October 2014 by: Victoria Bonebrake 

Photo: Mike Sicktich hauling Humboldt squid, taken by Lori Tobias of The Oregonian

Citizen science, like many broader impacts activities, is rewarding but comes with its own set of challenges. Many researchers shirk at the idea of using inexperienced individuals as data collectors, knowing that the ways in which volunteers may approach the natural world can be vastly different from that of scientists, leading to skewed data and rendering activities useless. But as Selina Heppell in Oregon State’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department has discovered, when citizen-science includes quality training it can bridge two worlds of understanding: that of the researcher, and that of civilians. Through true collaboration, Heppell experiences citizen science as a give-and-take between researchers and the communities they work in. At the very least the endeavor provides a chance to expand the reach of science into the daily lives of those who participate.

Collaborating with Communities

Whether on land or sea, Heppell and her students have collaborated with communities up and down the Oregon Coast to address marine ecology issues through citizen science and collaborative research. Her past and ongoing projects with coastal communities include tagging and monitoring nearshore rockfish and tracking and identifying patterns of Humboldt squid migration. She also serves as an advisor on the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), analyzing patterns and causes of seabird population decline. No matter what the project, Heppell usually has a small team of professional researchers in the field who are capable of utilizing sophisticated equipment and collection methods. However, Heppell has found that sometimes the most overlooked experts are the small armies of available locals whose lives revolve around and are most affected by the ecological change she studies.

“What citizen science allows you to do, with some training, is to collect information and ask questions that you may never have thought of before,” says Heppell. At times she takes a cooperative approach where community partners provide access points and support for research such as joining fishermen out on the ocean, using their boats or asking for advice. But more commonly, Heppell and her students aim for collaborative engagement by involving community partners in all steps of the research process including design, data collection, and analysis. During the Humboldt squid project, Marine Resource Management student Tanya Chesney combined information collected by the researchers’ instruments with local fisherman’s oral accounts of historic squid sightings. Working hand-in-hand with the fishing community, Heppell’s team was able to share the results with the same fishermen, incidentally generating understanding within the community of the importance of her research to their livelihoods on the sea.

Easing the Challenge

Involving citizens in the collection, interpretation, and analysis of data can seem time-intensive-- because it is. Heppell feels that researchers can proactively ease the challenges of conducting citizen science by providing volunteers with adequate training in data collection methods. Heppell has observed researchers who have found that their citizen-scientist gathered data is unusable. The root cause of this, she surmises, is that everyday-people often lack basic knowledge of the scientific method and make rookie mistakes, such as forgetting to include objects of scale in photographs. In order to address the issue, researchers have to first realize that detailed methodology must be imparted through training sessions and regular communication, as well as quality control of the data that come in. “Standardization and attention to detail are not taught enough in schools and aren’t something that is inherent of every individual’s personality,” Heppell comments. “It is, however, important to the scientific process—we just have to teach individuals what that means in practice.”

Giving Back to the Contributors

Of course, this is not to say that data collection is the only goal of citizen science. Heppell notes that there is also value in teaching citizens methods for data collection (regardless of their outcomes), and teaching them to discern between anomalous and patterned events. As we spend more time online consuming so-called “research-based” media and advertising, it benefits individuals to become aware of scientific trends and tricks in data manipulation. Says Heppell, “It helps them to become better consumers of science news, to think critically about what they’re seeing, and to examine the evidence that is or isn’t behind what they’re reading about.” In the COASST program, for example, volunteers generate data that contribute to a broader knowledge of the lifecycle patterns and distributions of seabirds such as common murres; collectively, data on when and where birds have died each year along the entire coast provides a baseline of information that can be used to determine if the appearance of dead birds represents a typical seasonal event or an abnormal one that may require more investigation.   

With adequate training, anyone can contribute to research, sometimes in their own backyard. What citizen science offers stretches beyond the quick and broad collection of data for researchers; scientists can also serve as advocates and teachers, quid-pro-quo. Where science works to serve society, society can be invited to take part in the process. “Citizen science might not work for everyone,” Heppell muses, “because it does depend on your goals for the data and the feasibility of citizens conducting activities in the context of their daily lives. But, you never really know what’s in store with each new community until you ask and you try.”