Trends and gaps in the use of citizen science derived data as input for species distribution models: A quantitative review

PLoS One. 2021 Mar 11;16(3):e0234587. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234587. eCollection 2021.


Citizen science (CS) currently refers to the participation of non-scientist volunteers in any discipline of conventional scientific research. Over the last two decades, nature-based CS has flourished due to innovative technology, novel devices, and widespread digital platforms used to collect and classify species occurrence data. For scientists, CS offers a low-cost approach of collecting species occurrence information at large spatial scales that otherwise would be prohibitively expensive. We examined the trends and gaps linked to the use of CS as a source of data for species distribution models (SDMs), in order to propose guidelines and highlight solutions. We conducted a quantitative literature review of 207 peer-reviewed articles to measure how the representation of different taxa, regions, and data types have changed in SDM publications since the 2010s. Our review shows that the number of papers using CS for SDMs has increased at approximately double the rate of the overall number of SDM papers. However, disparities in taxonomic and geographic coverage remain in studies using CS. Western Europe and North America were the regions with the most coverage (73%). Papers on birds (49%) and mammals (19.3%) outnumbered other taxa. Among invertebrates, flying insects including Lepidoptera, Odonata and Hymenoptera received the most attention. Discrepancies between research interest and availability of data were as especially important for amphibians, reptiles and fishes. Compared to studies on animal taxa, papers on plants using CS data remain rare. Although the aims and scope of papers are diverse, species conservation remained the central theme of SDM using CS data. We present examples of the use of CS and highlight recommendations to motivate further research, such as combining multiple data sources and promoting local and traditional knowledge. We hope our findings will strengthen citizen-researchers partnerships to better inform SDMs, especially for less-studied taxa and regions. Researchers stand to benefit from the large quantity of data available from CS sources to improve global predictions of species distributions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity
  • Citizen Science / trends*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Linear Models
  • Peer Review, Research

Grant support

This project was made possible with funding provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada – Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) industrial research chair on northern biodiversity in a mining context.