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Advancing Citizen Science: Q&A with Caren Cooper

Posted by
Jared Nielsen
February 08, 2015

It seems fitting that citizen science, which often engages bird watchers and has roots in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a lively topic on Twitter. That’s where we first spotted Caren Cooper, actively promoting citizen science and engaging its practitioners in discussion. Cooper is involved in multiple citizen science endeavors at the moment, ranging from presentations at this week’s Citizen Science Association inaugural conference to her role as co-editor-in-chief of the newly announced journal, Citizen Science: Theory & Practice. She holds a PhD in Biology from Virginia Tech, has more than 45 peer-reviewed publications mostly related in some way to citizen science, and is based at a very public, on-exhibit research lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. We recently spoke with Caren Cooper about her many efforts to make science more public.

What’s your background and how did you find your way to citizen science?

Through undergraduate and graduate schools, I was a field biologist, primarily studying birds. I loved field work and thought that was my future. Then I started a family just before my last field season in graduate school, at my field site in Australia. It was a difficult juggle and I probably would not have finished the field season if not for having the best field assistant ever (thanks Resha!). After I came back to the US and completed my degree, I soon saw a job opening at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with the primary responsibility of analyzing citizen science data. At that point, motherhood complicated field work and so the appeal of being handed heaps of data collected by others was like a dream come true. It was several years later that I started to understand how citizen science is an amazing and valuable phenomenon.Caren Cooper

Tell us about one of your citizen science projects.

I helped in the design of several ongoing, large scale citizen science projects, such as NestWatch, Celebrate Urban Birds, and YardMap. My research was most focused on long-term volunteer data in NestWatch and I also set up several short-term, more intensive projects that drew participation from subsets of NestWatch volunteers. One of these was the House Sparrow project which I created to begin to assess the cumulative efficacy of stewardship options of nest monitors, particularly related to controlling invasive competitors. The project had a component of social science research aimed at understanding the current decision-making process of volunteers and the affective and cognitive drivers of backyard management. Managing birds requires not only understanding birds, but also understanding people.

How would you respond to the concerns regarding protocol and the uncertainty of data collection in citizen science projects?

First, the proof is in the pudding. I like to point out to people how long citizen science has been around, but not by that name, and tell them some of the things we know thanks to citizen science. For example, half of what we know about migratory birds and climate change is thanks to citizen science. I think about a quarter of what we know about monarch butterflies is thanks to citizen science. And the list is enormous with discoveries in a wide range of disciplines. Second, I think the idea that citizen science data are poor quality is a knee-jerk reaction grounded in a common (false) assumption about the nature of scientific expertise. To counter it, I point out that just because it takes a lot of study to learn to carry out independent research and get a PhD doesn’t mean that people without PhDs don’t hold particular types of expertise that can be useful to science. Third, after responding about the pudding and the nature of expertise, then if people want to discuss nitty-gritty issues particular to citizen science data, we can talk about how to handle weekend bias, inter-observer variation, data-entry errors, the balance between protocol complexity and number of participants, matching protocols to communities with appropriate expertise and skills, and lots of other considerations that are usually project-specific. There are generalities for designing good citizen science projects and properly analyzing the data, but also projects tend to have their own unique challenges that need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

You mentioned in one of our communications that you are shifting gears from large-scale citizen science projects to community engagement. What does this transition entail?

My research questions have focused on latitudinal gradients and each observation was not necessarily useful on its own, but masses of observations were useful in aggregate. The research questions I’m crafting now have both local and large-scale relevance. I’m focusing on questions useful to environmental justice by examining connections between wildlife health and human health. This aligns with the mission of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences: to illuminate the interdependence of nature and humanity. I’m taking a “canary in a coalmine” approach because birds are great bioindicators of environmental health. For example, I’m collaborating with Neighborhood NestWatch, a Smithsonian project in several cities aimed at understanding avian ecology across urbanizations gradients. Within that project, I’m focusing on questions related to bird physiological responses to the soundscape and lightscape (noise and light pollution), which may be similar to human responses. Also, I’m starting a new project that is exploring the feasibility of mapping chemical contaminants with biomarkers of eggs from House Sparrows, which are a common, non-native species that many birders want to control, as I mentioned above. House Sparrow eggs bioaccumulate heavy metals, PCBs, flame retardants, and other endocrine disruptors. I’m hoping House Sparrow eggs can be a low-tech community monitoring tool, similar to the way communities monitor air pollution with inexpensive bucket samplers. Unlike mapping contaminants in air, water, or soil, the eggs could allow maps of contaminants spreading into a living system. We’ll start curating volunteer-collected eggs this spring and summer at the Museum.

As one of your outreach activities, you started hosting a #CitSciChat on Twitter. Please tell us a bit about it and how to participate.

The #CitSciChat is a fast-paced hour of discussion about citizen science that I run in collaboration with SciStarter. Each session has a topical theme. I invite guest panelists for each. I moderate the discussion and pose a series of questions over the course of the hour. Everyone is invited to ask additional questions and also to answer questions. Twitter posts are restricted to 140 characters, and they need to include the hashtag #CitSciChat so that the full conversation will appear in that stream. Given the tiny amount of words possible in a post, it is always amazing how interesting discussions can be on Twitter. I post a summary of each session using Storify. The pace can be overwhelming to follow, but rather exhilarating too. People learn from one another and make lasting connections. To my surprise, the first #CitSciChat attracted the interest of researchers in Sweden who are now planning to study these sessions for the next year as part of their research on the citizen science movement. Right now this is a monthly event, but I’ll increase its frequency if interest is sustained. Follow me @CoopSciScoop to learn more! The chat are the last Wednesday of every month at 7GMT (2pm ET in US; 5 or 6 ET Australia, depending on daylight savings).

You’re involved in the newly created Citizen Science Association and its upcoming conference. Are you leading any activities or delivering presentations? If so, what?

I’m involved in four activities at the conference. I’m presenting a talk about the social science findings from the House Sparrow Project (mentioned above). I’m co-author on a talk about recruitment and retention in projects (with collaborators at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). I’m convening a symposium on ethical dimensions in citizen science, which I believe will crystalize the formation of an ethics working group of the CSA. I hope the symposium will illustrate that IRBs and related research ethics were established for studies of human subjects, which is a much simpler relationship than the complex and nuanced relationships between participants, communities, and scientists; consequently citizen science needs more principles, training, and guidance. Fourth, I’m coordinating part of the hackfest, namely the part for updating the citizen science entry in Wikipedia. Also, I’m one of the editors-in-chief of the new journal, Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, and we’ll have our first in-person meeting of the Editorial Board!

In addition to blogging for SciStarter, you are also writing a book on citizen science. What can you tell us about it?

With The Overlook Press, I’m writing a non-academic book about citizen science, telling the stories of citizen scientists, highlighting the scientific impact of volunteer endeavors across numerous disciplines, and pointed out the social outcomes of citizen science. I hope the book will be a rallying call-to-arms for this movement for public access to methods of scientific discovery. I just wish I could write it faster! Visit Caren Cooper's site for more information on her citizen science research and projects. She can also be found on Twitter @CoopSciScoop


photo: Katja Schulz CC-BY-2.0