What is Citizen Science and Why is it Important?

Vancouver, BC | Posted: January 25th, 2019

What is Citizen Science?

Sometimes known as crowd-sourced or community science, Citizen Science is a term that reflects public engagement in scientific research. Generally speaking, members of the public become actively involved in a cause, effort, or need alongside and/or under the direction of scientific researchers.

Public participation with citizen science projects tends to be non-specialist in design and is completed out of a sense of duty. Citizen scientists can be instrumental in expanding the project’s resource and awareness base. When projects are underfunded, under-told, or under time constraints, citizen scientists can play a significant role in helping fund, muscle, audit, and engage.

The term was coined, albeit independently, by both Rick Bonney (USA) and Alan Irwin (UK) in the 1990s. Bonney, an ornithologist, and Irwin, a Sociologist were unaware of each other’s efforts in the burgeoning concept. Bonney addressed a need in the birdwatching community for members of the public to play a role in producing scientific data. Irwin took a broader approach in advocating “concepts of scientific citizenship which foregrounds the necessity of opening up science and science policy processes to the public.”

As Citizen Science began to grow into other scientific disciplines, ethics and outcomes were questioned. As a response, a framework has been created. In 2015, the European Citizen Science Association delivered their 10 Principles of Citizen Science:

  1. Citizen science projects actively involve citizens in scientific endeavor that generates new knowledge or understanding. Citizens may act as contributors, collaborators, or as project leader and have a meaningful role in the project.
  2. Citizen science projects have a genuine science outcome. For example, answering a research question or informing conservation action, management decisions or environmental policy.
  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.
  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 analyzing data, and communicating the results.
  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.
  6. Citizen science is considered a research approach like any other, with limitations and biases that should be considered and controlled. However, unlike traditional research approaches, citizen science provides an opportunity for greater public engagement and democratization of science.
  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.
  8. Citizen scientists are acknowledged in project results and publications.
  9. Citizen science programmes are evaluated for their scientific output, data quality, participant experience and wider societal or policy impact.
  10. The leaders of citizen science projects take into consideration the legal and ethical issues surrounding copyright, intellectual property, data sharing agreements, confidentiality, attribution, and the environmental impact of any activities.

After surveying 388 Citizen Science projects, a research paper led by J. Theobold estimated that “between 1.36 million and 2.28 million people volunteer annually” and that “the range of in-kind contribution of the volunteerism in our 388 citizen science projects as between $667 million to $2.5 billion annually.

Citizen Science Examples

Today, Citizen Science projects are used most commonly found in the fields of:

  • Archaeology and Art History
  • Ocean Sciences
  • Biology and Habitat and/or Wildlife Conservation
  • Climate Mitigation and Adaption
  • Ornithology
  • Astronomy
  • Hydrology
  • Modern Technology and the Internet

At GoVoluntouring, we’re proud to work with the following projects that use citizen scientists effectively.

Art Restoration in Italy

art restoration

Travel to Italy and take part in the restoration of ancient frescoes and artworks, while learning about centuries-old techniques and exploring Italian historic sites, culture, and cuisine.

Volunteer with Great White Sharks & Marine Life in South Africa

great white shark

Head to the Great White Shark capital of the world, Gansbaai, and join a program alongside marine biologists as they study South African marine life, including the often misunderstood Great White Shark!

Caring for Elephants in Thailand

elephant conservation

Walk with and work with rescued Asian Elephants as they rehabilitate and are reintroduced to their natural habitats in Thailand’s Chiang Mai province.

Protect Sea Turtles in Ancient Greece

turtles in greece

Play an active part in the conservation of sea turtles in Greece as you take part in hands-on work aimed at the long-term preservation of turtle populations.

You can also read about Brooke Mitchell’s first-hand experience in Botswana with Citizen Science here. Mitchell details her time with technology in the field of data collection and wildlife conservation, as she sought to responsibly “contribute to ecotourism without any ecotourism management experience.”