Science Needs You! – The NHBS Guide to Citizen Science

New Year – the perfect time for new plans and resolutions. If you’re looking for a way to make a difference in 2018 then why not consider becoming a citizen scientist and contributing to some of the biggest and most exciting scientific studies happening today? In this post we will take a look at the history of citizen science before providing you with a great list of projects that you can get involved in and a selection of books to inspire you.

Image by Bio Blitz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A BioBlitz provides a useful snapshot of the wildlife present in an area, and is also a great event where the community can gather and get to know eachother.

Where did it all begin?:

Citizen science is a term used to describe any research that is conducted either wholly or in part by non-professionals. (I hesitate here to use the term “amateur” as this brings to mind individuals that are either unskilled or who are beginners in their field which, in many cases, couldn’t be further from the truth). Such projects are usually organised and managed by a professional research body or charity and areas of study can encompass anything from biology, physics and history to social sciences and technology.

The term “citizen science” was first used in the mid-1990s. However, the concept of everyday non-professionals conducting science on their own terms is by no means a recent phenomenon. For example, Gregor Mendel, who provided much of the foundation for our modern understanding of genetics, was actually an Augustinian monk for most of his life. Susan Hendrickson who discovered the largest complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex dropped out of high school to pursue her passion for specimen collecting. And even Charles Darwin initially went to university to study medicine before transferring to a Bachelor of Arts degree in the hopes that he would become a country parson.

The urge to pursue the study of something, whether that be dinosaur bones or the theory of evolution, is not always associated with financial recompense and, in fact, this leads to one of the biggest benefits of modern citizen science projects: the ability to conduct studies on a scale many times larger than would ordinarily be viable. This is because most research projects, particularly those in the natural sciences, generate a huge amount of fieldwork and data. The time taken to collect and process this, as well as the cost incurred by employing people to do the work, can make them prohibitively expensive. Employing an army of citizen scientists who are willing to work for free solves both problems very nicely. The benefits are by no means one-sided however. Inspiring and educating those that get involved and the provision of vital public outreach are both incredibly important, and the psychological benefits of volunteering have long been documented.

With the advent of the internet and a whole host of new technologies which make it easier than ever to communicate and share data, it is no wonder that citizen science has exploded in such a big way over the past two decades. Nationwide surveys such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count are now incredibly well-publicised and attract 1000s of volunteers. They provide just two excellent examples of how a country full of keen amateur naturalists can work together to expand the body of knowledge about our best-loved wildlife.

And it’s not just wildlife-lovers that are taking up the mantle of pioneering research. Projects such as I Like Clean Air, founded in Hackney, shows how everyday people can take their health and environment into their own hands, and collect the data they need to promote change in the places they live. Through their Be a Martian project, NASA are enlisting the help of people all over the world to analyse the data accumulated by their Mars exploration spacecraft and rovers. Even within the NHS, patient-led projects are a prime  example of how people from all backgrounds can use their own knowledge and personal experiences to further science and understanding.

Citizen Science Projects:

Image by Bio Blitz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Moth trapping is fun for all ages and provides lots of useful data for local or national recording schemes.

So, if you’re looking for a project to get involved in, keep reading for a list of wildlife and environment-related citizen science studies that you can take part in this year. Some of them might require a bit of legwork – perhaps you will need to go for a walk (or several walks) to record what you see. Others can be accomplished easily from a window looking out into your garden and a few can even be done online.

This list by no means covers all of the options out there so, if there’s nothing here that takes your fancy, get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust or search the internet to find out what’s going on near you.

  • Nature’s Calendar – The Woodland Trust
    Help to track the effects of weather and climate change by recording the happenings of the plants, animals and fungi where you live.
  • Bioblitz – Various
    A Bioblitz is an intense period of studying all of the wildlife within an area over a short period of time. Hosted by lots of different organisations and individuals, they occur throughout the year.
  • Big Garden Birdwatch – RSPB
    Observe and record the birds in your garden over one weekend and help the RSPB identify the distribution and abundance of our favourite garden visitors.
  • Big Butterfly Count – Butterfly Conservation
    Contribute to the world’s largest survey of butterflies and day flying moths and provide vital data which will help scientists understand how climate change is affecting our local wildlife.
  • National Whale and Dolphin Watch – Sea Watch Foundation
    The data collected during this annual event helps towards understanding and protecting cetaceans around the UK. Take part in an organised event or, if you have some experience, conduct your own watch.
  • The Great British Wildflower Hunt – Plantlife
    Record the wildflowers you see in your garden or when out walking, and help Plantlife to gather information on how wild plants are faring in our wild (and not so wild) spaces.
  • National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
    Record individual sightings of amphibians and reptiles or take part in a longer-term monitoring project by revisiting a sample site several times a year.
  • The National Mammal Atlas Project – The Mammal Society
    Submit your sightings of mammals using the online recording forms or via the handy Mammal Tracker App.
  • Natural History Museum
    The Natural History Museum runs a range of citizen science projects, some of which can be completed online. Their website also includes lots of useful information on setting up your own project, running a Bioblitz, and even creating a website for your own recording scheme.
  • Zooniverse
    On the Zooniverse website you can participate in research of all kinds. As well as biology projects, there are others relating to history, literature, social science and much more.

Recommended Reading:

Bradt Complete Guide to Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering
Peter Lynch
This comprehensive guide includes information on long- and short-term volunteering opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, from gap-year students to retirees. A must read for anyone wanting to contribute to wildlife conservation around the world.


The BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch Book
Mike Toms
This enthralling book will provide you with information on how feeding our garden birds is affecting their survival, and will also encourage you to take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual survey is the largest monitoring scheme of its type in the world and is vital to our understanding of our garden birds and the factors affecting their survival.

BTCV Practical Handbooks
This series of practical guides aims to help individuals and groups of volunteers undertake practical conservation work. Covering a wide range of topics, such as dry stone walling, tree planting and toolcare, each book is illustrated and clearly laid out in a step-by-step format.



The Incidental Steward

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science
Akiko Busch
While not a primer on the prescribed protocols of citizen science, this book combines vivid natural history, a deep sense of place, and reflection about our changing world. Musing on the expanding potential of citizen science, particularly in the US, the author celebrates today’s renewed volunteerism.



The 100 best articles for ecologists

Keeping up to date with the latest research is a key part of any career in science. However, the push for researchers to publish early in their career and at frequent intervals means that there is now a seemingly unconquerable body of literature available to sift through. Because of the time-consuming nature of reading, processing and assimilating all of this information, the unfortunately result is that many researchers only find time to read the “hot” papers that are well publicised, or they focus primarily on papers that are recent and well-cited.

Image by brownpau via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The days of searching through library index cards are now a distant memory.

The advent of online journals also means that the days of physically searching for articles using paper records and traipsing around library stacks to locate a particular journal edition are a thing of the past. One result of this is that students and researchers who use the same or similar online search terms are likely to be directed to the same sub-set of papers, to the exclusion of other thematically similar but less relevant articles.

On the face of it, this may seem like a good thing, but it ignores the fact that methodological and conceptual insights are often to be found in papers which are not directly related to one’s own research; papers that would have been found more frequently when searching in a “bricks and mortar” library. It also means that older papers, which are still of importance for providing a good grounding in both methods and concepts, may be overlooked. By ignoring these older papers, the risk of repeating work that has already been undertaken or explored, is also higher.

With these concerns in mind, Franck Courchamp and Corey Bradshaw from the Université Paris-Saclay in France and Flinders University in Australia have taken it upon themselves to produce a list of the top 100 articles that every ecologist should read. Their key objective was to propose a list of seminal papers that, regardless of date of publication or specific subject area, would provide ecologists with a well-rounded understanding of ecology.

To create this list, they first assembled a long-list of 544 paper which were nominated by a group of 147 ecology journal editorial members; individuals that were recognised as experts in their field and who have an excellent knowledge of publications in their subject area. This list was then ranked via random-sample voting by 368 ecology experts and the top 100 papers collated into a comprehensive and varied reading list.

A century and a half after its publication, Darwin’s paper on natural selection remains a key ecology text.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one paper on the list was Darwin and Wallace putting forth their theory of natural selection. Published in 1858, this entry also represents the oldest paper on the list. More surprising was the average age of the top-ranked papers, with a huge number of them being from the 1960s and 1970s whilst very few were included from the 21st century. Most of the papers were not published in journals with a particularly high impact factor and, in many cases, they did not receive an unduly high number of citations, indicating that citation-based selections are not always the most appropriate when selecting papers for background reading.

The final list provides ecologists with an excellent starting point for establishing a well-rounded understanding of basic ecological theories. Whether you’re an early-career scientist, a well-established researcher or even a keen amateur with an enquiring mind, there is plenty here to expand your knowledge.

The list of 100 papers, together with a description of the methods and discussion of the subject, is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution and is available to view online.



Surviving the Misinformation Age

This post is the final of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 3 on evolutionary biology here.

In the preceding two sections we have given a very brief survey of two areas that are the subject of intense public debate, and that see a lot of distortion or denial of factual knowledge to fit preconceived ideas. But the problem is not limited to these areas and we currently find ourselves amidst a storm of misinformation, fake news and alternative facts. In this final section, we draw attention to a number of recent books that will help readers think more clearly, logically and rationally, and give them the tools to see through spin and hyperbole.

Several prominent sceptics have written accessible books on a wide range of pseudoscientific ideas, such as Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye (Shermer, 2016), Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Pigliucci, 2010), or Bad Science (Goldacre, 2008). In recent years, however, there seems to have been an increasing abandonment of reason.

Creating Scientific ControversiesPart of the problem is that, as alluded to in the post on anthropogenic climate change, a lot of scientific research is funded by groups with particular interests, which can lead to flawed results when they already have in mind what they want the science to show. This is discussed at length in Tainted: How Philosophy of Science Can Expose Bad Science (Shrader-Frechette, 2016). Even worse is when such groups purposefully create the appearance of controversy to confuse and mislead the public and protect industry interests, such as the decade-long campaign by the tobacco industry to create the impression there was no scientific consensus on the Not a Scientistharmful effects of smoking. David Harker has written the first book-length analysis of this in Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society (2015), which should help readers to understand and evaluate such cases, and how to respond to them. Politicians are no less guilty of this, as Dave Levitan asserts in Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (2017).

The Death of ExpertiseAccording to books such as The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Nichols, 2017), and Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (McIntyre, 2015), another part of the problem is the internet. In the opinion of these authors, easy access to information and egalitarian platforms in the form of weblogs where everyone can have their own say, are some of the factors that have bred a generation of opinionated, poorly informed people, who Respecting Truththink they know enough on a topic after a quick scour of Wikipedia. This is accompanied by an underbelly feeling that expertise is synonymous with elitism, leading to distrust of any form of authority. In his pithy book Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (2014) Harry Collins provocatively puts forth the notion that not everyone’s opinion counts equally. Or, as Robert Dorit wrote in 1997 in American Scientist when reviewing Darwin’s Black Box, ‘[…] opinions should not be mistaken for expertise’.

As Julian Baggini explains in The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (2016) this is not about stifling dissenters, or stamping out opposition. Science thrives on scepticism and reasonable debate. But the key word here is reasonable. The current wave of anti-expertise sentiment is not just attacking scientific knowledge, it is attacking the very framework that generates these findings. As Michael Specter said in The Edge of Reasonhis 2010 Ted Talk The Danger of Science Denial, ‘you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts’. And, as Prothero argues in Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (2013), this matters to society at large. Whether we are talking about addressing climate change, or the return of nearly eradicated diseases because more and more people refuse to vaccinate their children, the ill-informed opinions of some can affect us all, especially once they enter voting booths.

Making Sense of ScienceWe believe that this means that we have a responsibility, as academics, as educators, as librarians, to speak out and communicate why what we do matters, to teach critical thinking. This makes recent books such as Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluating Research (Nardi, 2017), Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin (Dean, 2017), A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind (Helfand, 2016), and Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking (Kida, 2006) so important. This will require us to become excellent communicators: the media likes to simplify things and deal in snappy sound bites, whereas scientists have to communicate complicated ideas that have great degrees of uncertainty. And, as many of the interviewees in Olson’s documentary Flock of Dodos agreed in its conclusion, with some notable exceptions, scientists at large are poor communicators.A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Dean, 2009) could well be considered an essential part of the academic toolkit. But, as Jo Fidgen concludes around the 38-minute mark in the BBC Radio 4 podcast we referred to in our opening paragraph, ‘cold facts are not enough, they are much more convincing when they are part of a story’. So add Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (Olson, 2015) to your toolkit.

To end on a sober note, we must not forget that science is a human endeavour, and as such prone to all the failures and follies of man. In our search for a deeper understanding of the world around us we stumble, we falter, and we fail (on a side-note, this is not all bad, but a necessary part of scientific progress, as Stuart Firestein lays out in Failure: Why Science is So Successful (2015)). Worrying, also, is the 2015 Science paper reporting that a lot of published research findings cannot be replicated (though see this follow-up critique, and a rebuttal of that critique). And although this paper specifically talked about psychology research, a commentary in New Scientist highlighted how other disciplines also suffer from this problem, something which is explored more in-depth in Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research (Shavit & Ellison, 2017). But this is no reason to discard the scientific process. Science may have its failings, but science can fix it.

On Truth and Post-Truth in Science

This post is the first of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 2 on climate change here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.

Oxford Dictionaries
proclaimed ‘post-truth’ as the international ‘word of the year’ in 2016, on the back of Michael Gove’s ‘Britain has had enough of experts – a defining moment of last year’s BREXIT referendum – and the incessant flow of claims and counter-claims during the US presidential election. It’s kept the commentariat busy, giving rise to at least one superb analysis (listen in to Jo Fidgen on the BBC Radio 4’s Nothing But the Truth) and some dark humour (the spoof ‘Mordor National Park’ twitter account set up in January, ‘We’d like to repeat again that yes, open campfires are allowed in Mordor National Park. Everything here is on fire.’).

But in the world of books on evolution, ecology, conservation, and climate change, ‘post-truth’ is not new. It’s 16 years since the publication of the first English edition of Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001), which (publisher’s blurb) ‘challenges widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse’; 36 years since Julian Simon wrote The Ultimate Resource (1998), arguing that humanity is not running out of natural resources; and 158 years since Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), triggering intense debate, disagreement, vitriol and accusations of lying that make today’s disputes look positively placid by comparison.

Our view on these issues is at once simple and complicated. As a company we are staunch believers in evolutionary theory, and the truth of findings from climate science that show how dangerous global warming is a consequence of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, and of the loss and degradation of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. But our staff and our customers will have their own views; as is right and proper.

Our purpose in this four-part series is to highlight recent publications that help readers think more critically, recognise pseudoscience, and deal with the large amount of spin, misinformation, and created controversies that pollute these discussions. In the process, we will give a brief overview of two areas that are the subject of intense and polarised public debate: climate science and evolution. As we wish to inform rather than rant, our selection of books includes views from various sides of the debates. Lest there be any doubt in the mind of the reader, this does not mean that we endorse all these views, or are planning to catalogue a wider range of books to give a platform to them. But, for the purpose of this piece, we feel we would do the reader no service by ignoring their existence.

Click here for Part 2, which looks at the discussion surrounding climate change.