Assessing citizen science opportunities in forest monitoring using probabilistic topic modelling


Background With mounting global environmental, social and economic pressures the resilience and stability of forests and thus the provisioning of vital ecosystem services is increasingly threatened. Intensified monitoring can help to detect ecological threats and changes earlier, but monitoring resources are limited. Participatory forest monitoring with the help of “citizen scientists” can provide additional resources for forest monitoring and at the same time help to communicate with stakeholders and the general public. Examples for citizen science projects in the forestry domain can be found but a solid, applicable larger framework to utilise public participation in the area of forest monitoring seems to be lacking. We propose that a better understanding of shared and related topics in citizen science and forest monitoring might be a first step towards such a framework. Methods We conduct a systematic meta-analysis of 1015 publication abstracts addressing “forest monitoring” and “citizen science” in order to explore the combined topical landscape of these subjects. We employ ‘topic modelling’, an unsupervised probabilistic machine learning method, to identify latent shared topics in the analysed publications. Results We find that large shared topics exist, but that these are primarily topics that would be expected in scientific publications in general. Common domain-specific topics are under-represented and indicate a topical separation of the two document sets on “forest monitoring” and “citizen science” and thus the represented domains. While topic modelling as a method proves to be a scalable and useful analytical tool, we propose that our approach could deliver even more useful data if a larger document set and full-text publications would be available for analysis. Conclusions We propose that these results, together with the observation of non-shared but related topics, point at under-utilised opportunities for public participation in forest monitoring. Citizen science could be applied as a versatile tool in forest ecosystems monitoring, complementing traditional forest monitoring programmes, assisting early threat recognition and helping to connect forest management with the general public. We conclude that our presented approach should be pursued further as it may aid the understanding and setup of citizen science efforts in the forest monitoring domain.