Introduction: A Scientist's Guide to Citizen Science

About: Marine Biologist. Bryozoan-lover. Photomicrographer. Mocha latte addict. Artsy-craftsy and overall dorkus. I love to think of ways I could make something that I can't afford. Also, cats!

The wonderful rouzejp was kind enough to translate this guide into French. Read it here!

Le merveilleux rouzejp a eu la gentillesse de traduire ce guide en français. Lisez-le ici!

Citizen science is all the rage right now, as it should be!

However, it can be difficult to get into hands-on citizen science. You might ask yourself, “Where do I start?”, “What do I need?”, “How can I be most efficient?”. These are all good questions for any citizen scientist to ask, as data collection in the field (i.e., out in a forest, at the coast, etc.) is often quite rigorous.

As a scientist, I know that citizen science is important not just because it helps us researchers collect more data than we would by ourselves or in small groups, but also because it gets people involved in science and more excited about the process. It makes participants understand that science is not just about asking and answering important questions, but also discovering more important questions that need to be studied on the way. In today's world there is a polarization between people who trust the scientific process and those who don't. My belief is that those who lack trust in science do not fully understand that the scientific process often leads to more questions.


Ok, so I have now proved that this species has established a population and is successfully reproducing, but why is it more successful than it is in its native habitat? And why are potential predators not using it as a food source? And why, how, when, etc?

There are many places to find projects to join (which I will also cover here), but I feel as though there should be more detailed resources out there for people looking to become citizen scientists or for citizen scientists looking to improve their findings. A recent study has shown that participants often start strong, but then the project ends up relying on a few dedicated people. While it was online projects that were studied, I imagine the same is happening with field projects.

Thus, I’m creating this guide for citizen scientists that are focusing on ecology. That is, anyone keeping track of species, communities, interactions, animal behavior, etc. I will attempt to make it as comprehensive as possible with the knowledge I have.

Step 1: Where to Start

First things first: “Where do I start?”. If you want to become a citizen scientist but aren't sure what kind of projects are out there, don't you worry. Start with these resources I have found for you!


There are two basic kinds of projects you can get involved in: "arm-chair" and hands-on. "Arm chair" science sounds terrible, but it's a fantastic way for citizen scientists short on time, just getting started, or interested in topics that require unavailable resources to collect data from their computer because it's typically search and/or point and click data collection from images. Hands-on science is when the participant is actively collecting data in the field.

Find Projects is an excellent place to start. You can search for projects based on location, topic, cost, and many other variables.
For instance, a project in Maine is “The Juvenile Lobster Monitoring Project” that aims to measure the abundance and distribution of juvenile lobsters in nurseries to measure their health and productivity. This project will train volunteers and all you need is a good pair of boots!

Other places to check for projects include:

- Wikipedia’s list of Citizen Science Projects

- Audubon’s Citizen Science page

- Cornell’s Citizen Science Central Project Gateway

- National Wildlife Foundation Citizen Science page

- National Geographic’s Citizen Science Projects page

- Nature’s Notebook

- Monarch Joint Venture’s Monarch Migration Project

- iNaturalist Projects

- CitSci Projects

The below are primarily online projects:

- Zooniverse

- Scientific American’s Citizen Science page

- Citizen Science Alliance Projects page

Local Projects

There are likely many additional citizen science opportunities in your local area. Non-profits that focus on environmental issues or "protect" land or bodies of water are often in need of volunteers to collect data and they will typically give training.

If you're attending a University, graduate students might be looking for volunteers to help them go out and collect data as well!

Step 2: Data Collection Tools (physical)

Ok, so now that you have settled on a project (or two, or three), you might wonder, “What do I need?”

Before you get any of this, make sure you are dressed appropriately for the conditions! Please, please, please do NOT wear flip-flops when collecting data. They are not appropriate at any time. Trust me on this.

There are many data collection tools that you may use, depending on the project. I, for one, prefer using good old-fashion pencil and paper to record data. I know, boring, right? But you know, I work near salt water and having electronics around just is not the best idea.

Pencil and Paper

If you decide you want to use pencil and paper, you just can’t beat Rite in the Rain products. Even if you aren’t working near an ocean, river, or lake, you could potentially get rained on or be working in otherwise wet conditions. They sell all sorts of paper, notebooks, gear, and pencils, all specialized to repel water.

If you're on a budget, a regular notebook or paper and clipboard are just fine! If you know what kind of data you’ll be collecting, printing out a spreadsheet will save you a ton of time.

Pencil and paper are good if you’re already familiar with what kind of data is being collected and what you might encounter, so what if you are identifying species that you haven’t encountered before? Well, if you’re using pencil and paper and have nothing else, the best thing to do is write a detailed description of the organism and draw a picture of it.


A camera is a great piece of equipment to have for recording observations if you are not able to collect live specimens (which will of course be returned where you found them unless instructed otherwise by the project leader). Luckily most phones have pretty good quality cameras. Geolocation is a fantastic way to record the exact location of an observation if you have that ability! From personal experience, try to invest in a sturdy camera that is water/shock resistant.


I'll let you in on a secret (because most people I've met have no idea they exist)...there is such a thing as portable microscopes. There are a few different kinds, but the most common are digital handheld and USB.

Portable microscopes are the bee's knees when it comes to small things and they are pretty inexpensive. I use these for my field work because I study tiny marine animals. I have a Celestron Portable LCD Microscope, but they now have a few other types with the ability to take photos. This one is perfect ifs you don't want to take a tablet into the field! For that, I use a USB digital portable microscope (Celestron sells these too), so I can view things through my tablet/laptop screen and take photos. If using a program from the next step, I can put the photos directly into my notes.

As for actual microscopes, those are pretty expensive. But there are some ways to make your own! This Instructable shows how to make a $10 microscope set-up. There are also adapters you can buy to turn your phone into a portable microscope.


Studying something that is far away? Binoculars are a must have. Many projects involve birds, bats, butterflies, and other things that you might need binoculars for.

Measurement Tool(s)

Always a good idea! Length, width, and other measurements are common data points and can give insight into the age of an organism or even its reproductive capability. A regular old ruler will do in most cases, but a tape measure or vernier calipers may be better depending on what sizes you're dealing with. Obviously you may not be taking measurements in the case of dangerous or otherwise inaccessible animals, but if you are, please take precautions any time you will be getting close enough to measure anything!

Specimen Collections

Some projects might request that you collect specimens in whole or part, especially if it’s something that might be newly invasive or of special interest. Be sure you know whether this is needed before you start!

If needed, be sure you take collection materials with you. This could include buckets, nets, baggies, tweezers/forceps, gloves, scrapers, a stop watch, plant press, etc. Your project leader will let you know what's best to have and might even lend you the appropriate materials.

Once again, please exercise caution during collections!

Step 3: Data Collection Tools (digital)

By digital data collection, I mean data that is recorded using a laptop, tablet, phone, or other mobile device. Many of these resources can be used in the field and once you get back home (in case you’re of the pencil and paper only breed).

The most basic digital collection tools you probably already have. These include:

  • word processing (Open Office, MS Word, Google Docs),
  • spreadsheet (MS Excel, Google Sheets),
  • forms (Google Forms), and/or
  • note-taking programs (Evernote, MS OneNote, any number of mobile apps).

I have found note-taking programs to be the most useful because they can easily record information (including photos) and will often store it with timestamps.

However, there is software that specializes in ecological data collection. I will only be listing those that are free/Open Source projects.

- EpiCollect: a web and mobile app that allows you to create forms and collect data (including GPS and image data) with created forms on Android devices and iOSs. There is EpiCollect for simple projects (single GPS/image data) and EpiCollect+ for more complex projects (any number of GPS, image, video, audio, and includes form logic).

- iNaturalist: a website with complimentary mobile app (Android and iOS) to record species observations

- iMapInvasives: a website with complimentary mobile app (Android and iOS) to record invasive species observations

- CyberTracker: good customizable app (Android and Windows Mobile) for recording GPS data; uses icons for fast collection

- Neukadye Timestamped Field Notes: an app (Android and iOS) that uses quick text buttons and observation events to efficiently record notes; good for behavior records

- Neukadye Field Journal: an app (iOS) that automatically geo-locates and timestamps notes

- Project Noah: a website and app (Android and iOS) that lets you keep track of Project Noah projects and document wildlife observations

- National Geographic’s FieldScope: a website and app (Android and iOS) to explore and add data to FieldScope projects

There are also many, many more apps on Google Play and in the iTunes Store (search for "Citizen Science").

Do you know of any I missed? Let me know!

Step 4: Species Identification Tools

One of the main types of citizen science is observing the natural world, which often requires the identification of plants and animals. This can be pretty overwhelming if there is no training involved and you have no idea where to look. This section will cover some starting points.

Your local book store will have a variety of guides to animals in your region. These are very helpful and are usually quite comprehensive. Sometimes you can also find fold-out laminated field guides that are good for quick identifications of common plants and animals. Other books may cover foot prints, scat, and other ways to identify animal presence.

Field Guides – General

- Discover Life IDnature: a website that allows you to identify plants and animals based on characteristics

- eNature: a website that lets you search a database using various categories, including descriptive characteristics like color, habitat, and region

Field Guides – Group Specific

- Leafsnap: an app that will help you identify plants by recognizing a photo (iOS)

- Audubon Guides ($14.99): a field guide app to help in the identification of birds, mammals, wildflowers, and trees using photos, descriptions, ranges, etc. (iOS)

- Audubon Wildflowers ($4.99): an app that will help you identify plants using an image of their flower among other characteristics; has a field journal to record sightings (Android, iOS, HP webOS, and NOOK)

- Audubon Birds and Butterflies ($9.99): a field guide app to help in the identification of birds and butterflies using photos, descriptions, ranges, etc. (iOS)

- Audubon Reptiles and Amphibians ($4.99): a field guide app to help in the identification of reptiles and amphibians using photos, descriptions, ranges, etc. (iOS)

- BugGuide: a website to help you identify species of bugs

Dichotomous keys

A dichotomous key is a commonly used identification tool where the user goes through a series of choices until the specimen is “keyed out”. Keys may go to any taxonomic level and the characteristics used to make a key will vary based on the group or types of organisms. Despite the name, dichotomous keys sometimes use more than 2 choices.


If I find a leaf and want to know what species of tree it belongs to, I could use a dichotomous key that looks like this:

1. Leaf shape elliptical…………………………………………..2

---Leaf shape ovate……………………………………………..14

2. Leaf venation pinnate………………………………………...3

---Leaf venation palmate……………………………………......4

3. And so on….

In this example, the key is going to go through leaves with an elliptical shape first, which is why the key continues with ovate-shaped leaves at #14. If my leaf is elliptical, the key will then continue to the pattern of veins (venation) and then from there it will go onto a different characteristic until the key leads me to a species of tree.

Here are links to a few resources for dichotomous keys. Most keys are specific to region, so you might have to do searches for a key that fits your needs best.

- Conifer Key: a text-based key for identifying coniferous trees to Genus level; brought to you by the American Museum of Natural History

- InsectIdentification: online dichotomous key for arachnids and insects

- Image-Based Key to the Zooplankton of North America: self-explanatory; a University of New Hampshire creation

Step 5: The Extra Mile

If you’re like me, you’re not satisfied with just observing something and recording data. You want to KNOW MORE.

Like, why didn’t I notice any of species X in habitat A, even though there were tons of species Y? Or, I wonder if species Z has ever been found here before? Or even, I would like to keep track of the research done on species X. Perhaps you noticed a trend in sizes of animals during the year and you want to see it in graph form. Jeez, so needy!

In this section, I’ll go through some other resources that you may want to take advantage of. Again, I’ll link primarily to common, free, or Open Source material.

Database Software

I typically use a combination of MS Excel and Access for database needs, but there are other programs out there that have many of the same functions. I prefer relational databases, that way it cuts down on entering things multiple times (for instance, commonly visited sites or species taxonomy). Besides MS Access, you can download LibreOffice Base (OpenOffice software for databases) which works just as well or Grubba online. For DB beginners, these two are the easiest to get a hang of and for more advanced DB users, there’s always MySQL.

Reference/Citation Management

If you like journal articles, a reference management program is a huge time saver. I have heard reviews of many of them, but the favorites appear to be between Zotero, Mendeley, and EndNote Basic. All of them have the same basic functions of storing papers, taking notes, and importing citations into word documents. I personally love Mendeley because it offers more online storage space (2 GB vs. Zotero’s 300 MB).


While you might be entering your recorded data into a project’s database, you may want to keep track of everything you find on your own. I have found Google Earth to be the simplest tool to record presence data. It’s super simple to stick geolocated images into your own map layer! An Open Source program similar to ArcGIS is QGIS (or Quantum GIS). While there are others, these are the 2 I have found to be the most user-friendly.


Again, I typically just use Excel or more advanced statistical programs when creating graphs. However, one online resource for making graphs and charts I have found very useful is Plotly. With Plotly you can enter or upload data and it will suggest charts that best fit the data.

Step 6: Putting It All Together

So now you have a wealth of resources at hand to start (or continue) your foray into citizen science. How do you put them all together?

Here's a summary.

  1. Find an interesting project
  2. Go through training and/or read the instructions on how to gather the correct data
  3. Use the appropriate resources to familiarize yourself with the subject (organism names you might need to know, scientific jargon you should know, etc.)
  4. Prepare your data collection tools (physical and/or digital)
  5. Get out there and DO SCIENCE! (also HAVE FUN)
  6. Back at your computer, enter in your data/observations/pictures/what have you and send or upload to the project's leader or website
  7. Update your resume
  8. Nerd out and explore more things...go wild!

Did I miss anything? What has worked for you? Please let me know and I will update accordingly (and cite your name).

Step 7: What Happens Now?

Good question. You went to a lot of work collecting precious, precious data and then you just kind of...send it off and that's it. Trust me, it doesn't get lost in the dark ether of the internet (I hope). Scientists aren't asking for help, trashing your data, and then laughing over a cup of coffee (I HOPE??).

Your data will get combined with all the other data collected, probably in a spreadsheet, which then gets imported into statistical software and probably also a database (like I talked about earlier) that contains a bunch of other types of relevant data.

Fun tables, charts, figures, etc. will be made using averages of numbers and appropriate statistical analyses will be run. Remember Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) from stats class? That's a popular test that tells if two things are significantly different from each other. Ecologists have a huge number of tests they can use based on the data collected and the experimental design. The link and attached pdf is a good explanation.

How citizen science changes the process of traditional ecological studies.*

All those charts and tests will tell the project leader(s) what the results of the study are. That's when the most important part comes in...the MANUSCRIPT.

Yep, the final and most important part of any scientific study is the communication of results. Without that, what's the point? The researchers will type up a manuscript and submit it to an appropriate scientific journal.

This paper will include:

  • An Abstract: a summarization of the project
  • An Introduction: background to the topic and why the project was carried out
  • Materials and Methods: how the study was done (this is where the citizen scientists will be mentioned!) and how the data was analyzed
  • Results: where all the raw information goes (averages, charts, tables, etc.)
  • Discussion: what the results mean and how all this ties in with other studies and the bigger picture, as it were
  • Acknowledgments: thanking funding sources and people involved in the project (that's you!)
  • References: a list of literature citations used in the paper

It will get passed on for review by other scientists in the field who will edit it and then pass it back. Once the journal feels it's ready, the manuscript will be approved and sent in for printing.

Once that's all done, the manuscript is now a journal article.

So there you go. Your data will end up communicating information to other scientists, public officials, and anyone else who needs that information.

Congrats! You're a Citizen Scientist!

*Figure 2 in Dickinson, J. L., Zuckerberg, B., & Bonter, D. N. (2010). Citizen Science as an Ecological Research Tool: Challenges and Benefits. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41, 149–172.

Step 8: Doing Your Own Studies

Now that you have helped out a project, you might be interested in doing your own studies. Anyone can do science, that much is clear. But again, it can be hard to find a starting point. You might have a starting point from the project you worked on or the project helped you figure out a good way to collect data on something else you've always been interested in. It doesn't matter if it's already been done by "real" scientists! This section will give you the basics on how to go about doing science on your own using the scientific method.

Scientific Method

Yup, the good old scientific method. Most of you already know it from science class, but here it is again (with a hypothetical cat example because the internet loves cats):

Ask a question - "What are the behavior of cats when exposed to catnip?"

Do background research - Google, Google Scholar, a University library and it's website (if a student/amuni), or a local library are all good places to conduct this research.

Construct a hypothesis - "Cats of varying ages perform different behaviors when exposed to catnip."

Note: Hypotheses and predictions are often confused with each other. A hypothesis is a statement that indicates a link between two (or more) factors and a prediction is what you think will happen to one factor (the dependent factor) when exposed to another factor (the independent factor). Here is an excellent resource explaining this topic in more detail. The prediction for this example might be "If I expose cats of different ages to a 1 oz. ball of catnip, younger cats will perform more energy-consuming behaviors than older cats."

Test your hypothesis - If we're going to look at the cat's age and their catnip response, we'll obviously need cats of different ages and as many 1 oz. balls of catnip as there are cats. To test the hypothesis, we'll need an appropriate experimental design. That is, what kind of behaviors are you looking for, how will you measure them, and how will that data need to be analyzed?

A Primer on Experimental Design - Animal Behavior studies have special sampling methods (Ad Libitum, Focal Animal, All Occurrence, and Instantaneous/Scan sampling) and a sheet of behavior types, or ethogram, which may include instantaneous or timed behaviors. Example ethograms here.

Because I've seen cats exposed to catnip before, I already know what kind of behaviors they might engage in. Since I want to know ALL behaviors of ONE animal at a time, I would be doing Focal Sampling. Each cat would be given a 1 oz ball of catnip, observed for 1 hour, and behaviors timed (start and end times) or checked if instantaneous. I have included an attachment of what your ethogram and data sheet might look like.

Since we want to know how catnip effects cats at different ages, you might separate the cats into 2 groups: young and old, where young cats are age 5 and below and old cats are older than 5 years.

Analyze your data - Take the average of times or counts of behaviors among all cats in the same age group (e.g., average number of seconds each young cat spent chasing the catnip ball and average number of times an old cat licked the catnip ball). With those numbers you can make some graphs to see what the trends were. I won't be going into statistical analysis (specifically biostatistics) here, but here and here are good resources for those interested.

Draw a conclusion - Ok, so hypothetically we found that young cats spend a lot of time chasing and batting the ball (high energy play) and old cats preferred to lick, rub, and sniff the catnip ball while laying down (low-energy play). Great, our hypothesis was correct and the cats did do different things when exposed to catnip AND what we predicted was true! It's always fun to see a project come together.

If it doesn't, what went wrong? Do you need to study more cats to get clearer trends? Did you notice something else that might have made the cats react differently besides age? Perhaps some of the cats just ate, were too full, and barely paid attention. Maybe they were distracted by a bug that got inside the study area. You might just want to come up with a new set of factors and study to test new questions. Remember: scientific studies often lead to more questions!

Communicate your results - You may not be writing a report or manuscript, but you probably have access to social media. Share your results!

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