Citizen science

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. Citizen science is sometimes described as "public participation in scientific research", participatory monitoring and participatory action research.[1]

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


The term CS has multiple origins as well as differing concepts.[2] It was first defined independently in the mid-1990s by Rick Bonney in the U.S.A. and Alan Irwin in the U.K.[2][3][4] 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".[2] Rick Bonney defines CS when referring to: "Public-participation engagement and science communication projects".[2]

The terms citizen science and citizen scientists entered the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in June 2014.[5][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".[6] Citizen Scientist is defined twice as: (a) "a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community (now rare)" or (b) "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."[6] A first use of the term 'citizen scientist' can be found in the magazine New Scientist in an article about Ufology from October 1979.[7]

Muki Haklay cites in a policy report for the Wilson Center entitled 'Citizen Science and Policy: A European Perspective' a first use of the term 'citizen science' by R. Kerson in the magazine MIT Technology Review from January 1989.[8][9] Quoting from the Wilson Center report: "The new form of engagement in science received the name "citizen science". The first recorded example of the use of the term is from 1989, describing how 225 volunteers across the US collected rain samples to assist the Audubon Society in an acid-rain awareness raising campaign. The volunteers collected samples, checked for acidity, and reported back to the organization. The information was then used to demonstrate the full extent of the phenomenon."[8][9]

A "Green Paper on Citizen Science" was published in 2013 by the European Commission’s Digital Science Unit and, which included a definition for CS, 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."[10][11]

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.[12][13][14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

In March 2015, the Office of Science and Technology Policy published a factsheet entitled: "Empowering Students and Others through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing".[17] It states: "Citizen science and crowdsourcing projects are powerful tools for providing students with skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Volunteers in citizen science, for example, gain hands-on experience doing real science, and in many cases take that learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. As part of the 5th White House Science Fair, the Obama Administration and a broader community of companies, non-profits, and others are announcing new steps to increase the ability of more students and members of the public to participate in the scientific process through citizen science and crowdsourcing projects."[17] Among the "New Steps Being Announced by the Administration" there is a section on the "Installation of a Rain Gauge in the White House Garden".[17]

Members of the Cascades Butterfly Citizen Science Team pictured on Sauk mountain. Photo by Karlie Roland.

In May 2016, a new open access journal was started by the Citizen Science Association along with Ubiquity Press called 'Citizen Science: Theory and Practice' (CS:T&P).[18][19] The editorial article 'The Theory and Practice of Citizen Science: Launching a New Journal' states: "CS:T&P provides the space to enhance the quality and impact of citizen science efforts by deeply exploring the citizen science concept in all its forms and across disciplines. By examining, critiquing, and sharing findings across a variety of citizen science endeavors, we can dig into the underpinnings and assumptions of citizen science and critically analyze its practice and outcomes. Such explorations can examine methods, approaches, benefits, costs, impacts, and challenges of citizen science and will help us better understand the role that citizen science can play in environmental science, public health, physics, biochemistry, community development, social justice, democracy, and beyond."[19] The first edition has 5 research papers, 2 essays and 1 case study.[19]

Alternative definitions

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:[20]

Scientists and scholars who have used other definitions include Frank N. von Hippel, Stephen Schneider, Neal Lane and Jon Beckwith.[21][22][23] Other alternative terminologies proposed are "civic science" and "civic scientist."[24]

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.[25]

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."[26]

Related fields

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."[27]

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."[27]

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."[28]


In a research report published by the 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:[29]

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.[30]


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 and thus criminalizing CS.[31]


Various studies have been published that explore the ethics of CS, including issues such as intellectual property and project design.(e.g.[2][32][33][34][35]) The Citizen Science Association (CSA), based at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA), based in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, have working groups on ethics and principles.[36][37]

In September 2015, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) published its 'Ten Principles of Citizen Science' which have been developed by the "Sharing best practice and building capacity" working group of the ECSA, led by the Natural History Museum, London with input from many members of the Association.[38][39] The principles are (quoting):

"1. Citizen science projects actively involve citizens in scientific endeavour that generates new knowledge or understanding. Citizens may act as contributors, collaborators, or as project leader and have a meaningful role in the project."[38]

"2. Citizen science projects have a genuine science outcome. For example, answering a research question or informing conservation action, management decisions or environmental policy."[38]

"3. Both the professional scientists and the citizen scientists benefit from taking part. Benefits may include the publication of research outputs, learning opportunities, personal enjoyment, social benefits, satisfaction through contributing to scientific evidence e.g. to address local, national and international issues, and through that, the potential to influence policy."[38]

"4. Citizen scientists may, if they wish, participate in multiple stages of the scientific process. This may include developing the research question, designing the method, gathering and analysing data, and communicating the results."[38]

"5. Citizen scientists receive feedback from the project. For example, how their data are being used and what the research, policy or societal outcomes are."[38]

"6. Citizen science is considered a research approach like any other, with limitations and biases that should be considered and controlled for. However unlike traditional research approaches, citizen science provides opportunity for greater public engagement and democratisation of science."[38]

"7. Citizen science project data and meta-data are made publicly available and where possible, results are published in an open access format. Data sharing may occur during or after the project, unless there are security or privacy concerns that prevent this."[38]

"8. Citizen scientists are acknowledged in project results and publications."[38]

"9. Citizen science programmes are evaluated for their scientific output, data quality, participant experience and wider societal or policy impact."[38]

"10. The leaders of citizen science projects take into consideration legal and ethical issues surrounding copyright, intellectual property, data sharing agreements, confidentiality, attribution, and the environmental impact of any activities."[38]

The medical ethics of internet crowdsourcing has been questioned by Graber & Graber in the Journal of Medical Ethics.[40] In particular, they analyse the effect of games and the crowdsourcing project Foldit. They conclude: "games can have possible adverse effects, and that they manipulate the user into participation."

Economic worth

In the research paper "Can citizen science enhance public understanding of science?" by Bonney et al. 2016, statistics which analyse the economic worth of citizen science are used, drawn from two papers: i) Theobald et al. 2015 and ii) Sauermann and Franzoni 2015.[41][42][43] In "Crowd science user contribution patterns and their implications" by Sauermann and Franzoni (2015), seven projects from the Zooniverse web portal are used to estimate the monetary value of the CS that had taken place.[42] The 7 projects are: Solar Stormwatch, Galaxy Zoo Supernovae, Galaxy Zoo Hubble, Moon Zoo, Old Weather, The Milky Way Project and Planet Hunters.[42] Using data from 180 days in 2010, they find a total of 100,386 users participated, contributing 129,540 hours of unpaid work.[42] Estimating at a rate of $12 an hour (a research scientist's basic wage), the total contributions amount to $1,554,474, an average of $222,068 per project.[42] It should be noted that the range over the 7 projects was from $22,717 to $654,130.[42]

In "Global change and local solutions: Tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research" by Theobald et al. 2015, the authors surveyed 388 unique biodiversity-based projects.[43] Quoting: "We estimate that between 1.36 million and 2.28 million people volunteer annually in the 388 projects we surveyed, though variation is great (website-derived data: average of 3505 people per project per year, median = 50, standard error = 1914; project manager-derived data: mean from minimum reported participation = 5037, median = 200). Across projects for which we obtained time estimates (n = 106), volunteers spent an average of 21–24 hours per person annually collecting biodiversity data (range: 0.5 – 107.1 hours average per participant per year), which is comparable to rates reported in the literature (e.g. 34 hours (Corporation for National and Community Service. 2011), and 51 hours (Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor, 2012). We estimated the range of in-kind contribution of the volunteerism in our 388 citizen science projects as between $667 million to $2.5 billion annually.[43] Note that this represents a minimum estimate for biodiversity citizen science worldwide, as our project sampling was restricted to only projects reporting in English and found in major online citizen science clearinghouses."[43]


"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.[44] 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."[45] Biochemist Erwin Chargaff advocated a return to science by nature-loving amateurs in the tradition of Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Buffon, and Darwinscience dominated by "amateurship instead of money-biased technical bureaucrats."[46]

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.[47]

Amateur astronomy

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.[48]

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.[49][50] 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.[51][52]

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.[53]

Butterfly counts

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).[54][55] There are various protocols for monitoring butterflies and different organizations support one or more of transects, counts and/or opportunistic sightings.[56] 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.[57] 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.[58][59]


Main article: Birdwatching

Citizen science projects have become increasingly focused on providing benefits to scientific research.[60][61][62] 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.[63] 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.[64] 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.[65] 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.[66]

Citizen oceanography

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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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.[67]

Art history

Citizen science has a long tradition in Natural science. But nowadays, citizen science projects can also be found in various fields of science like Art history. For example, the Zooniverse project AnnoTate is a transcription tool developed to enable volunteers to read and transcribe the personal papers of British-born and émigré artists.[68] The papers are drawn from the Tate Archive. Another example of citizen science in art history is ARTigo.[69] ARTigo collects semantic data on artworks from the footprints left by players of games featuring artwork images. From these footprints, ARTigo automatically builds a semantic search engine for artworks.

Modern technology

Newer technologies have increased the options for citizen science.[70] 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 3D printing.[71] Multiple studies have shown this approach radically reduces scientific equipment costs.[72][73] Examples of this approach include water testing, nitrate and other environmental testing, basic biology and optics.[73][74][75][76][77][78][79][80] Groups such as Public Labs, which is a community where citizen scientists can learn how to investigate environmental concerns using inexpensive DIY techniques, embody this approach.[78]

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. 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.[81] 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.[82][83]

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.[84]

Citizens in Space (CIS), a project of the United States Rocket Academy, seeks to combine citizen science with citizen space exploration.[85] 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 XCOR Lynx and other suborbital vehicles in the future.[85]

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."[86]


How your gameplay helps ScienceAtHome build a quantum computer

The Internet has been a boon to citizen science, particularly through gamification.[70] 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 was the The Citizen Science Toolbox, launched in 2003, of the Australian Coastal Collaborative Research Centre.[87] One of the largest citizen science games is Eyewire, a brain-mapping puzzle game developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that now has over 200,000 players.[88] 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.[89][90] 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,[91] and in monitoring programs for natural-resource management.[92][93][94] On BugGuide.Net, an online community of naturalists who share observations of arthropod, amateurs and professional researchers contribute to the analysis. By October 2014, BugGuide has over 808,718 images submitted by more than 27,846 contributors.[95]

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.[96][97] The Zooniverse and the suite of projects it contains is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).[98] 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. On June 29, 2015, the Zooniverse released a new software version with a project-building tool allowing any registered user to create a project.[99] Project owners may optionally complete an approval process to have their projects listed on the Zooniverse site and promoted to the Zooniverse community.[100] 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.[101]

CrowdCrafting enables its participants to create and run projects where volunteers help with image classification, transcription, geocoding and more.[102] The platform is powered by PyBossa software, a free and open-source framework for crowdsourcing.[103]


Mobile technology has further boosted the opportunities for citizen science. Examples include iNaturalist, the San Francisco project, the WildLab and Project Noah.[104][105][106]

There are also smartphone apps for monitoring birds, marine wildlife and other organisms, and the 'Loss of the Night'.[107][108]

An Android app Sapelli is a mobile data collection and sharing platform designed with a particular focus on non-literate and illiterate users with little or no prior ICT experience.[109]


Since 2004, in order to improve earthquake detection and collect useful information, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre monitors the visits of earthquake eyewitnesses to its website and relies on Facebook and Twitter.

Africa and South America

There are many CS projects in Africa and South America. Some examples in Africa are:

Snapshot Serengeti classifies animals at the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania

CS projects in South America include:

Asháninka children in school


The first Conference on Public Participation in Scientific Research was held in Portland, Oregon in August 2012.[140] Citizen science is now often a theme at large conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.[141]

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".[142]

The first citizen science conference hosted by the Citizen Science Association was in San Jose, CA in February 2015 in partnership with the AAAS conference.[143] The next Citizen Science Association conference, CitSci 2017, will be held in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, between May 17-20th, 2017.[144]

The platform "Österreich forscht" hosts the annual Austrian citizen science conference since 2015.[145]

See also


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Further reading

External links

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