What is Citizen Science?

For better or worse citizen science has become a fashionable term, but what is it and why do people like it? Citizen Science is a big component in a larger movement of public participation and engagement. There are makers and hackers everywhere and participation in science feels like it is increasing in general. This is great, and means citizen science is of growing importance.


I work at the Zooniverse. We have a community of more than 850,000 people, who have taken part in more than 20 citizen science projects over the years. You can see the current batch at zooniverse.org. Last year the Zooniverse received more than 50 years of human effort (and that wasn’t our highest year so far) and our sites span a wide a range of scientific subjects. People seem to really like them. They’re well-designed and thought-through. They aim to produce real results and slowly but surely they are doing just that (see zooniverse.org/publications).

At a recent event on citizen science in education, hosted by the British Science Association, I was invited to speak about what citizen science is. This was actually quite difficult. There are projects out there that call themselves citizen science but which I would instinctively say were not so – and probably vice-versa. For example, I don’t think that downloading a screensaver to process someone else’s data is citizen science. Recently I’ve found myself debating the particulars with people. If I had to try to define it, I’s say that

Citizen science is a contribution by the public to research, actively undertaken and requiring thoughtful action.

The Zooniverse is about breaking down tasks into understandable components that anyone can perform. We rarely abstract the problem and always try to keep context in frame. You can know (if you want to) that you’re classifying galaxies or cancer cells or ancient papyri and you can also know why. Citizen Science projects often involve non-professionals taking part one or more of the following:

  • Crowdsourcing
  • Mass-participation
  • Data collection (only one we don’t do yet)
  • Data analysis

Fold.it and Eyewire are both excellent examples of crowdsourced data-analysis (much like the Zooniverse) and eBird is a great crowdsourced data collection project. The new Randomise Me site allows you to set up a mass-participation data collection project. In all these cases, people know what they’re taking part in. The Blackawton Bees paper is a perfect example of citizen science that wasn’t based on mass-participation or crowdsourcing – but was both data collection and analysis (by kids!). All are fabulous examples of citizen science.

At the very least: citizen science has to involve ‘citizens’ or volunteers. Over the past few years at the Zooniverse we’ve learned a lot about our volunteers, and why they take part and give up their time. We’ve learned that, above all, people want to make a contribution to science. I think it’s easy to understand why people want to make a meaningful donation of their time and I think it’s heartening that this is the case. We have learned that on the web, participation is more unequal than the least equal societies in the real world, with the distribution of effort in our own projects being comparable to projects like Wikipedia or Twitter or countless others. This means that most users do little and some users do staggering amounts but that this is fine online. We have also learned that scale is relevant. Sometimes you need 500 people, sometimes you need 500,000. You should know before you embark on your project.

The aim of citizen science ought to be to undertake research and discovery. That is surely wrapped up in its definition as a subset of science. It is not outreach or education – which our sites are often confused with in academia. The goal of outreach and education are to inform and teach, and in many cases citizen science can be used as a tool to do so. That intersection fascinates me but I’m not an educator and I’m starting to think that it is only educators who are able to successfully bring this stuff into the classroom, lecture theatre or tutorial. But that’s another post altogether [1].

Above all we’ve learned that you don’t just launch projects and cross your fingers; it’s 2013: that time has passed. The web is a sophisticated place and an awesome citizen science site can go far and do a lot of good work. Sadly it is also possible for a site to attract a lot of attention (and clicks) but never do anything useful at all. Of paramount importance is the concept of authenticity. Genuine participation in science is essential in an era when such a thing is possible. Our mantra at the Zooniverse is that we should never waste people’s time. Now that it has been convincingly shown that the public can contribute to research via the web, it is incumbent on new web-based projects to keep the bar raised and the standard high.

We are at the beginning a citizen science renaissance online. After hundreds of years as the purview of bug-collectors and bird-watchers (all very important work, I hasten to add), we are finally able to tap into the cognitive surplus [2] and attempt truly distributed research. I’m looking forward to seeing how it can be taken to the next level – and hopefully to being a part of it.

[1] or just take a look at Zoo Teach as an example of facilitating educators rather than asking them to use your own materials.

[2] FWIW I actually prefer Shirky’s ‘Here Comes Everybody


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