Mobilizing Citizens for Doing Science

Oregon State University fisheries researcher Selina Heppell talks about fish surveys with science and math teachers at a  n Oregon Coast Aquatic and Marine Science Partnership (OCAMP) workshop  at the Yaquina Bay Yacht Club in Newport, Oregon.
Oregon State fisheries researcher Selina Heppell talks about fish surveys with science and math teachers at an Oregon Coast Aquatic and Marine Science Partnership workshop in Newport. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

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: the researcher’s and the nonscientist’s. 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. Her past and ongoing projects with coastal communities include tagging and monitoring near-shore rockfish and tracking and identifying patterns of Humboldt squid migration. She also serves as an adviser 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 use 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, for example, 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 community understanding of the importance of her research to their livelihoods on the sea.

Easing the Challenge

Involving citizens in data collection, interpretation and analysis can seem time-intensive. That’s because it is. Researchers can ease the challenges of conducting citizen science by providing volunteers with adequate training in data collection methods, she says. Heppell has observed researchers who have found that their citizen-gathered data is unusable. The root cause, 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. 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 to 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

This is not to say, however, that data collection is the only goal of citizen science. 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, Heppell emphasizes. 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.

“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,” says Heppell.

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.”

–Story by Victoria Bonebrake, OSU Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning