Monarch butterfly tagged by Monarch Watch citizen science project

Citizen science

This approach to science involves members of the public – from schoolchildren to birdwatchers and fishermen – taking part in scientific research

Although the approach is applied to scientific disciplines as diverse as astronomy and genetics, it has a long history in wildlife monitoring, where the involvement of large numbers of volunteers ensures that populations can be monitored in detail over broad geographical areas.

Taking part might be as simple as taking a photo of a flower on your smartphone, but can also be more involved, requiring training in scientific research methods.

Historically, scientists and naturalists were not professionals – they were people with the time and money to indulge their interests. Today, citizen science is about professional scientists and amateurs working together. Sometimes citizens get involved in a wildlife-monitoring project because they are enthusiastic about butterflies or bats, for example, and enjoy helping to answer the scientists’ questions.

At other times the questions and problems are of immediate concern to local citizens, such as addressing the pollution of a marine environment that is important for fishing.

For the birds?

Bird monitoring has a long history of public participation. Amateur birdwatchers across the USA take part in the Christmas Bird Count every year, helping professional scientists learn about North American bird populations. Europe also has a well-established network of volunteers involved in bird-monitoring projects. The French bird-monitoring programme, Vigie-Nature, is estimated to save the French government over €1 million a year by working with volunteers to collect data.

Citizen science projects that have an internet presence can harness the efforts of many thousands of people without making any direct contact with them. For example, the Big Butterfly Count in the UK now accepts data submitted via a smartphone app. In 2012 just under 27,000 people took part, and scientists were able to conclude from the results that certain butterfly populations had declined by 50 per cent. Other projects use smartphones to encourage participants to submit images of plants along with information about their growth phase (Floracaching) or to report sightings of invasive species that might pose a threat to native populations (What’s Invasive).

Great debate

There has been some debate about whether citizen scientists produce data that are as accurate as those produced by professional scientists, with studies providing conflicting evidence. Overall, it is probably reasonable to assume that as long as participants are properly informed and their data undergo appropriate checks, any inaccuracies are balanced out by the benefits of carrying out larger studies. In sampling bird populations, for example, many samples can be taken and a large number of different areas can be sampled. This reduces the influence that unusual results from single samples have on the data as a whole.

While citizen science projects have important outcomes for scientific research and conservation, it also important that they provide benefits for citizens themselves, in order to encourage participation and successful collaborations. These benefits might include education, skills, new social networks, enjoyment or direct improvement of a participant’s local environment.

Lead image:

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, tagged in Freer Gallery Garden, National Mall, Washington, DC, USA. 5 October 2012.

Katja Schultz/Flickr CC BY

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Populations’ in June 2014.

Genetics and genomics
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development