Citizen Science

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Citizen Science


Rebecca Blood: "Wide adoption of the Internet has fueled a resurgence of citizen science. Cornell's Project Feeder Watch employs 16,000 volunteers across North America who record their sightings on a website that will automatically ask them to double-check if they report sighting a bird that normally does not range in their area. In Canada, Frogwatch has set up systems for reporting and mapping observations so that volunteers can see the results of their input immediately.And Earthdive is working on a global scale, allowing recreational divers and snorkellers to record their experiences. Members can search and explore dives, snorkel trips, science logs, and personal experiences recorded all over the world. By including sightings of key indicator species during their dives and trips, Earthdive members are creating a daily global snapshot of the state of our planet's oceans." (


"While there are dozens of Web sites and projects dedicated to the "citizen science" movement, they tend to fall under one of three categories.

  • The first are computer programs that run on idle computers. These programs use the extra computing power for folding protein structures, looking for extraterrestrial life and everything in between.
  • The second type involves a bit more work on the volunteers part, asking them to map, photograph or identify geographical areas they know well.
  • And, the third and most diverse category is the 'field reporter' category, where volunteers are encouraged to observe birds, insects or plants in their neighborhoods or backyards and contribute data to larger tracking projects."



Todd Hanson:

"Involving citizens in science, however, is more complicated than one might expect. Simply giving, or in some cases selling, instruments to someone to collect data with, or involving groups of people in data processing, may give some nonscientists a sense of participation, but this is not genuine involvement. To be truly beneficial to all parties involved, citizen science requires a principled approach in which the critical standards, beliefs and behaviors of science are supported by competent, methodical, ethical, and intellectually balanced actions. A principled approach means bringing amateurs and professionals together in ways that truly work and matter.

Led by the Natural History Museum in London, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA), for example, has developed the Ten Principles of Citizen Science to help guide the field. It defines a principled citizen science as being genuine, meaningful, and mutually beneficial both to citizens and professional scientists, with the research they do not only generating new knowledge or understanding, but giving the citizen scientists active participation in multiple stages of the scientific process, if they desire. In this approach, citizen scientists are not confined to data processing or other activities that do not allow genuine participation in the research.

While all of the principles of the ECSA statement are important, three of them struck me as particularly noteworthy. The first is that citizen science should be considered a unique scientific research approach with its own limitations and biases that should be considered and controlled for in the research. To me, this is an interestingly honest acknowledgement that citizen science does differ from professional scientific research, yet is not seen as inferior or second-rate. While controlling for biases and limitations may seen tedious or difficult, it is at this point that the professional scientist earns his or her keep by formulating a research approach that accommodates them.

The second noteworthy aspect of the ECSA statement is the demand for acknowledgement of the work of the citizen scientists in resulting research publications. In science, publications are the lifeblood of practice. The protocols, traditions, and rituals that govern scientific communication and publication are the stuff about which ethnographic dissertations are written and even slight changes to a such a ritualized tradition can be culturally traumatic to its long term practitioners. However, if the principled values of science practice are to be upheld in citizen science, then the contributions of all, including citizen scientists, must be acknowledged in public and in print.

Finally, the ECSA statement expects the public availability of research project data and open access publishing to be part of citizen science practices. Here, the ESCA has stipulated one of the most fundamental tenets of scientific research, transparency, as a mandate of citizen science. Without it, citizen scientists can be exploited with no substantive intellectual involvement in a science project.

Not to be overshadowed by European efforts, the Citizen Science Association (CSA) provides an equally principled approach to constructing what it calls “a community of practice for the field of public participation in scientific research.” CSA has made its mission the advancement of citizen science through communication, coordination, and education, with goals of (1) establishing a global community of practice for citizen science, (2) advancing the field of citizen science through innovation and collaboration, and (3) promoting the value and impact of citizen science. Additional goals include (4) providing access to tools and resources that further best practices, (5) supporting communication and professional development services, and (6) fostering diversity and inclusion within the field of citizen science.

Ultimately the rise of citizen science has the potential to reshape the landscape of scientific research practice. As the ECSA has noted, effective, inclusive citizen science that is genuine, meaningful, and mutually beneficial is a scientific research approach with its own limitations and biases that must be considered and controlled for in research design. It is science practiced differently in order to mutually benefit from both the opportunities for public engagement it provides and the democratization of science it engenders. Things are bound to change as citizen science continues to grow.

Meanwhile, other efforts are underway to to build the field that make it much quicker and easier for citizen scientists to connect with professional researchers, and contribute to research." (



Citizen Science as an alternative to centralized Big Science

In this NYT editorial, Aaron Hirsh first describes the inevitability of Big Science approaches as scienfific communities grow, but also argues in the second part, that distributed citizen science is an alternative way to achieve bigness wihout centralization:

"if Big Science is what it takes to gather the truly precious data, what are we to do?

There is another way to extend our scientific reach, and I believe it can also restore some of what is lost in the process of centralization. It has been called Citizen Science, and it involves the enlistment of large numbers of relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific data. To return to our architectural metaphor, if Big Science builds the high-rise yet higher, Citizen Science extends outward the community of villages.

For me, an especially inspiring example of Citizen Science is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Every winter, from mid December to early January, tens of thousands of intrepid hobbyists fan out across North America, and together, they do their best to answer two basic questions: How many birds are there? And what kinds?

It’s a simple sort of data, to be sure, but it is nonetheless scientifically invaluable. The CBC dataset now covers 109 years, and this remarkable temporal extent, along with geographic range that spans the continent, enables scientists to address questions that would otherwise be as inaccessible as a Higgs boson. Just in the past few years, scientists have used the CBC dataset to track the emergence and impact of West Nile virus, to understand the ecological effects of competition between introduced species and to measure the shift that birds make toward the poles in response to global warming.

The CBC is surely a glowing exemplar, but there are many other cases of Citizen Science in action. Even underwater, a snorkeling citizen can serve science by taking down a few notes, which he’ll enter into a website when he returns to shore. The Internet is a natural medium for Citizen Science — widely distributed yet highly organized, it’s the ultimate network of villages — and an initiative known as The Encyclopedia of Life has called upon the world’s hobbyists to contribute their sundry discoveries to a Web-based library of species: one page per organism, featuring photos, taxonomy, natural history, even ecology.

Of course, Citizen Science won’t be very helpful in genome sequencing or particle physics. But it will be helpful — indeed, perhaps essential — for gathering a kind of data that will be increasingly important over the next few decades. Widespread networks of observers are especially well-suited to detecting global change — shifts in weather patterns; movements in the ranges of species; large-scale transformations of eco-systems — and that, unfortunately, is something we will need to know far more about if we are to mitigate and adapt to the fateful effects we are having on the planet.

In the end, though, what may be most important about Citizen Science is what it could mean for the relationship between citizens and science. When everyone is gathering data, that rather austere and forbidding tower becomes a shared human pursuit. In 1963, Alvin Weinberg, who was then the director of Oak Ridge, likened Big Science to the greatest monuments civilizations have ever built: the cathedrals of medieval Europe; the pyramids of Egypt.

But just as we build higher our temples of scientific investigation, so too should we strengthen their foundations, and broaden their congregations. Perhaps the new administration, which has already proven itself so skilled in using the Internet to coordinate broad networks of volunteers, ought to consider a national initiative in Citizen Science. It would provide us with timely data, and it would make us better citizens." (

2. Dan McQuillan:

"There are interesting weaknesses at the core of scientific hegemony. While most scientists choose to present their practice publicly as an infallible machine for the production of truths, the opinions behind the curtain are far more mixed, and for good reason. Even hard science is not immune to distortion by group-think and social pathologies – witness Lee Smolin’s account of the ascendance of string theory. And while reproducability is the bedrock of scientific authority, asserting that the same experiments always get the same results irrespective of who is doing the experiment, a 2012 study of landmark results in cancer science was able to reproduce only 11 per cent of the original findings. But the unresolved fractures go further back. As Isabelle Stengers would have it, at least back to the confrontation more than a hundred years ago between Max Planck and Ernst Mach. While Mach wanted formulations that tied physical laws to the human practices that produced them, Planck argued successfully for ‘the physicists faith’ in truths that are unbounded by time, space or social-material specifics. Even many years after my PhD in experimental particle physics I can remember the shared certainty that, whatever about art and culture, it was we who were probing the real truths of the universe. Although contemporary understandings of science are based on Planck’s version, citizen science practices have the potential to re-open these questions in a productive manner.

So what practices is it that could produce a more punk science from the community choirs of citizen science? There are projects like the Extreme Citizen Science research group (ExCiteS) who see citizen science as “a situated, bottom-up practice” that “takes into account local needs, practices and culture”. Or the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science which involves communities all the way from framing the research questions, to prototyping tools, to collating and interpreting the measurements. Public Lab’s mission is to “put scientific inquiry at the heart of civic life” and ExCiteS strives for “new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world”. All these projects re-appropriate networked technologies, whether to enable environmental monitoring by indigenous communities in the Congo or by developing do-it-yourself spectrometry kits to detect crude oil pollution. The Kosovo Science for Change project, where I am a researcher, has adopted the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire as the starting point for our empirical investigations. Critical pedagogy is learning as the co-operative activity of understanding how our lived experience is constructed by power, and how to make a difference in the world.

There’s a chance, at least, that these currents could coalesce in to what Deleuze and Guattari referred to a smooth or nomadic science; one which does not have the ambition to totalise knowledge. Nomadic science is a form of empirical investigation that has no need to be hooked up to a grand narrative. The concept of nomadic science is a natural fit for bottom-up citizen science because it can valorise truths that are non-dual and that go beyond objectivity to include the experiential. As there is no a priori exclusion of provisional knowledges, it naturally inclines towards the local, the situated and the culturally reflective. The apparent unreliability of citizen science in terms of participants and tools, which is solely a source of anxiety at the moment, could become heuristic for nomadic science when re-cast through the forgotten alternatives like Mach’s formulation; that truths are never separated from the specifics of the context and process that produced them. In this sense, if in no other, a nomadic citizen science has the potential to carry through on the hopes that Roszak had for the counterculture; the renewal of a visionary imagination along with a more human sense of community." (

This post is based on the paper ‘The Countercultural Potential of Citizen Science’ which appeared in M/C Journal, Vol. 17, No. 6 (2014)

Collaboration between experts and amateurs

Citizen science projects pose the problem of accuracy and the cooperation between experts and amateurs.

By Adam Glenn at

See our entry on Citizen Journalism for extra context:

"I think such citizen science projects offer valuable models that can be applied to citizen media projects:

1. Rigorous data collection. The Bird Count uses carefully developed methodologies to avoid spoiling data with inaccurate or duplicate information. Likewise, citizen journalists can establish and disseminate guides for reporting and photography standards -- especially regarding verifiable info such as names, quotes, attribution, numbers and the like.

2. Pooling and verifying cumulative results. The sheer volume of overall data collected in the Bird Count ensures that, if any contaminated info does sneak in, it won't unacceptably distort the final result. That's an important lesson for citizen journalism sites, harking back to the journalistic principle of verifying information with multiple sources. Ideally, citJ projects should seek multiple iterations of information -- for example, requiring that assertions by one contributor be verified by others.

3. Vetting amateurs. Even small hurdles like registration forms and minimal fees can weed out the unworthy, while extensive mandatory training can seriously raise the level of contributions (as well as the cost, unfortunately). It's worth considering whether citJ sites might benefit from mandatory online tutorials, accuracy checklists or story forms to make sure vital info isn't left out of submissions.

4. Expert-amateur interaction. Most citizen science projects aim to pair the novice with either experienced amateurs or experts themselves, fostering mentoring relationships that ultimately improve the data. Why shouldn't experienced citizen journalists (or professional journalists associated with new media or even mainstream media) provide the same mentoring? This could be done via workshops, in-the-field training, online editing, or other means. If the gains in media democratization aren't enough for you, how about the ways in which the resulting bond with the community and its most active news consuming members could pay off in loyalty to the news product?" (

Citizen Science Differs from Crowdsourcing

"the distinction made between crowdsourcing and citizen science, by Yale-based astrophysicist and Galaxy Zoo founder Kevin Schawinski:

“We prefer to call this [Galaxy Zoo] citizen science because it’s a better description of what you’re doing; you’re a regular citizen but you’re doing science. Crowd sourcing sounds a bit like, well, you’re just a member of the crowd and you’re not; you’re our collaborator. You’re pro-actively involved in the process of science by participating.”

On comparisons between Galaxy Zoo and [email protected], [email protected], etc., etc., etc.:

“Galaxy Zoo volunteers do real work. They’re not just passively running something on their computer and hoping that they’ll be the first person to find aliens. They have a stake in science that comes out of it, which means that they are now interested in what we do with it, and what we find.” (

The role of Citizen Science in participatory 'precision medicine'

Krishanu Saha:

"citizen science efforts have also begun to achieve something that is crucial to the future of personalized, or “precision,” medicine. A cornerstone of such medicine, according to a 2011 National Research Council (NRC) report, is a dense “knowledge network” (i.e., biobank), built by “mining” genomic, phenotypic, health, behavioral, and environmental data from many people. Indeed, former National Cancer Institute director John Neiderhuber has predicted a near future in which “every citizen” will contribute biosamples to biobanks and funnel health data into a centralized databank via biosensors linked to smartphones.

Yet, few will submit to being “mined” in this way. The NRC report notes that to realize such a vision, there must be a “gradual elimination of institutional, cultural, and regulatory barriers to widespread sharing of the molecular profiles and health histories of individuals.” But this emphasis on overcoming barriers neglects that such a knowledge network is necessarily also a social network, a network that connects people, whether they are the people who experience disease or the people who study it. The robustness of the knowledge network will depend on social connections—on the relationships, rules, and forms of trust that hold it together. Far from “barriers” to be removed, these are connections that must be built.

This has been well demonstrated by some citizen science projects, which stand or fall on the strength of the social networks that underlie them. Though far from perfect, these projects begin to sketch the outlines of an altered social contract between science and society—one that is open, participatory, and dependent on the collective energy of the community.

A key barrier to forging similar relationships in mainstream research is the dominant approach to informed consent. The consent process tends to treat participants as outsiders to the projects that depend on them. Signing the form is often the first and last interaction between participants and the research enterprise. These practices engender exceptionally weak social connections between donors and research: the focus is on mining information, not forging relationships.

Some have proposed that the ethical rules governing biobanking should encourage broad consent—or eliminate the need for it altogether. A better solution lies in the opposite direction. Mainstream research should invite forms of participation that treat donors as citizens committed to achieving a public good, not as repositories of informatic gold, ripe for mining. Thanks to continually evolving network technology, participants could easily remain connected to research, electing personalized privacy protections or providing additional study-specific data upon the researchers’ request via flexible web-portals. Such a system would recognize the right and the competency of participants who have given material from their bodies to govern that material’s future uses. It would give participants a means to do more than the minimum, and the authority to say no when research goals do not comport with their values or preferences.

By seeing how their contributions are used, participants would gain a window into knowledge-in-progress, opening the black box of research to reveal just how far there is to go, and that getting there depends on a collective effort. It would also offer a more dynamic—and more honest—picture of science, balancing hope with realism. It would clarify the essential roles (and responsibilities) of scientists, patients, and research participants in advancing science. It would move beyond a model that treats the asymmetry in expertise between scientists and citizens as a justification for asymmetry in research governance. And it would build public trust in science by entrusting the public with a central role in shaping the future of biomedical research.

Science and citizens should not occupy separate worlds: by strengthening the role of citizens in science, science too will be strengthened." (

How to increase the trustworthiness of Citizen Science data

John Gollan:

"Citizen science occurs when data for scientific research is collected by members of the public in a voluntary capacity. Public participation in environmental projects, in particular, has been described as a global phenomenon.

But there is a stigma associated with these types of projects. The data collected are often labelled untrustworthy and biased. Research in this area continues to show however, that data collected by what is essentially a non-professional workforce, are comparable to those collected by professional scientists.

Provided steps are in place to deal with data integrity, we have much to gain by putting more trust in citizen scientists.

Across the globe thousands of people collect data on everything from counts of stars in distant galaxies to the timing of flowering events. Volunteers have long been collecting data on the health of coral reefs, and ornithologists encourage volunteers to collect data on bird migration.

Citizen science has benefits for scientists – including an inexpensive and potentially large labour force – and citizens, who get knowledge and fulfilment. These schemes expose people to the environment and develop the stewardship ethic.

But what motivates my interest in this area is the potential to create a more scientifically literate society; building the capacity for people to take information they receive in their everyday lives and then being able to make informed choices based on the what they have learned. Those choices could be anything from the products they buy as consumers or the political parties they support.

While citizen science projects vary in their study subjects, the ecosystem of interest and objectives of the research, they all face one important challenge that jeopardises their success, sustainability, integrity and in general, acceptance in the wider scientific community. Many scientists question the quality, reliability and in general, the utility of data.

Evidence for the stigma associated with citizen science projects comes from different sources. One was a long standing community-based program to survey diversity of bird species. Researchers found the estimated numbers of birds changed through time simultaneously with changes in the observers. It was concluded that the trends detected were not likely to represent real changes in bird abundance, but were more likely due to prejudices of the individual observers.

The negative perception of citizen projects is not new. Twenty years ago, the use of volunteer data came into the international spotlight when an amendment was made to prohibit the US National Biological Survey from accepting the work of volunteers. This was supported by two arguments in the House of Representatives declaring that volunteers are incompetent and biased.

Are volunteers’ data that bad?

Questions over data integrity continue to this day. It’s surprising, because a growing body of literature shows that data collected by citizens are comparable to those of professional scientists.

For example, researchers have detected no differences between field samples of aquatic invertebrates that were collected and identified by volunteers and professionals. A similar study showed that data collected by volunteers and scientists agreed 96% of the time.

Both studies concluded that volunteers could collect reliable data and make assessments that were comparable to those made by highly trained professionals.

My own research on vegetation metrics collected as part of ecosystem restoration projects also showed that the degree of agreement of data collected by volunteers can be as good as those recorded by professional scientists.

Results showed that scientists as a collective group collected data that was in closer agreement with “the truth” than those of volunteers. But when data collected by individuals were analysed, some volunteers collected data that were in similar or closer agreement to the truth, than scientists. Both groups’ estimates were in closer agreement for particular attributes than others, also suggesting that some attributes are more difficult to estimate or are more subjective than others.

An important message from these studies is that data-integrity issues can occur. But it’s just a matter of honing in on those particular issues and addressing them if necessary. This can be through training to improve skill sets or calibrating data where possible.

It should not be a case of blaming the citizens. The scientist behind such programs should have checks in place – citizen science project or otherwise!" (



  1. Good examples are listed here at
  2. Science Cheerleader has a directory of amateur science activity

Some other examples:

  1. distributed proofreading for Project Gutenberg, at #Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, #NASA Clickworkers, ;
  2. SETI
  3. Christmas Bird Count
  4. Foldit‎: Citizen Science project in the field of biology [1]
  5. Project Implicit‎: Citizen Science project in the field of psychology [2]
  6. Galaxy Zoo‎ astronomy

Related movements:

  1. DNA Hacking ; Biohacking ; DIY Bio

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