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Is citizen science the new black?

Is citizen science the new black?

By Katherine Mathieson, Director of Education for the British Science Association


Is citizen science merely hype, a fresh way of branding a type of volunteering that’s been around for ages? Or is technology driving new ways to engage public audiences?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as a result of the citizen science session at last month’s Science Communication Conference. I had the privilege of chairing a panel of three researchers and one communications professional who each had deep experience of running citizen science projects.

The panel was:

I opened the session by reflecting that ‘citizen science’ seems to be everywhere at the moment – it had cropped up in the Conference’s main sessions several times already – and asking “Is citizen science the new black?”.

The session was written up by Chris Rhodes, a researcher at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology – you can read more about the session here and about the overall conference here.

The speakers’ presentations and the Q&A session that followed made me think that in order to be taken seriously as a tool for public engagement and for research, proponents of citizen science will need to develop an evidence base about its effects – its weaknesses, as well as its strengths. This blog post contains a few of my thoughts and suggestions, prompted by the conference discussions about what makes a ‘good’ citizen science project.

What makes a project suitable for citizen science?

 Some research tasks aren’t suitable for members of the general public – Michael Pocock cited a project that would require people to search for caterpillars at the tops of trees, which would be impractical and perhaps unsafe. The amount of time that is being asked of a ‘citizen scientist’ is also important. A weekly commitment may be too much for some people to commit to, but may suit others.

 Rick Bonney has developed a model of three types of citizen science based on the degree of active involvement of the ‘citizens’:

  • Contributory projects – designed by professional scientists; members of the public primarily contribute data e.g. UK ladybird survey.
  • Collaborative projects - designed by professional scientists; members of the public contribute data and inform the way in which the questions are addressed, analyse data and disseminate findings e.g. GalaxyZoo.
  • Co-created projects - designed by professional scientists and members of the public working together. At least some of the volunteer participants are involved in most or all steps of the scientific process. An example is the GROW project in which teachers & pupils at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys are working with scientists to sequence a wheat gene.

If we know which category a particular project falls into, we can be clearer about what kind of role we’re expecting the public participants to have – and therefore how we measure the impact on those audiences.

Dual aims

Citizen science is a bit like a social enterprise which describes itself as having a ‘double bottom line’ aimed at producing both profit and benefits to society. Both aims are equally important; neither dominates. For citizen science, there is a public engagement goal and there is a research goal – neither is dominant, and both are equally important. A citizen science project that focuses only on the public engagement goals risks compromising the quality of the research data whereas a project that has the research goal as top priority risks failing to engage a wider audience.

Measuring the impact of public engagement with science may be tricky, as argued in this Wellcome Trust article, but that does not make public engagement a less worthy goal. Like the social enterprises trying to figure out more robust ways to measure social return on investment, we should invest time and energy in developing ways to measure the return on investments made in citizen science.


Citizen science can respond to issues in the media. In the conference session, Lisa Horton explained that the ‘ashtag’ app that enabled members of the public to report cases of ash dieback was produced within days of the disease appearing in the mainstream media. 

Citizen science can also respond to the interests of the citizen scientists themselves. For example, the Conker Tree Science project began by collecting data to address a hypothesis about the relationship between moths and leaves. Having answered its original research question, the project has now moved onto a different research question about birds which has been determined by the citizen researchers themselves.

The driving power of technology

In the Q&A session at the Conference, Noel Jackson, Head of Education at the Centre for Life, pointed out that volunteer involvement in nature surveys has been around for decades, and perhaps ‘citizen science’ is simply a rebranding. The panel agreed to an extent but pointed to the explosion of citizen science projects driven by technology.

Conker Tree Science is a good example of the opportunities offered by the incredible increase in mobile computing power in the hands of everyday citizens over recent years. It began as a website, which was interactive and straightforward to develop. But the Leaf Watch app generated much greater levels of interest (it’s had over 18,000 downloads to date) and because it enabled volunteers to take photos and record data in the field, the resulting data was more easily validated and more accurate.

In their publication ‘The Value of Citizen Science for Biodiversity’, the European Environment Agency notes the power of citizen science to build large datasets, including across large distances.

Complements/supports other modes of science communication

Earthworm scientist David Jones described his citizen science survey of soil and earthworms as a stimulus for meetings between scientists and members of the public – and it’s the face-to-face interactions that are the most important element of the engagement.

Recognising citizen scientists’ contribution

All of the session’s speakers commented on the importance of recognising citizen scientists’ contributions. The volunteers’ primary motivation is often a desire to contribute to scientific research, according to a paper currently being reviewed for Astronomy Education Review. Therefore it’s important that citizen science projects find ways to recognise volunteers’ contributions and demonstrate that they’re valued.

One possibility is to use the mechanisms developed by computer game designers to snag the brain’s attention and reward circuits. At the simplest level, this ‘gamification’ means offering badges and levels to mark progress through pre-set levels. Zooniverse’s ‘Notes from Nature’ is a relatively new citizen science project that asks volunteers to help transcribe the handwritten classifications and notes stored in botany collections. The project’s discussion board demonstrates that volunteers want to see their body of work building up over time, with clear rules on about any ‘badges’ or levels that can be obtained.

The Citizen Scientists’ League argue that volunteers should be able to accredit their work so it can count towards university entry requirements or even university courses.

However, there’s also the question of whether science ought to make provision for volunteers in the way that scientific knowledge is attributed. Should volunteers be listed as authors on scientific papers, for example? Zooniverse’s Galaxy Zoo website lists the names of over 180,000 people who have helped classify galaxies.

Some volunteers are more involved than others. This Nature article about citizen science describes a project in which a small number of ‘power users’ were contributing the majority of the data – one volunteer was responsible for 7% of all activity on the online platform. This is an immense contribution compared with, say, the half an hour I spent on a rainy Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago transcribing some botany labels with Notes from Nature. Perhaps some volunteers deserve more recognition than others?

Measuring success  

We already have established ways of measuring the success of research goals (publications, citations, the REF). Success measures for public engagement are more varied, as this Wellcome Trust article explains. But if there are ‘dual aims’ for a citizen science project, where both aims are equally important, then the public engagement aims need to be characterised as clearly as the research aims.

For example, a citizen science project might set out to achieve:

  • Media coverage – a target amount and quality
  • Data – a target amount and quality
  • Research – a journal publication
  • Public interest – numbers of app downloads or similar 

Other citizen science projects might be more interested in engaging with specific audiences e.g. young people in schools. Or a research publication might be a long way down the track and the project’s goal is simply to organise a large pool of data in a way that it can be interrogated in future research projects. For an organisation like Cancer Research UK, one of the goals might be to explore a different model of donation where volunteers donate their time in helping analyse data, instead of the more traditional donation of money. Although the exact goals will be different for each project, the importance of recognising these dual aims remains.

With grateful thanks to Chris Rhodes at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology who proposed the session. This blog post draws heavily on his detailed notes of the session.

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