Citizen Science

Photograph of a male blackbird
(c) Ulla Moilanen

Did you take part in our Zoology Live 2020 event on iRecord? Have you thought about taking part in a wildlife survey as a citizen scientist? Museum Research Assistant Matt Hayes takes a deep dive into the world of citizen science, discussing how it benefits our understanding of the natural world, and how you can get involved:

What is Citizen Science?

Photograph of a fly on a flower
(c) Mathew Lowe

Citizen science is the practice of involving members of the public with data collection and scientific research.

Traditionally, this kind of work has been restricted to professional scientists. However, there are only so many scientists out there and their resources are limited.
What’s more, collecting data can be fun, and offers a way to engage new audiences with the topics that are being studied. Getting involved with citizen science can be really rewarding.

Citizen science has become a powerful tool for collecting large amounts of data, whilst simultaneously engaging large numbers of people. This form of collaboration between amateurs and professionals allows projects to be carried out that otherwise simply would not be possible.

Many different examples of citizen science projects exist but for the Zoology Museum some of the most relevant include large-scale wildlife monitoring.

Will the data be good enough?

But if people don’t have experience with scientific data collection, won’t there be issues with the data collected? This may be a concern for some people, and suggests that collecting a large amount of data and engaging the public might need to be balanced with ensuring that the data collected is of a high quality.

Photograph of a Holly Blue butterfly on a stem
(c) Mathew Lowe

However, there is evidence that results from citizen science projects can match up well with the findings of experts and that the benefits of involving the public outweigh the negatives. A report in 2017 by Dennis et al. explored this in relation to the Big Butterfly Count, an annual citizen science initiative organised by Butterfly Conservation.

The Big Butterfly Count is a nationwide survey that asks members of the public to spend a few hours observing and recording the butterflies that live around them. Since its inception in 2010 hundreds of thousands of people have taken part and helped produce huge data sets that can be used to monitor the changing health of butterfly populations across the UK. However, much of this data is uploaded by inexperienced recorders and errors in identification are certain to take place.

Despite this, Dennis et al. (2017) found that trends recorded during the Big Butterfly Count matched those that were recorded by more experienced volunteers who used more rigorous survey methods.

As reported by Butterfly Conservation, this study offers ‘a rare example, to date, of a citizen science biodiversity project that has achieved both large-scale outreach/public engagement and meaningful scientific output – two goals often considered to trade-off against each other’

For more information please follow the link below:

Butterfly Conservation News

How can you get involved?

There are lots of different citizen science projects that anyone can get involved with, many of which offer free online resources that can help you take part.

Photograph of a beetle
(c) Mathew Lowe

Zooniverse is an online citizen science web portal, which facilitates easy collaboration between researchers and a huge network of volunteers. Researchers can design and upload projects that then get released to the public. For example, a zoologist could photograph thousands of animal specimens in the field and then upload those images to Zooniverse, along with a set of instructions listing how to catalogue the images and what information needs to be recorded. They can then make the project publicly available so that volunteers can assist with their research.

A wide variety of projects are available on Zooniverse so why not take a look and see if any peak your interest: Zooniverse

Alternatively, you could get involved with some of the well-established, higher-profile citizen science projects that have now been going on for several years.

(c) Mathew Lowe

The Big Butterfly Count has attracted hundreds of thousands of volunteers and produced huge datasets to help track the status of these charismatic insects. This year it is taking place from Friday 17 July to Sunday 9 August and you can follow the link below for instructions on how you can take part.

About the Big Butterfly Count

Photograph of a blue tit
(c) John Howlett

If birds are more your thing then you may want to get involved with the Big Garden Bird Watch run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The 2020 event has already taken place, but you can follow the link below to learn more about it and how to take part next year.

About the Big Garden Bird Watch

Another option is to get involved with citizen science wildlife recording without taking part in a specific event.

Photograph of a red and black bug
(c) Mathew Lowe

iRecord is a website for sharing wildlife observations, which allows you to record any species of animal or plant and upload your findings at any time. However, if you want to you can join specific iRecord events. For example, we created an iRecord event for Zoology Live 2020 and you can still get involved by following the link below and uploading your wildlife recordings by July 12th: Zoology Live 2020 iRecord activity

You can sign up to iRecord for free and once you’re logged in, you can add your own biological records and images for other to see, as well as look at what other people have recorded.

Uploading an image means your sightings can be verified by experts and this offers a way to deal with the inaccuracies of inexperienced recorders, which sometimes hinder citizen science projects.

Once checked by experts, the wildlife recordings can then be submitted to National Recording Schemes, and Local Record Centres, where they can then be used to support research and decision-making.

For more information on using iRecord follow the link to see our guide:

How to observe wildlife: iRecord

Citizen science projects can be great fun and offer opportunities for you to develop new skills and learn about ongoing scientific research. You make meaningful contributions that help advance the work of professionals and the increased resources of collaborating with so many individuals means that many previously impossible projects can now be realised.


The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund is run by the Museums Association, funding projects that develop collections to achieve social impact.

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