Making the most of citizen scientists

By Penny Sarchet
Research Fortnight

Citizen science—the practice of involving the general public in research projects—is a growing trend in the UK, but what are the practical implications for a researcher hoping to reach out beyond academia?

Citizen science is booming like never before, with more than 230 projects counted in a recent report commissioned by the UK Environmental Observation Framework, a partnership of funders including the Natural Environment Research Council. Asking the public to make observations can unlock valuable information, as long as you do it effectively, EOF says.

To avoid collecting unreliable, patchy or unhelpful data, the EOF’s Guide to Citizen Science, published last month, advises clearly stating your aims, running a pilot study and giving careful consideration to data quality.

“If the directions are very clear and the protocols are tested, there are ways to make the data quality extremely good,” says Helen Roy, an author of the report and an ecological entomologist at NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Roy, who uses citizen science in her role as coordinator of the UK Ladybird Survey, recommends giving very clear instructions for collecting data and providing some form of training, either online or in the field.

Once the data have been collected, she says there are methods for examining the data and ensuring their quality. Statistical models can be used to identify suspect data points, and if volunteers are asked to provide photos, these can be used to verify recordings, as is done in Roy’s work tracking the spread of the invasive harlequin ladybird in the UK.

Although citizen science projects are largely web-based these days, Roy says it is extremely important to provide feedback and face-to-face contact with volunteers in order to sustain their enthusiasm for the project. This includes talks, workshops, peer-reviewed publications, and magazine articles—all of which have played a part in maintaining and growing the number of citizen scientists in ladybird surveying since the 1970s.

However, to gather the data, you need to spread the word about your project. Success depends entirely on your ability to recruit volunteers.

“You’re creating a product, so you need to have a very strong marketing strategy in place, unlike a normal research project that would be within the confines of a particular research community,” says Toby Hammond, of the University of East Anglia’s low carbon spin-off company, Adapt. Hammond warns that, for the right kind of project, citizen science can be perfect, but it won’t work for everything. “You need to have some kind of hook that means you can recruit your army of volunteers. You need a route to market, otherwise you’re going to launch it and you’ll have five people signing up—and one of them will be your mum.”

Hammond runs a project that asks volunteers across the UK to report sightings of ash dieback disease using the specially developed Ash Tag phone app. “We made use of social media an awful lot, and that was really what powered it,” he says. The Adapt team also used social marketing to find developers to build the app in the first place.

In this way, Hammond was able to find developers quickly to produce the app for free. “The story of ash dieback being found in the wild broke on the Thursday morning, most of the app development happened over that weekend, and we launched on the Monday lunchtime.”

He says the speed was crucial: “The reason we were successful was that we were able to do it quickly. Had we gone away and applied for funding to do it, the moment would have passed.”

This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.

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