The Visible Impact of Citizen Science

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Scientific publication is an important milestone for many citizen science projects, that can sometimes feel elusive. But, with a little front-end planning and guidance, it can be done. A paper by the American Trout Lily Project, hosted on, was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology! Their paper and their process for becoming published provides an excellent example of how citizen science can be respected by and have an impact on the greater scientific community.  We interviewed Emily Austen, the lead researcher of the project about why she chose to study the American Trout Lily and how she was able to have her work published in a respected scientific journal. Emily says of publishing, “many journals are happy to publish data gathered by citizen scientists” and hopes others will begin to explore the possibility of publishing their own works as well. Publishing citizen science data allows for greater access to the data collected by projects and educates the scientific community about the topic of interest as well as increasing confidence in citizen science gathered data.  Read the abstract for the American Trout Lily Project’s published paper: “On the ecological significance of pollen color: a case study in American trout lily”. 

So, how did this great project come to be? 

To find out we talked with Emily about how she set up her project for publishing success…  

What was the inspiration for your project?

“The project arose from simple curiosity” she said. “I noticed pollen color variation in trout lilies several springs ago, and my first reaction was to turn to the scientific literature to learn more about it. I was surprised to find very little information on it, and started to think about all of the questions I’d like to answer some day.” 

Did anyone help you get started?

“I was lucky to find a postdoc advisor (Jessica Forrest at the University of Ottawa) who was happy to let me pursue the work.”  

What questions were you wanting to answer?

“One of the questions I wanted to answer was ‘Where do red & yellow pollen occur? Do both color morphs occur throughout the species range?”  

How was using citizen science helpful to your work?

“There is no way I could have answered this question without the help of citizen scientists. The range is just too big and the flowering season too short. Thanks to the data contributions of nearly 200 participants, we now know more about American trout lily!”

Was it your intention to have your work published?


Do you have any advice for those hoping to publish?

“People looking to publish in an academic journal will probably have the best success if they partner with someone familiar with these venues, at least for their first few articles. There are a few idiosyncrasies to the format. In particular, authors need to have a fairly deep knowledge of already-published scientific literature.” (For more information on scientific literature reviews and how to conduct them stay tuned for several upcoming blogs) She continues, “Many journals are happy to publish data gathered by citizen scientists. I’m not all that knowledgeable about publishing in other types of media.”  

So, why the journal Ecology?

“I chose a journal with a strong reputation for publishing interesting natural history grounded in ecological & evolutionary theory. I thought the work on trout lily (including the citizen science component) would be a good fit, and the editors & reviewers agreed. Ecology isn’t the only place where this work has found an audience, however. I was a guest on the “In Defense of Plants” podcast, which made a huge difference in getting the word out to citizen scientists! The work was also highlighted in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. And, after the Ecology paper came out, it was featured on the Discover Magazine blog.” 

Did you credit your citizen scientists volunteers? If so, how?

“Absolutely!  The very first line of the Acknowledgements section reads “We thank the 183 citizen scientists who collected morph occurrence data.” 

Emily mentioned that “while the Trout Lily Project is completed and no longer accepting member requests, there are lots of other great projects to join on”. In the meantime, we’d like to extend our congratulations to the amazing volunteers and researchers that contributed to this important work. Many thanks to Emily Austen who organized this citizen science project and who allowed us to interview her about her experience.  This project’s success in publication shows just how impactful the work of the entire citizen science community is on the scientific community. We as citizen scientists have the power to collect real data and compile that data into a publication that will be used and seen by hundreds of scientific researchers in all realms of science. Look for more upcoming blogs about how to set your project up to improve your opportunities for scientific publication.  Have a suggestion about a topic you’d like to see covered? Please contact us!

Works Cited

Austen, Lin, Forrest. 2018. On the ecological significance of pollen color: a case study in American trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

1 comments on “The Visible Impact of Citizen Science”

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