Opening Up Herbaria: Citizen Science

2 Notes from Nature

Notes from Nature website with herbarium transcription projects

It’s almost 10 years since I first read about citizen science in an article by Amy Mayer (2010) on amateur naturalists recording phenology information.  I tucked the idea away as interesting, since I taught nonscientists and saw this as a possible way to engage them in observation.  Today, with citizen science being a buzzword in the natural history collection community, it’s difficult to image that it could have been a novel idea in the recent past (Flannery, 2016).  Mayer writes that the term was probably first used by Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology for projects tracking bird populations.  Ornithology has a strong tradition of respecting and using amateur expertise, but now this approach has spread much more broadly.

At the last iDigBio research conference, there were many references to the use of iNaturalist data in studies on phenology and species distribution.  iNaturalist is a robust platform that allows participants—and anyone can become a participant by registering—to record their observations.  Many use their cell phones or other mobile devices to provide images as well as identification and location information.  There are now so many individuals entering data that researchers can have confidence in this information.  In order to build community, participants can create local groups and share findings in a new form of the natural history societies that were common at the end of the 19th century (Barber, 1980).  In fact, there is an aspiration that iNaturalist and other such sites can lead to a new flowering of natural history, with appreciation for biodiversity and its conservation as central to this trend.  The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) has organized a number of these projects.

Another major digital tool that also deals with natural history data and relates directly to herbaria is Notes from Nature, a segment of Zooinverse, which describes itself as “People Powered Research” and hosts projects in many scientific areas.  Notes from Nature is a platform where users can participate in projects to, for example, digitize the information on specimen labels.  On the website there are links to assignments from a variety of different institutions; these can involve anything from insects to salamanders to plants.  In fact, the preponderance of these tasks deal with plants and with transcribing specimen labels.  Right now there are projects listed about plants from the Southeast, California, and Florida.  New York Botanical Garden and Missouri Botanical Garden both have global projects, with NYBG’s focus on historical records.  Just think, anyone anywhere can look at beautiful specimens and transcribe them, thus aiding science and satisfying an urge to know more.  Many herbarium curators have noted that their projects are often completed quickly.  Notes from Nature and comparable sites like the Australian DigiVol have mechanisms for checking the data so the information that’s actually uploaded to portals such the Australasian Virtual Herbarium for Australian and New Zealand herbaria, CCH for California herbaria, and SERNEC for southeastern US herbaria are accurate.

There are also many other ways to get involved in digital endeavors.  The Smithsonian Institution has a transcription center that provides access to tasks dealing with several of their collections, including the field notes of scientists affiliated with the National Museum of Natural History.  The Field Notes Project, a collaboration between the Smithsonian and Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), has been going on for a number of years.  Its results are now available through BHL, which also has other citizen science projects including ones dealing with annotating the thousands of images available through BHL and its Flickr site.  The latter is a wonderful place to visually wander when in need of inspiration or of an aesthetic lift.

I have emphasized sites in the United States, but Citizen Science is a global phenomenon.  The British have herbaria@home and the French, Les Herbonautes.  Besides transcription efforts, there are many environmental monitoring projects, including ones in Japan to measure the continuing radiation effects of the reactor damage at Fukushima after the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 (Irwin, 2018).  In Belgium there has been a collaboration to monitor air quality; about 20,000 people signed on, each paying ten Euros to do so.  The logic for this is that participants would be more committed to sending data if they have an economic stake.  The ubiquity of cell phones makes it possible for even those in less developed nations to become involved, and researchers are encouraging participation in a number of agricultural as well as biodiversity initiatives.  Some worry about the validity of the data and what if anything can be extrapolated from it.  However, the citizen science model, as it is refined, could provide a wealth of important information for science in the future, while also building a more science-engaged public.

Many types of citizen science are sources of free labor for natural history collections.  The large number of senior citizens around at the moment contributes one important pool, and young people doing service projects and internships represent another.  I should also note that such projects compose a small portion of the Citizen Science landscape that also encompasses special interest groups involved in environmental issues and conservation.  Others deal with medical issues.  Broadly, Citizen Science is about members of the public wanting to be involved in scientific issues in order to understand them better and to have their voices heard.  As a citizen scientist transcribing specimens at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, I can attest to it being a great way to become part of the natural history enterprise.


Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Flannery, M. (2016). Citizen science helps botany flourish. Plant Science Bulletin, 62(1), 10–15.

Irwin, A. (2018). Citizen science comes of Age. Nature, 562, 480–482.

Mayer, A. (2010). Phenology and citizen science. BioScience, 60(3), 172–175.

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