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Assessing accuracy and precision for field and laboratory data: a perspective in ecosystem restoration

Stapanian, Martin A., Lewis, Timothy E., Palmer, Craig J., Amos, Molly M.
Restoration ecology 2016 v.24 no.1 pp. 18-26
data collection, ecological restoration, experts, monitoring, quality control, reference standards, species identification, United States
Unlike most laboratory studies, rigorous quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) procedures may be lacking in ecosystem restoration (“ecorestoration”) projects, despite legislative mandates in the United States. This is due, in part, to ecorestoration specialists making the false assumption that some types of data (e.g. discrete variables such as species identification and abundance classes) are not subject to evaluations of data quality. Moreover, emergent behavior manifested by complex, adapting, and nonlinear organizations responsible for monitoring the success of ecorestoration projects tend to unconsciously minimize disorder, QA/QC being an activity perceived as creating disorder. We discuss similarities and differences in assessing precision and accuracy for field and laboratory data. Although the concepts for assessing precision and accuracy of ecorestoration field data are conceptually the same as laboratory data, the manner in which these data quality attributes are assessed is different. From a sample analysis perspective, a field crew is comparable to a laboratory instrument that requires regular “recalibration,” with results obtained by experts at the same plot treated as laboratory calibration standards. Unlike laboratory standards and reference materials, the “true” value for many field variables is commonly unknown. In the laboratory, specific QA/QC samples assess error for each aspect of the measurement process, whereas field revisits assess precision and accuracy of the entire data collection process following initial calibration. Rigorous QA/QC data in an ecorestoration project are essential for evaluating the success of a project, and they provide the only objective “legacy” of the dataset for potential legal challenges and future uses.