The pros and cons from a citizen scientist

By Lachlan Pollard | April 30, 2015

English teacher Lachlan Pollard ponders citizen science’s uses and abuses as he tries his hand at marine surveys

I HAD NEVER heard of the term citizen science before I volunteered on my first project – a set of diving surveys run by Dr Chris Roelfsema, a University of Queensland academic, in 2013-2014.

Chris had secured funding to repeat a 2001 ecological assessment of waters near Point Lookout on the north-eastern tip of North Stradbroke Island in Queensland. The only requirements were that you had to have an advanced diving qualification and be passionate about reef conservation. He, along with a few other scientists, would be providing the training and scientific support.

For me, the term citizen science was foreign; I thought it was about scientists working for free, not about me being trained to do the work of scientists! But, no, all 45 volunteers, including myself, would have to attend six academic lectures followed by an exam and practical test to ready us to do the science. 

How does citizen science work?

But, even as I prepared to swell the citizen science ranks, my concerns about the kind of data we could produce were growing.

As I looked around I found out that the term citizen science had been around since the n’90s, but has only been widely promoted in the last decade. The revolution is catching on, but, to my concern, nowhere did I read that citizen scientists were required to take an exam to demonstrate their understanding of what they were doing.

Even though we would be tested, I was concerned. Without the years of study and experience as a scientist, could I produce consistent and precise enough data? I began to think that I was being used as a stooge, that this new term had been introduced so that universities could still produce data in the face of budget cuts.

But as I sat in the training lectures, I began to develop an understanding of the reef that went beyond the 400 dives I’d done as a recreational diver. The scientists talked about the war between corals for space, and the many organisms such as the crown of thorns that were a threat to our reef. As I listened, I thirsted to get into the water to assess the reefs.

Citizen science: connecting to conservation

The data we were collecting would be used to develop an understanding of the changes to the reef structure since 2001. Out of the 45 people involved only five had been involved in the previous project.

The first weekend was great. A bunch of like-minded people from different working backgrounds, we were all excited to be there. We stayed in two houses and as everyone scrambled for a place to camp it felt like a sports team, rather than a ‘work’ team.

Over the weekend each volunteer was assigned the task of collecting coral, fish, or invertebrates data; recording reef impacts; taking photographs for later assessment; or developing of map of the survey site. I was assigned to be a mapper.

As I watched divers tasked with data collection swimming over a transect tape that wafted in the current I could only again wonder how consistent the collection method would be. If another person did the survey in the future, would the transect tape be in the same spot?

Lachlan Pollard (centre) with the Point Lookout Ecological Assessment team of 2013-2014. (Credit: Douglas Stetner) 

The pros and cons of citizen science 

Further complications arose on the following two survey weekends. The weather made some sites inaccessible, and even on those we could dive, the visibility was not the same and it made fish identification especially difficult. Some of the initial volunteers from the first weekend were replaced with newer people and once again I began to wonder about the inconsistent standards across the volunteers.

Little did I know I was this issue is argued by naysayers of citizen science. Some academic journals still don’t publish papers if volunteers have collected the data.

On the final weekend, the summer weather was back and the dives all ran smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. I began to see the wealth of data that can be collected by volunteers; and I understood that the sheer volume would help to overcome discrepancies such as the wafting transect line.

It was then I was able to see the myriad of benefits: not only had we collected data, but we had improved the diving skills of 45 volunteers and given them an opportunity to contribute actively to conservation.

The feeling was great!

It was even better when we found out that, in comparison to the 2001, our findings showed no detrimental difference across the areas, although one of the sites had more damage to coral than nearby marine park protected sites.

The study can be accessed here. The Point Lookout Ecological Assessment (PLEA) Project team is now of developing a plan to use their talents to perform a Flinders Reef ecological assessment off of Queensland’s Moreton Island, north of Stradbroke.

Lachlan Pollard teaches English and mathematics at a Brisbane High School. Last year, as a New Year’s resolution, he vowed to get involved in an environmental conservation project to show his students that he walks the talk. 

Join other citizen science projects:

Citizen Science Network
Find people and organisations hosting citizen science projects.

Aussie Backyard Bird Count 
Help build a snapshot of the birds that live in your local area.

Atlas of Living Australia
Share video or photographs of plants and animals, and help to digitise specimen records.

BowerBird
Contribute photographs of plants and animals, and have them identified and commented on.

NatureShare
Contribute photographs of plants and animals in Victoria.

Redmap
Spot, log and map marine species uncommon to Australian waters.

ClimateWatch
Contribute to the understanding of how climate change is affecting animal and plant behaviour.

Discovery Circle
Find projects from the University of South Australia that look at people’s interactions with animals.