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The potential for citizen science to produce reliable and useful information in ecology

Brown, Eleanor D., Williams, Byron K.
Conservation biology 2019 v.33 no.3 pp. 561-569
analytical methods, data quality, decision making, ecology, education, government agencies, models, monitoring, probability, protocols, sampling, statistical inference, volunteer training
We examined features of citizen science that influence data quality, inferential power, and usefulness in ecology. As background context for our examination, we considered topics such as ecological sampling (probability based, purposive, opportunistic), linkage between sampling technique and statistical inference (design based, model based), and scientific paradigms (confirmatory, exploratory). We distinguished several types of citizen science investigations, from intensive research with rigorous protocols targeting clearly articulated questions to mass‐participation internet‐based projects with opportunistic data collection lacking sampling design, and examined overarching objectives, design, analysis, volunteer training, and performance. We identified key features that influence data quality: project objectives, design and analysis, and volunteer training and performance. Projects with good designs, trained volunteers, and professional oversight can meet statistical criteria to produce high‐quality data with strong inferential power and therefore are well suited for ecological research objectives. Projects with opportunistic data collection, little or no sampling design, and minimal volunteer training are better suited for general objectives related to public education or data exploration because reliable statistical estimation can be difficult or impossible. In some cases, statistically robust analytical methods, external data, or both may increase the inferential power of certain opportunistically collected data. Ecological management, especially by government agencies, frequently requires data suitable for reliable inference. With standardized protocols, state‐of‐the‐art analytical methods, and well‐supervised programs, citizen science can make valuable contributions to conservation by increasing the scope of species monitoring efforts. Data quality can be improved by adhering to basic principles of data collection and analysis, designing studies to provide the data quality required, and including suitable statistical expertise, thereby strengthening the science aspect of citizen science and enhancing acceptance by the scientific community and decision makers.