Citizen Science

Defining Citizen Science

There is an inherent challenge in providing an exhaustive definition of citizen science, encompassing the many different purposes and approaches applied to even more diversified contexts. Over the past decade and a half, we have seen the emergence of typologies, definitions, and criteria for qualifying citizen science (Haklay et al., 2021). For example, in examining the challenges and dimensions of definitions related to citizen science, Halkay et al. (2021) note that:

The Oxford English Dictionary (2014), define citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.

UNESCO (2013) describes it is “the participation of a range of non-scientific stakeholders in the scientific process. At its most inclusive and most innovative, citizen science involves citizen volunteers as partners in the entire scientific process, including determining research themes, questions, methodologies, and means of disseminating results.”

Finally, the US National Institutes of Health state “Citizen science efforts are driven by community concerns. These community-led projects may involve a partnership with an academic or research institution, where both parties work together to collect and share data. The goal is to address a community concern through collaborative research and to translate the research findings into public health action that benefits the community.”

At its core, citizen science gets people involved in the actual science by directly contributing to the research or finding of new information for science and society. This can include collecting data, making records, analyzing, or sharing results. Citizen science fosters an approachable entry into science, reducing the distance between science and society, and contributing to the goal of an inclusive society. Together with public and private actors, citizen scientists can play a role in developing society, improving communities, and promoting public participation.


History of Citizen Science

People have been participating and contributing to scientific research for centuries. Wells Cooke, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, developed arguably one of the earliest formal citizen-science programs in the country in the late 1800s. Cooke began a program that looked at the patterns of bird migration. It expanded into one of the first government programs for birds—the North American Bird Phenology Program—and one that private citizens could join. A network of volunteers began collecting information about migratory bird patterns and population figures, and they recorded that information on cards. Today, those cards are being scanned and recorded into a public database for historical analysis.

Although citizen science has been around for centuries in practice, the term was actually coined in the 1990s, and has gained popularity since then. In particular, the invention of the internet has been a catalyst for citizen science. The internet has revolutionized scientists’ ability to engage citizens in a huge array of research projects. Additionally, mobile phones and other electronic devices with recording capabilities made data collection for non-professional scientists a much more accessible and convenient process.

Recognition of citizen science is growing in the fields of science, policy, education, and in wider society. It is establishing itself as a field of research and a field of practice, increasing the need for overarching insights, vocabulary, and guidelines. In this lesson, we will learn about some of the uses of citizen science, reliability of data, and technology to support the process. You will also hear from researchers and practitioners engaged in these practices as well.


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Building Sustainable Communities: Monitoring and Evaluation Copyright © by Ryan Plummer; Amanda Smits; Samantha Witkowski; Bridget McGlynn; Derek Armitage; Ella-Kari Muhl; and Jodi Johnston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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