Reflections on first findings on citizen science

Wissenschaftsladen Wien – Science Shop Vienna is participating in CS-Track, a Horizon 2020 project on citizen science. Among other things, CS-Track „investigates what activities are called citizen science and by whom? What are their societal, economic, educational and scientific impacts? Who participates in such projects? How and why? What are the (dis)incentives and rewards for all participants? What enables citizen science, what creates barriers in citizen science, and what are its limits?“ (See its research approach.) In this blog entry Michael Strähle and Christine Urban reflect on first findings of a literature review.

What is citizen science?

There are several definitions and explanations of citizen science, and there are always new ones. All of them are challenged by some citizen science practitioners. Whilst there is no uniform understanding of the term, practitioners apparently agree that citizen science involves non-professionals in science. Differences become evident when one looks at what is called involvement in science. In its Horizon 2020 Work Programme 2018 – 2020 Science with and for Society (p. 40), the European Commission subsumes citizen participation in consensus conferences and similar activities of public engagement in science under citizen science. American Gut, a medical research project, collected and analyzed gut samples and called it citizen science. However, most citizen science practitioners have a more active contribution of non-professionals to scientific research in mind. Also ‚participation’ seems to be a contested term. Does merely providing computing power qualify as a participation? Does science education in schools qualify as citizen science although participation is not necessarily voluntary? In short, ‘citizen science’ is a term very broadly applied that puts under its umbrella quite diverse activities. There is no overall consensus among practitioners what activities it covers.

Be specific, see the differences

This was our initial understanding of citizen science. And so far, this understanding was confirmed by research in WP1 of CS-Track. Talking about citizen science in general hides the strong differences between all these activities called citizen science. So when analyzing them, we have to be specific. Generalizations are not of much help here. We became even more aware of what we consider a truism: Collecting and documenting litter on a beach in a school project has to be evaluated against different criteria than a consensus conference with randomly selected adult participants. When talking about principles or characteristics of citizen science we have to be very clear about the activities we are talking about.

Once again: Literature mainly consists of case studies, case studies, and case studies

What was surprising is how little research there is that goes beyond case studies of citizen science projects. Much of the research on citizen science consists of such case studies. This reminds us of the research that has been conducted on public engagement in science in the past 30 years. If CS-Track raises awareness for broadening perspectives on citizen science activities, it was a very successful project.