The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Henk Koerten, Peter van den Besselaar: Citizen science and Crowd science in biodiversity research

Henk Koerten, VU University Amsterdam

Peter van den Besselaar


The Internet has drastically changed the way biodiversity research is conducted and has inspired researchers on how to increase research production and to make their efforts more efficient, tempting them to develop global biodiversity information structures (Bowker 2000, Busby 2002, Karasti, Baker et al. 2006, Bateman 2011, King, Morse et al. 2011). Meanwhile, several data sharing and dissemination initiatives have been taken to make data collecting and dissemination processes more efficient (Hobbie, Carpenter et al. 2003, Berendsohn, Güntsch et al. 2011, Duin and Van Den Besselaar 2011, Duin, King et al. 2012). While biodiversity data collection involves associated and motivated volunteers, citizen scientists and naturalist amateurs, their distinct contributions are used but hardly recognized, let alone described in literature. While there have been efforts to draw a more differentiated picture of amateur crowds, the main approach remains to treat them as a cloud, with at best only adding some nuances.

The Internet is increasingly deployed for organizing the cooperation of vast sets of individuals for a specific purpose which is usually labeled as crowdsourcing (Schenk and Guittard 2011), or as formulated by Franzoni and Sauermann (2014: p94): 'Crowdsourcing represents the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, and generally large group of people in the form of an open call'. It even has been suggested these new forms of collaboration might stimulate towards open innovation, user innovation and open-source software (Schenk and Guittard 2011). Crowd sourcing used to be associated with amateurs, however, he claims to be more a professional than often assumed (Brabham 2012).

There are some interesting biodiversity crowdsourcing projects, of which the Wallace Letters Online, the Omega project and the Great Backyard Bird Count are the most iconic ones. These projects seem to represent distinct fields in biodiversity science where amateur and professional worlds come together. In the first example there is a natural history museum where volunteers help to develop collections and to assist scientific tasks in many ways. The second example involves undergraduate and graduate students in universities assisting academic staff in their research activities. In the third case, amateur ornithologists produce scientific data by enjoying their hobby. The collected data are organized and interpreted by academics employed by the amateur ornithologists’ association. Despite their differences, all three projects aim to collect and analyze biodiversity data and information. 

These crowdsourcing projects are deeply rooted in existing but different social structures. Where crowdsourcing projects are mostly depicted as projects of revolutionary proportion, unifying a non-descriptive cloud of computer-literate citizens, they also may be the fruit of existing communities with a professional, amateur or hybrid flavor where existing, not necessarily technology-driven, activities are continued using digital crowdsourcing techniques.
In the paper we will show how existing biodiversity communities acquire, adopt and transform crowdsourcing approaches and incorporate them in their existing practices that sometimes have existed for more than a century. Subsequent research questions are:
1. What do existing (non-digital) crowdsourcing arrangements look like?
2. What digital crowdsourcing arrangements have been developed and applied?
3. How do digital crowdsourcing arrangements affect existing ones?

We have collected a considerable amount of ethnographic data comprising fieldnotes of observations, transcribed interviews and (electronic) documents and web pages which we will use to write an ethnography on crowdsourcing arrangements in biodiversity research (Ybema, Yanow et al. 2009).

We show the different pathways of applying digital crowdsourcing techniques. Depending on the level and type of institutionalization in the field, blend of professional and amateur participants and the nature of desired outcomes, digital crowdsourcing approaches become applied. Museums tend to transform crowdsourcing into their own environment, in universities digital crowdsourcing remain to be rather primitive and associations of amateur biologists are using digital techniques to redefine their existing crowdsourcing arrangements. 

The paper ends with a discussion of various crowdsourcing policies and their consequences.

Bateman, R. (2011). The perils of addressing long-term challenges in a short-term world: making descriptive taxonomy predictive. Climate change, ecology and systematics. D. Hodgson, M. Jones, S. Waldren and J. Parnell. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press. 78: 67-95.
Berendsohn, W., A. Güntsch, N. Hoffmann, A. Kohlbecker, K. Luther and A. Müller (2011). "Biodiversity information platforms: From standards to interoperability." ZooKeys(150): 71-87.
Bowker, G. (2000). "Mapping biodiversity." International Journal of Geographical Information Science 14(8): 739-754.
Brabham, D. (2012). "The myth of amateur crowds: a critical discourse analysis of crowdsourcing coverage." Information, Communication & Society 15(3): 394-410.
Busby, J. (2002). Biodiversity mapping and modelling. Environmental Modelling with GIS and Remote Sensing. A. Skidmore. London UK, Taylor and Francis: 145-165.
Duin, D., D. King and P. Van den Besselaar (2012). "Identifying Audiences of E-Infrastructures-Tools for Measuring Impact." PloS One 7(12): e50943.
Duin, D. and P. Van Den Besselaar (2011). "Studying the effects of virtual biodiversity research infrastructures." ZooKeys(150): 193-210.
Franzoni, C. and H. Sauermann (2014). "Crowd science: The organization of scientific research in open collaborative projects." Research Policy 43(1): 1-20.
Hobbie, J., S. Carpenter, N. Grimm, J. Gosz and T. Seastedt (2003). "The US long term ecological research program." BioScience 53(1): 21-32.
Karasti, H., K. S. Baker and E. Halkola (2006). "Enriching the notion of data curation in e-science: Data managing and information infrastructuring in the long term ecological research (LTER) network." Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 15(4): 321-358.
King, D., D. Morse, A. Willis and A. Dil (2011). "Towards the bibliography of life." ZooKeys(150): 151-166.
Leadbeater, C. (2010). Cloud Culture; the future of global cultural relations. London, UK, Counterpoint.
Schenk, E. and C. Guittard (2011). "Towards a characterization of crowdsourcing practices." Journal of innovation economics(1): 93-107.
Ybema, S., D. Yanow, H. Wels and F. Kamsteeg, Eds. (2009). Organizational Ethnography; Studying the Complexities of Everyday Life. London UK, Sage.

Henk Koerten, Peter van den Besselaar