Opening up biodiversity data - challenges and opportunities

Training a BBS volunteer, by David Tipling
Public data archiving (PDA), where data are made freely available on demand through recognised data repositories, is increasingly being required by funders and journals to promote ‘open data’. However, this rapidly developing area brings with it some potential risks, particularly to the maintenance and operation of long-term citizen science monitoring schemes. What are the solutions? 

An important component of scientific practice is that it should be transparent, ensuring the reproducibility of scientific findings and enabling data to be used to tackle other research questions. The open archiving of scientific data provides the opportunity to ensure data preservation, facilitate independent validation of scientific results, increase public access to data and provide the opportunity for improved scientific and educational return on research funding through data re-use.

Public data archiving (PDA), where data are made freely available on demand through recognised data repositories, is increasingly being required by funders and journals to promote ‘open data’. However, this rapidly developing area brings with it some potential risks, particularly to the maintenance and operation of long-term citizen science monitoring schemes. Three areas where there may be negative implications are for scheme funding, scientific quality and volunteer participation. This paper, which has been drafted by authors from a range of organisations delivering biodiversity monitoring, examines these risks and balances them against potential benefits.

PDA may threaten the viability of some schemes by removing the opportunity to collect revenue from third parties accessing the data collected through the scheme. In some cases the financial income from data sales, or for analytical services, covers a significant component of the scheme’s running costs and its removal could make the scheme financially unviable.

If scheme data are freely available for download on demand then this is likely to reduce the degree of communication between scheme organisers and end users. This may reduce opportunities for scheme organisers to provide feedback to the volunteers contributing data about how the data are being used. It might also affect the reputation of the scheme if data are analysed or interpreted inappropriately. A more collaborative approach can help to address both of these concerns.

Successful schemes depend upon the coordination, support and training of volunteers, whose own attitudes towards PDA may affect their motivation. For example, concerns that open access to data on rare or threatened species might put conservation objectives at risk, may lead volunteers to withhold data from those schemes contributing to public archives.

So what are the solutions? It is important to recognise the archive function already being provided by many of the organisations running biodiversity monitoring schemes. There may be opportunities to provide ‘open data’ through a data request system managed by individual organisations, increasing collaboration and ensuring appropriate analysis and interpretation of the data collected. If these kinds of approaches are adopted then access to most citizen science biodiversity data should become more open, without threatening the longer term viability of the schemes collecting the data through their networks of volunteers.

Related publications:

Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Baillie, S.R., Boughey, K., Bourn, N.A.D., Foppen, R.P.B., Gillings, S., Gregory, R.D., Hunt, T., Jiguet, F., Lehikoinen, A., Musgrove, A.J., Robinson, R.A., Roy, D.B., Siriwardena, G.M., Walker, K.J., Wilson, J.D 2018
Overcoming the challenges of public data archiving for citizen science biodiversity recording and monitoring schemes Journal of Applied Ecology.
Link to publication (DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.13180).

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