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Introduction to Citizen Science

Who are citizen scientists and how have they contributed to long term research? Dr Kath Townsend explains.
In this section, you’ll learn about how everyday people, also called Citizen Scientists, are contributing to marine research around the world. Hi, I’m Dr. Kathy Townsend from the University of the Sunshine Coast here in Australia. I’m a marine scientist that specialises in citizen science engagement. Marine megafauna, such as whales, sea turtles and manta rays attract considerable public attention. But these species are often rare or widely dispersed throughout the marine environment. And this, as a researcher, makes them really challenging to study in the field. However, the advent of photo identification techniques, plus social media platforms to easily communicate with the general public has given rise to citizen science. Well, who are citizens scientists?
Well, they’re members of the public with an interest either in a particular species or group of species, or just in nature in general. They give up their time, knowledge, and resources to help out researchers. I’ve accessed citizen scientists throughout my entire career, starting with reaching out to ferry captains and fishermen to try to figure out the distribution of mudskippers during my undergraduate years. This first citizen science project resulted in my first peer reviewed journal article that recorded the southern drift of that particular species in Australia. There are both advantages and disadvantages of engaging citizen scientists into your research programme.
Advantages include things like extra data provided by the citizen scientists can substantially increase your research effort and coverage in both space and time. Citizen Scientists are also self-funded or funded through tourism programmes and substantially reduce the costs of data collection for research, while at the same time supporting local tourism ventures. Citizen Science programmes can also disseminate research results to participants through increased contact with research, therefore, increasing public education outcomes. And finally, citizen science programmes have tangible downstream outcomes for conservation efforts, including participation in stakeholder groups, data being used for threatened species assessments, and the monitoring of sick and injured animals over time.
While there are plenty of positives, there are still challenges in running citizen science programmes, often it’s challenging to find effective methods of raising awareness of your project and accessing the photos that people are producing. There’s also limitations on image matching software, so most images will still be matched by eye. There’s maintaining engagement with the public participants - that takes time and effort and finally, getting long term funding particularly for communication and outreach staff to maintain the interactions with citizen scientists. Two of my largest and most long term research projects have tapped into the enthusiasm of citizen scientist. I’ll introduce you to Project Manta and Turtles in Trouble and the next two activities in this section.

Who are citizen scientists and how have they contributed to long term research? What are the positives and negatives working with citizen scientists? Find out more in this section.

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