Blog Post
by Amy Freitag / Virginia Sea Grant, NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office

What is the role of peer-reviewed literature in citizen science?

January 29, 2014

Professional scientists sit at the helm of some citizen science groups. For these groups, the scientific process exemplified is one very similar to a laboratory at a university. Lots of people collect data, then one person sits down, analyzes the data, writes up a manuscript about it and submits that manuscript to a relevant peer-reviewed scientific journal. However one might feel about it, it’s very unlikely that the resulting journal article will be read by anyone outside of the scientific community. Beyond fueling future research, does this have much use? photo: Cover of Citizen Science Quarterly, an online outlet for citizen science theorizing - not peer reviewed except by reader comments, though.

The publication process can be long and difficult, with rejections common. Publications require polished statistical and writing skills. In the end, they often reside behind paywalls, essentially off limits to those without access to university libraries. For all of these reasons, if other scientists are not the main audience of the research, investigators may choose not to publish in peer-reviewed journals. For citizen science groups, the intended audience may not be other scientists - or not primarily so. Which then raises the question - what is the role of peer-reviewed literature in the citizen science world?

Here’s what we think - please add your thoughts in the comments!

There seems to be demand for an outlet to discuss and document the process of doing citizen science. For example, documenting program organization, data quality control, database management, and volunteer coordination would be helpful for brand new programs wishing to learn from the experiences of others. For this, a journal might prove a helpful venue for discussion within the burgeoning field of citizen science - though only if open access, given that many programs don’t have university support. The newly-formed Citizen Science Association is establishing a journal to meet this demand.

In addition, publishing the results of a citizen science project in a discipline-appropriate journal is a means of gaining credibility as a respected source of information in a field - and for now, the only one. For the future, there is growing discussion systems for publishing and citing raw data that lends credibility without the need for analyzing and summarizing. But for now, peer-reviewed journals are the most well-understood form of scientific currency. So at the moment, participating in the academic literature is a required part of doing science of any form.

As we learn about more and more citizen science programs, I am seeing journal articles play a few different (and sometimes overlapping) roles. The most basic one, referred to in the introduction, is the career-furthering, ivory tower publication. In this case, the main point of the publication is to contribute to scientific dialog, and not much else. The citizen science provenance of the data are is merely a footnote.

But if an article is coming from a program that is not already rooted in a university or other academic institution, or led by an academic researcher, then a simple publication based on the results of a program can have much greater significance. It can serve as an indicator of validity and rigor that might have been lacking previously, and increase the profile of the program in a very positive way.

Finally, it seems increasingly common for programs to publish papers based on a comparison of citizen science and professional science data. These collaborations seem highly valuable, both for the credibility they may lend to the program’s methods, and for the mutual learning that takes place.

With the obvious caveat that there are many useful ways to evaluate a citizen science program, I see potential value in all three of these scientific publishing activities. It may be challenging to involve citizens in the publication process, or in some cases, to even interest them in it. But participating in the system can still be a valuable opportunity to build a program.

As a physical oceanographer, my training involved the traditional scientific process: collect data, analyze data, write report, publish in a journal. Scientists like me are trained in graduate school to value and aspire to develop high-quality publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This is because, as Amy described above, the process of publishing research in a peer-reviewed journal is often rigorous. When research has been published, it is a sign that it has been vetted and approved by other scientists with expertise in the topic.

Now, I work at the intersection of science and policy, collaborating with research scientists, managers, citizen scientists, and other groups to provide the best-available science to the decision-makers who will use it. I am currently working with OST staff and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop an updated Central Coast MPA Monitoring Plan that will guide the development and implementation of a new Central Coast MPA monitoring program.

The data collected by citizen science groups can be an extremely valuable source of information about our Central Coast MPAs. Given that our priority is to provide rigorous, scientifically-credible information to California’s ocean managers, citizen science data that has been peer-reviewed has a sort of built-in credibility that unpublished data does not.

While publishing research in peer-reviewed journals may be difficult for citizen science groups, partnering with research scientists can make this more feasible. The Citizen Science Initiative’s work to develop a framework for collecting scientifically credible data may also facilitate increased numbers of publications by citizen science groups.

Please add your thoughts to the comment section! There is no right answer and potential answers are growing and evolving.

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