The Field Guide to Citizen Science

How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference


By Darlene Cavalier

By Catherine Hoffman

By Caren Cooper

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Learn how monitoring the night sky, mapping trees, photographing dragonflies, and identifying mushrooms can help save the world.

Citizen science is the public involvement in the discovery of new scientific knowledge. A citizen science project can involve one person or millions of people collaborating towards a common goal. It is an excellent option for anyone looking for ways to get involved and make a difference. The Field Guide to Citizen Science, from the expert team at SciStarter, provides everything you need to get started. You’ll learn what citizen science is, how to succeed and stay motivated when you’re participating in a project, and how the data is used. The fifty included projects, ranging from climate change to Alzheimer’s disease, endangered species to space exploration, mean sure-fire matches for your interests and time. Join the citizen science brigade now and start making a real difference!



Many times in our lives we may be filled with an urge to explore and discover. We may be curious about everyday encounters with birdsongs or spiders in webs. Or we may become concerned about air quality or the safety of our drinking water. As we face global challenges, we may want to find local ways to make a difference in protecting end-angered species, safeguarding marine systems, preventing disease, or accelerating medical research. Sometimes finding solutions through new discoveries requires a lot more eyes, ears, and perspectives than scientists possess. Put simply, citizen science is a collaboration between scientists and those of us who are curious or concerned and motivated to make a difference. Citizen science can satisfy that urge, bring joy and purpose to our lives, and advance a surprising diversity of scientific research.

This book will help you discover opportunities to be an explorer, to participate in this movement sweeping the globe. Yes, the globe. If you are surprised to hear about the burgeoning popularity of citizen science, you are not alone. Conventional science frequently takes place out of sight, with methods and outcomes that remain a mystery to most. Compare that to sports, art, or music, in which we watch professionals perform in public view and then take part as amateurs in our local sports leagues, art gallery, or garage band. There’s no expectation that our participation will or should lead to professional careers in pursuits we enjoy. By putting science in public view, citizen science makes it possible for anyone to participate, with or without a formal scientific background.

Citizen science brings science within reach by connecting two critical ingredients: you and teams of scientists who need and value your help for authentic research. Typically, scientists provide the instructions, protocols, and procedures, as well as the equipment and structures to guide you in sharing your observations: what you see, hear, smell, track, count, and tally. In return, you provide scientists knowledge through your observations and insights or analysis—data that scientists cannot access, collect, and analyze alone. Increasingly, citizen scientists are also setting the research agenda by identifying issues they are curious or concerned about and then tapping scientists to assist with the development of protocols, interpretation of data, and translation of data into action.

Today’s opportunities to participate in citizen science are boundless. Odds are there is a citizen science project that coincides with any hobby, interest, curiosity, or concern that you may have. Matching people and projects appropriately is essential to success. Along with the fifty-plus projects featured in this book, we’ll show you how to discover thousands of opportunities and the citizen science projects most suited to you by working with the SciStarter website. You can use it to discover, join, and even track your contributions to projects. With SciStarter as your online assistant, we encourage you to treat this book as your field guide and the beginning of an exploration into citizen science.

Some participants collect data by taking photos of clouds or streams, documenting changes in nature, or counting litter on their local beach. Other citizen scientists use low-cost sensors to help scientists keep an eye on local air, water, and social conditions. Countless others collect and send in microbes, track flu symptoms, or play games to help advance health and medical research. People just like you are counting bird, butterfly, and other pollinator populations, helping nasa track landslides, and monitoring noise and light pollution in our communities.

In short, by working together we better understand our world and make better decisions.

We sincerely hope that once you start participating in the projects featured in this book, you’ll share your experiences with your friends and family and perhaps even inspire them to become citizen scientists. Witnessing the transformation in people who realize they are capable and needed gives us a sense of joy and accomplishment and inspires us to work harder to reach more people. You’ll see what we mean!

THE history and future of Citizen Science

Not so long ago the idea that ordinary people possessed skills, knowledge, insights, and access to data that scientists needed raised more than a few eyebrows among the scientific elite. Frankly, even the public needed convincing that they had something valuable to contribute to the world through science. But today, citizen science is a robust, recognized, and respected field.

Along with sponsoring citizen science projects, government agencies and private and public foundations fund the work of researchers to help scientists, practitioners (project creators and researchers), facilitators, and policymakers understand best practices, learn how to design projects to improve data quality or increase participation levels and persistence, and share knowledge about the projects, people, and perspectives shaping this movement. The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act— with the goal to “encourage and increase the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science methods with the Federal Government”—was passed as part of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act in early 2017. Citizen science outcomes are regularly included in peer-reviewed journals, and in 2018, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences published a report titled “Designing Citizen Science to Support Science Learning.” These and other developments signal a tectonic shift is on the horizon.

Much like the United States, Europe is witnessing unprecedented growth in citizen science. One way to understand the current landscape of citizen science here and abroad is to monitor the growth in the number of projects, amount of funds available to support projects and related research, and the emergence of institutional support networks that can help the field expand and evolve. The European Union’s Horizon 2020 initiative is largely responsible for the growth in the EU due to its substantial funding. For example, Horizon 2020 funds Doing It Together Science (ditos), which features hundreds of citizen science events and projects embedded in art galleries, universities, science museums, and more.

Because scientific achievements have brought us to a pinnacle of health and innovation, it might seem like all research frontiers have been explored. But there will always be more unknown than known, more rocks waiting to be overturned. And discoveries are not reserved for remote reaches of the planet—they can happen close to home. In 2012, when first-year students at Columbia University were given an assignment to observe and identify ants in Manhattan, they found over a dozen species on Broadway alone. They even discovered an ant species that scientists did not know lived in New York City. What’s more, that species turned out to be the most common species in the Big Apple. The reason no one had noticed? No one had ever thought to look.


Over the centuries, the credentials needed to carry out scientific research have been in flux. Only recently has science become an occupation. In earlier days, science was something for those with the luxury to dedicate their leisure time or spiritual time to follow their curiosity. In the 1600s, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms. His professional background? A cloth merchant who learned to make excellent lenses to judge the weave of fabrics. Eventually, he made lenses more powerful than microscopes at that time, which allowed him to curiously examine mucky pond water and plaque on teeth and find tiny life, earning him the title of father of microbiology. Gregor Mendel filled many of his days as a monk with experimental breeding of pea plants to understand how traits are hereditary. That earned him the title of father of genetics. Charles Darwin was a companion to Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle with time to see the world before planning to return and become a parson. Darwin’s later days were part of a shift in science. Not only was science becoming a profession, the precursors to citizen science was beginning: Darwin and others started crowdsourcing for data through letters in which people shared their observations from around the world.

In more recent history, fellow citizen scientists have continued to accomplish the remarkable. Citizen science has contributed hugely to entomology. The mystery of monarch butterfly migration had long eluded scientists until Fred Urquhart and Norah Patterson began experimenting with techniques to affix unique tags to butterflies. Once these scientists identified a way to attach a tag to the butterfly without harming their sensitive wings, they realized that more people were needed to help them tag as many monarchs as possible. In 1952, they asked for the help of thousands of volunteers and started a monarch tagging program, which eventually became the modern-day Monarch Watch. Then, in the mid-1970s, the first tagged monarch was spotted in Mexico. It turned out to be tagged by a Minnesota school teacher and two of his teenage students, which led to the discovery of the long-distance monarch migration from North America to Mexico in the fall and the return in the spring. The breakthrough was possible because thousands of volunteers had been capturing and tagging the wings of monarchs with postage-stamp-size stickers for decades. To this day people continue to tag monarchs and bring more discoveries, like making us aware of their current population decline.

The modern environmental movement was also inspired by citizen scientists. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, revealed the dangers of the pesticide ddt. Predatory birds, such as peregrine falcons, became endangered species because ddt thinned their eggshells. The discovery that their eggshells were thinning was possible because egg specimens found in museums had thicker eggshells. Non-professionals—citizen scientists—had collected those eggshells before the manufacturing of ddt began. (The hobby of collecting wild bird eggs was outlawed in the United States in 1916 with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected migratory birds, including their nests and eggs.)

In the mid-1990s, citizen science was key to climate change negotiations. British scientists found that birds were laying their eggs earlier in the year because of climate change. The entire dataset, with hundreds of thousands of nesting records, was the result of decades of observations by birdwatchers scattered across England. In making the case for the Kyoto Protocol (the international treaty about climate change action), the British government relied on that research to show that climate change was not a “future” problem but a “now” or urgent problem because it was already affecting life on Earth.

Today, with the internet and smartphones, science is in flux again. Millions of people, each with their own occupation (and many too young to have an occupation yet), share their observations and help process data. Volunteers work online to transcribe thousands of old letters, some originating with Darwin, others from Shakespeare, and others from war diaries. People are needed to turn handwriting into digital text because automation with optical recognition software can’t decipher handwriting as well as the human eye. Today, fields like biochemistry advance because people use their free time as players in online games because the human mind is better at spatial reasoning than computers. In the Eterna game, players design rna, the blueprints that make proteins. In Foldit, a game to solve puzzles of how proteins fold, some players discovered the folded shape of a particular protein associated with aids in monkeys. As environmental and health sensors like Fitbits and air-quality monitors become lower cost, people without science credentials are assessing the quality of their environment, providing a check on industries to make sure regulations are followed. In ports like Oakland, California, with significant truck traffic, and in New Orleans, Louisiana, with petrochemical refineries, communities organized by the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and Louisiana Bucket Brigade have discovered excessive exposures to pollution where scientists and regulatory enforcers have failed to look. Across the world, eyes of citizen scientists have discovered that endangered monk seals were attempting to recolonize the Mediterranean Sea, that invasive ladybirds in England were rapidly expanding their range, and three new species of dancing peacock spiders in Australia.

Looking across history, what’s revealed is that in many areas of study the only way to keep advancing the frontiers is for scientists to collaborate, not just with each other, but with everyone.

A Commitment to Citizen Science for the Family

Exposing your children to citizen science opens them up to a lifelong interest and understanding of science and their role in science—and you’ll learn a few things along the way as well. Sarah knew she wanted citizen science to be part of her family experience from before the time her twin boys were born. As she was doing the endless preparation that an expectant mother needs to do (let alone an expectant mother of twins), Sarah researched all of the potential citizen science projects she could do with her newborns. From tracking developmental benchmarks like their first time crawling to keeping a record of sleep patterns and diaper changes, Sarah was determined to make citizen science a part of her boys’ experience from the start.

Sarah’s recommends that parents to do their homework ahead of time if possible. The citizen science projects about newborns are easy and often things you’re already tracking, but if you wait to join and read instructions after your child is born, you may struggle to keep up. If you make it part of your regular preparations you’ll be ready to go once your baby arrives.

Now that Sarah’s twins are a bit older, she is finding new ways to engage them in citizen science and help them build key skills. Observation using the five senses is an integral part of childhood development and citizen science teaches those observation skills that are ultimately important for critical thinking. Look for projects that give kids the opportunity to look, listen, touch, and smell. Right now, Sarah is focusing on having her kids listen to bird calls and identify what they are. By participating in citizen science projects, she’s been able to see when her kids transitioned from the looking and touching development phase to beginning to listen. She might have missed this subtle transition if not for engaging her kids with science.

Sarah hopes that fostering this joy of science and citizen science early will lead to lifelong curiosity. She knows her boys will ultimately try arts, sports, music, and more, but hopes that their love of science and citizen science remains.

Ready to start introducing citizen science to your family? Sarah’s advice is to seek out projects that are relatively easy and inexpensive and to be sure that any citizen science events you are considering attending have an open invitation to bring your kids along. If you’re looking for something you can do on your own, she suggests iNaturalist because you only need a smartphone and you don’t need much previous knowledge to get started. For slightly older children, Sarah recommends Project Budburst, Nature’s Notebook, or, where you and your family can track changes in plants over the long term and the children can feel a sense of ownership over the project.


In its richest form, citizen science has the power to transform science and society. Rather than simply recruiting volunteers or producing cool new tools, citizen science reshapes central notions of science and power: the roles of experts and the public, the accessibility of tools and data, and the kinds of questions that are worth asking.

As this movement continues to grow, its future isn’t guaranteed to be entirely smooth or predictable. The direction it takes over the coming decades will, fittingly, be determined by developments from nearly all sectors. Government agencies will be called on to respond to the will of the people while navigating global research priorities and policies. Industry and scientists will be forced to grapple with intellectual property considerations when their core customers demand more access to data and open tools. And anyone will have the potential to shape fields of research and related policies, globally and in local communities.

Citizen science is, in many ways, a canvas with much open space remaining to be filled. And it’s a movement that will undoubtedly shape your life, from finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease to gathering data about pollutants in your own backyard. Now’s the time to explore the world of citizen science and look forward to the day when it is such an embedded part of our identities and lives that we no longer need any qualifier … it will just be called science.

YES, You Can Be a citizen scientist

Citizen scientists share the characteristics of being curious, concerned, and not bystanders. To have a sustainable and just world requires a new cultural norm in which being a responsible person on this planet means helping make discoveries. Observing and sharing, sometimes with smartphones and other electronic devices, is how you become part of a network taking the pulse of the planet.


  • “Writing with encouraging clarity, the authors explain how to become a citizen scientist and how scientists provide the instructions and equipment required for collecting authentic data.” —Booklist

    “The most powerful way for science to change your perception of the world is for you to do it yourself. That's the underlying theme of this friendly how-to overview of the citizen science movement… As with every great adventure, you just have to take the first step to get going.” Discover Magazine 

    “This book is infectious in the best way possible. In a world that often feels like it is spinning out of control, where your actions can appear insignificant and change seems out-of-reach, this book gives you hope, a sense of possibility, and perhaps even a purpose.” —Science Connected

    “A must-have resource for learning the truths and myths of citizen science.” —The Arlington Daily Herald

On Sale
Feb 4, 2020
Page Count
188 pages
Timber Press

Darlene Cavalier

Darlene Cavalier

About the Author

SciStarter enables people to contribute to science through informal recreational activities and formal research efforts. The website creates a shared space where scientists can connect with people interested in working on or learning about joint research projects. SciStarter features 1,100 searchable citizen science projects and recruits participants through partnerships with Discover Magazine and Astronomy Magazine, PBS Kids, the National Science Teachers Association, Public Library of Science, WHYY/NPR, Pop Warner Youth Scholars, and more. SciStarter is a division of Science for Citizens LLC.

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