Citizen science

You don’t need to have a university degree or be a professional scientist to take part in a proper scientific project. Citizen science involves members of the general public working on their own or assisting professional scientists or scientific institutions in their work, for example by reporting where they have seen particular species of birds or butterflies or flowers. Quekett members use their expertise in identifying organisms such as Cladocera (water-fleas) and mosses to contribute to recording schemes that are co-ordinated by the Biological Records Centre or to iRecord. Another way that volunteers can make a valuable contribution is by copying information from the labels of old specimens and slides in museums into databases, so that it becomes available to researchers.

Male spotted-wing drosophilaSpotted-wing drosophila survey

The Quekett’s first large-scale venture into recording living specimens started in 2016, monitoring the spread of the invasive fruit-fly Drosophila suzukii (Matsumura) in the United Kingdom, and you can read about it here:

Quekett member Chris Thomas is now expanding the project by getting people outside the Club to participate as well:

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Wooden foraminifera slideTranscribing slide labels

The Club has over 20,000 microscope slides stored in the Natural History Museum and we need a catalogue of them, a searchable database of the information on the labels, and photographs of the slides. Club members have been transcribing the data for several years, but we still have a long way to go.

Some time ago, Quekett member Steve Gill prepared a trial database of the 787 slides of rocks and minerals presented to the Club in 1948 by Charles Henry Caffyn (1867–1954); the final database will be different.

Quekett member Jacky McPherson has not only transcribed the data from around 2300 slides prepared by Eric Doddrell Evens (1893–1973), but has researched and documented how he prepared his specimens and slides as well as his life and his other interests. Jacky’s sources included Postal Microscopical Society notebooks and the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

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Transcribing Postal Microscopical Society notebooks

In the course of researching E. D. Evens’ life I have looked at and scanned 105 Postal Microscopical Society (PMS) notebooks from between 1938 and 1970. These books have been extremely interesting, especially in relation to this niche scientific community but also with respect to society in general both during that period and earlier in the 20th century in the form of reminiscences.

PMS notebooks with entries by E. D. EvensPostal Microscopical Society notebooks

It took me two years to transcribe 15 of these books prepared by E. D. Evens himself and I have scanned the remaining 90 books. Transcription results in a readable, searchable, indexable record of what is in the books because very often the handwriting is distinctive and sometimes ‘indistinctive’. There is a great sense of achievement when the latter is deciphered. As well as general chit chat, complaints about the postal service and erudite quotations there is a lot of detailed and specialist vocabulary. This I tackled using good old Google, checking that the word I thought I had actually fitted in context with the text. I have learned a great deal about the objects and methods that were mentioned as well as having some insight into the thought processes of very interesting people. There are also some humorous, touching and occasionally poignant comments about happy evenings spent at the microscope or collecting specimens. Some of the older writers included delightful detail of the world before the Great War, days which none of us will have experienced except by proxy.

Although I have transcribed the parts of the texts that I need for my biographical research there is a vast amount left in the form of .jpeg images. These are not searchable, neither are they necessarily easily legible (due to the handwriting, the images are sharp).

If anyone has a mind to read, and in reading transcribe some of these texts I think it would result in a creditable archive of accessible information, both for social and microscopical historians.

I am considering setting up a Zooniverse project for this task, to invite anyone who is interested to join in, be part of a quite exciting unveiling of lives of microscopists past, and learn from their writings and experiences.

In Zooniverse the text translation application is very user friendly, it has been well tried and tested over, probably, the last 10 years. Participants can do as little as a single words, or as much as they can handle. The transcriptions are offered to multiple volunteers to overcome incorrect transcription (which is inevitable when any amount is done) and the consensus transcription is then available for human intervention, after all it really takes a person to assess whether the finished product adequately matches the scan, especially as there are technical terms.

There are overheads in setting up a Zooniverse (or indeed any citizen science) project in that one should offer feedback and support to participants, usually through tutorials and a discussion forum. The moderator needs to spend time making sure that this proceeds smoothly. Although Zooniverse offer the platform free they do not engage in promoting the project nor enrolling participants, again something for the moderator, or another volunteer to oversee. The project will be listed on their site, but among very, very many other projects all looking for volunteers.

If anyone is interested in joining me in this transcription project they might like to look at the project on recording the contents of ‘Operation War Diary’ tutorial which illustrates a lot of the infrastructure a project needs and how some of the software works. Nothing is downloaded to your computer, you don’t have to install any apps, and you can be anonymous if that is your preference.

I would very much appreciate hearing from interested parties so that I can see if it is likely to be worth the effort of getting it going.

Jacky McPherson

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