[Taxacom] De-extinction & Rhachistia aldabrae

Walker, Ken kwalker at museum.vic.gov.au
Thu Oct 23 18:15:36 CDT 2014


Thanks for your question and I am not surprised that you see no association between “"natural history amateurs” and “citizen science”.  It is a typical scientific response.

I recently read a definition of “citizen science” used by the global biodiversity player “Earthwatch”.  It read: “Citizen science is the structured research undertaken as an active partnership between scientists and the wider community”.

The world is awash with social media and yet many in the scientific community believe that without the overriding intervention of scientists to formulate structured research projects, then the independent efforts by amateurs is not real science.

One of the model project often quoted here in Australia as a good example of “citizen science” is the “Great Koala Count”.  A scientific institution has developed a recording mobile phone/tablet app that “citizen scientists” download and then walk around recording where they see koalas.  It also records the absence of records every 15 minutes.  The project runs over a 2 week period and has been repeated over a number of years.  The scientists love it – amateurs spending their time gathering distribution data about a single, easily identifiable taxon.

However, some of the amateurs who have contributed to this project have raised interesting issues.

1.    No one can ask a question on the app.  The scientists appear they are not willing to engage with the public.

2.    The app itself does not deliver any results of the survey.  Indeed, there is no link from the app to the website where the results are delivered.

3.    The results website has simply reused an old survey excel format as for every record it repeats the name of the taxon recorded – A koala!

I define citizen science projects such as the “Great Koala Count” as a “Top Down” project and it fits perfectly with the definition of “citizen science” as used by Earthwatch.  Personally, I prefer the “Bottom Up” approach to “citizen science” where amateurs employ serendipity to record and share data. I call this “adding value to a hobby” and that’s my “working” definition for “citizen science”.

Although there is now over 5 billion images on Facebook and Flickr, most natural history images on these sites are useless to science because: (1) They will rarely be identified; (2) They do not provide the minimum Darwin Core dataset of identification/spatial/temporal data; and (3) The data is never on-shared with biodiversity databases (such as ALA in OZ or globally GBIF).

However, when similar images are shared on “citizen science” websites dedicated to natural science (Project Noah, iNaturalist, iSpot, BowerBird etc) they impose the Darwin Core standards by insisting a record contains spatial/temporal data per record.  With such data, observations using “macrophotography of "bugs": bigger, smaller, red, blue or yellow" are indeed good “citizen science” and do add value to biodiversity.

For me, the essence of science is making observations and asking questions. In my previous Taxacom post, I gave examples of serendipity leading to biosecurity action (Carder bee) and the finding of a presumed extinct insect (ladybeetle). In both these examples, the photographers noticed something that looked unusual, took an image, asked a question and shared their images on a “citizen science” website. Both records definitely caught the attention of scientists.  For interest, here is a link to a distribution map on ALA for the exotic South African carder bee (Afranthidium repetitum) showing the “citizen science” records as the mostly northerly and most southerly dots on the map ( http://bie.ala.org.au/species/Afranthidium+repetitum ).  Isn’t this a contribution to science?  But, it did not begin that way when two “natural history amateurs” observed something and asked a question on a social website that engages the public with scientists.  When do ““natural history amateurs” become “citizen science”?

Why do scientists have problems accepting the value of this form of data recording?  Why are scientists hesitant to use the most effective marketing tools currently on the planet – social media?  I can tell you that dealing directly with the general public is a lot more “scary” than writing Taxacom posts.

To finish, I will relate a colleague’s reluctance to engage with a socially interactive citizen science website.  When I asked him for his assistance to identify animals within his speciality and he works at a publically funded institution, he refused because he said: “I do not want any member of the public challenging my identifications.”  How typical is this of the general scientific community?

I hope I have answered your question: “This made no reference to 'citizen science' and I did not see any implication of such.”  Perhaps I live on planet X but I do see a reference or an implication to “citizen science” in Jason’s post.

Cheers Ken

From: John Grehan [mailto:calabar.john at gmail.com]
Sent: Friday, 24 October 2014 12:51 AM
To: Walker, Ken
Cc: JF Mate; Taxacom
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] De-extinction & Rhachistia aldabrae

Admittedly I only read postings in a fragmentary way and I know I sometimes miss items, but I am confused by your reference to Jason Mate saying the the efforts of citizen science can be dismissed as " are taking pictures of "bugs": bigger, smaller, red, blue or yellow." What I read was that he said that "The decline in "natural history" amateurs is global and cannot be compensated by the explosion of macrophotography since they (mostly) are taking pictures of "bugs": bigger, smaller, red, blue or yellow." This made no reference to 'citizen science' and I did not see any implication of such. It was only a criticism of a particular mode of information gathering or sharing. I would be grateful therefore for how you made that link the way you did.
John Grehan

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