Citizen science

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Scanning the cliffs near Logan Pass for mountain goats as part of the Glacier National Park Citizen Science Program.

Citizen science (CS) (also known as crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring or networked science) is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Formally, citizen science has been defined as "the systematic collection and analysis of data; development of technology; testing of natural phenomena; and the dissemination of these activities by researchers on a primarily avocational basis."[1] Citizen science is sometimes included in terms such as "public participation in scientific research", participatory monitoring and participatory action research.[2]


The term CS has multiple origins as well as differing concepts.[3] It was first defined independently in the mid-1990s by Rick Bonney in the U.S.A. and Alan Irwin in the U.K.[3][4][5] Alan Irwin defines CS when referring to: "His developing concepts of scientific citizenship which foregrounds the necessity of opening up science and science policy processes to the public".[3] Rick Bonney defines CS when referring to: "Public-participation engagement and science communication projects".[3]

The terms citizen science and citizen scientists entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014.[6] Citizen science is 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,[7] and citizen scientists, in the modern sense, are defined as "a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community" or "'a member of the general public who engages in scientific work, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions'" an amateur scientist.[7]

Prior to the term entering the Oxford English Dictionary the "Green Paper on Citizen Science: Citizen Science for Europe" was published and gave a definition for citizen science, referring to "the general public engagement in scientific research activities when citizens actively contribute to science either with their intellectual effort or surrounding knowledge or with their tools and resources. Participants provide experimental data and facilities for researchers, raise new questions and co-create a new scientific culture. While adding value, volunteers acquire new learning and skills, and deeper understanding of the scientific work in an appealing way. As a result of this open, networked and trans-disciplinary scenario, science-society-policy interactions are improved leading to a more democratic research, based on evidence-informed decision making as is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or non professional scientists."[8]

Citizen science may be performed by individuals, teams, or networks of volunteers. Citizen scientists often partner with professional scientists to achieve common goals. Large volunteer networks often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means.

Many citizen-science projects serve education and outreach goals.[9][10][11] These projects may be designed for a formal classroom environment or an informal education environment such as museums.

Citizen science has evolved over the past four decades. Recent projects place more emphasis on scientifically sound practices and measurable goals for public education.[12] Modern citizen science differs from its historical forms primarily in the access for, and subsequent scale of, public participation; technology is credited as one of the main drivers of the recent explosion of citizen science activity.[13]

Alternative definitions[edit]

Other definitions for Citizen Science have also been proposed. For example, Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University's Communication and S&TS departments describes 3 possible definitions:[14]

  • The participation of nonscientists in the process of gathering data according to specific scientific protocols and in the process of using and interpreting that data.[14]
  • The engagement of nonscientists in true decision-making about policy issues that have technical or scientific components.[14]
  • The engagement of research scientists in the democratic and policy process.[14]

Scientists and scholars who have used other definitions include Frank von Hippel, Stephen Schneider, Neal Lane and Jon Beckwith.[15][16][17] Other alternative terminologies proposed are "civic science" and "civic scientist."[18]

Further, Muki Haklay, offers an overview of the typologies of the level of citizen participation in citizen science, which range from 'crowdsourcing' (level 1) where the citizen acts as a sensor, to 'distributed intelligence' (level 2) where the citizen acts as a basic interpreter, to 'participatory science' where citizens contribute to problem definition and data collection (level 3) to 'extreme citizen science' which involves collaboration between the citizen and scientists in problem definition, collection and data analysis [19]

A 2014 Mashable article defines a citizen scientist as: ″Anybody who voluntarily contributes his or her time and resources toward scientific research in partnership with professional scientists."[20]

Related fields[edit]

Some projects, such as SETI@home, use the Internet to take advantage of distributed computing. These projects are generally passive. Computation tasks are performed by volunteers' computers and require little involvement beyond initial setup. There is disagreement as to whether these projects should be classified as citizen science.

The astrophysicist and Galaxy Zoo co-founder Kevin Schawinski stated: "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."[21]

Compared to SETI@home, "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."[21]

Citizen policy may be another result of citizen science initiatives. Johanna Varner (pen name SciCurious) writes: "If citizens are going to live with the benefits or potential consequences of science (as the vast majority of them will), it’s incredibly important to make sure that they are not only well informed about changes and advances in science and technology, but that they also...are able to...influence the science policy decisions that could impact their lives."[22]


In a research report published by the U.S. National Park Service in 2008, Brett Amy Thelen and Rachel K. Thiet mention the following concerns, previously reported in the literature, about the validity of volunteer-generated data:[23]

  • Some projects may not be suitable for volunteers, for instance when they use complex research methods or require arduous or repetitive work.[23]
  • If volunteers lack proper training in research and monitoring protocols, they are at risk of introducing bias into the data.[23]
  • Members may lie about data. This risk is even greater when bounties are awarded as an incentive to participate.[23]

The question of data accuracy, in particular, remains open. John Losey, who created the Lost Ladybug citizen science project, has argued that the cost-effectiveness of citizen science data can outweigh data quality issues, if properly managed.[24]

The medical ethics of internet crowdsourcing has been questioned by Graber & Graber in the Journal of Medical Ethics.[25] In particular, they analyse the effect of gremes and the crowdsourcing project Foldit. They conclude: "gremes can have possible adverse effects, and that they manipulate the user into participation."

In March 2015, the state of Wyoming passed new laws (Senate Files 12 and 80) making it a crime to collect environmental data on behalf of the US government.


"Citizen science" is a fairly new term but an old practice. Prior to the 20th century, science was often the pursuit of gentleman scientists, amateur or self-funded researchers such as Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin.[26] By the mid-20th century, however, science was dominated by researchers employed by universities and government research laboratories. By the 1970s, this transformation was being called into question. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend called for a "democratization of science."[27] Biochemist Erwin Chargaff advocated a return to science by nature-loving amateurs in the tradition of Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Buffon, and Darwin—science dominated by "amateurship instead of money-biased technical bureaucrats."[28]

A study from 2016 indicates 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.[29]

Amateur astronomy[edit]

Main article: Amateur astronomy
Amateur astronomers can build their own equipment, and can hold star parties and gatherings, such as Stellafane.

Astronomy has long been a field where amateurs have contributed throughout time, all the way up to the present day.[30]

Collectively, amateur astronomers observe a variety of celestial objects and phenomena sometimes with equipment that they build themselves. Common targets of amateur astronomers include the Moon, planets, stars, comets, meteor showers, and a variety of deep-sky objects such as star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. Observations of comets and stars are also used to measure the local level of artificial skyglow.[31][32] One branch of amateur astronomy, amateur astrophotography, involves the taking of photos of the night sky. Many amateurs like to specialize in the observation of particular objects, types of objects, or types of events which interest them.[33][34]

The American Association of Variable Star Observers has gathered data on variable stars for educational and professional analysis since 1911 and promotes participation beyond its membership on its Citizen Sky website.[35]

Butterfly counts[edit]

Main article: Butterfly count

Butterfly counts have a long tradition of involving individuals in the study of the range of butterflies and their relative abundance. Two long-running programs are the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (started in 1976) and the North American Butterfly Association's Butterfly Count Program (started in 1975).[36][37] There are various protocols for monitoring butterflies and different organizations support one or more of transects, counts and/or opportunistic sightings.[38] eButterfly is an example of a program designed to capture any of the three types of counts for observers in North America. Species-specific programs also exist, with monarchs the prominent example.[39] Two examples of this involve the counting of Monarch butterflies during the fall migration to overwintering sites in Mexico:(1) Monarch Watch is a continent-wide project, while (2) the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project is an example of a local project.[40][41]


Main article: Birdwatching

Citizen science projects have become increasingly focused on providing benefits to scientific research.[42][43][44] The North American Bird Phenology Program (historically called the Bird Migration and Distribution records) may have been the earliest collective effort of citizens collecting ornithological information in the U.S.[45] The program, dating back to 1883, was started by Wells Woodbridge Cooke. Cooke established a network of observers around North America to collect bird migration records. The Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, is another example of a long-standing tradition of citizen science which has persisted to the present day. Citizen scientists help gather data that will be analyzed by professional researchers, and can be used to produce bird population and biodiversity indicators.

Such indices can be useful tools to inform management, resource allocation, policy and planning.[46] For example, European breeding bird survey data provide input for the Farmland Bird Index, adopted by the European Union as a structural indicator of sustainable development.[47] This provides a cost-effective alternative to government monitoring.

Similarly, data collected by citizen scientists as part of BirdLife Australia's has been analysed to produce the first-ever Australian Terrestrial Bird Indices.[48]

Citizen Oceanography[edit]

The concept of citizen science has been extended to the ocean environment for characterizing ocean dynamics and tracking marine debris. For example, the mobile app Marine Debris Tracker is a joint partnership of NOAA and the University of Georgia. Long term sampling efforts such as the continuous plankton recorder has been fitted on ships of opportunity since 1931. Plankton collection by sailors and subsequent genetic analysis was pioneered in 2013 by Indigo V Expeditions as a way to better understand marine microbial structure and function.[49]

Modern technology[edit]

Newer technologies have increased the options for citizen science.[50] Citizen scientists can build and operate their own instruments to gather data for their own experiments or as part of a larger project. Examples include amateur radio, amateur astronomy, Six Sigma Projects, and Maker activities. Most recently scientist Joshua Pearce has advocated for the creation of open source hardware based scientific equipment that both citizen scientists and professional scientists, which can be replicated by digital manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing.[51] Multiple studies have shown this approach radically reduces scientific equipment costs.[52][53] Examples of this approach include water testing,[54][55][56] nitrate[57] and other environmental testing,[58] basic biology,[53][59] and optics.[60] Groups such as Public Labs,[58] which is a community where citizen scientists can learn how to investigate environmental concerns using inexpensive DIY techniques, embody this approach.

Citizen Science Center exhibit in the Nature Research Center wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Video technology has enabled expanded citizen science.[citation needed] The Citizen Science Center in the Nature Research Center wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has exhibits on how to get involved in scientific research and become a citizen scientist. For example, visitors can observe birdfeeders at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation satellite facility via live video feed and record which species they see.

Since 2005, the Genographic Project has used the latest genetic technology to expand our knowledge of the human story, and its pioneering use of DNA testing to engage and involve the public in the research effort has helped to create a new breed of "citizen scientist." Geno 2.0 expands the scope for citizen science, harnessing the power of the crowd to discover new details of human population history.[61] This includes supporting, organization and dissemination of personal DNA (genetic) testing. Like Amateur astronomy, citizen scientists encouraged by volunteer organizations like the International Society of Genetic Genealogy have provided valuable information and research to the professional scientific community.[62][63]

With Unmanned aerial vehicles, further citizen science is enabled. One example is the ESA's AstroDrone smartphone app for gathering robotic data with the Parrot AR.Drone.[64]

Citizens in Space (CIS), a project of the United States Rocket Academy, seeks to combine citizen science with citizen space exploration.[65] CIS is training citizen astronauts to fly as payload operators on suborbital reusable spacecraft that are now in development. CIS will also be developing, and encouraging others to develop, citizen-science payloads to fly on suborbital vehicles. CIS has already acquired a contract for 10 flights on the Lynx suborbital vehicle, being developed by XCOR Aerospace, and plans to acquire additional flights on Lynx and other suborbital vehicles in the future.[65]

CIS believes that "The development of low-cost reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science."[66]


The Internet has been a boon to citizen science, particularly through gamification.[50] One of the first Internet-based citizen science experiments was NASA's Clickworkers, which enabled the general public to assist in the classification of images, greatly reducing the time to analyze large data sets. Another example is Quantum Moves, a game developed by the Center for Driven Community Research at Aarhus University which uses online community efforts to solve quantum physics problems.[67][68] The solutions found by players can then be used in the lab to feed computational algorithms used in building a scalable quantum computer.

The internet has also enabled citizen scientists to gather data which will be analyzed by professional researchers. 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,[69] and in monitoring programs for natural-resource management.[70][71][72] On BugGuide.Net, an online community of naturalists who share observations of arthropods, amateurs and professional researchers contribute to the analysis. By October 2014, BugGuide has over 808,718 images submitted by more than 27,846 contributors.[73]

An NASA/JPL image from the Zooniverse's The Milky Way Project showing a hierarchical bubble structure.

The Zooniverse is home to the internet's largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.[74] The Zooniverse and the suite of projects it contains is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).[75] The member institutions of the CSA work with many academic and other partners around the world to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. A NASA/JPL picture to the right gives an example from one of Zooniverse's projects The Milky Way Project.

The website CosmoQuest has as its goal: "To create a community of people bent on together advancing our understanding of the universe; a community of people who are participating in doing science, who can explain why what they do matters, and what questions they are helping to answer.[76]

CrowdCrafting enables its participants to create and run projects where volunteers help with image classification, transcription, geocoding and more.[77] The platform is powered by PyBossa software, a free and open-source framework for crowdsourcing.[78]


Mobile technology has further boosted the opportunities for citizen science. Examples include the San Francisco project, the WildLab, iNaturalist, and Project Noah.[79][80][81][82] There are also smartphone apps for monitoring birds, marine wildlife and other organisms, and the 'Loss of the Night'.[83][84]


The first Conference on Public Participation in Scientific Research was held in Portland, Oregon in August 2012.[85] Citizen science is now often a theme at large conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.[86]

Since 2010, there has been bi-annual citizen cyberscience summit, organised by the Citizen Cyberscience Centre in Geneva. The 2014 Citizen Cyberscience Summit Conference was hosted in London in February 2014 and featured 'leading figures in citizen science and exploring the process of public engagement, outreach in citizen science'.

In January 2015, the ETH Zürich and University of Zürich hosted an international meeting on the "Challenges and Opportunities in Citizen Science".[87]

The next citizen science conference hosted by the Citizen Science Association was in San Jose, CA in February 2015 in partnership with the AAAS conference.[88]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]