Documenting Natural History Pre-Electronics

Hello, I’m posting for a college course in which we are discussing the discourse of natural history in times which we’re not so technologically advanced, when paper and pen were the primary tools for record-keeping and -sharing.
This is my attempt at adequately capturing a flourishing baby’s tears plant.
I would love to hear your thoughts!

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In some ways, I feel like an anchronism. Those were the days when an amateur naturalist could potentially make a meaningful contribution to science and be taken seriously. Nowadays, you have to have access to gel electrophoresis and PCR, which in turn means you have to be affiliated with a university laboratory. Even the small papers I have had published – nothing really groundbreaking – I’m almost embarrassed to submit them, because the corresponding author is supposed to provide an address. It’s embarrassing to put my residential address when I see all the other papers showing a professional address.

If your research results require charts or graphs, you’d better know how to computer-generate them; hand-drafted ones, even if drawn with drafting tools, will not be accepted.

In the times you refer to, fewer people were educated, and so merely having the education to understand science was considered gatekeeping enough. Now that the overall educational level of the populace is higher, the research community has had to find other means of gatekeeping.


@tiwane, @cthawley, @bouteloua: Could you split @dstrader’s reply into its own topic?

@dstrader, welcome to the iNat forum! I think you’re allowed to post such drawings as iNat observations. Maybe note it as such in the observation notes? Overall, good job with it! It’s really a modern day a luxury to have digital photography whereas before it was line drawings and such notes. Seems so much harder to do than taking a photo, so I applaud your effort!




Nothing wrong with using a residential address on a paper! I’ve always used my home address and no one’s ever complained about it. I also do genetic analysis at home (using equipment from, but it took me a few years to build my home lab, and I’m sure it’s not for everyone. The technology is definitely more accessible than 10 years ago though.


I don’t think it is so much gatekeeping or even having to have an affiliation (though it probably does factor), as it is finding the right journals for you and even finding the right questions that can be answered on with your particular tool and skill set. Getting published is a chore even for “professionals”. Don’t give up and don’t limit yourself because you lack certain tools.

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Just within my lifetime or slightly before, I’ve noted the shift in many scientific journals from more anecdotal natural history articles based on simple observation by knowledgeable individuals towards more sophisticated experimental or hypothesis-testing articles. There are relatively few journals where you can publish an interesting observation that provides some new insight into the natural history of an organism. Certainly computer technology has revolutionized how we do things – statistical analysis of data, graphics design, and photos. I still like to read some of the little articles published in the 1950s or earlier in which a biologist reports something he/she saw in the field that was new and informative about some organism. No photos, no fancy graphics, just detailed descriptions and perhaps a line drawing.

I think we’ve lost something in not publishing as many basic natural history observations. A lot of younger biologists seem not to have a feel for the organisms they study since so many are largely focused on phylogenetics and might never have spent any time with their subjects in the field.


I love this. I was always fascinated by the history of natural history in the days when almost everything was done by pen and ink. A naturalist had to be part scientist, part explorer, and part artist. One of my favourite books when I was younger was “The Amateur Naturalist” by Gerald Durell. It is full of sketches and handwritten notes from a time before digital photography and word processors.


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