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Science by the people

By Pat, 9 November 2012 News

Rainbow lorikeets feeding.

Rainbow lorikeets feeding. A comparison of bird observations by professional and citizen scientists has shown that the amateurs do pretty well!
Image: John Manger

Citizen science is on the rise. More and more, amateurs, or ‘citizen scientists’ are given opportunities to help scientists.

Citizen science projects typically use volunteers to assist in the collection or analysis of data. This data can then be used by professional scientists in their research. Examples include bird watching groups doing bird surveys, amateur astronomers sharing their observations and games such as Foldit.

Becoming a professional scientist is no easy feat. It generally requires years of study, research and often multiple university degrees to be considered an expert. One of the key features of science is its rigorous standards for experiments and obtaining data. This is to make sure the data is accurate so better conclusions can be made. There have been concerns about the quality of the data gathered by citizen scientists, as they may lack skills professional scientists have gained through years of training.

Yet in some projects this is not the case. A comparison between bird surveys conducted by amateurs and professionals in the Mount Lofty Ranges in South Australia showed that, overall, the results were quite similar.

There were some discrepancies. The citizen scientists reported seeing a few species proportionately more often and other species relatively less often than the professionals. Professionals are thought to be more systematic in their method and better able to identify species by their calls.

So it seems that the professionals do have some advantages. But rather than rejecting the value of citizen science, the researchers who did the comparison suggest that professional data can be used to calibrate the data collected by citizen scientists.

Some fields of science require highly specialised knowledge and expensive equipment, meaning they will be closed off to citizen scientists. But other fields of science, particularly the environmental sciences, could greatly benefit from the participation of citizens. Citizen science lowers the costs of doing research and engages the community in the scientific process.

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