You're Probably Better at Science Than You Think

Community science, also known as citizen science, has a lot of attraction for academics who want to acquire larger datasets and include the public in their study. But, is the information gathered in this manner reliable?

Community science, made possible by technology, enables researchers to harness the power of public interest by utilizing their volunteer contributions to data collecting. Scientists can collect and analyze more data faster than they might otherwise, thereby saving money on research expenditures.

However, precision and consistency are important tenets of scientific data collecting. Community science's contribution to traditional research methodologies is only as good as the quality of data generated by its participants. Researchers put that attribute to the test in a recent study.

Herbarium collections in museums throughout the world - over 3,000 in total, with an estimated 350 million specimens - are being digitized, allowing the public to 'come closer' to specimens without compromising their preservation. However, despite digitisation, museum artifacts are still underutilized, according to academics.

Community science, according to study author and botanist Matt von Konrat, head of plant collections at the Chicago Field Museum, might change this.

"Crowd-sourced data collection projects… have the potential to greatly accelerate biodiversity discovery and documentation from digital images of scientific specimens," he argues.

Manual operations, such as measuring herbarium specimens, can be sped up by public interest. Using the foot movement of curious visitors makes a lot of sense for a museum with thousands of items.

Researchers used data from a touchscreen kiosk at a museum display to put this technique to the test. The kiosk provided users with an animated instruction on how to measure the lobules (leaf-like features) of liverworts, a species of plant related to moss.

Following the instruction, participants were given a randomly chosen photograph of a liverwort specimen from the museum's collection and asked to measure its lobules.

Patrons were directed to draw two crossing lines across each lobule, one for breadth and one for length. They were instructed to draw lines that crossed at right angles and to measure each line in pixels. Because liverworts are among the earliest known terrestrial plants, the photos were scaled to make 1 pixel equal to 1.05 microns.

The researchers also attempted to collect data on the participants' ages, which were loosely classified as children (10 and under), teenagers (10 to 18), and adults (18+).

The researchers compared each community science data input to that of an expert using the same methodology to see if there was a statistically significant difference. Their expectations were exceeded by the results.

The researchers projected that around half of the measurements would survive the data cleaning procedure, and that older age groups would be able to produce far better data than children.

"We didn't know if there would be kids drawing pictures on the touchscreen instead of measuring leaves, or if they'd be able to follow the tutorial as well as the adults did," explains lead researcher and Roosevelt University mathematician Melanie Pivarski.

However, after cleaning and analyzing the data from the community scientists (which comprised roughly 6,700 lobules assessed), the research discovered that 60% of all entries agreed with the experts' observations.

"All age groups from young children, families, youth, and adults were able to generate high-quality taxonomic data sets, making observations and preparing measurements, and at the same time empowering community scientists through authentic contributions to science," adds von Konrat.

Pivarski stated that they were very impressed with how well the students accomplished the work.

The Field Museum's Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life exhibition included the kiosk in 2017. It was shown at the Grainger Science Hub, Field Museum member evenings, and other events throughout 2018.

In the Specimens display, 41% of data input by youngsters (without assistance from adult friends or relatives) were statistically comparable enough to the expert's measurement to be used for study.

At the Science Hub, half of the data by the youngest age group - children under the age of ten - was selected.

"This means that children did a remarkable job following instructions and taking the .. measurements seriously," the researchers said in their article.

While previous study has revealed that aspiring citizen scientists overestimate species diversity, the current findings provide credence to community science programs, implying that they may be utilized to both engage the public in scientific inquiry and collect useful data.

This paper was published in Research Ideas and Outcomes.