Mapping the contours of citizen science

The relationship between science and society has changed profoundly over the course of history. Our changing world is gradually evolving towards a peer-to-peer society characterized by a new way of producing and exchanging, whether in the digital world or in the world of learning and research. These changes require a new role for science.

In recent years, the contribution of citizens towards scientific research has increased with the rise of the internet and the development of "crowdsourcing" (participatory knowledge production). Initiatives are multiplying and spreading in many scientific and technical fields: data collection for the description of the species of plants and animals, observation of the stars or celestial phenomena, climate and environmental records… By relying on simple and rigorous protocols, citizen science opens a new avenue for scientific and academic research in which everyone can be involved. The result is a considerable mutual contribution: on one hand enriching of knowledge production, and on the other hand training of citizens in scientific methods and challenges.

CRI has the objective to inspire and empower citizens willing to contribute to a positive future by encouraging an open culture and broad personal involvement on all levels and in all contexts. Therefore, it has a long-standing interest in citizen science projects such as developing a platform for collective citizen science in health, using peer production in citizen science, running a hackathon to invent the future of our water... It has also organised around one hundred events about citizen science as part of the European DITO’s project, with the aim of increasing citizen and political involvement in scientific research and innovation.

Nevertheless, citizen science are still little known to certain publics and their various fields of action raise many questions, particularly about the nature of citizens' contributions and, more generally, about the place they can claim to occupy in the production of knowledge.

Would you call this a citizen science activity?

Muki Haklay is co-director of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science, a research group which brings together scholars from diverse fields to promote, analyse, and improve every aspect of citizen science. He recently joined CRI as short-term fellow, to work on developing and assessing the characteristics of citizen science, as part of the EU-Citizen.Science project. His study aims to establish guidelines that can be used by research funders, policy bodies, and scientists to decide which activities they would like to consider as citizen science and under which conditions: What are the boundaries of this area? What are the aspects people agree or disagree about activities that should be called "citizen science"?

This issue which has policy implications, such as a decision by panels who are agreeing to fund scientific projects if something should be called citizen science and get funded or not.

A vignette study to make respondents active in research

To conduct their research, Muki and a team of people, such as partners on the project and CRI fellows, developed a method to think about what factors are important to consider if an activity is or not citizen science :

  • First, they identified, through collaborative workshops, the set of factors that might lead to confusion or disagreement - this is, for someone to question if the activity is citizen science.
  • Based on this, they developed around 50 short stories - vignettes - of about 70-100 words each which describe a wide range of things that involve the public in academic research.

An example for a vignette is :

  • Then, they set up a vignettes study in which people read each of the cases and express their point of view to what degree this activity is citizen science: is this citizen science? to what degree? and also think why they make this association (or not).

The qualitative information and responses received allowed them to see the levels of disagreement across cases and to understand what are the issues that people see as challenging or controversial within the field of citizen science. From there, they will develop a set of characteristics which can be used by people who need to make decisions, so they can choose which of them are important for their project and even establish criteria.

The aim of this survey is not to dictate what is citizen science and what it is not, but to allow for a wide range of activities that are part of it. Muki Haklay, wanted to adopt an approach which made the respondents be active in the research and think about the case. The vignette study permitted to embed a specific issue within a wider context (even if it’s very brief) by asking the questions in an implicit way. Vignette studies are a known type of survey, but no other example for an analysis about citizen science has used this approach so far.

Credit photo : Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Migratory Bird Day - Kyle Christensen Wildlands Conservancy

A set of guidelines useful for new areas of citizen science

Muki Haklay, had a lot of interactions with people at CRI throughout his fellowship. From working with L2 students interns who tried a pilot of the survey to the Executive Board, all have contributed to the design and implementation of this survey. The digital knowledge at CRI has been a highly valuable factor that enabled such research and made it easier to identify the right tool for it.

The survey, just completed after Christmas, with over 390 responses. The analysis will take place in early January. A set of guidelines will be issued by the end of January, with further discussions to take place in May.

These resulting characteristics will be useful for CRI activities to highlight initiatives developed in learning territories, in accordance with its Learning Planet project, a new area of citizen science.

The collaborations with the CRI research community is set to continue. There are already discussions on how UCL Extreme Citizen Science group and CRI can collaborate more closely and continue to have a dialogue about experiences and knowledge.

The partners