Book Review: Diary of a Citizen Scientist

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and other New Ways of Engaging the World by Sharman Apt Russell. Oregon State University Press. 2014.  

From the very first pages, Russell’s diary pulls the reader into experience. Vivid descriptions, lively metaphors, and breathless narrative bring together her diary entries into a larger story of becoming a scientist. Russell and her tiger beetles are revealed within her first entry—these are indeed the main characters in the story that follows—and we find a scientist at the beginning of her expedition into the mysterious world of tiger beetles.

As Russell shows, citizen scientists  encounter distinctions between themselves and career scientists, but the boundaries between these groups are becoming blurred, we learn.

“This is revolution,” Russell tells us of citizen science, “breaking down the barriers between expert and amateur.” But revolutions require work and much of the book details the significant effort it takes to obtain expert skills.

Learning about new approaches, theories, and methods leaves room for concern. “Everything I see feels doubtful,” Russell writes, and as days pass, new concerns, problems, and questions follow alongside successes and breakthroughs.

But she persists, despite doubts about her ability to duplicate methods, to implement the methods, and about securing equipment—concerns shared, but not often articulated so publicly, by scientists across the spectrum. Rather than looking at these as deficits of a researcher, Russell reminds us that research is a human enterprise and learning better approaches, methods, and conducting better research is part of scientific work itself. Challenges, then, should not dishearten the budding citizen science, but serve as a reminder they are participating in a complicated apparatus for knowledge-making.

Among the science we also find the social, and Russell considers the conditions for knowledge-making: who gets to participate, and how this intersects with the public good. These are important reflections and considerations, the kinds scholars of science have attended to for decades, and what many in the reinvigorated and expanding areas of science communication consider. Russell’s book, then, offers a unique blend of science, science studies, and science communication that deserves attention from researchers.

As an introduction to citizen science the book provides scientists with detailed insight into the passionate work of a citizen scientist—someone with motivations and attention not unlike the career scientist, in many ways—and for the budding citizen scientist the book offers an engaging account of the joys and frustrations of scientific work. In another, and perhaps more important way, learning about Russell and her motivations, the reader is provided with some account of this scientist. Indeed, this scientist—no qualifier required.

 Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher is an assistant professor of rhetoric and communication studies at University of Waterloo.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

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