Fostering meaningful collaborations between academia and the public, Citizen Science may be what scholarship looks like in the 21st century. The field of biology holds valuable examples.

Jamie Fenneman, PhD Candidate in Botany

The term “Citizen Science” has been around for a while now, and perhaps it’s a term you’ve heard before. 

The term describes the mass-collection of raw data by non-professional contributors and the sharing of this information over the internet with both the interested public and the scientific community. The process is made possible by harnessing the enthusiasm and engagement of the public - who provide most of the primary data - and connecting them with experts and scientists who can interpret and report on these data. The interconnectedness of the internet has enabled huge numbers of public contributors to provide data directly to projects in which they are interested, instilling a sense of participation in the scientific endeavour and providing opportunities for the advancement of scientific knowledge and skills beyond the confines of academia. And the rewards have already been remarkable, both to the science and the public. 

To put it plainly, citizen science in the internet age has now made possible things that were inconceivable as little as 10 or 15 years ago.

Let me step back a bit. During my formative years as an enthusiast of nature and biology, I long desired a means by which to engage my appetite for the study of nature in a scientifically meaningful manner. As my interests largely lay in the field of ornithology, I was early on a participant in the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. There, groups of volunteers from across North America and beyond took a single day to identify and tally as many birds as possible from within a standardized area. Originating at the turn of the 20th century and continuing (even growing) into the 21st, this was, in many ways, the original “Citizen Science” project in biology. Results were shared amongst the many thousands of participants via published hard-copy summaries, with special editions of journals being published to present the growing body of data that was produced. This was pretty amazing stuff, but there was always something missing, or, at least, some possibilities left unexplored.

Then, in the 1990s, the internet arrived like a thunderbolt. Scientists began exploring ways in which this new and powerful technology could enhance existing efforts that had been underway, as well as propel forward ground-breaking initiatives that were only made possible by the seemingly limitless capabilities of this new medium. The results, after two decades of development, speak for themselves – and highlight the heights to which research in the field of biology is enhanced through the interplay between an enthusiastic and knowledgeable public and the community of scientists and experts. Neither group could have accomplished such feats in isolation.

So, what have been the fruits of this “revolution”?

First and foremost, these efforts have increased the volume of data that can be analyzed far beyond what could initially have been predicted, as well as permitted the sharing of these data far and wide. For example, the website eBird , which is a joint effort between the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, provides a platform for the submission of bird records of all species from across the globe, and provides a variety of analytical tools (e.g., mapping) and other features (e.g., photo sharing) for reviewing and visualizing these data. This site has been running since 2002, and in 2016 alone there were 84 million bird records submitted by participants (the total number of submitted records since 2002 now exceeds 340 million!) Public contributors from every country around the globe now contribute information to this project, and it currently houses records and information on over 96% of the world’s 10,000 species of birds. In an age of a massive biodiversity crisis, as we enter the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history, it is hard to overstate the power of such data in helping to drive positive decisions around the conservation of species. 

And the vast majority of this data has come from outside of the scientific community. 

This particular example of “Citizen Science” is thus powerful in two additional ways beyond the volume of data: i) its ability to bring previously unthinkable numbers of participants into the scientific process; and ii) the importance of this data in informing decision makers and bringing about positive changes (in this case, environmental changes). As we move forward into uncertain and changing times, I think that eBird, and the many other examples of “Citizen Science” that are now available to the enthusiastic public (both within and outside of the field of biology), provide a template for what is possible in the years ahead. These possibilities exist for all of us to explore.

Citizen science is good for the citizen, and it’s good for the science.

Feature Image (edited): NPS/Karlie Roland