Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries

Large Grant

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford


Professor Gowan Dawson, University of Leicester,

Dr Chris Lintott, University of Oxford


Hunterian Museum, The Royal College of Surgeons

Natural History Museum

The Royal Society

Award Information:

When Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he read avidly in popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents. Such engagement with a wide public in the construction of science became increasingly difficult with the development of professional, and highly specialised science, but the emergence of ‘citizen science’ projects has suggested a new way forward.

With the creation of vast data sets in contemporary science, there is a need for a new army of volunteers to help classify and analyse the information. The Zooniverse platform, started in 2007 with ‘Galaxy Zoo’, now has over 800,000 participants who contribute to projects from astrophysics to climate science. Significant discoveries have already been made by these volunteers in the field of astronomy. Yet, the structures by which these volunteers might engage with professional science, and through which scientists themselves might draw upon their findings, are not clear, and researchers on the project have been turning to nineteenth-century models of communication to find ways of harnessing this huge popular interest in order to increase the rate of scientific progress.

The information revolution in our own age has parallels in the nineteenth century which saw an explosion of print, and journal publishing; in 1800 there were only around 100 science periodicals, but by 1900 this had jumped to 10,000 worldwide. The project brings together historical and literary research in the nineteenth century with contemporary scientific practice, looking at the ways in which patterns of popular communication and engagement in nineteenth-century science can offer models for current practice. The research is timely since the digital revolution, and open-access publishing, are about to change forever the processes and forms of scientific communication and exchange.

The project will be based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, in partnership with three of our most significant scientific institutions: the Natural History Museum; the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Royal Society. Researchers will draw on their historic collections, uncovering the extraordinary range of largely forgotten science journals of the nineteenth century. They will also work with these institutions’ science communities, addressing questions about the creation and circulation of knowledge in the digital age, and looking at innovative ways of breaking through the public/professional divide. The Zooniverse will extend the range of its work, creating four new citizen science projects which will both accelerate the rate of scientific growth in these areas, and add an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 to the dedicated ranks of citizen scientists. Drawing on the historical research, it will also develop new tools to enable better systems of exchange between professional science, and this growing army of volunteers.

Project website:

Further information:

Sally Shuttleworth and Sally Frampton, Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science, The Lancet, 27th June- 3rd July

Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Old Weather: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries, Science Museum Group Journal, Spring 2015.

AHRC People & Projects, AHRC Science in Culture Theme blog

From Amateurs to Citizens: Periodicals, Images and Internet platforms in the 19th and 21st Centuries, AHRC Science in Culture Theme blog post 

A Case Study (PDF) of this AHRC Science in Culture Theme Large Grant is available to download here: AHRC Constructing Scientific Communities Case Study

Project dates: October 2013- September 2016