Citizen Science Proves Itself in Marine Study

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Source: Science Omega 

Image: liveomagazine.com

Image: liveomagazine.com

Methods of data collection which employ citizen science can hold their own when compared to traditional scientific practices, according to the results of a University of East Anglia-led study. The research, which has appeared in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, focuses on volunteer data collection in a marine diversity context and has found that the areas where professional scientists have the upper hand are largely balanced out by the advantages of recruiting amateur citizen scientists.

The work juxtaposed a method used by volunteers in fish surveys such as those run by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) – known as the ‘roving diver technique’ – with the ‘belt transect’ method more commonly used by professional researchers. It was carried out in conjunction with the Centre for Marine Resource Studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the University of Copenhagen and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Dr Ben Holt is a lecturer in UEA’s School of Biological Sciences and lead author of the paper. He began an interview with ScienceOmega.com by explaining the motivations behind this research and discussing how the findings may impact on strategies and techniques used by future citizen science projects.

"In the case we were concerned with, thousands of people had collected well over a hundred thousand surveys of fish species across the Caribbean region and beyond," he said. "As a scientist interested in studying patterns of biodiversity in all sorts of species, citizen science seems like a very useful resource for data collection.

"The problem is that, as the dataset is volunteer-collected, there are various aspects that need to be checked because they could potentially introduce bias into a study. One of those aspects is the methodology used to collect the data. In order to encourage people to stick at it, volunteer organisations have to make sure that the collection process is fun, which doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with standardisation."

In order to test the reliability of the thousands of survey results obtained, Dr Holt and his colleagues designed a study to compare the method they had used with the more standardised professional method. Over a four week period, two teams of 12 divers surveyed 144 underwater sites. While the traditional method recorded 106 different species of fish, the citizen volunteer survey technique sighted 137 species in the same waters.

"According to our results, one clear difference between the two is that the volunteer methods find a lot more species and they do it more quickly," stated Dr Holt. "The volunteer methods detected after just five surveys the same number of species that it took 24 professional surveys to detect. In terms of finding out which species are present it seems to be the more flexible, preferable method."

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