Network for Information and Digital Access

Citizen Science (CS)

By the mid-20th century, science was dominated by researchers employed by universities and government research laboratories. Subsequent calls for a democratization of science in the tradition of nature-loving amateur like Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Buffon, and Darwin, have led to the evolution of Citizen Science (CS) over the past four decades.

Citizen Science is now usually defined as scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions. This type of public engagement in scientific research activities involves citizens actively contributing to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources. Large volunteer networks of non-scientists often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means. Participants provide and interpret experimental data and facilities for researchers, raise new questions and co-create a new scientific culture. 

In this process, volunteers acquire new learning and skills, and deeper understanding of the scientific work in an appealing way. Science-society-policy interactions are improved leading to a more democratic research, based on evidence-informed decision making and thereby supporting Science Literacy. Many Citizen Science projects serve education and outreach goals. These projects may be designed for a formal classroom environment or an informal education environment such as museums. Recent projects place more emphasis on scientifically sound practices and measurable goals for public education. 

The use of citizen science networks often allows scientists to accomplish research objectives more feasibly than would otherwise be possible. Answering big science questions around climate change and the diversity of life requires lots of data which researchers cannot gather alone.

Typologies of the level of citizen participation in citizen science, range between the following:

  • crowdsourcing: where the citizen acts as a sensor;
  • distributed intelligence:  where the citizen acts as a basic interpreter;
  • participatory science:  where citizens contribute to problem definition, data collection and data analysis.

Characteristic principles of a Citizen Science project include:

  • actively involving citizens in scientific endeavour that generates new knowledge or understanding;
  • having a genuine science outcome such as answering a research question or informing conservation action, management decisions or environmental policy;
  • both the professional scientists and the citizen scientists benefit from taking part through publication of research outputs, learning opportunities, personal enjoyment, social benefits, or satisfaction in contributing to scientific evidence;
  • citizen scientists receive feedback from the project: for example, how their data are being used and what the research, policy or societal outcomes are;
  • project data and metadata are made publicly available and, where possible, results are published in an open access format;
  • citizen scientists are acknowledged in project results and publications;
  • programmes are evaluated for their scientific output, data quality, participant experience and wider societal or policy impact;
  • project leaders take into consideration legal and ethical issues surrounding copyright, intellectual property, data sharing agreements, confidentiality, attribution, and the environmental impact of any activities.

Recent studies indicate that the largest impact of citizen science is in research on biology, conservation and ecology, and is utilized mainly as a methodology of collecting and classifying data. Citizen science networks are often involved in the observation of cyclic events of nature (phenology), such as effects of global warming on plant and animal life in different geographic areas. and in monitoring programs for natural resources. A growing number of Citizen Science projects take place in Africa, South America and elsewhere in the developing world.

Despite clear advantages, Citizen Science approaches have drawbacks related to, amongst other things, the reliability of data and statistical issues, which need to be acknowledged and remedied.

Technology is credited as one of the main drivers of the recent explosion of Citizen Science activity, by increasing the options: 

  • the Internet has been a boon to citizen science, particularly through gamification, enabling citizen scientists to gather data which will be analysed by professional researchers;
  • citizen scientists can build and operate their own instruments to gather data for their own experiments or as part of a larger project and learn how to investigate environmental concerns using inexpensive DIY techniques;  
  • video technology has enabled expanded citizen science; 
  • free and open source frameworks are common features of CS projects;
  • mobile technology and personal devices have further boosted the opportunities for citizen science: in the last few years, expanding even more rapidly with the development of smartphones, allowing more information to be shared through digital media;
  • Participants create and run projects where volunteers help with image classification, transcription, geocoding. Armed with phones that have built-in GPS receivers, volunteers can readily provide geo-location information about species or situations in real time. In the future, more phones could be outfitted with smart sensors, which would let people measure and record environmental data, such as air-quality levels and temperature readings.

Alternative definitions of Citizen Science place more emphasis on science communication and scientific citizenship: in this context, CS is more closely related to PAS (see above), including the idea of a scientist who are engaged in the democratic and policy processes and/or whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community. 

Likewise, CS projects aim to promote public engagement with the research, as well as with science in general. Collaboration in citizen science involves scientists and researchers working with the public. Community-based groups may generate ideas and engage with scientists for advice, leadership and program coordination.

Evidence is increasingly produced to demonstrate strong economic worth and monetary value in scientific fields such as biodiversity.  Ultimately, citizen science allows for more research to be accomplished globally and connects people in a worldwide environmental movement.

We welcome comments on the draft definitions of terms for Citizen Science with a view to their improvement and to come to a common understanding. Please complete this form.