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.

References

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.

On the Road, Learning about Herbaria: Education and Citizen Science

BLUE Port: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education

In the last post, I described sessions I attended at the Digital Data Biodiversity Research Conference at Yale University.  Besides presentations on portals that integrate various kinds of data and on projects to create and analyze 3-D images of specimens, there was an emphasis on education.  Now that so much specimen data and other biodiversity information is available digitally, one of the major goals of iDigBio, the National Resource for Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) funded by the National Science Foundation, is to have this data used widely.  This requires education, both of the present research community and of its future members.  For several years, iDigBio has been holding workshops and conferences, like the one at Yale.  These have resulted in a major upswing in the number of studies and publications employing biodiversity data.  Now that many professionals are trained in how to access and analyze the available information, it’s time to leverage this knowledge.  The task is to help these experts teach the next generation.

As every teacher realizes, knowing something is very different from teaching about it.  The subject matter has to be analyzed and organized; ways into the basics have to be found; a learning structure has to be created.  For many years, I was involved with the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium and attended a number of workshops dealing with using genomic data in teaching genetics and bioinformatics.  The portals for gene sequence data are extremely powerful, but they were built for researchers who committed a great deal of time to learning to use them effectively.  Teachers, and even more so students, do not have the time, the technical support, nor the expertise to make effective use of these portals.  That’s where BioQUEST and other initiatives came into play.  At the workshops I attended, we learned enough about the available resources to “tame” them, to download data and present it to students in a way they could understand and use.  We became part of an education community committed to bringing students into the genetic sequencing research space in a way that would make sense for them.

Now the same kinds of initiatives are being developed for biodiversity research using powerful tools like iDigBio, GBIF, NEON, and MOL discussed at the conference (see last post).  Anna Monfils of Central Michigan University is the principle investigator for an NSF-funded project called BLUE: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education that includes participation from BioQUEST.  Monfils and members of her team led a lively session at the conference on the question of what biodiversity literacy means and how to achieve it.  As the conversation developed, it became clear that these are not easy issues to resolve.  However, the BLUE project is a great first step in defining what a biology student needs to have in terms of conceptual understanding and technical skill to tackle the vast ocean of biodiversity data now available to them.  What didn’t arise as strongly is an issue that is dear to my heart:  how do you make biodiversity data understandable and accessible to students who are not majoring in biology or environmental science?  One of iDigBio’s aims has been to broaden the community of biodiversity data users, and non-scientists make up a huge audience.  Taming data for them is very different than for those interested in science, but everyone encounters organisms in their lives every day, so why not make it easier to learn more about them?

One way into such learning is through an area that has burgeoned in the last few years and that had a larger presence at the conference than in the past:  citizen science.  The field has many different aspects from political advocacy to volunteer data entry.  Examples of the latter include the development of portals such as Notes from Nature, where many institutions with natural history collections post well-defined projects such as digitizing specimen data.  The Smithsonian has an online transcription center where notebooks, journals, and letters are posted.  All these sites have sophisticated digital architectures that allow data managers to have confidence in the input, such as by having the same data entered by more than one user and then compared.  Many of those involved have commented on how fast the projects are completed.  Sometimes thousands of individuals participate, with a number being very committed and doing a great deal of data input.  In cases like this, citizen science is another name for unpaid help or volunteering.  With an increasing number of retirees looking for something interesting to do, these projects are very attractive because there is no commute involved and fascinating things to learn.

Still another type of citizen science work is done by those who use portals such as iNaturalist to record field observations and phenological information.  These data ultimately are uploaded into GBIF, a global biodiversity portal, and the citizen science input has grown to the point where it is having a significant impact on biodiversity research.  Walter Jetz of Yale University and principle investigator for the Map of Life (MOL) project, commented on the importance of citizen science several times in his presentation.  Not surprisingly, this is particularly true in ornithological research where amateurs have always been especially welcomed by the scientific community.