Estimates of observer expertise improve species distributions from citizen science data

Alison Johnston*, Daniel Fink, Wesley M. Hochachka, Steve Kelling

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Citations (Scopus)


Citizen science data are increasingly making valuable contributions to ecological studies. However, many citizen science surveys are also designed to encourage wide participation and therefore the participants have a range of natural history expertise, leading to variation and potentially bias in the data. We assessed a recently proposed measure of observer expertise, calculated based on the average numbers of species recorded by observers. We investigated if this observer expertise score is associated with how often an observer reports any individual species. Species reporting rates increased monotonically with the observer's expertise score for 197 of 200 species, suggesting that this expertise score describes inter-observer variation in the detectability of individual species. Expertise scores were incorporated into single-species occupancy models as a covariate, to explain inter-observer variation in detectability. Including expertise as a detectability covariate led to improved model fit and improved predictive performance on validation data. The expertise score had a large effect on the estimated detectability, comparable in magnitude to the effect of the duration of the observation period. Expertise scores were also included into single-species occupancy models that estimated seasonal patterns in species occupancy and seasonal expertise effects. The addition of a seasonal effect of expertise led to improved model fit and increased predictive performance on validation data. The seasonal expertise accounted for bias that may be introduced by seasonal differences in the effect of expertise, caused by changes in the environment or species behaviour. Measures of observer expertise included in models as a covariate can account for heterogeneity and bias introduced by variable expertise, although in this example the differences in estimated occupancy were small. This method of incorporating observer expertise can be used in any regression model of species occurrence, occupancy, abundance, or density to produce more reliable ecological inference and may be most important where citizen science schemes encourage wide participation. Overall, the results highlight the value of recording observer identity and other detectability covariates, to control for sources of bias associated with the observation process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)88-97
Number of pages10
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • bias
  • checklist data
  • citizen science
  • detectability
  • eBird
  • observer expertise
  • occupancy model
  • population trends
  • species distribution model
  • species occurrence
  • TOOL


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