Collaborating with Citizen Scientists

MonarchButterflyResearch_NSF_160Lucas Laursen in Science:

Climbing one of the world's biggest granite walls is different from climbing trees, as National Park Service botanist Martin Hutten discovered while dangling from a cliff in the spray of Vernal Falls high above the Yosemite Valley. Hutten apprenticed in the logging industry before he started graduate school, so he new how to climb trees. “I could trust myself to a rope,” he recalls, “but I'd definitely never hung off a cliff or collected [samples] from a cliff.”

So when Hutten — who is seeking a Ph.D. in forest ecology at Oregon State University, Corvallis — and his fellow park rangers needed help surveying the park's lichen, they enlisted experienced rock climbers. Over 2 weeks in 2007 and 2008, those volunteer climbers helped collect 394 lichen specimens. This year, the researchers are asking volunteers to help with other parts of their biodiversity survey, such as counting birds from the valley floor.

Hutten's project is one of many worldwide in which volunteers help scientists collect data in ways that range from mundane to vital. Such help, although voluntary, is not free. Recruiting volunteers, finding appropriate ways for them to contribute, training them, keeping them motivated, and ensuring the quality of the data they collect requires time, money, and management expertise.

One of the keys is to communicate well and keep the volunteers plugged in to the scientific big picture, says Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a coordinator of the Galaxy Zoo project which uses volunteers to catalog a database of galaxies. “You really need to treat the volunteers as collaborators,” he says.