Biases encountered in long-term monitoring studies of invertebrates and microflora: Australian examples of protocols, personnel, tools and site location

  • Penelope GreensladeEmail author
  • Singarayer K. Florentine
  • Brigita D. Hansen
  • Peter A. Gell


Monitoring forms the basis for understanding ecological change. It relies on repeatability of methods to ensure detected changes accurately reflect the effect of environmental drivers. However, operator bias can influence the repeatability of field and laboratory work. We tested this for invertebrates and diatoms in three trials: (1) two operators swept invertebrates from heath vegetation, (2) four operators picked invertebrates from pyrethrum knockdown samples from tree trunk and (3) diatom identifications by eight operators in three laboratories. In each trial, operators were working simultaneously and their training in the field and laboratory was identical. No variation in catch efficiency was found between the two operators of differing experience using a random number of net sweeps to catch invertebrates when sequence, location and size of sweeps were random. Number of individuals and higher taxa collected by four operators from tree trunks varied significantly between operators and with their ‘experience ranking’. Diatom identifications made by eight operators were clustered together according to which of three laboratories they belonged. These three tests demonstrated significant potential bias of operators in both field and laboratory. This is the first documented case demonstrating the significant influence of observer bias on results from invertebrate field-based studies. Examples of two long-term trials are also given that illustrate further operator bias. Our results suggest that long-term ecological studies using invertebrates need to be rigorously audited to ensure that operator bias is accounted for during analysis and interpretation. Further, taxonomic harmonisation remains an important step in merging field and laboratory data collected by different operators.


Tasmanian rainforest Pyrethrum knockdown Sweeping Diatoms Identification Long-term monitoring 



Thanks are due to Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service for the permission to collect in the World Heritage Area in 1992 and 1996 and to all those, too numerous to mention, who took part in the studies reported here.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Science and TechnologyFederation University AustraliaBallaratAustralia
  2. 2.Research School of BiologyAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.Centre for eResearch and Digital InnovationFederation University AustraliaBallaratAustralia

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