Citizen science requires ordinary volunteers to make observations of the world around them and add data to research projects that scientists use to answer big questions. When you do citizen science observations, you can enter the information into an app, take a photo, or answer a few questions on an online form and hit submit. This may be the end of your part of the process, but submitting a data point is only the first step in the long, rigorous journey from observation to scientific conclusion.
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 do all the trees bloom earlier each year?” or “How can we fighting Alzheimer’s disease?” Sometimes, depending on the project, you can even help analyze the data.
The process of turning scientific data into real answers takes time—years in most cases—but the end result is reliable and impactful knowledge about pressing issues in the world today. Scientists around the world are drawing on data from citizen science projects more and more as they recognize the unique value of these data sets.
Citizen science data is featured in published scientific papers examining everything from how roads affect local bird populations to the mysterious glow known as STEVE. As the volume of citizen science observations grows, the potential applications of the data collected will only increase, unlocking new and important information that can benefit everyone. These data-driven insights could enable action on climate issues, treatment of various diseases, and more. These are just a few of the many recent scientific advances provided by citizen science.
Alzheimer’s Insights from Stall Catchers
The Stall catchers The citizen science project asks volunteers to watch short films of blood flowing through the tiny blood vessels of a mouse’s brain. Volunteers look for stalls or places where blood flow is blocked. These stands are thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and finding them helps researchers answer various research questions, such as how the disease progresses and what treatments might work.
In a recent paper published in the journal brainscientists working on the project drew on thousands of Stall Catchers annotations made by volunteers to show that a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is involved in a cell signaling pathway that leads to more stalling in mouse brains.
Giving the mice an antibody called anti-mouse VEGF-A164 reduced the number of stalls, helping to confirm that VEGF was the culprit. The new findings suggest that VEGF signaling may also play a role in Alzheimer’s disease in humans, and that blocking it could potentially help treat the disease.
Citizen Science reveals how plastic waste moves in the ocean
Plastic waste accumulates in the ocean, and some of it eventually returns back to land, carried by the waves and tides. Several citizen science projects have volunteers scour beaches to see what kind of plastic debris they find and report back in hopes of identifying patterns and hotspots.
Data from one such project in Australia – with observations from 852 different sites – recently found that plastic makes up about 75% of the total human-made debris on the country’s beaches. Most of that plastic comes from land-based sources, indicating that most ocean plastic originates on land, the researchers say, in paper published in Science of the Whole Environment.
A different paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin using data collected in Washington and Oregon by Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) citizen science project linked beaches with larger areas of debris to higher levels of plastic. The debris zone is the area where algae and other materials, such as floating plastic, are deposited at high tide, and citizen scientists are helping researchers establish a baseline for future studies of marine plastic on beaches.
Birders contribute to science
Birders who already spend long mornings looking for birds to rate make great citizen scientists. The Citizen Science Project eBird harnesses that passion, logging over 100 million bird sightings each year, along with location and weather information.
eBird’s vast dataset has fueled a number of recent scientific papers on the world’s birds. For example, a team of researchers created a pattern of large-scale bird migrations they named “BIRDFLOW” based on millions of observations of 11 North American bird species. The model provides insight into migration routes and timing and can feed migration predictions, the researchers say, with potential applications in conservation, disease monitoring, aviation and more.
Other scientists have used eBird data to study the birds living in hard-to-reach mountain snow and ice fields in the Pacific Northwest. Data on 46 species provided by volunteers revealed four species that appear to prefer snowy habitats, increasing the global number of bird species associated with these habitats by 14%.
Scientific articles based on eBird sightings also track the distribution of invasive Javanese myna bird in Malaysia and studied how roads affect different bird species in Spain and Portugal. Some types of birds appeared to be helped by the presence of roads while others were harmed by them, the researchers said, indicating that the effects of roads are likely to be complex and not always clear.
Insights into ever-earlier springs
In many places around the world, the timing of seasonal events is changing as climate change alters habitats and ecosystems. These annual events, such as the flowering of plants in the spring or the changing color of the leaves in the fall, are part of a field called phenology – study of seasonal changes.
To study how phenology itself is changing, researchers recently compared two unique sets of citizen science data separated by more than a century, both collected in New York. The first comes from observations recorded between 1826 and 1872 at over 90 locations in the state, and the second comes from observations made between 2009 and 2017 by Notebook of nature citizen science volunteers.
Comparing the two data sets helped the scientists see that plants today start flowering an average of 10.5 days earlier than in the 19th century, and trees start growing leaves an average of 19 days earlier. Seasonal changes occur about three days earlier for every degree Celsius of warming, researchers say in a paper published in 2022 in Journal of Ecology.
STEVE takes a closer look
The aurora-like phenomenon known as STEVE (or Strong Thermal Radiation Rate Enhancement) was first discovered by citizen scientists involved in Aurorasaurus project in 2016 that collaborated with professional researchers to use satellite data to investigate its origins. STEVE appears as a streak of purple light accompanied by green bars, sometimes called a fence, moving west across the sky.
The colors are caused by charged particles interacting with Earth’s magnetic field and can often be seen further south than the auroras. Because STEVE was discovered so recently, there are still a number of unknowns surrounding the dancing colors.
Citizen scientists have recently teamed up with scientists to take a closer look at some of these mysteries, in paper in Journal of Geophysical Research Space Physics. Using observations from two citizen scientists, the authors studied STEVE’s shape, finding that the purple colors peaked about 124 miles high, while the green bands peaked about 68 miles up. Those green bands are also about 8.7 miles apart, and the whole phenomenon is moving across the sky at about 560 miles per hour, researchers say.
Submit your own citizen science observations
Anyone can start participating in citizen science and make their own observations or analyze 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 looking for citizen science projects with SciStarter’s help Project Finder today and sign up for our newsletter for bi-weekly roundups of new and interesting projects to try. Who knows… maybe your contribution could appear in a scientific paper as a new, revolutionary discovery!