Volunteering for #citizenscience in the digital realm

Natural history notebook from El Bruc, Spain, Monica Peters
Over the last few months, an impressive swag of citizen science-related publications have been released: insightful strategy documents, reports, and countless papers published in peer reviewed journals. However there’s been surprisingly little about the motivation to volunteer for citizen science. The new UK Environmental Observation Framework report ‘Understanding motivations to volunteer for citizen science’ brought an interview I carried out some months ago into sharper focus.

While in Wellington for the Science Communicators Assn of NZ conference, I thought I’d catch up Siobhan Leachman (@SiobhanLeachman), who volunteers for Smithsonian Institute citizen science projects. Whereas my experiences of volunteerism are via conservation organisations (e.g, DOC and TCV), and have mostly involved mud, spades, noxious plants and secateurs, Siobhan’s volunteer work is situated entirely in the digital realm. She freely admits ‘I’m not a gardener. I hate gardening. I’m not one of those people that can go out and weed…’ (I guess I’m one of those people).

I was curious then why Siobhan chooses to spend on average of 4 hours a day volunteering online, engaged in projects to transcribe near illegible journals of naturalists and their minutely handwritten tags on vast specimen collections. She’s classed as a one of the Smithsonian Institute’s ‘Super Users’ having transcribed and reviewed nearly 20,000 pages over a 2-year period. This prodigious output earnt her a panel position at this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas to discuss how to rally volunteers to make meaningful contributions.

As with all studies that look at the motivation for environmental volunteerism, there’s both a practical and a personal component. This is reiterated in the UKEOF report where motivations are categorised as personal growth or gain (egoism); creating benefits for others (altruism) or a group (collectivism), or upholding individual principals (prinicipalism). When asking Siobhan about what motivated her involvement in SI transcription projects, these tidy categories quickly become blurred. There is of course an altruistic component, but underpinned by providing a service to science: her vision is to strengthen data, by enabling the tag on the specimen and the section of the diary detailing the location and conditions under which the specimen was caught to be triangulated. But there is also her philosophical stance:

‘…the thing that excites me, is the potential of open access… I’m an open access person, that’s one of the first things I look at, if I’m supplying data…, I want to make sure it’s reusable by anyone, not just scientists…’

She adds that all major as well as regional museums should have their collections digitised – who hasn’t been simultaneously enthralled and appalled at the amount of specimens that come to light on rare museum ‘down in the cellar’ open days?

But why volunteer for the long-term? Several lake monitoring programmes in the US have volunteers donating their services for decades on end. Bruyere and Rappe (2007) show that having good leadership and a strong organisational structure promote volunteer retention – Siobhan emphasizes that the Smithsonian Institute citizen science projects are well run, well structured, and well supported. A thriving community exists on Twitter with @TranscribeSI providing information and advice and the volunteer community coalescing under the hashtag #volunpeers.

Other enabling factors are logistical. As a mother, Siobhan can log on when time is available, even during a child’s swimming lesson.

To wrap up conversation that turned into an informal interview, I asked Siobhan what she thought of my handwriting (the featured image is one of pile of notebooks I’ve created over the years. Embarrassingly, I struggle to read my own writing at times. ‘No sweat!’ was the confident answer – then again you’d expect that from a Smithsonian Institute Super User.


Geoghegan, H., Dyke, A., Pateman, R., West, S. & Everett, G. 2016. Understanding motivations for citizen science. Final report on behalf of UKEOF, University of Reading, Stockholm Environment Institute (University of York) and University of the West of England

Bruyere B., & Rappe S. 2007. Identifying the motivations of environmental volunteers. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 50(4): 503-516.

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