Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Mobile technology is enabling people to become productive in ways they never thought possible and recently the scientific community has been looking to tap into that productivity by enlisting citizen scientists.
To see just how reliable crowd-sourced research can be, a group of international scientists decided to check data collected by citizen scientists against information collected using traditional scientific means and found that the amateur-collected data compared quite favorably.
According to the team´s report in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, they compared the results of SCUBA divers with those of professional scientists when it came to measuring the variety of fish species across three Caribbean sites.
The divers surveyed the locations using two standardized methods — the ℠belt transect´ method, used in peer reviewed aquatic studies, and the ℠roving diver technique´, used by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) volunteer fish survey project.
“The popularity of SCUBA diving has resulted in monitoring of the underwater environment on a scale that was previously impossible,” said lead author Ben Holt, a marine biologist from the UK´s University of East Anglia (UEA). “For example, the REEF method has been used by volunteers in more than 160,000 underwater surveys across the world. It would have cost many millions of pounds for professionals to have undertaken the same work.”
Over the course of four weeks, 24 divers performed over 140 separate underwater surveys across the three sites. While scientific methods revealed 106 different types of fish, the volunteer technique detected even greater marine diversity, uncovering a total of 137 in the same waters.
“The results of this study are important for the future of citizen science and the use of data collected by these programs,” Holt said in a statement. “Allowing volunteers to use flexible and less standardized methods has important consequences for the long term success of citizen science programs.”
“Amateur enthusiasts typically do not have the resources or training to use professional methodology,” he added. “Our study demonstrates the quality of data collected using a volunteer method can match, and in some respects exceed, protocols used by professional scientists.”
Holt also mentioned that amateur scientists could be valuable in understanding the rapidly changing ecosystems that exist in certain regions.
“For example, Lion fish is an invasive species which was not in the Caribbean until roughly 10 years ago,” he said. “They have now become a real problem in many areas and this invasion has been tracked using volunteer data. Following our study, scientists can have more confidence when using these data to consider the impact of threats, such as invasive species, on the wider natural communities.”
While the results of the study appear promising, Holt warned against placing too much emphasis on citizen-collected data.
“It is important to note that our study does not consider the abilities of the individuals performing the surveys and this is also an important consideration for any large scale biodiversity program. By addressing these issues we can make important steps towards enabling the large pool of volunteer enthusiasts to help professional researchers by collecting valuable data across many ecosystems,” concluded Holt.