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Virtual Access

About Virtual Access

20 SYNTHESYS+ partners are offering Virtual Access (VA) to their collections. Researching a collection often requires being present in the collection itself. Virtual Access aims to remove the reliance on physical access by piloting a 'Digitisation on Demand' (DoD) model. During two open Calls held during the SYNTHESYS+ project in 2020 and 2021, c. €830,000 was allocated to pilot digitisation projects, where collection items are now being digitised on behalf of a research community by SYNTHESYS+ Access partners.

VA is a new approach to accessing collections and VA workflows will vary across organisations. Because of this, each participating organisation has appointed a VA Coordinator, who can advise requesters on feasibility. VA Coordinators produce budgets which are attached to Virtual Access requests and reviewed by an external panel.  Our list on the right contains the contact details of each VA Coordinator. 

For more information, see our Virtual Access Frequently Asked Questions.

Prior to Call 1, an ‘Ideas Call’ ran between October – November 2019, offering potential Requesters the chance to outline their ideas for collections digitisation across the SYNTHESYS+ consortium.

The 'Ideas Call' - report published

The 'Ideas Call' was our chance to understand the needs of research communities before we launched this pilot project. The SYNTHESYS+ Management Team would like to thank all who participated - we received 26 complete proposals, submitted from proposers based across 15 nations, many with a collaborative scope encompassing multiple institutions, and covering a range of natural science disciplines, digitisation workflows, and collection types. This has provided the SYNTHESYS+ Virtual Access programme with useful information that informed our preparations for the first Call of Virtual Access in 2020.

Click here to read the Ideas Call paper, published in Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO)

How were VA applications considered?

All proposals to Virtual Access were reviewed by our VA prioritisation panel (criteria can be found on the VA FAQs page). Projects were funded where the resulting open data will provide a broad benefit to a wide research community and contribute to addressing Societal Challenges

The VA prioritisation panel was a team of world expert natural sciences and digital collections professionals. 

After prioritisation was confirmed, projects were funded in accordance with their priority ranking. Due to high demand, only c.20% of projects were funded. 

Developing Virtual Access

There were two VA Calls in SYNTHESYS+, each with a total budget of c.€400,000. This is a pilot for the Virtual Access initiatives of DiSSCo, and lessons learned will inform the work of the DiSSCo project. DiSSCo will expand on the legacies of SYNTHESYS and inherit much of the Joint Research Activities (JRA), and Networking Activities (NA) – a scope of programme objectives that include the development of new collections technologies and molecular and digital standards.

Now is an important time to consider how collections can best be digitised and serve the needs of the research community. An assessment of the world’s largest collections showed that only a fraction (4.5–18% for the eight largest collections) have been digitised. VA in SYNTHESYS+ will address this critical gap, helping insitutions to increase their proportion of digital collections in response to strong demand by current, emerging, and new user communities – and ensure free access to all users and data for those engaged in natural history and collections science. 

The results of Call 1 of Virtual Access:  

  1. Data mobilisation for IUCN conservation assessments of global freshwater bioindicators
  2. Digitization of wild bees (Hymenoptera: Antophila) in the collection of the Finnish Museum of Natural History (LUOMUS)
  3. COVID-19 Chiropteran knowledge base
  4. Digitization of Greenlandic peat moss (Sphagnum) collections
  5. Digitization of Dianthus collections

1. Data mobilisation for IUCN conservation assessments of global freshwater bioindicators

Participating institutions: NHM, RMCA, MfN

The IPBES 2019 report states that over a million species are threatened with extinction, and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Freshwater habitats cover less than 1% of the planet’s surface and support up to 10% of known species. Freshwater invertebrates play a vital role as standard indicators of water and habitat health, and while the distribution of species is relatively well known in Europe, there are still gaps in our knowledge. Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, Trichoptera (EPT) rely on good quality water and surrounding terrestrial habitats directly to complete their life cycles and sustain healthy populations. Despite the importance for biomonitoring, as prey items for fish and birds, and their cultural significance, over 20,000 species of EPT have largely been overlooked when considering the conservation of freshwater invertebrates. As a result, a new IUCN SSC Specialist Group for Mayflies, Stoneflies and Caddisflies has been formed to help tackle these issues and one of the first steps is mobilising existing data. Museum collections therefore represent a huge, untapped resource of information on the distribution and life histories of freshwater insects. 

2. Digitization of wild bees in the collection of the Finnish Museum of Natural History (LUOMUS)

Participating institutions: LUOMUS

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a world-wide report on the status of pollinators in 2016. This report highlighted the poor status and decline of numbers of pollinators in many countries. In Finland the status of pollinators is poorly known, and there has been no monitoring of pollinator populations. An ongoing nationally funded project “Status and monitoring of pollinators and the economic value of pollination for agriculture in Finland” (acronym PÖLYHYÖTY) is currently investigating and calculating long-term trend indices for wild bee species occurring in Finland. An obstacle for this goal has, however, been the lack of information on the occurrence of bees older than the last ca. 30 years. A solution to this problem are the natural history collections, the most important being the collection of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, where ca. 60 000 wild bee specimens from different times and different areas across Finland are deposited. The suggested VA project aims at digitizing these collections to allow calculation of population trends of wild bees in Finland across a period of several decades.

3. COVID-19 Chiroptera knowledge base

Participating institutions: HMNH, RMCA, MfN, MNHN, NMP, NHM, NHMW, SMNS, Senckenberg

Amidst the pandemic caused by the pathogen SARS-CoV-2, the virus’s animal origin is a critical mystery to solve. More than 200 novel coronaviruses have been found in bats so far, and cca. 35% of bat virome sequenced to date is composed of coronaviruses. But still only a fraction of the known species of the second most speciose order of mammals have been screened for viruses. Of the Coronaviridae family the most similar virus to the one which causes the recent pandemic was found in a common Southeast Asian horseshoe bat species, Rhinolophus affinis. Experts of the CETAF’s COVID-19 Taskforce have suggested to accumulate our present knowledge on the distribution, viral information and basic ecological demands not only of the horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae) but also the phylogenetically most closely related families, Hipposideridae and Rhinonycteridae. Some recent studies in viruses were not always rigorous enough to deposit the study material in publicly available collections (which, among other advantages, makes the identification testable). However, it is essential to know if material currently preserved in collections can be useful for subsequent virus studies. For this reason, a list of material (more than 20 thousand specimens of the above families estimated) housed in European collections participating in the Synthesys+ virtual access call, would be essential.

4. Digitization of Greenlandic peat moss (Sphagnum) collections

Participating institutions: SNM, NHMW, BGM

Due to its large gradients in latitude, temperature and humidity, and fast-changing environments, Greenland is a key Arctic region to study ongoing changes in polar regions. Sphagnum peat mosses play a key role in polar tundra and wetland ecosystems in terms of biomass, carbon sequestration and nitrogen fixation. The peat-forming Sphagnum wetlands are of global importance as the largest carbon sinks on land. However, most studies investigating changes in the Arctic flora focus on Greenland’s vascular flora, despite the importance of bryophytes, and in particular the peat mosses, in the Arctic ecosystem. We hereby seek funding to digitise the labels of about 4450 Greenlandic Sphagnum moss collections (~26 species) at the herbaria at Copenhagen (C, c. 4200 specimens), Vienna (W, c. 150), Meise (BR, c. 50) and Leiden (L, c. 50). This effort would lead to a more than 3.5 times global increase in digitised Greenlandic Sphagnum specimens.

5. Digitization of Dianthus collections

Participating institutions: HNHM, NHMW, NMP, RBGE, HUJI, RGBK, BGM

Dianthus (Caryophyllaceae) is one of the most diverse plant genera in Europe. It is distributed throughout Eurasia and Africa (approx. 500 taxa), with about 200 taxa occurring only in Europe. A checklist for the region was provided in the Euro+Med Plant Base by Marhold (2011). Historical materials from the 18th to 20th century are mostly located in European herbaria. To get a more representative picture of these Dianthus collections we propose to digize this genus in important herbaria such as Hungarian Natural History Museum (BP), National Museum Prague (PR) and Natural History Museum Vienna (W) and other herbaria participating in the joint herbarium management JACQ. Dianthus is a very complex genus, with highly polymorphic groups and high intraspecific diversity and a complex record of several thousand names. 

The results of Call 2 of Virtual Access:  

  1. Wheat Through the Ages
  2. Bryozoa Identification Tool (BIT) For Quaternary and Recent Mediterranean And North Atlantic Bryozoans
  3. Harmonizing verbatim names in digitized collections – the Krantz material as a model
  4. Monitoring Climate Change, Environmental Pressure on biodiversity and Invasiveness using Xenopus as a model system
  5. Accelerating taxonomic progress on the large rainforest genus Cyrtandra

1. Wheat Through the Ages

Participating institutions: NHM, RBGK, HUJI


2. Bryozoa Identification Tool (BIT) For Quaternary and Recent Mediterranean And North Atlantic Bryozoans

Participating institutions: NHM, MNHN, CSIC(MNCN), NHMW, MfN, HUJI


3. Harmonizing verbatim names in digitized collections – the Krantz material as a model

Participating institutions: LUOMUS, NMP, NHMW, CSIC(MNCN), NHM, SMNS, HUJI, MNHN, NRM, MfN


4. Monitoring Climate Change, Environmental Pressure on biodiversity and Invasiveness using Xenopus as a model system

Participating institutions: RBINS, RMCA, UCPH


5. Accelerating taxonomic progress on the large rainforest genus Cyrtandra

Participating institutions: RBGK, RBGE, NHMW, UCPH


Participating organisations

Click on each organisation to learn more about their collection. 

Virtual Access FAQ

Have a question about Virtual Access? Our Frequently Asked Questions page may have the answer. 

Click here to read Virtual Access FAQs

Find your VA Coordinator

  • Natural History Museum, London:
  • Natural History Museum Wien: Maria Marschler,
  • Meise Botanic Garden:  
  • Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences: Patrick Semal.
  • Royal Museum Central Africa:   
  • Narodni Museum Prague: Jiri Frank
  • Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin: Frederik Berger.
  • Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum: Robert Vogt.
  • Naturmuseum Senckenberg: Marco Thines.
  • Staatliches Museum fur Naturkunde Stuttgart, Joachim Holstein.  
  • Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig Bonn, Katherina Wipfler
  • University Copenhagen: Martin Vinther Sorensen.
  • Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas: Begona Sanchez.
  • LUOMOS, Anne Koivunen.
  • Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris & 

  • Hebrew University Jerusalem, Rivka Ribanovich,
  • Hungarian Natural History Museum, Bernadett Dome 
  • Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Steffen Kiel. 
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, Elspeth Haston.
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Sarah Phillips.