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Citizen Science Above Treeline : Assessing Volunteer Plant Identification Skills

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  1. Citizen Science Above Treeline: Assessing Volunteer Plant Identification Skills Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie Climate change and its long-term ecological effects have become the defining issues for ecologists and environmental educators today.  Many organizations have responded to the impending unknowns of climate change by creating partnerships between scientists and citizens. Citizen science has been especially popular among programs focused on monitoring phenological changes — shifts in the timing of biological events.  However, to be of scientific value, the data collected by citizen scientists must be accurate.  This study reviews five years of citizen science data from a project monitoring the effects of climate change on alpine flowering times in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. • BIASES IN STUDY DESIGN: There are some drawbacks inherent in the study design of this review and survey. • Location Errors — Volunteers may be correctly identifying target species while misreporting their geographic location. Under the survey, we had no way to verify the location of a volunteer’s observation other than his or her own datasheet. • Look-a-like Errors — Volunteers may be mistaking other alpine flowers for the target species in locations where both occur. For example, at a site where alpine azalea and diapensia are both present, the survey must consider any observation of diapensia to be correctly identified. METHODS: To assess the plant identification skills of the AMC’s citizen scientists, the alpine plant communities were re-surveyed for the presence of the six target species at 19 precise locations in the Presidential Range. Plants found in abundance greater than 1 percent cover within a 10m radius were considered "present" at the location. AMC Mountain Watch 2005-2009: 2492 volunteer observations The Presidential Range: 1775 observations (31% recorded at imprecise locations) Precise locations in the Presidential Range: 1223 observations • THE PROGRAM: Mountain Watch is the Appalachian Mountain Club’s citizen science program. Since 2005, Mountain Watch has enlisted citizen scientists to monitor the flowering phenophases of six alpine plant species throughout the White Mountains. • Volunteers are provided with a datasheet and an Alpine Flower Guide. The datasheet queries volunteers for the following information: • Description of the geographic location • Species identification • Phenophase identification • Certainty of species ID (ranked from 1 to 3) • THE QUESTION: How can the AMC assess the quality of this citizen science data for scientific study? Conclusions: Citizen scientists in this project often did not give precise location data and, more importantly, were unable to identify species or gauge their own certainty of identification in a meaningful way.  Volunteers correctly identified only two of six target species at rates better than random (73.6% and 60.8%).  A chi-square tesfound no relationship between volunteers’ self-assessed certainty of ID and their actual identification skill.   Citizen science programs, including this project, must take the time to evaluate their own data, and make adjustments — in training, data collection methods, or goals — in order to produce data consistent with their scientific intentions.  (Survey of 865 observations finds 33.1% incorrect plant ID rate) Correctly identified plants at precise locations in the Presidential Range: 579 observations RESULTS: If the study design were perfect, we would report that a third of all observations from precise locations were inaccurate — 33.1% of the volunteer observations recorded a species that did not grow at the described location. Chi-square tests were run on identification, certainty of ID, and phenophases. Certainty of ID as self‐reported by volunteers was ineffective at filtering for reliability:there was no significant relationship between a volunteer’s certainty of identification and his actual ability to identify a plant. Volunteers correctly identified only two target species at rates better than random. Acknowledgements