4.1. Young Volunteers and Scientific Research in Biodiversity
Investigating young volunteers’ observations that are ‘verifiable’ and those that have become Research Grade quality on iNaturalist provides us with insights into the extent to which they can potentially contribute to scientific research, and which fields of science can benefit from their contributions (RO1).
We found that each young volunteer contributed on average 11 observations that became Research Grade, with a large proportion contributing only a few Research Grade observations and only a few contributing a large number of Research Grade observations. These results extend our current knowledge of asymmetrical participation patterns (e.g., Ponciano and Brasileiro, 2015) to asymmetrical Research Grade quality contribution patterns.
Compared to the general iNaturalist contributed observations that achieved Research Grade across all participants (54%), young people contributed more observations that became Research Grade (58%), but not by much. This means that, in fact, young people’s observations in this study were proportionally similar in data quality as the broader iNaturalist community consisting primarily of adults. However, it is interesting to note that verifiable contributed observations made by young people in this study (those that include a valid date, location, photo/sound, and are not captive/cultivated) make up a much larger proportion (98%) of their overall contributions: 10% more than the overall iNaturalist verifiable contributions (88%) [38
]. We cannot assess whether this difference is statistically significant or rather random. However, we can say for the context of this study that the young people were most often facilitated in some way in their introduction to iNaturalist, through a BioBlitz event or a program in which they would have received training on how to take usable photographs and make verifiable observations. Just over 69% of youth in this study came from Bioblitz events run by our museums. Therefore, future studies should seek to clearly establish whether young volunteers are more likely to contribute verifiable observations than the greater iNaturalist community, and by extension, which types of projects and programs best support youth in this endeavour. This is important because while becoming Research Grade is required to be shared with GBIF, any verifiable contribution has the potential to become Research Grade.
With regard to evaluating the potential usefulness of young participants’ contributions, we suggest that researchers across all taxa, but especially those investigating less frequently, and having identified more diverse taxa (such as fungi and lichens, protozoans, molluscs, insects, and arachnids) may benefit from young volunteers’ contributions (and in fact, all contributions to iNaturalist). This can be done by actively curating and identifying those observations that achieve Research Grade through concerted CCS project efforts or just by spending time identifying observations on the site. Since 2015, there have been 1203 publications resulting from data first shared on iNaturalist, accessed through GBIF (GBIF iNaturalist Dataset page). Biodiversity researchers with taxonomic expertise can increase the number of Research Grade observations that are shared with GBIF, ensure Research Grade observations that are shared are correct, and become an active part of a thriving naturalist community, by identifying people’s observations and moving them to Research Grade. For example, researchers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County have active reptile/amphibian, and snail/slug projects in which scientists identify local observations to increase the likelihood that observations become Research Grade. Similarly, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences continually identify observations made along the California Coast in order to ensure that as many observations as possible are Research Grade. These data are then used to build tools to improve management and understand the effects of climate on marine species [39
It is, however, interesting to note that the most observed organisms by young people in a previous study on iNaturalist [12
] are plants and insects, while birds and reptiles (which constitute the majority of youth’s Research Grade observations in this study) are only a small proportion of their overall contributions. The reasons for this result are not yet entirely understood but can potentially be explained by the difficulty in photographing particular organisms (e.g., flying birds and fast-moving reptiles) without specialised camera equipment [27
]. It is relatively easy to find and photograph plants as they are non-moving, and due to their abundance, it is generally easy to find some groups of insects (e.g., ants, some beetles, bees). However, youth do not always take photos of the key characteristics needed, i.e., length of plant stems (lack of training), or cannot get an in-focus photo (lack of necessary camera zoom/magnification equipment). Furthermore, whether a young person’s (or any person’s) observation achieves Research Grade is also closely connected to the number of people in the larger iNaturalist community who have an interest in identifying or the ability to identify particular taxa have familiarity with species in particular geographic regions. Overall, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are more rapidly identified on iNaturalist relative to other taxa: for example, looking at all the observations that were uploaded in 2020, as of the time of writing, the taxa with the greatest proportion of observations that are now Research Grade are birds (94%), reptiles (91%), mammals (85%), and amphibians (81%), while taxa with a greater number of species and/or less easily identifiable species are much lower, like plants (56%), insects (53%), and fungi (27%) [40
]. Regions with more active users also have their observations identified sooner than observations from less active regions [41
Overall, our findings are consistent with previous results on young people’s ability to capture biodiversity images that can be identified and reach Research Grade by the iNaturalist community, and which are of potential scientific use [28
]. We also suggest our findings resonate with earlier findings [29
] on the importance of skills training in order to involve young volunteers in CCS activities. We suggest that various forms of training (e.g., photography techniques, including accurate date/time/geographic location metadata, species identification skills) need to be emphasised during programmes where volunteers of any age are participating in biodiversity CCS projects utilising app-based data collection platforms.
4.2. Youth Participation Behaviour and Characteristics
A significant outcome from studying the participation behaviour of the iNaturalist young volunteers was that those with longer participation, in particular a longer period of being registered with iNaturalist, have a greater proportion of their observations that have become Research Grade (RO2). Thus, they are more likely to contribute to biodiversity research. This positive association between length of participation and Research Grade ratio corroborates previous research connecting adult participation with increased numbers of correct organism identifications [26
] and prior knowledge or repetition of method [23
], and positive correlation between the volunteer accuracy of data collection correlated with the persistence of participation in the project [19
]. However, part of the process of an observation becoming Research Grade is beyond the observer’s control and relies on other community members identifying observations. Therefore, it is likely that one of the drivers of this finding is that the longer each observation is on iNaturalist, the greater the chance that it has been seen by someone who knows how to identify it, has been identified and has become Research Grade. For example, 59.1% of all verifiable observations uploaded in 2020 are now Research Grade, 62.8% of all verifiable observations uploaded in 2019, 66.2% of all verifiable observations uploaded in 2018 and 70.1% of all verifiable observations uploaded in 2017 [38
]. The importance of an observation’s duration on the platform is especially true for those that were not uploaded with a species-level identification, which need more than one community member to see it, know how to identify it and provide an identification, or an observation where a community member has disagreed with what the identification is and thus needs more members identifying it to reach the more than ⅔ consensus threshold to reach Research Grade. However, in Scanlon et al. [26
] and Lewandowski and Specht [23
], participation is measured in number of contributions. In the current study, our significant result relates to longer participation or longer time on the platform, regardless of whether the young person continues to be actively participating. Further research is needed to better understand the interplay between the contributions of young people, their learning and skill development, in addition to the role of the community in this process. This finding also leads to important questions for future research about the relationship between participation, learning, and potentially useful contributions to science.
In response to RO3 and the relationship between young volunteers’ characteristics and Research Grade observations, we found that, in contrast with earlier findings on adults, there were no significant differences between male and female participants [23
]. Our results may be explained by findings on young people in STEM [42
], indicating that girls are equally or more likely than boys to achieve minimum proficiency levels in STEM; however, fewer girls than boys aspire to careers in STEM, even among top performers. There was, however, a significant difference between young people aged 13–15 and 16–19, with the latter contributing observations that become Research Grade to a greater extent. The reason for this result is still not entirely clear, but it could be attributed to unknown external factors. For example, it could be explained by older youth having access to specialty equipment to better observe birds (e.g., a DSLR camera with telephoto lenses), or a general interest of children in particular age groups for certain species. It could also be explained by youth’s prior training [23
] in terms of observing organisms as part of a natural history museum program, a school class activity, or with the guidance of their parents or guardians.