What Can the Audubon Bird Count Teach Us About Open Science?

Four birds rest on a powerline against a blue sky

One of the themes we are delving into as part of the strategic planning process is the role of NLM in advancing data science, open science, and biomedical informatics. Today I want to home in on the “open science” part of that theme.

Open science espouses a collaborative, open, engaged approach to all processes of the scientific endeavor. To some it includes open access to journals (with our PubMed Central a flagship example) and open data (accelerated by our ClinicalTrials.gov efforts to make the results of clinical trials available to the general public within a year of trial completion). Open science approaches are emerging in part because the World Wide Web enabled a democratization of information and communication, and in part because scientists realized they can benefit from early and open dialogue about approaches and findings. To me, a novel and important aspect of open science is the engagement of lay people across the continuum of the scientific effort—citizens engaged in science.

Perhaps the best known and oldest citizen science project is the Audubon Bird Count. Begun as an alternative to the holiday hunting traditions, this project engages citizens around the world, in well-structured bird circles, who go to their local woods and neighborhoods to create a wildlife census. Now in its 117th year, the Audubon Bird Count has been spectacularly successful—over 70,000 volunteers worldwide have counted more than 11 million birds, traced migratory patterns, and discovered new locations for some species. This example of citizen science illustrates one way citizens can do what professionals alone cannot—in this case, visit far-reaching places to make observations guided by professional knowledge.

A speckled birdThe Audubon Bird Count shows citizens participating in science as extenders, collecting data far beyond what scientists can do alone. Citizens can also serve as collaborators, working side by side with scientists to help analyze and interpret data. The Foldit portal, for example, engages citizen game players in recognizing patterns and solving puzzles that ultimately crowdsource how proteins fold. And in a very advanced form of citizen science, citizens and scientists co-create knowledge, partnering to pose research questions, set funding priorities, determine analytical approaches, and evaluate evidence.

Open science promises to accelerate knowledge building by complementing (or sometimes disrupting) traditional approaches to discovery with strategies that bring many more perspectives into the research process earlier, and with greater dialogue. With open science, scientists have new roles and gain new resources not available under traditional research models. And when citizens are engaged in the process, society benefits by raising the level of scientific understanding among participants and, by extension, across communities.

For NLM to be more fully involved in open science, our long-standing approaches to research support and scholarly communication must take on new dimensions. What do you think those might be?

If you’d like to share your own examples of open science or your ideas for integrating open science into the Library’s role, comment here or, in keeping with our bird theme, send me a tweet at @NLMdirector. I’d love to hear about them.

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