Facebook groups as citizen science tools for plant species monitoring.
Social networks offer communication channels through which people share huge amounts of primary data that can be used for scientific analyses, including biodiversity research. To understand to what extent data extracted from social networks could complement data collected for scientific purposes, it is necessary to quantify the bias of such data. We analysed which plant traits increased the probability of a wild-growing plant species to be photographed and posted to a social network based on the data from an unstructured citizen science tool; a Facebook group focused on the vascular flora of Sicily (Italy). Then, we compared botanical data collected by this Facebook group members with data collected by scientists in 6,366 vegetation plots sampled across Sicily, stored in the EVA database. Our results suggested that data proceeding from the analysed Facebook group were affected by various sampling biases, which differed from the biases inherent to other types of biodiversity data such as those from vegetation plots. Facebook users recorded a higher proportion of red-listed and alien species than vegetation scientists. Therefore, social networks can provide a valuable complement to the data collected by scientists for research purposes. Synthesis and applications. Despite Facebook does not support geotagging and interface for data access and analysis, it is an invaluable source of biodiversity data that could complement those collected by professional researchers. The main advantage of data from social networks is their high dynamism, as they report large amounts of species occurrences in almost real time. Therefore, citizen science data from a Facebook group where the records are curated by expert volunteers can be used (a) for monitoring population dynamics of threatened and alien species; (b) as a source of additional data on rare species occurrences, particularly for plants that are attractive for amateur botanists, such as orchids; (c) for early warning systems of potential new invasions; and (4) for phenological studies, especially at the beginning of the flowering season.