Citizen Science: Non-scientists enable sampling conditions in ocean sciences

This post is part of Bill of Health’s symposium on Critical Studies of Citizen Science in Biomedical Research. In light of calls for stronger ‘crowdsourcing’ oceanic data production, Gregor Halfmann focuses in on the practices of non-professional seafarers who create scientific knowledge of the oceans as a means of shedding light on citizen science practices in medicine and science more broadly. Background on the symposium is here. You can call up all of the symposium contributions already published by clicking here.

By Gregor Halfmann

Outside of the medical sciences, the relationship between science and non-professionals has often developed in a more harmonious and less fraught manner. A consideration of ocean sciences, as an example of practices in the environmental sciences, may call attention to different conditions of and approaches to citizen science, and introduce new and potentially fruitful perspectives.

The size and adverse nature of the oceans, the variety of temporal and spatial scales relating to physical, biological, and chemical oceanic processes, and the high economic demands of operating research vessels impede the continuous production of important oceanographic data. As in other environmental sciences, oceanography has a long history of practices involving professional as well as non-professional seafarers, who create knowledge of the oceans. Yet, in light of today’s digital network technologies and the methodological simplicity of many fundamental oceanographic observations, ocean scientists have recently called for stronger “crowdsourcing” of oceanographic data production, in particular with citizen science projects (Lauro et al., 2014). A common way to characterize the involvement and contribution of people without scientific credentials in research processes is a view of participants being deployed as “collectors” of data or samples; volunteering citizens, who follow tight instructions provided by scientists, resulting in a contribution of materials and data (e.g. samples of water and organisms, reports of species sightings, water temperature data) for the scientists to interpret.

Two examples of long-term phytoplankton monitoring, which include non-scientific actors in their sampling process, suggest a different understanding of participation, which emphasizes the agency of the non-scientists and the social dimensions of collaborative practices. My view is based on an empirical study of a citizen science project launched in 2013, the Secchi Disk Study (SDS), and of a long-term biodiversity monitoring program involving commercial ships, the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey, running since the 1930s. The methods of sampling and data creation in these two cases are relatively simple. They require the participants to be at the right place at the right time and to follow simple instructions for using or handling mechanical sampling devices. Recreational sailors, surfers, or independent fishermen who participate in the SDS assess the clarity of sea water, which is an indicator of the phytoplankton mass in the upper ocean. They do so  by lowering a white disk into the ocean and recording the depth at which it disappears from sight; the data are recorded and stored by a smartphone application and subsequently transmitted to a centralized database. Crew members of commercial ships participating in the CPR Survey lower plankton recorders into the sea at previously communicated locations and record metadata on sheets of paper; the recorders produce material samples with marine organisms, which are identified and counted by professional plankton taxonomists in a laboratory.

I characterize the contributions of the participants in these two cases as the “enabling of sampling conditions”. While the participants do not contribute personal knowledge of the oceans and do follow tight instructions, the scientists are only able to obtain data from regions where sailors, seafarers, and shipping companies choose to interact with the oceans. The resulting data are far from evenly distributed and large parts of the oceans remain unknown; the data and any claims scientists can make are affected by the sailors’ regional and seasonal preferences, navigational skills, and by the long and short term fluctuations of the shipping business, respectively. In both cases, the scientists try to relate socially to the participants by using social media or paying regular visits to the commercial ships in order to build trust, express gratitude, and to instruct and motivate participants to perform their task faithfully and as well as they can. Unlike the tools scientists deploy to collect materials or data, the non-scientists are always embedded in their immediate environment, which scientists must approach in order to create knowledge.

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