What Does Citizen Science Mean To You?

April 2020 is Global Citizen Science Month. (Image credit: Citizen Science Association. CC-BY 4.0, Image Cropped)

What does citizen science mean to you? If you asked fifty people this question, you’d probably get fifty different answers. Citizen science—or, as it is sometimes called, community science—is increasingly common in scientific research, revolutionizing the way that many types of data are collected, but at the same time it can feel distinctly personal to those that participate in it.

Snapping a photo of a backyard tree each day to document the change in seasons … collecting a water quality sample from your neighborhood stream and sending it to a local lab for analysis … swiping through photos of outer space on your smartphone and identifying patterns among formations of stars—the experience of citizen science looks different for each person who participates in it.

Who are citizen scientists?

The common thread connecting these varied experiences is the citizen scientists themselves—that is, members of the public who choose to participate in scientific research that is outside the realm of their typical work. Although entire papers have been written discussing the nuances of the term ‘citizen science’, I like the simple definition put forth by the Citizen Science Association: “advancing knowledge through research and monitoring done by, for, and with members of the public”.

I like this definition because it puts the focus on the members of the public—the citizen scientists. Since citizen science is entirely voluntary, citizen science projects can’t exist without appealing to a group of participants. And motivations for participating in citizen science are incredibly diverse! People are motivated to participate in citizen science because they want to contribute to research, to solve a problem in their community, to learn something new, to meet others with shared interests, or just to occupy themselves for a few minutes here and there with a citizen science app on their phone.

What do citizen scientists do?

Because the term ‘citizen scientist’ refers to such a broad group of people, every citizen science project must be unique, designed to meet the needs of its participants and connect them with meaningful research. Most obviously, citizen science covers as wide a range of topics as does science itself; citizen scientists contribute to research in ecology, meteorology, geology, medicine, astronomy, and more. They have mapped stars across the galaxy and the microbes in their own belly buttons. They contribute to building global databases, and also drive science-based decision-making on local scales. In most cases, citizen scientists work alongside professional scientists, whose role in citizen science projects often includes project development, data quality control, data analysis, and communication of results.

In addition to covering a wide range of topics, citizen science offers a range of participant experiences. In some projects, participants are trained in rigorous data collection protocols and sign on for a long-term time commitment. Other projects are as simple as logging a data point or two into an app whenever the whim strikes. Each type of project offers a chance to contribute valuable data, and the variety of user experiences means that every potential volunteer can find a project that suits them.

At left, volunteers participate in a citizen science program to monitor changes in beach morphology, a project that entails rigorous training and a monthly commitment. At right, volunteers participate in a bioblitz, a one-time volunteer opportunity to help inventory the species in a given area. (Image credits: (left) Caitlin Mandeville, CC-BY 4.0; (right) Kate Wilcox / Nature Groupie.)

Contributing to global research

It makes sense to think of citizen science not as one single activity, but as a spectrum of ways for the public to participate in research. One well-known typology characterizes citizen science based on the degree to which the public participates in the scientific process, ranging from contributory to collaborative to co-created. In contributory citizen science, research projects are designed by professional scientists and the public participates mostly by contributing data. Species observation platforms like iNaturalist and online data collection games like fold.it are examples of contributory citizen science. These programs can collect a massive amount of data while offering a fun and educational user experience—just consider iNaturalist, which has amassed over 33 million species observations from nearly one million distinct observers!

Collaborating with communities

Moving along the spectrum, collaborative citizen science projects are still designed by professional scientists, but members of the public play a bigger role in project development or data analysis. These programs often produce results that are useful for community decision-making. Volunteer water quality monitoring is one common example of collaborative citizen science. Most volunteer water quality monitoring programs are coordinated by professional scientists, but a 2013 survey of 345 US-based monitoring programs confirmed that they tend to be highly collaborative; volunteers helped with sampling design in 49% of the surveyed programs, with data analysis in 40% of the programs, and with communicating their results in 64% of the programs. The survey also found that volunteer water quality monitoring tends to have a significant effect on local environmental decision-making, often informing the development of water quality regulations (~40% of programs), identifying of areas where water quality standards were not met (~70% of programs), and providing data to support funding for environmental protection or restoration (~60% of programs). And participants in water quality monitoring demonstrated their investment in the project through enhanced civic engagement, frequently attending public meetings or serving on boards related to natural resource management.

Volunteers collect water quality data in Nebraska, USA. (Image credit: US National Park Service, Public Domain.)

Co-creating local change

At the far end of the spectrum, co-created citizen science projects are often initiated by members of the public, typically to address community concerns. Co-created citizen science most often takes place at a local scale, and is often targeted towards direct policy- and decision-making rather than the peer-reviewed literature. This local scale may be one reason why it can sometimes (though not always!) be overlooked in some broader academic conversations about citizen science. But co-created citizen science is a critical part of citizen science movement, especially considering that an often-stated value of citizen science is its ability to democratize the scientific process. A few examples of co-created citizen science programs include the Gardenroots project to assess soil contamination in communities near a former mining site, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, and the educational guides developed by the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research to assist individuals in developing protocols to research microplastics in their own local water systems. Co-created citizen science can also take place at larger scales; take for example WeatherBlur, an online platform that aims to connect grassroots researchers looking into local environmental issues with resources and other individuals who are investigating similar subjects.

No matter where a citizen science project falls on the spectrum, there are some common themes. Members of the public participate in the collection of authentic data that will be used for scientific research, often gathering data at a scale that would be impossible for professional scientists to collect on their own. And this participation is voluntary, typically driven by a combination of social, altruistic, educational, or simply fun-seeking motivations.

If you’re intrigued, some resources to get you started exploring the world of citizen science are listed below. Have fun!

Resources to get started with citizen science

A collection of Youtube tutorials to get started on a variety of popular citizen science projects

The Crowd and the Cloud (a public television mini-series about citizen science)

iNaturalist tutorials

SciStarter (a platform to search for citizen science programs near you or that you can do from home)

Zooniverse (a massive collection of citizen science projects you can participate in from your own computer)

Citizen Science Association

European Citizen Science Association

This month on Ecology for the Masses, we’re celebrating Citizen Science month with a series of different articles highlighting different aspects of citizen science. Check out some of them below.

10 Great SciComm Twitter Games To Brighten Your Quarantine

Caitlin Mandeville is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studying conservation applications of citizen science species occurrence data. You can read about her research here and see more of her writing for Ecology for the Masses at her profile here.

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