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A new wave of citizen scientists is pushing the boundaries of environmental research and giving scientists access to a vast new source of data. But there are pitfalls as well as pluses to using crowdsourced data.

T here is a new wave of scientists heading out into the field.

Young and old but equally enthused, they are discovering exploding stars and rediscovering rare plants and animals thought to be extinct. They are busy mapping species distribution in their backyards, beaches and bushland, and monitoring how it might be changing.

Fishers, divers, birders and bushwalkers, or citizen scientists as they have come to be known, in great numbers are pushing the boundaries of research further and wider than ever before. With local knowledge to share or just keen interest, they have answered the call of professional scientists who are enlisting their help to collect or compute mounds of data.

But the surging popularity of citizen science is coloured by concerns from scientists about the data collected and yet buoyed by the opportunity to learn from other inquisitive minds. Like all good discoveries, the best outcomes might come as a surprise.

Fish nerds unite

Marine ecologist Lachlan Fetterplace was talking to fisherman and divers long before citizen science became a buzzword. They had questions about a species of fish they had seen or some unusual behaviour they had noticed and Fetterplace was happy to chat, their curiosity matched.

“I’ve always loved fishing and I’m easily drawn into a long conversation if someone is interested in the scientific side of things,” he says.

Although Fetterplace grew up an hour inland, near Sydney, he quickly took to the coast when he moved to Austinmer, north of Wollongong, in his late teens. He fished all the time and surfed up and down the South Coast, so knew it well before years later starting his PhD studying sand-dwelling fish communities using underwater video footage.

Matt Rees (left) and Lachlan Fetterplace founded online community Fish Thinkers to connect their research with their passion for fishing and marine life. Photo: Paul Jones

After a day on the water, Fetterplace often had questions of his own and so he founded Fish Thinkers with fellow UOW graduate and fisherman Matt Rees. The online forum promotes sustainable fishing and has attracted thousands of followers, mostly through Instagram, with aquatic researchers and fish fanatics swapping pictures and accounts of their latest outings.

“Through Fish Thinkers we interact with citizen scientists all the time – although often they don’t use that term themselves or even know of it,” Fetterplace says. “It’s a network of people that pick up on interesting things that we would never see otherwise.”

But Fish Thinkers is more than just a conversation starter. To make sure there is an accessible, robust record of observation, they have partnered with the Australian Museum on the Australasian Fishes Project to map the distribution of fishes around Australia and New Zealand.

Some of the biggest discoveries ever made have been from amateur naturalists, so in a way there has always been some form of citizen science.

Lachlan Fetterplace

Since 2016, 1300 people have logged more than 40,000 observations of more than 2000 species, aided by professional scientists like Fetterplace who confirm species identification. “We’re helping people out and they’re helping us out,” he says.

Reflecting on the difficulty of launching baited underwater video cameras in deep water for his own research where a year of fieldwork can amount to just as many failed camera drops as successful ones, Fetterplace welcomes the input from citizen scientists.

In one case, their observations backed up his own surprising discovery.

The devil in the deep

Caught on camera, at a depth almost twice as deep as it had been seen before, was a rare and protected fish, the eastern blue devil fish.

“At first, I was just going to leave it as one single observation in my thesis appendix and it would probably sit there, never to be read again,” Fetterplace says. “But I tend to talk about these things. I talked to lots of other scientists, recreational fishers and divers through Fish Thinkers and they were super interested.”

The known habitat of this vulnerable species appeared to have been seriously underestimated. Recreational fishers said they had also caught eastern blue devil on deep offshore reefs, confirming Fetterplace’s sighting.

“Without that information, our observation would be an interesting one-off, but the recreational fishing catches corroborate our claim that these fish are probably always using these deep reefs,” Fetterplace explains. The work was published as a natural history report in the European Journal of Ecology.

 “Personally, I’m interested in getting important observations made by citizen scientists into the permanent scientific record. It makes me think there are lots of other examples that have been forgotten or where no record has yet been made.”

Tension at sea

Not all scientists are as accepting of observations made by citizen scientists, and yet citizen science is not as new as its current popularity might suggest.

“Some of the biggest discoveries ever made have been from amateur naturalists, so in a way there has always been some form of citizen science,” Fetterplace says.

Speaking from his own experience, he stresses that observations made by citizen scientists often spur further research. “A lot of the time those observations can be the first stepping stone into some bigger research, highlighting areas that we really need to look at. That’s a particularly valuable contribution.”

But the distrust can go both ways. Fetterplace says recreational fishers often distrust scientists, assuming that more research typically leads to more restrictions and they feel like they are not consulted enough in management decisions.

Coming from a background of recreational fishing helps with interactions with other fishers and understanding their position and interests.

Lachlan Fetterplace

In his own research, for example, Fetterplace compared how fish communities differed between areas where recreational fishing is permitted and no-take marine park sanctuary zones, findings which could be used as evidence for further protection.

“That distrust can be hard to overcome and often takes a long-term approach. It’s a matter of demonstrating the positive outcomes of being involved in the research and convincing them that their involvement will make any management decisions more effective.”

When Fetterplace heads out on the water, he is a fisherman first, led simply by his curiosity and a deep appreciation of the ocean.

“Coming from a background of recreational fishing rather than a purely conservation research background gives me a unique perspective on the research being undertaken but it also helps with interactions with other fishers and understanding their position and interests,” he says.

“We get information about when frogs are calling from the middle of nowhere … it provides us with a level of data that we just previously couldn’t acquire.” – Adam Wood. Photo: Sylvia Liber Photography

The scientists and the citizens

As a human geographer, Adam Woods doesn’t shy away from the human complexities in citizen science either. “That’s why I study human geography,” he says, to better understand how different communities interact with other people and places around them.

Woods is all about getting newfound nature lovers learning about and enjoying the environment. He has facilitated a number of citizen science projects, tracking koalas on the outskirts of southwest Sydney with Conservation Volunteers Australia and counting frogs across the country with the Australian Museum.

But he too recognises the differences between professional and citizen scientists and the friction that can cause.

“Scientists are very structured. They follow a very stringent process to try and remove biases and maintain integrity in their research,” Woods says. They are fixated on precise questions in their concentrated pursuit of knowledge whereas citizen scientists can have all sorts of reasons for partaking in a project and their participation may be fleeting.

“Sometimes the goals of the scientist are not necessarily the same as the participant,” Woods continues. “Say for example, when we were collecting data on koalas in the Wollondilly Shire, it was very important that we collect information on their habitat and its condition whereas participants were often simply there to see a koala. And while some people embraced the science, it can be challenging for scientists to work with others who don’t.”

Digging into the data

While much research has focused on understanding why people get involved in citizen science, Woods wants to understand the impact of citizen science on the scientists themselves. His Masters research is looking at what professional scientists think about citizen science and what they have learnt from participating in citizen science projects.

“I’m often in a room or at lunch with a whole lab of scientists. I’ll be sitting there and I’ll ask them a question about citizen science to spice things up. A heated discussion makes your Pad Thai a bit more interesting, that’s for sure,” Woods says.

Often it comes down to data. Scientists usually go through to strict processes to validate their findings and eliminate any assumptions; only then can they be sure of what they’ve found. Many environmental citizen science projects ask people to log their observations of a chosen species (which can be verified by an expert) but the data has its limitations: if no observation has been logged, you can’t assume that the animal is not present in that area.

Take the FrogID project, which Woods manages at the Australian Museum, for example. With a smartphone app, people can record the frogs they hear croaking. Each species can be identified by its own unique call – but frogs only call during breeding season.

It's doing things a bit backwards, a bit different to traditional science, but at the same time it's not any less scientific.

Adam Woods

 “A lot of researchers would say that presence-absence data has its limitations for their research,” Woods says. “But a lot of land managers would say that data is really useful when deciding what to do with that land in the future, whether it can be developed or protected.”

 He adds that while citizen science projects might start with quite broad scientific questions, they often uncover other intriguing questions to answer, like analysing whether the calls of red tree frogs differ between urban and non-urban environments.

“We may not have gone into the project thinking that we might be able to look at that, but when patterns start to emerge, we can more deeply investigate those trends. It’s doing things a bit backwards, a bit different to traditional science, but at the same time it’s not any less scientific.”

So citizen science is forcing scientists to adapt, to keep an open mind and embrace the unexpected in order to benefit from the huge number of people who are willing to help.

The door is open and Woods says the response to FrogID has been overwhelming. “We get information about when frogs are calling from the middle of nowhere in western New South Wales where we don’t have any scientists, but citizens can record it because they’re out there. That provides us with a level of data that we just previously couldn’t acquire.”

Stories of people and place

In the end, as its name suggests, and Fetterplace and Woods attest, citizen science is not a story about data, but of people. People who are observant and inquisitive, who want to know what lives in their creek or on the local reef.

“You could be helping someone who has worked as a taxonomist at a museum for 50 years, someone who has been working on a fishing trawler off Darwin or someone who just keeps fish in their fish tank in the suburbs of Sydney,” Fetterplace says. “It’s such a wide range of people.”

Woods agrees: “The different walks of life that get involved with citizen science just astounds me. That’s what I keep coming back to.”

Whatever it is that they do – bushwalking, diving, fishing or surfing – they do it because they love it and get a thrill out of learning, he says. “We often forget about that. Those hobbies are just as important to the people themselves as they happen to be for the science.”

Main image: Bear Hunt Photography

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