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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 9 Issue 1 Highlights

 
Environmental conservation research

FEATURE ARTICLE 1

Can We Make ALL Voluntourism More Like Citizen Science?

Fast Company recently posted a short entry on an article that appeared in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution. Researchers discovered that citizen scientists (volunteers) were, in essence, able to comparatively gather data on a level equal to that of professionals. Notably, a volunteer research protocol was created that, although it was distinct from that of professionals, enabled the volunteers to conduct similar work to that of professionals and contribute relevant, meaningful data that, according to the study, equaled, and in some cases, surpassed the efforts of professionals. Can we imply from this study, then, that the success of volunteers is not so much a direct function of their capacity to render certain types of service as much as it is aligned to the design and development of the managed structure in which they execute their service directives? And, can voluntourism, therefore, become more legitimate by following in the footsteps of citizen science?

Introduction to Citizen Science

In the article – “Citizen Science: Can Volunteers Do Real Research?” (BioScience)  – Cohn (2008) provides an excellent overview of the history of citizen science, tracing back to the beginning of the 20th Century and the efforts of citizen scientists in support of the Audubon Society, as well as the following description of citizen scientists [p.193]:

Voluntourism programs, those that fall outside of the parameters of citizen science, would do well to look very closely at the strengths and weaknesses of citizen science projects. Such insights will enhance the experience delivery for all stakeholders. The primary concern of citizen science, for example, appears to focus on the validity of volunteer-generated data. On this point, as with most other voluntourism programs, the volunteer contribution is significant. The point of differentiation, however, is that citizen science is rarely questioned for its overall legitimacy. It is proposed, therefore, that voluntourism take some cues from citizen science and redesign itself to address this line of questioning, to maximize its relevance and value and minimize its perceived spuriousness.

The quote from Rick Bonney (above) says a great deal about the nature of the relationship between citizen scientists and their “handlers” – the scientists designing and running the research study. Citizen science opportunities, therefore, are authentically crafted by professionals, those who are in the business of running research studies, knowing what they are trying to gather data on, and have the capacity to develop data collection instruments that allow even “amateurs” to participate in the data collection process. Thus, citizen scientists are set up for success from the beginning, as they are teamed with a professional who knows exactly what to do.

For example, authors Lovell, Hamer, Slotow, and Herbert (2009) presented findings in their article - “An assessment of the use of volunteers for terrestrial invertebrate biodiversity studies” - that speak to the relative similarities between data collected by volunteers and that of professional researchers. In the abstract for the article, they write [p. 3295]:

Citizen science is rooted in scientific investigation. It requires a certain amount of rigor. Tasks are clearly defined. Training of citizen scientists and feedback from researchers to citizen scientists are essential elements. A citizen science project is designed and developed with at least one objective in mind: publishing the results. A portion of the fees from participating citizen scientists are earmarked specifically to finance the research. There is no question of the legitimacy of the project, as, at minimum, a lead researcher is involved in the design, development, and implementation of the project.

Cons and Pros of Citizen Science

Earthwatch data collection

Citizen science also has its detractors and those who question just how accurate and “real” the research is that is being conducted. Darwall and Dulvy (1996) speak generally to the unreliability of the data collected by citizen scientists in reference to: 1) insufficient training, and 2) the lack of consistency due to a large number of observers. Such arguments are certainly valid. Mumby, Harborne, Raines, and Ridley (1995) identified several items that impacted volunteers’ accuracy when identifying coral. Volunteer divers experienced physical, physiological, and psychological challenges in relation to visual acuity, nitrogen narcosis, and open water diving. Further, Mumby, et al. (1995) discovered that improvements in the accuracy of data collection were stymied by the fact that staff did not deliver positive feedback to participants, affording them an opportunity to identify their weaknesses and make necessary corrections. Such staff-intensive feedback would not, it is assumed, be necessary in the case of trained professionals collecting the data. Nor would safety concerns, risk mitigation, and creature comfort be at the levels they are for citizen scientists when compared to professionals who would be, presumably, more accustomed to rustic conditions and the dangers of field research.

Despite these shortcomings, there are a number of “pros” to consider, as Cohn points out. Money is at the top of the list. There simply is not enough money to pay professional researchers to travel into the field and capture the data. Citizen scientists meet a real-world, budgetary shortfall. But leveraging financial resources is merely the beginning of the value-add for citizen science. The presence of more bodies also means greater geographic area for data collection along with the option for longer-term studies to be conducted. And with more bodies, comes the option of setting up teams to conduct research, rather than relying on a single volunteer or single professional researcher.

Authors also recognize the value of participating in citizen science for citizen scientists themselves. They are connected to the science – learning about science in a unique setting and in the context of other individuals who are approaching it from differing levels of interest. They are learning about the environment, nature, habitats, and other elements connected with nature conservation and preservation. They are participating in studies that will likely be published and they will have clear indication of their own contribution to the finalized product – be it an article, a published research study, or a geo-map.

Recommendations to Improve Citizen Science

There are numerous recommendations on how to improve citizen science (notably, authors seem to take a serious interest in providing these recommendations). Lovell, et al. (2009) suggest that scientists be very certain about the contribution volunteers can make to a given project and to what extent volunteers may make an impossible project possible. Feedback, as Mumby, et al. (1995) point out, by staff and/or scientists involved in the study can play a significant role in improving the results of citizen scientists’ data collection tactics and, therefore, the data itself. Training is equally important and many authors have discussed how training can serve to improve the data collection process.

turtle conservation

There are two aspects of improving citizen science that are worthy of mention, particularly as it relates to existing literature on volunteer tourism. The first is changing the instrument or construct of the study in order to meet the level of understanding of volunteers. The second is establishing teams of two or more volunteers to collect data. The latter ties into the literature, which notes that volunteers enjoy interacting with one another; and, if this interaction can extend to the host community, the response from volunteers is even greater. The former speaks to the need for proper project development and management, as has been discussed in the volunteer tourism literature by Barbieri, Santos, and Katsube (2012), among others.

Concluding Thoughts…

International citizen science has taken a giant leap in terms of participant engagement through the work of, among others, Earthwatch Institute. The citizen science ingredients - a lead researcher, volunteers, a definitive project, training, specific data collection, feedback, funding, and eventual publication - are mixed in varying quantities according to the dictates, primarily, of the lead researcher. Success can be measured. Participants can see progress and respond accordingly. They are involved in a scientific investigation that has clearly defined goals, expectations, and projected outcomes. And they will eventually have an opportunity to see a completed publication referencing their work.

Voluntourism programs, those that fall outside of the parameters of citizen science, would do well to look very closely at the strengths and weaknesses of citizen science projects. Such insights will enhance the experience delivery for all stakeholders. The primary concern of citizen science, for example, appears to focus on the validity of volunteer-generated data. On this point, as with most other voluntourism programs, the volunteer contribution is significant. The point of differentiation, however, is that citizen science is rarely questioned for its overall legitimacy. It is proposed, therefore, that voluntourism take some cues from citizen science and redesign itself to address this line of questioning, to maximize its relevance and value and minimize its perceived spuriousness.

divider dots

References

Barbieri, C., Santos, C., & Katsube, Y. (2012). Volunteer tourism: On the ground observations from Rwanda. Tourism Management, 33(3) 509-516.

Cohn, Jeffrey P., (2008). Citizen Science: Can Volunteers Do Real Research? BioScience, 58(3) 192-197.

Darwall, William R. T., and Dulvy, Nicholas K. (1996). An evaluation of the suitability of non-specialist volunteer researchers for coral reef fish surveys: Mafia Island, Tanzania- a case study. Biological Conservation, 78 (2) 223-231.

Lovell, S., Hamer, M., Slotow, R., and Herbert, D., (2009). An assessment of the use of volunteers for terrestrial invertebrate biodiversity surveys. Biodiversity and Conservation 18: 3295–3307.

Mumby, Peter J., Harborne, Alastair R., Raines, Peter S., and Ridley, Jonathon M., (1995). A critical assessment of data derived from Coral Cay conservation volunteers, Bulletin of Marine Science, 56(3) 737-751.

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