by arriving earlier on breeding grounds. Second, short-distance migrants likely respond slightly differently in their timing than long-distance migrants. Third, birds are arriving earlier primarily by taking different routes. Fourth, the mechanisms controlling phenology are hardwired, likely controlled by photoperiod cues. Fifth, despite being hardwired, the exact timing of behaviors have some natural variation in response to local conditions, in this case, sixth, the variation is mainly due to weather en route. Seventh, the annual cycle constrains responses (that is, birds need to have time to breed, molt, and migrate, so there are limits on how much time any single phase can carve out of the year). Eighth, there is increased mismatch in timing between prey and predators during the breeding season. Ninth, climate change is causing population declines of birds, and, tenth, affecting community composition.
This impressive list of claims were formulated based on over 170 studies cited in a review paper in 2011. What’s unusual to see in a review is that 18 of the authors gave their expert opinions about each claim. They averaged their opinions and found there was not equal certainty about each claim. Some claims had a solid basis of support, particularly spring arrival dates advancing and short- and long-distance migration mattering. Other claims remain on shaky ground for the time being, like climate change causing population declines and alterations in community composition.
As an ornithnologist, I’m impressed by how much is known about migratory birds and climate change. My colleagues sure have been busy in the field! Or have they? On closer inspection, my co-authors and I reached three interesting conclusions.
First, by looking at the papers cited in relation to each claim, we saw that every claim contained some papers (24% at a minimum) that relied on citizen science. For some claims, as much as 77% of the studies relied on citizen science. Bravo birdwatchers!
Second, there was absolutely no relationship between the percent of citizen science supporting a claim and the opinions that researchers held about the claim. In fact, the claim regarded as having the most support was also the claim with the highest reliance on citizen science.
Third, NOT ONE of the papers referenced used the term citizen science. We had to scour the methods to determine whether volunteers were involved. Most often we could not tell unless the Acknowledgements section thanked the volunteers. In a few cases, we had to contact the authors and ask if the data were collected by volunteers. In one case, the author did not know who collected the data – it was simply a publicly available source.
I’m happy to learn that there are a lot of other ornithologists out there like me, using citizen science data. Unlike me, they just don’t talk about it. And that is their choice. But they should use citizen science as a keyword. The keyword could become a geeky way to say ‘thank you.’
For example, earlier this week, a study came out in PeerJ about insect fossils in France. Only from a tweet and a blog post did I learned that the discoveries involved two amateur organizations. The paper mentioned the Société des Naturalistes et Archéologues de l’Ain and ‘Sympetrum Recherche et Protection des Libellules’, but how could I know these were citizen science groups? Similarly, non-ornithologists won’t necessarily know that counts from the Breeding Bird Survey or banding data (called ringing in Europe) from bird stations are the sorts of data collected by volunteers.
The ‘invisibleness’ findings explained a lingering puzzle. If you use a search engine, like Google scholar, and the search term ‘citizen science’, then about 80% of what you get are papers about citizen science. These are papers from the fields of informal science education, informatics, human-computer interactions, and others that study and support the practice of citizen science. Only about 20% (this is an off-the-cuff guesstimate, as was the 80%) of the papers are new discoveries that rely on citizen science contributions.
There is an enormous wealth of knowledge for which we implicitly assume comes exclusively from people working in the scientific profession. When we stop and call it by its name, we begin to see the importance of publicly engaged research. Credit should be dispersed a little wider. Birdwatcher, you actually you have each other to thank.
Now, when a kid asks a parent, “What in the world is that bird watcher doing?”
The answer will be a name, like an introduction.
“Hi, citizen science.”
*Citizen science was coined by Alan Irwin in 1995, with a different meaning. For example, see this past post.