The composition of ecological communities changes continuously through time and space. Understanding this turnover in species composition is a central goal in biogeography, but quantifying species turnover can be problematic. Here, I describe an underappreciated source of bias in quantifying species turnover, namely ‘the residency effect’, which occurs when the contiguous distributions of species across sampling domains are small relative to census intervals. I present the results of a simulation model that illustrates the problem theoretically and then I demonstrate the problem empirically using a long-term dataset of plant species turnover on islands. Results from both exercises indicate that empirical estimates of species turnover may be susceptible to significant observer bias, which may potentially cloud a better understanding of how the composition of ecological communities changes through time.