Science-- there's something for everyone

Friday, December 20, 2013

In fieldwork, it pays to be nice

I once organized a scavenger hunt where various treasures were hidden throughout a public park. Unfortunately, some items were discovered and removed prematurely by local kids who weren’t part of our group. That wasn’t too big a problem for us, after all, it wasn't like years of research depended on those scavenger items remaining in place. That isn’t the case for scientific equipment left in the field.

So how do you prevent people from removing or tampering with traps, cameras or other interesting bits of equipment they stumble upon while out walking? It helps to leave the right kind of note on it.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and Ludwig Maximilians University left 60 equipment dummies half-hidden in public parks in Munich, Germany. Each item was accompanied with one of three labels (translated from German):
  • Personal:Part of my thesis – Please do not touch – Please call me if you have any questions and would like to know more...’ and a photograph of a juvenile squirrel. 
  • Neutral:Part of an experiment – Please do not touch – For information...’ and a warning sign. 
  • Threatening:Part of an experiment – Every theft will be reported to the police! – For information...’ and the note ‘GPS monitored!’.
In addition each label said ‘Property of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen’ and gave contact information.

Dummy equipment with threatening message. (Credit: © Eleftherios Bitzilekis)

The boxes were sealed with carefully placed pebbles inside them so that the researchers could tell whether they had been disturbed in any way. Each day, the scientists checked on the dummy equipment to see whether anything had been stolen, damaged, opened or moved. 

In one of the parks, the experiment had to be concluded prematurely because visitors were afraid the boxes were bombs. Such is the world we live in. But the authors got some interesting results at the other locations.

The personal note was by far the most effective in convincing people to leave the boxes alone. The threatening notes proved to be the least useful. People messed with equipment labeled in a threatening manner nearly twice as often as with any of the other boxes.

To be fair, vandalism of scientific equipment in the field is rare. In this study, the dummy boxes were interfered with only 12% of the time despite being purposefully easy to find. However, tampering does happen and researchers are keen to prevent it as much as possible. According to these data, adding a personal touch is the best way to go.

Looking at these results, I think if I were doing field work, I’d attach a note saying, ‘I’ve been a graduate student for six years. Please don’t tamper with my data so I can finally get out of here!

B.-Markus Clarin, Eleftherios Bitzilekis, Björn M. Siemers, & Holger R. Goerlitz (2013). Personal messages reduce vandalism and theft of unattended scientific equipment Methods in Ecology and Evolution : doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.12132.