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Three centuries of citizen science

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Even though the term ‘citizen science’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary last year, the practice is several centuries old, as quickly becomes evident when thumbing through back issues of the oldest journal dedicated to science.

Philosophical Transactions, which celebrates its 350th birthday on 6 March, has plenty of evidence of citizen science that dates back long before the 20th century, before the internet put terabytes of data at our fingertips, long before TV and long before even  the term ‘scientist’ was coined in 1833.

Three centuries ago, in 1715, Edmund Halley used Philosophical Transactions to ask colleagues to help him observe a total solar eclipse, prompting observers from all over the country to respond.

Halley eclipse table. Credit: Royal Society

Halley’s solar eclipse observations printed in Philosophical Transactions. Credit: Royal Society

When in 1749, crowds gathered in Green Park in London to watch the great firework display of King George II, a 20 year old Fellow of the Royal Society,  Benjamin Robins, published an appeal in the Gentleman’s Magazine to ask people to help record this spectacle of the age, which he reported in Phil Trans.

Due in great part to the complex instructions devised by Robins (citizen scientists take note), only one report was sent in, from a Welshman some 140 miles away who couldn’t see individual fireworks, but upon seeing flashes, reckoned that the pyrotechnics were a waste of money.


Creature surveys date back a long time. When Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he browsed popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents (a project to compare this approach with today’s citizen science  is now under way by Chris Lintott and Sally Shuttleworth at Oxford, with Gowan Dawson in Leicester.)

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, is but one example of a long-standing tradition which has persisted to the present day. Butterfly counts are another example, with schemes starting in the UK and North America in the mid 1970s.

Various wildlife surveys were also conducted by MegaLab, a project that began with the BBC and Daily Telegraph in 1995, using mass media and phone lines to earn the ‘mega’ prefix. Some projects were citizen science in the strict sense defined by the OED (‘‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions’). Others invited a broader form of citizen engagement, where a mass audience provided test subjects to further understanding of the human body and mind.

The first experiment, which was in the latter category, was conducted with Prof Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire. We used national television, radio and press (BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World, BBC Radio One and The Daily Telegraph, where I was science editor) to test whether it is easier to detect lies in print, radio or TV.

A million call attempts were made but, due to overload, we only recorded data on 40,000. In the journal Nature, Richard Wiseman reported that the radio listeners detected the lies 73.4% of the time, the newspaper readers 64.2% and the television viewers 51.8%.

MegaLab and its successor, Live Lab, continued to do dozens of mass experiments, from counting stars to measure light pollution to studying the Mozart effect, working with popularisers, such as Simon Singh, Raj Persaud and Andrew Cohen, and doctors and scientists, from Simon Baron Cohen to David Perrett  and  Jim Levine. Other papers emerged from the experiments, for instance this survey of the extent to which Antipodean flatworms had invaded the UK, and one by Richard Wiseman on public participation

The web extends the reach of scientists engaging with citizens, and in many different ways. One was to harness idle computer processing power, as with seti@home, which helps look for extraterrestrial intelligence, or a DIY climate forecasting project that I launched in The Daily Telegraph.

The web could also help reach out to an audience. MegaLab used the web to conduct Turing tests, for example, and there are many more examples of internet based projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, which asks for help in classifying images of distant galaxies, and the fold.it site, which runs a game to fold the structure of selected proteins as well as possible.

The web also allowed an intelligence test to be undertaken worldwide in 2010 by New Scientist, which I edited at the time, with Adrian Owen, now at the University of Western Ontario, and colleagues. Some 110,000 people took part and the findings challenged the idea of IQ and led to a paper in the journal Neuron.

Another substantial citizen science project – #hookedonmusic – was created by computational musicologists at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University. The project has been run by Wellcome Trust public engagement fellow Erinma Ochu and the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester to investigate the science of songs which may have implications for future research into dementia. To date there have been 175,000 players of #HookedonMusic, reviewed here, across 199 countries and research papers are expected based on its findings.


The range of citizen science is expanding. To prove that you don’t have to be an adult to do original science, children from a Primary School in Blackawton, Devon, published the results of an experiment on how bees forage for food in different coloured flowers in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.

Working with Royal Society Research Fellow, Beau Lotto, they came up with a question, made simple observations about simple phenomena, and discovered  ‘bees use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which flower to forage from.’ Gratifyingly they also discovered that ‘science is cool and fun.’ Lotto also ran a laboratory at the Science Museum from late 2010 to the spring of 2012 called, appropriately enough, Lotto Lab.

The museum, through its Lates and Live Science program, has offered many other researchers a chance to experiment on the museum’s three million plus visitors each year. Subjects tackled over the past 15 years range from face scans for surgeons in Great Ormond Street Hospital to gait analysis with Oxford Brookes,  synaesthesia with Sussex, and risk-taking with UCL.

Various papers have been published as a result of experiments on visitors, for instance on self recognition and also the way groups behave and crowd behaviour, explored in our ZombieLab event. We are currently running a taste experiment (you can take part here) devised by food scientist Charles Spence from Oxford University, with the support of chef Heston Blumenthal.

Citizen scientists can now build and operate their own instruments to gather data for their own experiments or as part of a larger project. There are robotic telescopes that they can operate. Nasa gave one group permission to attempt to activate a 35 year old satellite. They can contribute to mathematics projects too.

And, no doubt, a range of new technologies, such as cheap open source computing power from the Raspberry Pi and Arduino, drones and 3D printing, will aid the long, remarkable and productive rise of the citizen scientist.

The Royal Society is  marking the anniversary of Philosophical Transactions with the launch of a series of short films, special issues of the journal, an exhibition and other activities.

Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs, Science Museum, and a member of the Royal Society’s Inspiring Stories committee.

Written by Roger Highfield

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