**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
This article is the first in a new series called Myths of Citizen Science that will explore some of the common misperceptions about citizen science. Consider it like the Mythbusters of citizen science, and feel free to suggest future investigations. We will bring you one investigation every month or so.
Citizen science efforts are funded by the National Science Foundation exclusively under the Advancing Informal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Learning program, categorizing them unilaterally as informal education rather than science. While this is far from the only source of funding, it is symptomatic of a common misperception of citizen scientists: that they are little more than untrained children in need of some experiences in nature. And that with loads of training and experience, they can approximate the rigor of professional scientists. However, science takes all kinds and citizen science, like professional science, has a wide diversity of participants. Photo: Beach Watch volunteers, credit: Webb Johnson
The best counterexample to this misconception are the hundreds of thousands of birder participants, many of whom have logged decades as volunteers and hobbyists. Picture the birders involved in many of the projects at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: these folks are avid birders, can identify species by their call or through a spotting scope. Classic birding involves activities like listing species observed every year in a contest of quantity and organized tournaments of who can see the most birds in 24 hours like the Montezuma Muckrace. These volunteers are skilled observers, in many cases more so than the ornithologists they feed the data to. Contrary to the stereotype, any new citizen science study of birds that happens to draw in some of this crowd is benefitting from highly experienced and expert participants.
Photo: Hawkwatch volunteers at Hawk Hill with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Credit: Jessica Weinberg
While many citizen science programs take school groups out to monitor invertebrate indicators of water quality, citizen science encompasses a wide variety of participants ranging in experience between early school-age to these birders. Many volunteers of citizen science are retired, often professional biologists, and occasionally experts in the field themselves! One of my favorite anecdotes about volunteers demographics involves several retired lobster biologists in a lobster monitoring program who felt the need to tweak the standard protocol because they knew better than the program organizer. While standardized protocols and training are always important, they are usually portrayed as a means of getting uninformed volunteers up to speed, not taming overzealous experts.
Poking through some of the more reflective academic papers written about citizen science programs, there are pockets of data that hint at volunteer demographics (though surprisingly few). The Michigan Frog and Toad Survey, an annual census of anurans, surveyed their volunteers finding the typical volunteer was over 50 years old and an avid birder. A sampling of GalaxyZoo volunteers revealed most volunteers are scientists of some sort, often in the computer sciences. Darlene Cavalier surveyed 150 citizen scientists on scienceforcitizens.net and found that 46% of respondents held a Ph.D. (as opposed to 9.9% nationally).
Such diversity of expertise is not unique to citizen science. Much of the science performed by professional science laboratories is not completed by experts. Instead, the daily tasks are often assigned to undergraduate and graduate students – in the name of learning. It might be the first semester for these students and since part of learning is making mistakes, there will be mistakes. In fact, a number of scientists took to Twitter to confess their lab blunders under #overlyhonestmethods, the best of which are archived by Beckie Port.
Far and away, the most common reason people participate in science – citizen or otherwise – is to contribute to knowledge, and often, related conservation efforts informed by the scientific data. Therefore, citizen science volunteers are looking to donate their time and contribute their skills to the community in the best way they know how. That in many cases implies that they already have the skills necessary to contribute data and are motivated because they care about the questions of the time.
If you take a snapshot of a program’s volunteer base, it likely reveals a very different community of citizens from the next. Some are school groups and school curricula are integrated into the scientific goals of the program. Others bring together dedicated, long-term practitioners, some of whom literally wrote the book on the subject at hand. So contrary to the myth, both professional science and citizen science involve people all along the spectrum from beginner to guru. In both cases, rigorous training and standardized protocols are required to support and guide participants, yet society’s body of knowledge can gain from the expertise of those in all walks of science.