You’re Probably Better at Science Than You Think, New Citizen Science Study Finds

Community science – also known as citizen science – has great appeal for researchers looking to collect larger data sets and engage the public in their work. But is the data collected in this way good?

Enabled by technology, community science allows researchers to harness the power of the public interest, using their voluntary contributions to data collection. In this way, scientists can collect and analyze more information faster than they might be able to do otherwise, and potentially save on research costs as well.

But a key tenet of scientific data collection is accuracy and consistency. What community science offers traditional research methods is only as good as the quality of the data its participants produce. In a new study, researchers put this quality to the test.

Herbarium collections in museums around the world – of which there are over 3,000, with around 350 million specimens – are undergoing digitisation, allowing the public to ‘get close’ to the specimens, without affecting their preservation. But despite the digitization, researchers say, the museum specimens are still unused until now.

Study author and botanist Matt von Konrat, head of plant collections at Chicago’s Field Museum, says community science can change that.

“Crowd-sourced data collection projects… have the potential to greatly accelerate the discovery and documentation of biodiversity from digital images of scientific specimens,” he notes.

Public interest can speed up the process of manual tasks, such as taking measurements of herbarium specimens. For a museum with thousands of specimens, tapping into the foot traffic of eager visitors makes a lot of sense.

To test this approach, the researchers used data from a touchscreen kiosk in a museum exhibit. The kiosk provided attendees with an animated tutorial on how to measure the lobules (leaf-like structures) of liverwort, a type of plant related to moss.

After watching the tutorial, participants were shown a randomly selected image of a liver specimen from the museum collection and asked to make their measurement of its lobules.

Patrons were instructed to create two intersecting lines on each lobule, each representing latitude and longitude. They were asked to create lines that intersected at right angles and record a measurement for each line in pixels. The images were scaled so that 1 pixel equaled 1.05 microns, because liverworts – one of the earliest known land plants – are quite small.

The researchers also attempted to capture data on the ages of the participants, roughly summarized as children (ages 10 and under), adolescents (ages 10 to 18), and adults (18+).

To test how “good” each community science input was, the researchers compared it to that of an expert using the same methods to see if there was a statistically significant difference. The results exceeded their expectations.

The researchers predicted that about 50 percent of the measurements would pass the data cleaning process and that older age groups would be able to provide much better data than children.

“We didn’t know if there would be children drawing pictures on the touch screen instead of measuring leaves, or if they would be able to follow the lesson as adults did,” says lead researcher, mathematician Melanie Pivarski of the University Roosevelt. .

But after cleaning and analyzing the community scientists’ data (which included nearly 6,700 measured lobules), the study found that 60 percent of all entries were on par with the experts’ measurements.

“All age groups from young children, families, youth and adults were able to generate high-quality taxonomic datasets, making observations and preparing measurements, and at the same time empowering community scientists through contributions authentic in science,” says von Konrat.

Pivarski said they were particularly surprised at how well the children completed the task.

In 2017, the kiosk appeared as part of Examples: Unlocking the secrets of life in the Field Museum. In 2018, he was involved in the Grainger Science Hub, Field Museum member nights and other events.

IN samples show that 41 percent of data entered by children (who were not assisted by friends or older relatives) were statistically similar enough to the expert’s measurement to be used for research.

At Science Hub, 50 percent of data from the youngest age group — children under 10 — made the cut.

“This means that the children did an outstanding job of following the instructions and taking the measurements seriously,” the researchers noted in their paper.

While other studies have found that young citizen scientists may overestimate species diversity, the new findings give credit to community science projects, suggesting that they can indeed be used to both engage the public in scientific research and to collect some good data.

This paper was published in Research ideas and results.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.