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Best practices for making reliable inferences from citizen science data: case study using eBird to estimate species distributions

By Alison Johnston, Wesley M Hochachka, Matt Strimas-Mackey, Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez, Orin J Robinson, Eliot T Miller, Tom Auer, Steve T Kelling, Daniel Fink

Posted 12 Mar 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/574392

Citizen science data are valuable for addressing a wide range of ecological research questions, and there has been a rapid increase in the scope and volume of data available. However, data from large-scale citizen science projects typically present a number of challenges that can inhibit robust ecological inferences. These challenges include: species bias, spatial bias, variation in effort, and variation in observer skill. To demonstrate key challenges in analysing citizen science data, we use the example of estimating species distributions with data from eBird, a large semi-structured citizen science project. We estimate three widely applied metrics for describing species distributions: encounter rate, occupancy probability, and relative abundance. For each method, we outline approaches for data processing and modelling that are suitable for using citizen science data for estimating species distributions. Model performance improved when data processing and analytical methods addressed the challenges arising from citizen science data. The largest gains in model performance were achieved with two key processes 1) the use of complete checklists rather than presence-only data, and 2) the use of covariates describing variation in effort and detectability for each checklist. Including these covariates accounted for heterogeneity in detectability and reporting, and resulted in substantial differences in predicted distributions. The data processing and analytical steps we outlined led to improved model performance across a range of sample sizes. When using citizen science data it is imperative to carefully consider the appropriate data processing and analytical procedures required to address the bias and variation. Here, we describe the consequences and utility of applying our suggested approach to semi-structured citizen science data to estimate species distributions. The methods we have outlined are also likely to improve other forms of inference and will enable researchers to conduct robust analyses and harness the vast ecological knowledge that exists within citizen science data.

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