Volunteers 'vital to science data collection'

An Earthwatch team at work in the Masaya Crater, Nicaragua (Image: Yoka Heijstek) Organisations like Earthwatch provide opportunities for people to join research projects all over the world

Volunteers play a vital role in ensuring that a range of valuable long-term datasets continue to survive, a team of scientists will say.

They argue that without citizen scientists, it would be too costly to carry out regular monitoring surveys.

However, they add that appropriate training is needed to allay concerns about inaccurate recordings.

The researchers from Oxford University will present their case at the Earthwatch annual lecture on Thursday.

"Government and research councils' funding wants you to test hypotheses and produce very specific, short-term high-impact results, " said Chris Newman, one of the researchers from the university's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) who will be making the presentation.

"That does not lend itself to long-term monitoring, which is what you need if you want to study things like climate change," he told BBC News.

Validating data

Monitoring the ecology of a particular area over a long period of time were among the projects that depended upon voluntary participants, Dr Newman said.

However, he did say that it was necessary to take certain measures to prevent the data sets being dismissed as inconsistent because they were collected by non-professional scientists.

"It is very easy to say 'yes, citizen scientists can collect the data', but it comes with a whole set of caveats," he explained.

"Such as what sort of training is needed, and the need for instructions.

"It is no good just mailing out some instructions to people, asking them to go out into the countryside and find field signs for animals - that does not work and people do need to be trained."

Dr Newman added that it was wrong to suggest that anyone could do anything, without compromising the results.

"It does need validation and calibration," he said.

However, he did say that many data sets would cease to exist if volunteers were taken out of the equation.

"All of those participation activities and national surveys where people can respond to websites, newsletters etc and send data - from which reports are collated - they would go out of the window."

But he acknowledged: "People do imagine scientific data to be absolute and robust.

"It isn't because the methods that are being used, particularly for surveying and monitoring work, are themselves fallible.

"Even highly trained professionals can mis-file signs. There is a limit to the capacity of any human being to be able to perform these surveys - with or without training."

However, suspicion has always lingered over the role of volunteers in data collection projects.

For example, the US House of Representatives voted in 1993 to ban the National Biological Survey from accepting the services of volunteers.

The argument for prohibiting their use was that the volunteers were incompetent, and their data would be biased.

Yet other wildlife organisations have taken a very different approach.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is among a range of bodies that have submitted research papers to leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, whose findings are based on data collated by volunteers.

Dr Newman and his colleague, Dr Christina D Buesching, will be making a presentation about the role of volunteers within science at the Earth Institute's annual lecture at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday evening.

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