Community scientists – even children – produce usable data for researchers

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Citizen science projects are turning ordinary people into researchers, and in recent years such efforts have abounded, tackling everything from astronomy to weather information contained in the logbooks of 19th-century whalers.

But what is the quality of the data generated by these projects?

A study published in the journal Research Ideas and Outcomes has an answer: community scientists are surprisingly good at producing accurate data that, in turn, can advance scientific research, even when the participants are young children.

The research was undertaken by students and staff from the Field Museum in Chicago, who invited visitors to the museum to participate in a community science project that measured the leaves of liverworts.

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The tiny moss-like plants are extremely sensitive to temperature and humidity and can be used to monitor climate change. They are also very difficult to see, so museum visitors measured microscopic images of their leaves using a large touch screen.

Over the course of two years, participants were able to measure thousands of leaves. Next, a Roosevelt University professor worked with his undergraduate math class to analyze the data.

To everyone’s surprise, the majority of the data was usable and all age groups produced quality information. Even the youngest participants produced excellent data; just over half of the measurements made by children under the age of 10 were usable, and 41% of the data produced by young children who were not assisted by adults or others were usable.

Unsurprisingly, adults produced the highest quality data, with 77% of their data passing. Adults have done as well as professional scientists to produce usable measurements.

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“This study demonstrates the wonderful scientific results that occur when an entire community comes together,” Melanie Pivarski, associate professor of mathematics at Roosevelt University and lead author of the study, said in a press release.

The benefits didn’t stop at the science: it was a chance for participants to learn and engage not only with science, but also with each other by participating in a common project. Other projects could yield even more benefits, the researchers write.

“Scientists, who have more specimens than taxonomists can measure or observe,” they write, can use participatory measurements to “accelerate” scientific discovery — even as they provide fun fodder for museum visitors.

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