How today’s citizen scientists can learn from Darwin and the Victorians

Posted by er134 at Nov 05, 2013 10:21 AM |
New research project investigates public participation in science in the 19th and 21st centuries – and shows how citizen science shaped Charles Darwin’s theories

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 5 November 2013

Citizen science is booming.

More and more non-professional science enthusiasts are lending their own time to help decode the vast amounts of data produced in modern scientific studies.

Online platforms such as Zooniverse host huge citizen science projects – from analysis of cyclone patterns to the classification of galaxies – with more than 800,000 contributors taking part worldwide.

But public involvement in science is far from a new phenomenon.

In the 19th century, periodical science journals were filled with laypeople’s submissions – and their observations of plants and animals were immensely useful to Charles Darwin.

Naturally, the periodicals of the Victorian era had to find ways of collating and managing large numbers of submissions from different sources.

And the methods they developed could be useful to the citizen science platforms of today according to University of Leicester academic Dr Gowan Dawson.

Dr Dawson, an expert on the cultural history of Victorian science in the University’s School of English and Victorian Studies Centre, is co-director a major research project which aims to investigate citizen science in the 19th and 21st centuries.

“Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries” is a collaboration between the University of Leicester, the University of Oxford, the Royal Society, the Natural History Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons. It has been funded by a £1,950,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The researchers will look at how communication and engagement in nineteenth-century science could help shape modern structures for how volunteers can engage with professional science.

Researchers will draw on historic collections of largely forgotten science journals of the nineteenth century contained in the Natural History Museum, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Royal Society.

They will also work with these institutions' science communities, addressing questions about the creation and circulation of knowledge in the digital age, and looking at innovative ways of breaking through the public/professional divide.

Dr Dawson said: "When Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he read avidly in popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents.

“Such engagement with a wide public in the construction of science became increasingly difficult with the development of professional, and highly specialised science, but the emergence of 'citizen science' projects has suggested a new way forward.

“With the creation of vast data sets in contemporary science, there is a need for a new army of volunteers to help classify and analyse the information.

“The Zooniverse platform, started in 2007 with 'Galaxy Zoo', now has over 800,000 participants who contribute to projects from astrophysics to climate science. Significant discoveries have already been made by these volunteers in the field of astronomy.

“Yet, the structures by which these volunteers might engage with professional science, and through which scientists themselves might draw upon their findings, are not clear, and researchers on the project have been turning to nineteenth-century models of communication to find ways of harnessing this huge popular interest in order to increase the rate of scientific progress.

“The information revolution in our own age has parallels in the nineteenth century which saw an explosion of print, and journal publishing - in 1800 there were only around 100 science periodicals, but by 1900 this had jumped to 10,000 worldwide.

“The project brings together historical and literary research in the nineteenth century with contemporary scientific practice, looking at the ways in which patterns of popular communication and engagement in nineteenth-century science can offer models for current practice.

“The research is timely since the digital revolution, and open-access publishing, are about to change forever the processes and forms of scientific communication and exchange.”

The Principal Investigator of the project is Professor Sally Shuttleworth, of the English Faculty at Oxford University, with Dr Dawson and Dr Chris Lintott, of the Department of Physics at Oxford University, as Co-Investigators.


Note to editors

For more information, please contact Dr Gowan Dawson via

About the AHRC

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to:



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