Citizen science asks everyday volunteers to make observations of the world around them and add data to research projects that scientists use to answer big questions. When you make citizen science observations, you might enter the information into an app, take a photo or answer a few questions in an online form and hit submit. That might be the end of your part of the process, but submitting a data point is just the first step in the long, rigorous journey from observation to scientific conclusions.
Along the way, your data will join hundreds or thousands of other observations in datasets that researchers use to answer big questions about our world, like “Why are all the trees blooming earlier every year?” or “How can we fight Alzheimer’s Disease?” Sometimes, depending on the project, you may even help analyze the data.
The process of getting scientific data into real-word answers takes time — years in most cases — but the end result is trustworthy and impactful knowledge on pressing issues in the world today. Scientists around the world are drawing data from citizen science projects more and more as they recognize the unique value of these datasets.
Citizen science data shows up in published scientific papers examining everything from how roads affect local bird populations to the mysterious aurora known as STEVE. As the volume of citizen science observations grows, the potential applications of the data gathered will only increase, unlocking new and important information that can benefit everyone. These data-driven insights could empower action on climate issues, treatment for different diseases and more. These are just a few of the many recent scientific advances enabled by citizen science.
Alzheimer’s Insights from Stall Catchers
The Stall Catchers citizen science project asks volunteers to watch short movies of blood flowing through the small blood vessels of mouse brains. Volunteers are looking for stalls, or places where blood flow is blocked. Those stalls are thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and finding them helps researchers answer different research questions, like how the disease progresses and what treatments might work.
In a recent paper published in the journal Brain, scientists working with the project drew from thousands of Stall Catchers annotations made by volunteers to show that a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is involved with a cell signaling pathway that leads to more stalls in mouse brains.
Giving the mice an antibody called anti-mouse VEGF-A164 reduced the number of stalls, helping confirm that VEGF was the culprit. The new findings indicate that VEGF signaling could also play a role in Alzheimer’s disease in humans, and that blocking it could potentially help treat the disease.
Citizen Science Reveals How Ocean Plastic Debris Moves
Plastic debris piles up in the ocean, and some of it eventually makes its way back to land, borne by the waves and tides. Several citizen science projects ask volunteers to comb beaches to see what kind of plastic debris they find, and report back in hopes of identifying patterns and hot spots.
Data from one such project in Australia – with observations from 852 different sites – recently found that plastics made up around 75% of total human-made debris on beaches in the country. The vast majority of those plastics came from land-based sources, indicating that most ocean plastic originates on land, the researchers say, in a paper published in Science of The Total Environment.
A different paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin using data gathered in Washington and Oregon from the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) citizen science project tied beaches with larger wrack zones to higher levels of plastic. A wrack zone is the area where kelp and other material, like floating plastic, gets deposited at high tide, and citizen scientists are helping researchers establish a baseline for future studies of marine plastics on beaches.
Birders Contributing to Science
Birders, who already spend long mornings looking for birds to appreciate, make great citizen scientists. The citizen science project eBird harnesses that passion, logging over 100 million bird sightings every year, complete with information on location and timing.
eBird’s huge dataset has powered a number of recent research papers on birds around the world. For example, a team of researchers created a model of large-scale bird migrations they named “BIRDFLOW,” based on millions of observations of 11 North American bird species. The model gives insights into migration routes and timing, and can power forecasts of migration, the researchers say, with potential applications in conservation, disease surveillance, aviation and more.
Other scientists used eBird data to study the birds living in hard-to-reach mountain snow- and icefields in the Pacific Northwest. Data on 46 species submitted by volunteers revealed four species that seem to prefer snowy habitats, increasing the global number of bird species associated with those habitats by 14%.
Scientific papers based on eBird observations have also tracked the spread of the invasive Javan myna bird in Malaysia, and studied how roads affect different species of birds in Spain and Portugal. Some bird species seemed to be helped by the presence of roads while others were hurt by them, the researchers say, indicating that the effects of roads are likely to be complex, and not always straightforward.
Insights Into Ever-Earlier Springs
In many places around the world, the timing of seasonal events is shifting as climate change alters habitats and ecosystems. These annual events, like the flowering of plants in spring, or the changing of leaf color in autumn, are part of a field called phenology – the study of seasonal change.
To study how phenology itself has been changing, researchers recently compared two unique citizen science datasets separated by more than a century, both collected in New York. The first came from observations recorded between 1826 and 1872 at over 90 locations in the state, and the second was from observations made between 2009 and 2017 by Nature’s Notebook citizen science volunteers.
Comparing the two datasets helped scientists see that plants today begin flowering an average of 10.5 days earlier than in the 19th century, and trees begin growing leaves an average of 19 days earlier. The seasonal changes are happening about three days earlier for every degree Celsius of warming, the researchers say in a paper published in 2022 in the Journal of Ecology.
STEVE Gets a Closer Look
The aurora-like phenomenon known as STEVE (or Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement), was first discovered by citizen scientists participating in the Aurorasaurus project in 2016, who collaborated with professional researchers to use satellite data to probe its origins. STEVE looks like a streak of magenta light accompanied by green bars, sometimes called a picket fence, that moves westward across the sky.
The colors are caused by charged particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, and can often be seen further south than aurorae can. Because STEVE was discovered so recently, there are still a number of unknowns surrounding the dancing colors.
Citizen scientists recently teamed up with scientists to take a closer look at a few of those mysteries, in a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research Space Physics. Using observations from two citizen scientists, the authors investigated STEVE’s shape, finding that the purple colors peak at around 124 miles high, while the green bars peak about 68 miles up. Those green bars are also about 8.7 miles apart, and the whole phenomenon moves across the sky at about 560 miles per hour, the researchers say.
Submit Your Own Citizen Science Observations
Anyone can start participating in citizen science and making their own observations or analyzing data, no matter where they live. There are citizen science projects you can do in your neighborhood, in your backyard, in your home and even on your couch. Start searching citizen science projects using SciStarter’s Project Finder today, and sign up for our newsletter for bi-weekly roundups of new and interesting projects for you to try. Who knows…perhaps your contribution could appear in a research paper as a new, groundbreaking discovery!