I recently attended a conference on the theme of ‘rigour and openness in 21st century science. The conference focussed on perhaps the biggest buzzword in current science: open access. Specifically, how can open access be embraced without risking the standards and rigour that are so important to scientific enquiry?

The conference aimed to cover a lot of ground and the topics discussed were necessarily very varied, touching on themes such as access to software, publishing costs and the challenges facing peer review. 

One discussion in particular – on the topic of ‘citizen science’ – caught my attention, as it brought up some interesting points about the study of invasive species, which relates to work that CABI’s Invasive Species Compendium (ISC) is currently undertaking.

The open access ISC aims to compile all available information on non-native species currently affecting ecosystems, including their distribution, impacts and management. This is no easy feat; by their very nature, invasive species are apt to move around and so ecologists must play a cat-and-mouse game of Sisyphean proportions in order to keep track of them.

Some ecologists have responded to this problem by turning to citizen science – the involvement of volunteers in science. Volunteers can help by collecting data, describing results and even devising investigations and solving problems alongside scientists. Everyone at the conference was keen to highlight that openness does not simply mean uploading a document to the web; scientific research and development can also be conducted in an open fashion.

An recent example of a citizen science project is Ashtag, which has been tracking the spread of ash dieback disease, caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea, since it reached British shores in 2012. Both a website and a smartphone app, Ashtag asks members of the public to send in photos of suspected sightings of the disease. These sightings are given a preliminary diagnosis by scientists and likely reports are then passed on to the Forestry Commission for investigation.

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The ash tree, threatened by ash dieback disease. Photo credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont

Concern has been raised that such collaborations between scientists and the public lack the rigour expected of traditional scientific investigation. After all, the vast majority of volunteers are not trained biologists. With Ashtag, the problem of species diagnosis was fairly limited, as volunteers were only asked to identify likely sightings of a single species; but what about citizen science involving multiple, similar-looking species? Can we really expect ordinary citizens to provide reliable sightings?

One very successful solution to misdiagnosis has been developed by the Cornell lab of Ornithology for their various collaborative projects. Records sent in by the public are automatically checked against a database of known species’ distributions – so if a member of the public incorrectly records a tropical bird in a temperate climate, for instance, the database will identify the mistake and suggest a similar species that the person might have seen instead. 

As long as such challenges are taken into account, a more open way of tracking invasive species can yield several significant benefits. By including the public in surveys, the scale of a study – and hence its validity – can be greatly increased. This point was stressed by several speakers at the conference, including Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific advisor to the government. Far from jeopardising the rigour of scientific studies, he believes that the statistical clout offered by open, collaborative projects may in fact help achieve the exact opposite.

Another important feature of citizen science is its ability to harness humans’ natural curiosity – or, as speaker Chris Lintott put it: we get bored. The human mind is designed to wonder and wander and so citizen scientists are likely to report curious sightings or unusual data they come across; whereas a computer, when given the same task, will stick rigidly to its instructions and ignore any extraneous details. This is significant, as unusual or unexpected sightings can be crucial in understanding the spread of invasive species, which have a nasty habit of turning up in surprising locations.

Just as open research is becoming increasingly common, so too is open publishing. On its own, open access data is not necessarily useful or worthwhile; in the words of the Royal Society, open access data must be ‘intelligible, accessible, assessable and useable’ in order to be of any benefit. This is where I think open access projects like the ISC play an important role. Speakers Catriona Cannon and Linda Atkinson of the Bodleian Library emphasized the growing importance of knowledge management in an increasingly open world, so that, as more and more data becomes available, users are still able to make sense of it all.

By the end of the conference, the overall message was clear: open access is here to stay. Treated carefully, it can meet the demands of scientific rigour and should be welcomed with open arms. It is now up to the scientific community and government to encourage it, as its potential benefits, already hinted at in the study of invasive species, could have a revolutionary impact in science.

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