With the right resources, untrained observers record high-quality data

Credits: Brian F. Powell
Four observers look at a clipboard in the field
Mon, Sep 10, 2018

In a nutshell

While the number of citizen science programs continues to expand, reservations persist about the quality of data generated by these programs. Few studies have directly evaluated the quality of citizen scientist-generated data or what programs might do to ensure high data quality.  

To better understand precision and accuracy in phenology data collection and how that varies by training level, researchers at Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Institute compared data from three different observer types – expert professional scientists, trained citizen scientists, and untrained citizen scientists. They found that during peak flowering and fruiting, citizen scientists of both training levels made similar observations as the experts. When flowers and fruits were less abundant, the variability of citizen scientist data increased. Furthermore, trained citizen scientists over- or under-estimated abundances of flowering and fruiting more than untrained observers.

What is special about this study?

The authors found that untrained citizen scientists recorded data that was as precise and sometimes more accurate than trained citizen scientists, likely due to a misinterpretation of materials presented at trainings. The authors suggest that informative datasheets, websites, or data collection applications may be just as beneficial as in-person trainings in certain situations.

The authors recommend that mid-season assessments and calibration trainings help to ensure that all observers are consistently recording phenology data. The authors also observed marking plants for observation by untrained observers is one way to further minimize data collection errors.

What does this mean for YOU?

For our Local Phenology Leaders who work with groups of citizen scientists, this article offers some guidance on the types of trainings and materials that might be most effective to improve data precision and accuracy. For our Nature’s Notebook observers, we hope that you will be reassured that by following the detailed phenophase descriptions on the Nature’s Notebook datasheets, you have the resources that you need to record high-quality data.

Citation:  Feldman, R.E., Zemaite, I., and Miller-Rushing, A.J. 2018. How training citizen scientists affects the accuracy and precision of phenological data. International Journal of Biometeorology 62: 1421-1435. doi.org/10.1007/s00484-018-1540-4