Ciência Aberta

UC launches website that unveils 'secrets' of botany over 100 years old

More than a thousand citizen-scientists collaborated in the transcription of letters with taxonomic and geographic information of relevance for biodiversity in Portugal

03 february, 2022≈ 4 min read

It is now online the "Cartas da Natureza" (Plant Letters) website, which unveils the details of correspondence exchanged by botanists at the University of Coimbra (UC) between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The platform was launched by the UC with the contribution of over a thousand citizen-scientists, who collaborated in the transcription of the letters. It aggregates taxonomic and geographic information of potential relevance to the definition of strategies for the promotion and conservation of biodiversity, both in Portugal and in Portuguese-speaking countries.

The database "Plant Letters" contains a searchable transcript of the contents of the correspondence exchanged by those responsible for the Institute, the Herbarium and the Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra between around 1870 and 1928 - letters that are now part of the collection of the Botany Archive of the Life Sciences Department of the UC. These letters, involving more than 1100 different correspondents, contain relevant information about the historical locations of plants, areas of distribution and abundance of species, records of plant and seed exchanges, scientific processes of plant collection, classification and taxonomy, and data for reconstructing the path of herbarium specimens and museum objects in the UC natural history collections.

All these data, made available online, were obtained with the voluntary collaboration of citizen-scientists who responded to the community call launched in 2019 from the Zooniverse platform, which aggregates stakeholders in participatory/citizen science projects. Around 1,200 participants - many of them foreigners - contributed to the transcription of more than a thousand letters, in six different languages, totalling more than 3.8 million characters (over 640,000 words). "Being a very large amount of data, this was an excellent opportunity to ask for the collaboration of volunteers, citizen-scientists, to help in this part of the knowledge creation process. It was a demanding task, but absolutely fundamental. And, incredibly, after a year, we had practically all the material transcribed", recalls the Coordinator of the Nature Letters project and researcher at the UC's Functional Ecology Centre, António Gouveia.

The transcription makes all the information that until now was only contained in the digitised images of the letters easily searchable. "We are talking about epistolary relations that relate the connection between scientists from the University of Coimbra, such as Júlio Henriques [a great booster of the study of botany in Portugal], and their counterparts from all over Europe, who created networks of knowledge about plants. In reality, this correspondence, which seems to be relatively local in scope, is quite global, both in terms of the information it contains and in terms of the players it involves," explains António Gouveia.

This is also why, over 100 years later, the 'secrets' of the letters now unveiled continue to have particular scientific relevance. "Much of this information concerns African Portuguese-Speaking Countries, which may use it in issues related to the knowledge of past biodiversity, which may have implications for the definition of present and future conservation strategies," stresses the Project Coordinator and associate researcher of the UNESCO Chair in Biodiversity and Conservation for Sustainable Development - under which the project "Nature Letters" was developed, in collaboration with the Botanical Garden, the Department of Life Sciences and the Centre for Functional Ecology of the UC.

For all potentially interested parties - and in recognition of the participants who voluntarily collaborated in the transcription - the documents are now available online, in open access, for consultation by the scientific community and civil society. The initiative is also another example of the UC's growing involvement in the fields of open science. "This project illustrates, in an exemplary way, the unequivocal advantages of the emerging paradigm of the so-called Citizen Science, through which citizens can make a decisive contribution to accelerate the development of science and strengthen its social relevance," concludes the UC Vice-Rector for Culture and Open Science, Delfim Leão.

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Explore the recently launched website of the Plant Letters project: here.