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Citizen Science: Putting Your Patrons in Touch with Discovery

NNLM MCR has spent the last year exploring Citizen Science in our region. We’re excited to learn more about this popular concept, identify how National Library of Medicine resources could benefit researchers, and promote ways that our network members can get involved. NNLM supports citizen involvement in scientific research because it’s a great way to break down some of the barriers between researchers and the public and it also helps foster better understanding of data in this increasingly data driven world.

What is citizen science?Graphic Because anyone can be a citizen scientist

The Citizen Science Association defines citizen science as “the involvement of the public in scientific research – whether community-driven research or global investigations.” A good way to think about citizen science is that it usually has two complementary components: 1) an existing research project; and 2) public participation. SciStarter, an organization that brings together citizen scientists, notes that there are four key features of citizen science practice:

  • Anyone can participate.
  • Participants use the same protocol so data can be combined and be high quality.
  • Data can help scientists come to real conclusions.
  • A wide community of scientists and volunteers work together and share data to which both the public and scientists have access.

Note that citizen science is not merely participation in a science lesson, a medical trial, or a social science survey. It is real-life research conducted with contribution by members of the public, or citizen scientists, which uncovers new knowledge.

In the MCR Region, current citizen science projects include recording monarch butterflies, community biology labs, water monitoring, a lab that researches the genetics of taste, and so much more. There are also many health-related citizen science projects that accept participants from anywhere. A great example is Stall Catchers, an online game where the public is directly engaged in analyzing Alzheimer’s disease research data.

Libraries and Citizen Science

Libraries are well-suited to act as a hub for citizen scientists through programming and serving as a community space. A great way to support citizen scientists is through leveraging existing library resources or building upon your collection. Items useful to citizen scientists may include books, but also includes telescopes, binoculars, microscopes and other equipment that can be checked out.

Citizen Science Day

Consider getting started with citizen science at your library by hosting a Citizen Science Day event in April. For example, libraries can join a nationwide effort to advance Alzheimer’s research by hosting a Stall Catchers Megathon, a computer game project that will provide researchers with real data that would otherwise take up to a year to complete. The Citizen Science Association has a website with resources, ideas, and examples for Citizen Science Day events which are easy to adopt and promote. Other ways to encourage citizen science range in scope from tweets to festivals, from screening films to hosting data collection events, from hosting a webinar to holding a workshop, and many things in between. The Citizen Science Association website has plenty of how-to guides and ideas to get you started.

If the Citizen Science Day event your library programmed draws interest, consider expanding by hosting a citizen science club. The California Academy of Sciences has premade club curriculum for grades 4-8 with materials and resources. You could also host something informal, like a semi-regular gathering of scientists and community members to discuss citizen science projects in the community. The North Carolina State University library has a citizen science club and has established a presence on campus. Your library might also create a page of resources for your community, similar to the page created by the Portland Public Library in Maine, which shares resources, related information, and recommended websites.

Resources for Citizen Science

Citizen Science Projects

Many websites list ongoing citizen science projects, and your library can plan programming around them.

National GeographicAs part of the educational component of the National Geographic Society, this site provides information about citizen science projects with various examples and ideas about how to participate. They also have a section dedicated to conducting a bioblitz  which includes “finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time”. They provide bioblitz resources and activities to support this adaptable citizen science project.

SciStarterSciStarter brings together citizen scientists from around the globe. They provide a user-friendly database of citizen science projects, current news, and an events finder. SciStarter is also a good resource for promoting Citizen Science Day and contains a collection of downloadable logos, promotional posters, and bookmarks.

Zooniverse –  Zooniverse is a resource for “people-powered research”. They offer a database of citizen science projects, interactive online forums, and education information to learn more about projects and results of citizen science. Try narrowing searches by using the categories for biology or medicine.

Health Information Resources

Tox Town – Tox Town provides consumer-level information on everyday locations and situations where you might be exposed to toxic chemicals. This site helps the public better understand risks of exposure, potential health effects, and how to protect oneself. Its Community Action Tools section provides additional information and tips on engaging in local environmental projects that could aid citizen science projects.

Kids Environment Kids Health – This resource from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences allows kids, parents, and teachers to find fun and educational materials related to health, science, and the environment we live in today. Information and activity examples can be used to supplement environment-based citizen science programming and understanding.

Selected Citizen Science Apps and Sites

Environmental Health and Medicine

Globe Observer – This observation app covers several scientific disciplines. The Mosquito Habitat Mapper focuses on collecting and identifying mosquito larvae, which can aid in learning about and tracking disease.

Stall Catchers – This game asks you to track blood flow in the brains of mice as your contribution to fighting Alzheimer’s Disease.

Other Science

iNaturalist – Share observations with other natural science enthusiasts on the world you encounter every day.

What’s Invasive – Engage in real-time tracking of invasive species and see where they have taken hold.

Budburst – Make observations on the life cycles of plants and share them with other researchers.

Leafsnap – Another natural observation app, this one uses visual-recognition software to identify tree species from their leaves. Also includes photos of flowers, fruits, bark and other identifying features.

Project Noah – This app allows you to document organisms and share photos of them.

Marine Debris Tracker – This app lets you report where you find marine debris or litter all over the world.


If you want to get involved in a citizen science project for your community that might require funding, we are now offering the NNLM MCR Citizen Scientist Support Award [we need to add a link here when the funding page is up]. The purpose of this funding is to enhance the capacity of a library or organization to support citizen scientists in their community. An example project would be educational programs and tools to support community air and/or water quality monitoring.

Foundations are another great place to look; your state library or regional library system may provide funding. Depending on the type of project you are interested in, several federal agencies offer larger awards for outreach and citizen science programming, including the Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation and U.S. Forest Service.

-Alicia Lillich – Kansas/Technology Coordinator

The MidContinental Messenger is published quarterly by the Network of the National Library of Medicine MidContinental Region

Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library
University of Utah
10 North 1900 East, Building 589
Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-5890

Editor: Suzanne Sawyer, Project Coordinator
(801) 587-3487

This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012344 with the University of Utah Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library.

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