Friday 5: Tips for Citizen Scientists

I spend a huge part of my time thinking about citizen science these days.  I think a lot about how to engage participants and provide them the best experience too.  As part of that, I’ve come up with a list of tips for citizen scientists to maximize their enjoyment as they participate in the scientific process.  These include…

1. Be Patient

Citizen science projects work in part because a very large number of individuals work together to collect data on a specific topic.  Some projects have immediate gratification and your contributions to the project will appear online as soon as you submit them.  However, if you’re submitting a sample of any sort, sending in a paper data sheet, sending your data in via e mail, or there is no interactive online component on the project’s website, SOMEONE at the project’s headquarters is going to have to process your sample/data before it appears online.  If your sample involves identifying something (insects, bacteria, parasites, etc) and is not a part of a crowdsourcing effort (such as Project Noah or iNaturalist), it may take a long time to see your specific results.  Trust me: the scientists running these projects really appreciate your efforts and cannot do the project without you, even if processing is slow.  Be patient!  You’ll be a much happier citizen scientist if you have realistic expectations for sample/data processing times.

2. Follow the Protocol

Citizen science projects typically include a protocol for how to collect data.  Those protocols were developed specifically so that the scientists running the projects can compare data collected by hundreds or thousands of different people.  If you don’t follow the protocol, your sample is no longer comparable to other samples in the project, making them less valuable, if not entirely worthless.  If you’re going to spend the time and effort to participate in a project, follow the instructions.  If you cannot or don’t want to follow the instructions, I recommend that you either a) let the scientists know how deviated from the protocol so they can decide whether your data is still useful or not or b) pick a different project.  There are so many projects out there that there’s no reason to do a complicated, fidgety project if you aren’t the type of person who will enjoy it.

3. Commit to Collecting Data

Some projects depend on repeat measurements.  If you’re doing Project Feeder Watch, for example, you are expected to check your feeders once a week.  The Dragonfly Pond Watch asks that you check your pond once a month.  If you want to do these projects, great!  They would love to have you.  However, it’s best for everyone if you commit to collecting the data as often as the project asks before you start participating.  Be realistic too.  I, for example, leave myself exactly enough time in the morning to take a shower, get dressed, make a cup of black coffee that I drink on my way to work, and dash out the door.  I sleep in on weekends.  I cannot commit to checking a CoCoRaHS rain gauge between 7 and 9am daily, so I don’t participate in the project.  Life happens and you won’t always be able to collect data according to schedule, but try your best to collect as specified by the project if you decide to participate.

4. Behold, the Power of Nothing!

One of the hardest things to make people understand is the value of nothing in citizen science.  A huge number of citizen science projects out there today are designed to map the distribution of species.  These studies can help scientists research a wide variety of topics, such as migrations, movement of invasive species, or phenology (recurring seasonal patterns).  For these types of projects, reporting that you didn’t see something is just as important as reporting that you did.  For example, I have a new citizen science project that I’m running (I’ll write more about it soon) that involves defining the habitat preferences of some water scorpion species.  Knowing where no water scorpions are found tells me that the habitat is unsuitable.  That’s incredibly valuable information!  Embrace the value of nothing.  Embrace it!

5. Don’t Go Out of Your Way – Unless You Really Want To

I have learned as I promote citizen science that people are really excited about being a part of science – so long as they don’t have to go too far outside of their daily routine to do it.  I have encountered a few people who are super gung-ho about going new places and trying new things. You guys rock!  However, most people prefer to make more casual observations in places they already go.  If you fall into the latter category, you are still important.  Consider an idea for a moment.  Let’s say you walk through the woods in your neighborhood everyday, but the nearest common milkweed patch is a 30 minute drive from your house.  It’s a lot easier to tap a few buttons on your smart phone once a week to submit data to Nature’s Notebook about a tree you encounter on your daily walk than setting up a Monarch Larva Monitoring Project site at the milkweed patch.  Most people are more likely to find excuses not to collect data for MLMP than Nature’s Notebook in this example because it’s a lot more difficult to do.  So, my suggestion is this: choose a project that fits into your schedule, your interests, and your life.  There are so many citizen science projects that there is just no need to go out of your way to collect data – unless you really want to.

I’ve got more tips, but I think these are the biggies.  Anyone want to contribute any more suggestions for people who participate in citizen science?  Ultimately, I think citizen science should be something you enjoy.  There is something for nearly everyone, so it’s all a matter of finding the project that’s right for you.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

4 thoughts on “Friday 5: Tips for Citizen Scientists

  1. Chris,

    I think you wrote #1 just for me. Several months ago, I became aware of the School of Ants, and their interesting citizen science project. Knowing absolutely NOTHING about ants, I bought the cookie bait, set it out, captured a couple of bags of ants and mailed ‘em in.

    Just two days before your post appeared, I e-mailed the good folks at SoA, asking, “Where’s my data? I sent you some ants TWO MONTHS ago”. I am now ashamed and abashed, and apologize sincerely to them. Thanks. Once again, The Dragonfly Woman has taught me something.

    On a brighter note, since then, I’ve bought a couple of ant field guides, and am eagerly looking forward to TRYING to ID my OWN ants.

    • Ah yes. School of Ants is one of the slower ones, so it’s one of the projects that I had in mind when I wrote that tip. There are only a few people working to ID the ants and they get SO many samples that they’ve got a constant backlog to slog through. I’m sure they get e mails like yours all the time, so I wouldn’t worry too much about. You might, however, think about this next time you send in a sample like that: how long does it take YOU to get through an odonate sample? Then multiply that by 500 or 1000. That’s what they’re dealing with.

      Good luck with the ant IDs! You might also check out and look at his guide to the genera of ants. Spectacular photos there that could be a lot of help as you attempt to ID a new group!

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